I’m a chronic organizer, evaluator, and list maker. Which is sort of an odd thing for a poet, but it also comes from the always competing sides of my brain, and from my work in training and management. Writing a training guide for or quantifying anything poetic or artistic into a spreadsheet is beyond me, but I find that I’m always trying.
Here are my four (not so easy) steps to living a poetic life. This comes from my own experience, so of course yours may vary, everyone has their own path, but I’ve seen these steps in my own life and in the work and development of others as well. At each step you will think you’ve reached the top of the mountain, but come to realize you’re only resting on a plateau, and that another peak now looms overhead. There may even be more steps awaiting.
1) Taking the First Step, Deciding to be a Poet
Looking back, this will be the easiest step, but on the front end it seems an impossible task. This is what is commonly referred to as deciding to “put yourself out there.” It’s making that decision, sometimes for reasons you may not even understand, to BE a poet. At the time though it may just manifest itself as simply sending your work out to journals, asking friends to read it, or signing up for an open mic. At this stage many people order business cards that say poet/(something else-writer, blogger, editor), there’s often that slash, because we don’t understand how to just be a poet, that thing in itself. You need to understand, simply writing poetry and tucking it away, means you’re someone who writes poetry, but it will never in itself make you a poet. That yes, a thousand other people may do it better and easier, but only you can speak from you. This step should be difficult and challenging, if it’s not, you’re not doing it correctly. You need to know the fear of people knowing you and hating you or worse just not caring — and overcome it.
2) Working on your Craft through Self-Discovery
So you’ve taken the first step, now what? You’ve gotten on stage that first time and don’t remember a thing, you totally blew it, but still got polite applause. The journal rejections are stacking up in a drawer or on your refrigerator. You may even get a publication here and there but you realize you’re not winning a Pulitzer anytime soon. You write and write and write, and about what? The only thing you think at the time you really know anything about – yourself. You write about your troubled childhood, true love, general social injustice, life, death, maybe even a butterfly or two, and everything in between, and in the end, it’s all about yourself. You also listen, you hear other poets, read other poets, and finally you realize that yes, you’re part of this big universe sharing all these agonies and ecstasies – welcome to the fellowship of human. You also get addicted to that rare moment when a poet speaks to your heart, uplifts you beyond your skin and touches you. You realize that there’s something deeper going on here.
3) So Now that I can Say – What’s Worth Saying?
This was a big revelation to me. Just when I’ve somewhat overcome my fear of putting myself out there, fear of rejection, criticism, misunderstanding, just when I feel I have a basic grasp on how to write and touch people – there comes this existentialist WTF moment. Is what I’m saying worth saying? Am I adding any value to this human equation? If not, what can I do that will? If you’re lucky enough that people will give you a moment of eye or ear time, how do you use it? Do you educate? entertain? enlighten? Sure it would be nice to change the world, but can I just get people to stop a moment and think, or stop a minute to feel outside themselves? Actually, just having people enjoy a moment, reflect on some bit of happiness, get some enjoyment out of even the smallest of things – are all greatly worthwhile accomplishments. Think hard — what do you want to accomplish? You may never answer that, you may answer it and the answer may change over time, may change several times. Regardless, it’s just important to hold that question close.
4) Living with a Poet’s Heart, Walking the Talk
So you think you finally have a handle on what you’re all about, what makes you tick, what makes you you? You think you have a grasp on your place in the world. It’s time to walk the talk. At some point you realize that all your poetry has been one big exercise in creative visualization. That you’ve written a thousand different ways about what’s important to you, what’s real to you – so what? You realize the most important person for you to change, to influence, is yourself. That before anyone else can really listen, really listen – you have to buy into what you’re selling, wholeheartedly and without reservation. You realize that everything is total BS, and cosmically important – all at the same time. All these discoveries you’ve made about how things work, how the universe operates, what’s really important – it’s time to incorporate them as part of the one and really only person you have any control over – yourself.
Now if you notice there’s a lot I’m NOT saying about poetry, like whether it’s good or not, whether it’s academic or slam, whether it has to be spoken or written, free verse or formal – that’s all irrelevant to this conversation. I’m not talking about how poems come to be, I’m talking about how a poet comes to be.
There is an interesting Buddhist concept that applies particular to the art of poetry. Self-discovery and enlightenment is something beyond words, something you can’t really describe, or teach, or pass down. Yet oddly enough they’re really the only tools we have. Thus the great dilemma; how to communicate in words that which can’t be communicated. That’s the very magic and essence of poetry, using words in a way that transcends them, that touches, that informs, that guides.