Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dreamland: Thoughts on Poetry in America



I'm trying to figure out what sounds better? Saying, "I'm a poet" or saying "I write poetry." They both require me cowgirl up if I want to be honest about it.

When someone asks you what you do, is it hard for you to come up with an answer?

I definitely need a normal response without feeling as if I need to go into my whole life history to prove that I am serious and not a writer for Hallmark cards (not that there's anything wrong with that, those folks get a paycheck for writing). But here's how it always plays out--

Person: So you're a writer?

Me: awkward silence then a yes.

Person: What do you write?

Me: (long pause as I go through my head): "what have I written? Should I say the poetry book first or something a little more mainstream like that article I wrote or even better, that essay on motherhood, yes, that's a good one...

Me: I edit a literary journal. (then thinking, that doesn't make sense to his question or make me a writer, just tell him you write poems.)

Me: And I write poetry.

Person: awkward silence. How about those Huskies on Saturday?

My perfect conversation would go something like this--

Person: You're a writer.

Me: Yes, I'm focused mostly on poetry, but also write essays and reviews. Sometimes a little fiction.

Person: I just read Beth Ann Fennelly and found her work to be a very accessible yet complex writer.

Me: She's a favorite poet of mine. Her first book, Open House, was my favorite. I'd love to read another collection by her.

Person: I find there are so many wonderful and well-known poets in America. I've been reading Field, 5 am, and Crab Creek Review and just keep finding more.

Me: Those are my favorite journals as well. In fact I edit Crab Creek Review so I'm thrilled to hear you like it.

Person: Yes, it was wonderful how it was featured on the Conan O'Brien show. And it was lovely how he had you and the other editor come out and discuss the work in your journal, that was how I learned about it.

Me: Yes, that was a lovely night. My dress was Prada, they give women poets free designer dresses you know? The men get Gucci shoes.


  1. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I write poems. Not, usually, "I'm a poet" or "I write poetry," but "I write poems." People don't seem to be quite as pulled up short by "poems" as they sometimes do by "poetry."

    It depends a little on the context. If I'm at some writing event I'll usually say I'm a poet. If it's the middle of the day and it's a random conversation with someone, mentioning where we work, I'll just tell them where I work at my day job.

    The last time someone asked me if I'm a writer, it was a guy sitting at the next table in a local coffeehouse, and I said yeah, I'm a poet, and it turned out he edits a small local poetry magazine I'd never heard of before. (That much isn't unusual -- Minneapolis and St. Paul are crowded with poets.)

  2. it isn't often i am even asked the question. i usually reply "i do freelance writing" and, in general, no one asks beyond that. i think i like it that way :)

  3. Last month, I stumbled onto a copy of Open House in a used book store. I didn't know anything about Beth Ann Fennelly, but I was intrigued enough to buy it. I ended up loving it, so it was a great accident. The Impossibility Of Laguage and Mother Sends My Poem To Her Sister With Post-its were immediate favorites.


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