Meeting a poet

I met a poet today. He told me that he held onto all his drafts of his poems. I asked him how many drafts he wrote.

He said he wrote sixty or seventy drafts for a poem. The least number of drafts he ever went through for one poem was two.

He told me to take a risk. Afterwards, the first risk I took was to write in his book. It was quite tame, but a start. The second risk was writing a message to a friend.

The poet marveled at the improbability of existence. At the way that one event can explode into a life trajectory. At the tragedy of the holocaust, and how many generational lines were cut short. At the unlikely survival of his ancestor who served during the entire Civil War, who saw the ironsides clanging munitions off each other’s plates, refusing to sink. The fellow surviving, surviving, even after contracting TB in a prison camp.

He recommended to me, “The Poetics of Space.” After a brief scan of one chapter, “Shells,” one line leaps out: “Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.” There’s a lot going on there. That’s what I love about poetry, its ability to distill.

My current favorite artist is William Steig. He was a cartoonist, a painter, and a writer. You may have heard of him because he wrote Shrek.

You’ll come to a fork, the poet said. Take it.

William Steig offers a little more help than that. He pens a toothy alligator witch doctor giving trail beta, and a catfish to give the protagonist a spear.

Declaration of Rights

“Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” (Article 29, #1)

Drafting Committee of the Universal Declaration of Human RightsThese are some of the writers of a profound philosophical assertion, written in reaction to WWII, called the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Is this as radical as I think it is?! There is so much going on in this one statement. It needs to be “unpacked.” What did they mean?! Especially if there are unsavory, psychotic personalities out there. Remember, this declaration was written in response to a warring world.

Even so, I believe this doctrine presumes not only an innate goodness in people but an active willingness to give back to the community which nourishes your true, healthy personality. Without this innate social drive, how could society function? It would starve. It seems to draw no traditional boundary lines — you have duties ONLY to the community which serves the essential you.

The reality we bump into, especially if we’ve ever lost someone close to us, is: our individual lives are short, limited by death. So short, actually, that it seems you might be best off by nourishing your personality through your duties. That way, the relationship is always a mutual one. If writing was the way you best expressed yourself, you would serve society through your writing as best you could.

Though I suppose you could also take turns, performing duties for your community in return for the way it enables your personality to blossom… Say, working as a mechanic, a postal worker (there are some lovely ones, too, from my experience), or a teacher, while writing creatively on the side. What do you think works best?

FULL development of you as a person. This is quite a beautiful idea.

The Organized Poet

You might say the title is an oxymoron and here I am laughing because there is some truth to that. But if you want to be a poet, organization might be key to being recognized as one, or even to becoming a good one.

So you want to be a poet. Don’t tell just ANYONE!

Why not?

The last time I told someone I wrote poetry, I was invited to join a poetry slam. At the age of nineteen, I was the oldest person there. At judgement time, I was severely beaten by a nine year old girl, who did back handsprings while reciting some mean poetry of her own making. I, who had read off a list of interesting sounding but meaningless word associations, felt slightly humiliated.

There is stigma attached to being a poet. Just start asking people on the street. Some of them may tell you they do not like poetry. Some of these people will even be literate. Some of them will even be academics. Some will be young, others will be jaded. But it cannot be denied, there are some poetry haters out there.

So who CAN you tell? That depends. If you have a close friend or two, you could tell them.

Really, what is there to be gained by going about saying, “I’m a poet, look at me!” What is there to be gained in going about saying, “I’m an architect, look at me!”

Well, it turns out that if you omit the “look at me!” part, there may be much to be gained. First off, it might be an inspiration to those people who actually like poetry. You might start a wonderful conversation, and then maybe a friendship will blossom. Who can tell?

But this post isn’t about talking about being a poet, it’s about what you need to do to become a good one. Not just a poetry doodler, but a real poet.

1. Find a three-ring binder. DO NOT buy it if you can help it. There are so many three-ring binders out and about in the world already, that you can almost certainly find an unused one in a friend’s basement, or at the dump, or at your grandmother’s house if she’s still kicking.

2. Borrow a three-hole punch. Use the three-hole punch to punch three holes in many pages of white computer paper, discarded from a public-use printer. As many pages as will fit in the binder. The pages will be printed on one side, but you only need the one blank side anyhow. It’s a drag to use both sides, and this way you needn’t feel guilty about wasting paper.

3. Write a poem in ink using one hand.

4. With ink of a different color, make minor revisions.

5. Wait a while.

6. Rewrite the revised poem on the next blank sheet of paper, using your original ink.

7. As soon as you’ve rewritten it, doubtless there are some things you’d like to change.

8. With the ink of the different color, make minor revisions.

9. Wait a while.

10. Repeat steps 6-9 until you sense that the poem is done. You don’t want to destroy the poem, but you want every f***ing word to count.