Here’s a statement you don’t hear often: poetry is important.
Let me explain. Poetry has been around for centuries, beginning in 2000 BC with the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and continuing to exist in one form or another into the present day. Often, in less than a page, a poem makes us feel love or repulsion, desire or shame, joy or devastation. These feelings dig their way under our skin, grab hold of our hearts and our ribs and stay there, immeasurably.
Poetry allows us to experience a wide range of emotions in a short period of time, while never leaving our chair (or bed), and helps us relate, even in a small way, to the poet themselves. We may not know them, may never meet them, but for one poem, we feel a connection to another human when we may never have felt more alone.
But this depends on the poem — there are certain poets that make me feel as though I’m drowning in a sea of feeling every time I read them, and others who elicit no more than a brief wave of confusion. Margaret Atwood and Kayla Czaga are of the first variety; Rupi Kaur is of the second.
In the following article are conversations with six B.C.-based poets who recall their first poems, what’s prompted them to write poetry and keep writing poetry, and advice for both new and seasoned poets.
Now, what about you — do you enjoy reading poetry? Do you write it yourself? Or, perhaps, you’d like to write poetry, but you’re worried you’ll flub your words and write something awful. That’s a valid fear, but it’s important to remember that we all start somewhere.
Andrea MacPherson, creative writing professor at UFV and author of six books, including her most recent poetry book, Ellipses, recalls her first poem in a not-so-positive light.
“The first poem I remember writing was terrible, something about a boy I was involved with at the time, and the workshop for it was rough — deservedly so. But the silver lining was my professor circled three lines smooshed in the middle of the poem and said, ‘This is the poem. Rewrite it about this.’ And then I was hooked.”
Michael V. Smith, author of six books, most recently his poetry collection titled Bad Ideas, recalls his first poem as being somewhat of a learning experience, even if he didn’t realize it yet.
“The first poem I remember writing was for a girl in grade seven. I compared her to a cat. Which means I was aware of poetry before homosexuality even.”
However, there are some people who find their voice early. Jen Sookfong-Lee, longtime Vancouver resident and author of seven books, seems to have skipped over the awkward phase that’s characteristic of new poets.
“I wrote my first serious poem when I was 16, for a creative writing class in high school. It was about my father’s death actually, and it ended up being published in a student journal.”
Once you get past the mental barriers that are holding you back from actually starting, there’s the problem of where, when, and how to write. Do you write with a pen and notebook, on your laptop, or a combination of the two; in your bedroom, your favourite coffee shop, outside in nature; when the sun is rising, in mid-afternoon; once the sun has disappeared for the evening?
Billeh Nickerson, author of four poetry collections and former writer in residence of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, and the University of the Fraser Valley, is quite specific when it comes to where and how he writes.
“I used to be a night-writer, but I’ve become old and now tend to write in the morning. I like writing in the same café while listening to music on my earphones. My only need stems from my need to slow down. I can’t write with a racing mind. I still do many of my first drafts on pen and paper.”
Like Billeh, Jen requires a routine to get her poems out. “I almost always start with an image that I just can’t shake, that demands to be fleshed out in some way. I almost always write at home, on my laptop, in total silence. Music or background noise really messes with my head.”
Andrea, on the other hand, isn’t hemmed in by a specific sequence. “I don’t need to be in any specific place, but I always, always write in longhand first. And always in a Moleskine, with a specific pen. I like the physicality of pen to paper, the movement of a pen across a page. The downside for this process, though, is that I am the only one who can actually decipher my writing.”
And Michael is a combination of the two styles, choosing first to write his poetry longhand before moving over to a keyboard. “Poems usually come either from a prompt from some other writing — I think, ‘Oh, what’s my version of this idea or device,’ then the poem begins there. Or an image pops up, that becomes the starting kernel of a poem. I always free-write my first drafts by hand, scratching things out a bit, but mostly trying to let the idea unfurl. I’ll do that for days, until I have what feels like the totality of the poem. Then I put it on the computer and shape it, move things around, rewrite or omit lines, and write more.”
Adrienne Gruber, author of two full-length books of poetry, as well as three chapbooks — a shorter book of poetry, typically running no more than 40 pages — is also somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t want to attach my work to any specific routine or place. I would like to be able to work anywhere and under a variety of conditions. To write new work a coffee shop works well, one that’s not too busy and doesn’t play loud or obnoxious music, and where I don’t have to feel guilty about sitting there for hours and only ordering one coffee.”
Now for the important stuff, the question that burns in every poet’s gut, the thing that keeps us up at night, staring at the ceiling, a continuous wondering that never quite leaves the edges of our minds: what makes a poem extraordinary?
According to Andrea, a great poem has several facets to it. “I want a poem that surprises me, and gives me that gut-punch feeling. I want a poem that uses language in a sharp way, that gives me an emotional connection and response, and that stays with me long after I read it. When I first read Maggie Smith’s ‘Good Bones,’ I literally had to put it down and step away from the book. That’s what I want from a great poem.”
Although Michael’s answer differs slightly from Andrea’s, it has the same resonance. “I think it’s the balance of surprise and recognition that makes a poem great for me. I love recognizing an idea or a feeling or an insight in a new form. That lovely moment of, ‘Oh, I know that, I’ve never heard it like this before.’ Or the juxtaposition of ideas that make no sense and perfect sense, so that I am reminded again how some knowledge is beyond logic or reckoning. That’s a glimpse at the mystical, isn’t it? Poetry is the magic of language telling us more than the words hold.”
Jen thinks, as do many poets, that a great poem requires a connection to be forged. “When I read poems, I want to feel something. Poetry is really about the manipulation of language, not necessarily emotions, but the reason I read anything at all is to connect to the work, to whatever emotional core exists.”
Billeh’s view of what makes a poem great is simple yet on the nose. “I’m a firm believer that a good poem helps the reader see the world in a new way. A great poem does that on numerous levels.”
Now we know poetry that sticks in one’s mind makes the reader feel something — oftentimes, something like a combination of infatuation of a new love and your heart being ripped straight out of your chest. A good poem comes from a cavernous pit of emotions from deep inside you. If it can cause such an intense — and often painful — reaction, why do they continue to read and write poetry?
Andrea continues because it helps her understand her place in the world. “Poetry is like a snapshot, a brief but glittering moment in time, and I like challenging myself with those parameters. I find writing poetry to be a deeply different experience from writing fiction, but they each offer me something essential in organizing the world around me.”
Jen sticks with poetry because it gives her a sense of autonomy. “I think poetry allows me to feel freedom. A poem gives me the space to express thoughts and ideas that I would never otherwise articulate. There is something about poetic obfuscation; I can say anything I want if it’s hidden by images and fancy line breaks!”
Billeh keeps writing because he’s compelled to. “Even when I’ve decided to take a little break or feel unmotivated, it always ends up that I’m compelled to write. I just can’t quit.”
Michael continues because it helps him make sense of and soften the hard edges of the world we reside in. “The world and its people are a fucking mess, and poetry tries to help right both, without forcing any answers. Poetry allows us to articulate a better, gentler question, in the face of not having any answers.”
And Adrienne pursues poetry because “I don’t have a fucking choice. (The first person to get that reference gets a free book in the mail.)”
Clearly, a good poem makes the reader feel, learn something new, experience an alternate viewpoint. It causes emotion to well up inside you, for a connection to be formed with the poem, for a connection to be formed with the poet themselves. A good poem simultaneously caresses you and clenches your heart so that you’re left feeling both drained and filled.
For Andrea, such a poem shifts over time. “I will give you a handful of dependable favourites: “The Cinnamon Peeler” by Michael Ondaatje, “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, “Rehearsal” by Sara Peters, “Girl in Checked Dress on a Slum Doorstep, 1912” by Kate Cayley. They are all very muscular poems, assured on the page, and I am taken by the way each poet uses language to bolster their distinct voices.”
A poem that Jen describes as “the best gut-punch poem” is Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?” “I first read it when my marriage was dying and it really describes the impulses women feel but rarely express.”
For Billeh, a poem that sticks to him is Lorna Crozier’s sequence of poems “The Sex Lives of Vegetables.” “I think about it each and every time I stroll the produce aisle.”
A poem that strikes Michael is Mark Doty’s “Pipistrelle.” “I don’t know why I love it — or I could say reasons why I love it but they’d all be reductive. The collection of metaphors for the bat he saw, his tone in the poem, his measure and whimsy. But I think I love it because he loves that bat so much, which gives me permission to love greatly and deeply too. There is a kind of love and wonder which young kids have that is shamed out of us through ridicule and ignorance, isn’t there? People make fun of our vocabulary, our questions, our enthusiasm, so we hide those, until poetry finds us and gives us a place for them. Doty’s poem reminds me of that love I have for the world, and says, ‘Go ahead, love again, love more, love as much as you can.’”
And, for Adrienne, “The Disc” by Anne Szumigalski is a poem that has deeply affected her. “It is one of the first distinctly feminist poems I ever read and I loved it fiercely from the moment I read it.”
Finally, the most important part: what can you do to be a better poet (or, in some people’s cases, start writing poetry)?
According to Andrea, the most important thing you can do to become a better poet is to read anything you can get your hands on. “The more you read, the more you will understand the cadences and rhythms of poetry, and the more you will begin to carve out your own voice as a poet. Ask people for their favourite poems, favourite collections, and then read them all greedily.”
And, unsurprisingly, Billeh has similar advice. “Read. Read again. Write. Write. Write. And make sure that you train your friends and family — and even yourself — to appreciate your writing as something significant. It needs to be prioritized and celebrated.”
Jen’s words of wisdom come from Keith Maillard, her poetry professor at UBC. “Find your voice. I don’t mean style or themes, because they both change over time, but voice. What does your poetic voice sound like? Who are you in words? It seems like an amorphous concept, but when you eventually write a poem in your true voice, you will know. It will feel comfortable and right.”
Michael guides us toward a different yet extremely important way of living as a poet (or anyone). “I’d say to love as much as you possibly can in the time you have, and say, ‘I’m sorry your life is so small and frightened’ to anyone who mocks you for it.”
And Adrienne’s guidance is tongue-in-cheek, yet still important: “Don’t listen to unsolicited advice.”
What we’ve learned from these poets: poetry is an art form we’re all capable of, if we put the effort in. But you’ve got to be willing to write shitty first poems, and be willing to learn and grow from your mistakes. And, most importantly, you have to be willing to feel, to have bad experiences and be willing to come out of those experiences ready to put pen to paper. To feel is to err on the side of human, and really, why would you want anything else?
Image: Kayt Hine/The Cascade