Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Love Affair with Poetry

I have loved poetry longer than I’ve loved anything else. For years of life, I steeped in it. It soothed and excited, bruised and blessed. I didn’t keep a journal, but I kept bound volumes of my own poems, and they show the journey of my young adult years. In and out of love. Uncertain, hurt, lonely, and occasionally, too deliriously happy to write a decent poem—in which case, I wrote a so-so poem. I wrote poems up until I got married. My last good poems were written while wedding planning. They sort of dwindle away after that. I’ve never written a decent poem for my husband. Poetry can be a slippery joy.
In college, I majored in creative writing, mostly because people told me I was a good writer; I minored in technical writing, mostly because people said creative writing wouldn’t pay the bills. At the time it seemed natural to believe both things.
I had some passionate poetry professors. One wore a ponytail and sandals. “When I say Allen Ginsberg, you bow,” he said, bending at the waist, “You bow.” He recited Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife” with an east-coast accent that made the hard edges harder and the soft parts gritty. He’d known Anne Sexton, loved her, in fact. So few people on earth could read the poem like she intended, but he knows he did.
My poetry workshop professor, of all the poets I read and admired, wrote poems most like mine. He wrote quiet, earnest, manicured poems. He plucked the quiet parts of life and transcribed them into poetry. I learned more from him than anyone else about what makes a good poem.
And what makes a good poem? Why am I going on about this? It’s because we live in a society that’s lost touch with why poetry matters. Selling a book of poetry nowadays is next to impossible. It’s not valued by the common man, only by a few academics in colleges and universities—and they enjoy the classic stuff almost to the exclusion of what’s being written today.
Why is this? I can tell you exactly why—poetry is too often elitist, pedantic, affected, and unapproachable. It uses words and rhythms we don’t use in everyday conversation. It talks about things we don’t care about. In short, it isn’t real enough for people to connect with. I have to read upwards of 100 poems to find one that really speaks to me, that, as my ponytailed professor would say, “burns me down.” Who has that kind of time?
So I get it, I do. But I’m telling you that you can like poetry, and you probably do like poetry, you just haven’t read—don’t tell my old college professors—the really good stuff yet. I want to show you poems you’ve never read (unless you’re a “poemophile” like me), walking you through the best moments, pointing out metaphors that bring tears to my eyes, and showing you that poetry can be humorous, explosive, radiant.
William Carlos Williams closes his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” with these words: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserable every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I agree. Okay, perhaps “die miserably” is overstating it—but men and women do “whither,” and I might say “suffer an unconscious deficiency of joy” for lack of poetry. Good poems are moments in time, a thread pulled through a buttonhole. Good poems are glittering gems on a windswept beach. Good poems are short journeys around the block where you encounter something so new to you, it stands you still. Good poems are unexpected holes broken open in your life’s sky, and when the rain—or the sun, depending—showers down, you realize until that moment that you didn’t know it could be like that.
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to feel that after reading a poem. But if not, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorites so you can.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My Story and an Invitation

I used to be a writer. I used to lose myself in poetry and write touching personal essays rife with metaphor and bright insight that surprised me every time I committed words to paper. I was inspired. I was in my element. And I was good at it. I can say this because it is likely the only thing I’d ever been really good at. I wrote a lot, published some, made a little bit of money. I was the editor of my university’s creative arts magazine, won a national award for my poetry, attended writing workshops, gave readings where I felt like everyone’s darling. 
Then I published an essay with Microsoft, flirted with a reader, married the reader, became a mom to his adult kids, a grandma to his grandkids, and stopped writing.
Our family’s story was too personal, too tender with joy, too raw with pain and disappointment. I had trouble spinning the webs into nonfiction, and after a while, I didn’t even want to. I was like Mary, barely more than a girl and pregnant with Jesus; she kept what the angel said and “pondered it in her heart.” It was my story, the only story I had, but sharing it while I was living it seemed impossible. Thoreau once said, “How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live.” So I kept it all back, and pondered it in my heart.
I didn’t write for eight years.
In that time, my life became a normal life with some very abnormal edges. I didn’t really miss writing. I knew I could always go back to it, pick it up again, scour off the rust. I fell away from my English major friends, and I didn’t feel guilty for letting my talent lay fallow.
In the past year I’ve done an overhaul of my life, changed jobs after 13 years, bought our first house, and walked through a depression that left me spiritually shaky and emotionally parched. I’d also attended Christian Science class instruction, a two-week class which prepares one for the healing ministry. Still, I felt lonely, unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Though I’d felt called to serve God with practitioner work, I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t feel ready to accept cases yet, but I knew I was ready to begin somewhere, doing something.  Where did my ministry begin?
And then one morning, I woke at 3am, couldn’t get back to sleep, and had my Jacob at Peniel moment. Do you know the Bible story (Gen. 32: 24-30)? Jacob is alone, wrestling with error, and he won’t let go until he’s blessed. Like Jacob, I wasn’t letting go until the dawn broke, until I’d had my blessing, until I was renamed Israel, triumphant in understanding. I cried and begged God, “I’m not doing anyone any good. I’m not blessing anyone, and I know I should be. But I don’t know what to do. Please Lord, tell me what to do. Please tell me what my ministry is.”
Finally, after hours of grappling, I heard a very clear, very calm, voice say, “Your ministry is your words. It’s time to begin your story.” I waited for more, for explanation, for counsel, but that was all.
I realize now that eight years is too long to pile up stories and struggles and savors in your heart’s closet for sifting through later. I realize now part of what was weighing me down was all the unprocessed life I’d been dragging around—the meat and bone and marrow of my own story.
Writing has never been easy for me, just like childbirth isn’t easy, and manual labor isn’t easy, but when I print out that final draft, and give it to a friend, and wait, and sweat, and bite my nails (though I’m no nail biter), and remind myself to breathe, well, I’ve never felt more here. More present. More alive. I realize now that vulnerability is a necessary part of growth; that pain will lead to joy if you let it; that self-esteem can’t be learned at a seminar when you’re 8 or 18 or 28; that you can’t borrow strength; that faith isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.
I spent the last eight years thinking people wouldn’t understand me, my family, the life I’d chosen, and indeed, some of them didn’t. But I know—have always known—I only get one story, and I’m the only one who can author that story with justice. I’m the only one who can look back on that I’ve lived with wisdom and the sure knowledge that things will be okay. I’m the only one who can grant myself mercy for the hard parts of my story, and praise for the parts I lived just right.
I’m the only one.
And yet, life stories don’t exist in vacuums. I told a friend recently the reason I could never successfully keep a journal was because I knew no one would ever read it. Although I write to cleanse, I also write to connect. For me, there is a power in the written word that is unlike any power short of God’s power.
And it’s this connection that I hope to foster here. I want to tell my story, and I want to hear your story, the story only you live and the story only you can offer up. I want to tell the hard parts and rejoice over the joyous parts. I want to pray and hear prayers, to feast and create feasts, to encourage and heal and build something only women and their stories can.
Will you join me?