Glen Workshop Part Four: I Am a Poet


As I began my reflections on the Glen West Workshop, I shared two questions I had packed alongside my shorts and sandals. One of those questions was so basic it's embarrassing. Going into my first poetry workshop, I was wondering, 'Am I a poet'? This question, perhaps better posed as 'am I a real poet?' might come in many forms. Am I a real painter? Am I a real novelist? Am I a real dancer? Am I any good at this? Am I legit, or am I a fraud? Do I belong here, among professional peers?

The question reveals deep, life-long insecurities and fears. This tiny question can become an unscalable wall.

I shared earlier that the Poetry track was not my first choice. I had chosen songwriting, a path that felt safer as I've walked it much longer. When that door closed I had to walk through another, less comfortable door. It felt like a doggie-door that I had to crawl through on hands and knees. I felt humbled, small and unprepared.

Most of this fear, like most of all fear, can be blamed on faulty thinking. I had wrong ideas about poetry. I had caricatures of poets in my head. It seemed poetry was far more serious and intellectual than me. Poetry was for English majors and professional philosophers. There was a chasm of comprehension I could not cross.

But there was some poetry that I loved. There were even some poets I knew personally, defying my false perceptions.

Why are lies often louder than truths? Why did I choose to believe the frightening parts of my own story and doubt its comforts and encouragements. Why do I always?

Monday morning, I walked into my poetry workshop to meet 15 other poets, including our workshop leader, Amy Newman. I had read their work through plane rides and airport waiting, and had no idea which writing belonged to which real-life person now sitting around the table with me. My secret guesses were often wrong.

Over the week we talked about each poet's work for an hour. Because we went alphabetically, I was plunged back into grade school line up nightmares, forced to wait until the near end before my work was read. My question would linger until Friday morning.

But even before we arrived at my work, I learned much about poetry. I learned that I understand and appreciate poetry much more than I'd given myself credit for. I could contribute to the conversation. People appreciated my feedback. I was treated as a peer. I thought to myself how wonderful it was to be in a room full of poets, marinating in wonderful words. I discovered how precious good poetry can be. And then I realized how rare it is. This is not the time in history for poetry. It is not in fashion.

I learned, I think, what poetry is for. Or can be for, at its best. A poem can dive deep into a moment to discover the kaleidoscope of creatures beneath the water's silent surface. A poem can slow down time and draw attention to a bygone instant, because that instant was full of riches that should be savoured. A poem can hold a magnifying glass to the lawn and honour an ant's noble work – seeing the sacred in the small.

Poetry is about naming things because they are worthy of names. It is about memorials. To all of us sleepwalking, poetry is a wake up call into life.

Poetry is paying attention, and there are such riches to be unearthed by that digging. I heard a poem explore a moment when a group of girls shot guns into a lake in the American south. I heard a poem reveal a railroad spike's dreams. These poems stand out for taking something small and making it large enough to walk around in. I am grateful for them.

By the time I read my own work, I had shed much of my fear. And yes, it was confirmed, I had written poetry. These pieces I had submitted were, in fact, poems. And all of that could only mean one thing. Yes, I am a poet.

Those simple affirmations from a group of 'real life poets' meant the world to me. As I reflected on my week at the Glen Workshop, now winding down, those affirmations spurred me on to write my best poem, and perhaps my first poem as a 'real life poet'. This poem came from a bolder place. It is a poem with a little less fear in it.

So I will close this series with a poem that for me marked a new beginning. This is a poem about poetry, an 'Ars Poetica'. And it is, of course, about more than that.

Ars Poetica (On Leaving)

Poetry If your special magic is to pluck a single star From the vast night sky of time And pull that star apart into A universe Then do

The clock wanes And I will see only one more New Mexico moon Stars are shy where I come from I have to dig for them Beneath the rush and noise Of traffic-life

Twenty four short hours from now I board the airport shuttle In broad daylight The stars slipping Out of my naive net

Of course I cannot keep this I am no astronaut Stepping in slow motion On this moon rock There is no gravity here, to hold me No children No wife No friends with earth-bound histories

I would lose my tether and Pirouette into the galaxy Revolving endlessly round A center of myself Lost To space madness

This post is part three of a four part series. Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four

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