Saturday, November 06, 2010

Oh and what do you write? ~ A Poet's Guide to Protection.

(for new inspiration, visit artist Keri Smith)

I've been having a long extended moment where my creative life has been intersecting with my real life and to be honest, it can make me a little uncomfortable.

I'll be very honest here, my life is very compartmentalized.  With parents at my daughter's school and well, most people I don't know well, I do not introduce myself as "The Poet" (capital P) and in fact do not mention what I do for a life (not a living).  If it comes up, I'll talk about it, but I do not carry a copy of my book in my purse to share or where a pin that says, "Author."

I am very protective of my writing life.  I do not share it with everyone and it's something I really don't bring up until I know you well enough to feel that I can trust you with this info.  That sounds so strange to write, but it's true.  I need to see if you too hold the artist's  heart and if you do we can talk, deeply.  Or I need to find out if you're someone who just doesn't get it because if you don't, we can talk about color of sky, the bear roaming our neighborhood, the ferry traffic.

So lately, with this new book, my regular life and my creative life have been holding hands and skipping out of my yard into the world at large.  People see my name in the newspaper for reading.  People hear other people ask about my book.  My so-called secret life expands and explanations are asked-- what kind of book is it?

A book of poems.

For people who don't write poetry, sometimes saying this makes my stomach ache. It's the stereotypical image of a poet with bongo drums, the emotional artist in his apartment drawing angry charcoal pictures and writing poems about his pain, or the sensitive type roaming a field of flowers, flaky and/or high.

I am none of these.  I balance my checkbook.  I subscribe to Real Simple magazine, O, Victoria (seriously, I do) and Art News.  I am a mountain biker and a hiker.  I love to kayak.  I have an IRA.  I shop at consignment shops.  I read a lot, especially non-fiction.  I watch Desperate Housewives and discuss it with my mother.  I vote.  My church is an art museum.  I wear cowboy boots.  I plant a vegetable garden every year with a huge patch of lettuce for our guinea pigs.  I thought Tip O'Neil was one of the coolest people.  I also like Maya Lin, Frida Kahlo, and Elvis Costello.  I run up to the stage during concerts.  And I birdwatch.

I think because so many people aren't connected to what poetry is or isn't, when I tell them, I don't know where to begin.  I say, "It's a book of poems," but want to add, "But I'm not flaky."

Bob Hicok once said that telling someone you're a poet is like telling someone you have eczema, it just makes everyone uncomfortable.

A well-known poet who was also a genius grant winner told me that she tells people she's "a writer," skipping over the term "poet" unless pressed directly.

But as my regular life continues to hang out with my creative life, I'm getting more and more comfortable with being the poet-mom, poet-coffee drinker, poet-mt. biker.  And it's good for me to experience that. I'm learning more about others.  I learned recently that a friend's grandmother used to read him poetry as a boy.  And that another person studied art in college and still paints, though he doesn't share his work.

All of us creative people hiding what we love because we feel the pressure of the culture to be like everyone else.  I always think back to that Gap commercial-- "Everyone in khakis."  Can we exist together with our differences?  Can one of us wear khakis and another wear jeans with rips and studs?  A skirt?  Gauchos?  Must we all be in khakis all the time?

I'm realizing more and more there are a lot of us creative types moving through the world with our own creative desire safe in the back room of lives.  I've been getting better of sharing my writing life with others, but I'm still careful.  My poet's heart breaks easily sometimes, so I guard it, keep it safe, wait until I think the coast is clear before I let it run down a beach, all of us barefoot and without our khakis.



  1. Difficult. Many people in my community - at home and at work - know I'm a poet and most aren't really interested beyond that. The strangest reaction I've had on initial discovery was "But you're such a normal guy". Not much to say to that, really.

    That's why I have such a hard time defeating my internal editor sometimes. How do you get past the idea that your daughter's teachers might someday be reading the poem you're thinking of submitting?

    And if you have any tips for teaching novice poetry readers that poetry is fiction (ie: not all first person voice is ME; not everything in the poem must have REALLY HAPPENED), I'm all ears.

  2. I'm still a closet poet, but many of my friends know I write. They are awaiting a book. I reply vaguely then change the subject. I identify with other writer/artist types in many ways, as well as this post.

  3. Since writing is not my primary source of money, I say what I do as a regular job. My wife loves to interect that I have a Masters Degree as well. Invariably they ask "What in?" "A Master's Degree in Fine Arts in the Writing of Poetry," I say. That way if they're interested we can talk. Usually, they shake their heads as though I just announced the loss of a favorite pet or distant aunt, with something like phony commiseration. It is an awesome conversation ender!!
    Paul David

  4. In response to David V., wasn't Terrence Hayes' advice on this problem something like, telling them, "Just make shit up."
    Paul David

  5. For some reason, I never had much of a problem with "outing" myself to people I didn't really know. But I tried to keep it on a need-to-know basis in my "real life."

    Especially with family. The only reason I finally told my mother was because I started accumulating a modest amount of publishing credits, so I was worried that she might one day google my name and I would have felt guilty if that was the way she found out. But I still didnt really want to tell her in person or on the phone, where I would be stuck having an awkward conversation about it. So when a small press finally published a little chapbook of mine, I just mailed her a copy. She only lives about 20 minutes away and I see her on a weekly basis, but that just seemed to be the easiest way for me to do it.

  6. I generally just come right out and tell people what I do, though it depends a little on the context. If somebody I've just met asks something like "where do you work?", I tell them what I do for my day job. If it's a more general question like "what do you do?" or "what are you into?", then I'll say "I write poems." (It seems to land a little more softly than saying "I'm a poet" -- I usually save that for gatherings heavy with writers.)

    I haven't gotten many weird or leery reactions, usually just curiosity. I get a lot of the "what kind of poems do you write?" kind of question, and I'll try to say something without mumbling too much. (Someone in one of the blogs once said that they often answer that question by saying, "The kind Hallmark doesn't use" or something like that.)

    The poet W.H. Auden said once in an interview that whenever someone asked him casually what he did (an idle conversation with a stranger on a train, that sort of thing), he usually would say "medieval historian," and that would shut them up for the rest of the train trip.

  7. Wonderful to read your blog and work. The lovely Terresa sent me over here...

    Thought-provoking post on what we feel comfortable owning/owning up to, and with which circles in our lives. The comments are fascinating, too.

    Last year, I got some business cards printed declaring "Poet, Writer, Instructor." I was feeling rather nervous about it, but I am so glad that I did it!!

    I like surprising myself by telling people that I'm a poet when they ask what I do. I told the cashier at the grocery store that when she asked, and she gave me the best reaction of all time--she said, "Oh, congratulations!! I love poetry!" I felt like giving her a gigantic hug.

  8. David: I loved that comment "But you're such a normal guy". - sort of like learning someone is either a superhero or a mass murder (he was such a quiet guy...)

    Oh the poetry is fiction & internal editing that goes along when we fear someone may confuse the "I" with ourselves. They only thing I think to help this is to educate others that the "I" is not the poet but the speaker in the poem over and over again.

  9. Terresa -- I think when friends know you write, it's a way to discover who is really a good friend!

    Paul-- love this: "usually, they shake their heads as though I just announced the loss of a favorite pet or distant aunt, with something like phony commiseration. It is an awesome conversation ender!"

    --Oh isn't that the truth. Maybe we should just say, "I am a Wordsmith to the 100th power..."

    And Terrance Hayes has a way with words. ;-) I like it.

  10. Shawnte - I like the "need-to-know" basis. I also think that many times when there is an actually product (like a book or a chapbook), there is also a validity that goes with it.

    People understand that there is a sort of "destination" and the vision of one just writing poems alone in an apartment as a way to deal with things, but to see it as creating art, a larger vision.

    I like the idea of sending someone out the finished product. Sort of like, "If you didn't know I wrote, this will help you understand what I do."

  11. Lyle-- I think I can use "the stuff that Hallmark doesn't use." That's great! And I like the gentle, "I write poems."

    "medieval historian" is another great conversation stopper, unless you're a poet and then you start asking questions. ;-)

    Hannah-- Thanks for your note. And that's the best reaction ever. I probably would have hugged her. ;-)


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