When I tell people I like to write poetry (as in, I do it even though no creative writing teacher is forcing me to and that I want to have a career as a writer), I receive mixed reactions. Some people – and by “some people,” I mean members of Inklette – respond enthusiastically because they also want to be writers. Some people are only happy when they have something to read and thus understand how I feel from the perspective of a consumer, rather than of a creator, of the written word. Aside from this group of peers, most nod in mild interest and even let me occasionally ramble on about how much I love contemporary sonnets. These people usually have varying levels of appreciation for poetry, but some sort of appreciation nevertheless. Others, however, look at me with absolute horror.
There are several possible explanations for this. The most obvious would be that you’re more likely to sprout wings and start to fly everywhere instead of having to rely on public transit than you are to make a living writing poetry. Another reason would be that “poetry” is one of those weird words everybody uses but nobody actually has a solid definition for. People would therefore rather avoid the topic altogether so they don’t have to admit that they don’t know what they’re talking about. More on this later. The most commonly overlooked reason for people’s horror, I believe, is that people are scared. People are petrified to both read and write poetry. In an odd way, I understand. Words are terrifying. Ultimately, however, if we shied away from everything scary, nobody would have ever figured out software engineering and we wouldn’t have computers or whatever software engineering does (I feel it’s probably important). I believe that the fact something is scary typically only indicates that above all else we need to do it, not that it is something to avoid. Thus, here are five reasons why you can’t write poetry proven wrong.
- I don’t want to.
It’s interesting you would say that when you are on a blog for a creative writing magazine. Now, you may be thinking of all sorts of excuses to rebut this. Maybe you’re a friend of a friend of a friend of somebody who shared this article on Facebook and this somehow came up when you were scrolling through your newsfeed. Maybe a friend forwarded it to you as a joke. Maybe you were doing something you would rather others not know about on your computer, such as reading SpongeBob SquarePants fanfiction (I don’t know what else you were thinking of), and you had to pull up something else quickly when your parent/younger sibling barged into your room without knocking. My point is this: none of that matters. You’re still here. Now, you might argue, that may be true, but it still doesn’t mean anything. Maybe you know somebody who knows a member of the Inklette team, or maybe you feel guilty for not voting to support the arts at the last school council meeting, and you felt that you had to click on this article in order to be polite. My point is this: nonsense. You have not left; you are still reading. Some part of you, conscious or unconscious, wants to know why you think you can’t write poetry. More importantly, however, that part of you wants to be proven wrong.
- I don’t know what poetry is.
Remember when I said that a fair number of people can’t define poetry and therefore don’t like to talk about it, much less try to write it? I’m going to tell you something that not a lot of people know or would assume about me. I can’t define poetry either. That’s saying something, as I’m in my second year of university and getting a degree in English Literature. Don’t get me wrong – I know what poetry is like. I know it’s usually, but not always, written in verse (not that I can really explain the difference between verse and prose), shapey and line-breaky on the page, and that Shakespeare wrote it. I can look at a text and usually be able to tell if it’s poetry of not. If somebody asked me to define poetry, however, the best I would be able to do would probably be to say that it’s unprose. If that somebody was an English professor and told me 25% of my final grade was on the line, I would probably be motivated to use all of my brain cells and elaborate, saying poetry is unprose that sometimes rhymes and usually deals with heightened emotional expression.
My point is this: the ancient Greeks developed philosophy before “philosophy” was even a word. Labels don’t matter. Write what comes to you. Poetry is intuitive, and so you will know that you writing poetry when you are writing poetry. You will know that you are reading poetry when you are reading poetry. Even if you write between the lines of prose and verse and don’t know how to classify your work, I assure you that somewhere out there is a venue looking for new experimental art forms you can find a home within. If not, feel free to start one.
- I don’t have anything to write about.
William Carlos Williams wrote about peaches (“This is Just to Say”). Pablo Neruda wrote about socks. (“Ode to my Socks”). Margaret Atwood wrote about cancer cells (“Cell”). I once wrote a poem about how redundant it is to say “frozen icicle” when the word “icicle” can essentially be defined as “frozen water.” Granted, that poem was horrendous, but the point is this: you really can write poetry about anything. Write about gaming. Write about the fight you had with your parents. When in doubt, write about heartbreak. When in even more doubt, write fanfiction poetry. If you are really, really, really stuck, take a blank piece of paper and write “la la la” down as fast as you can until you accidentally write down something like “lady” or “lack,” and then out of nowhere you suddenly think “lady / green eyes and a sunlit dress,” and, there, you just wrote two lines of poetry. Poetry is hard, but it is never not with us.
- I don’t have time.
I’m double majoring in Theatre and Performance alongside English and am also interested in acting. I thought about auditioning for a role in my university’s showcase last fall, but I decided not to because I knew I would also be taking an intense technical production course, looking for a winter co-op job, and living in a new building off campus, so I wouldn’t have time. I also thought about auditioning for a role in the winter showcase, but I decided not to because I would be working full-time at my co-op job and taking an online course. I saw some interesting local acting opportunities in March and April, but I decided not to pursue them because I was finishing up co-op and trying to prepare ahead for the upcoming transition back to school. I wanted to act, but it seemed that I was always just too busy.
My point is this: life is always busy. I wasn’t deciding not to go to auditions because I was too busy, but rather because I was using being busy as an excuse not to make time for what I wanted to do, yet was too scared to try and make happen. Sometimes life is genuinely busy, but my motto is this: if you have time to go grocery shopping, you have time to write. If you don’t have time to go grocery shopping, you are probably trying to function under an unhealthy amount of stress and need to make changes in your life.
If I get a fall co-op job near my university, I will be auditioning for the next showcase. Now, I know somebody out there is going to read this and inevitably hold me to it (thank you/I hate you in advance to whoever this person may be), so I’m going to put an asterisk beside that promise and say I have the right to withdraw this statement if I have a genuine conflict. However, I will promise the universe I will not pass up the next acting opportunity that comes my way out of fear that I won’t get a role. Writing poetry is like going to auditions. You just have to do it and knew that it might be horrible, and then force yourself to go back to it even if it is as horrible as you thought it would be, and keep going until one day you look back and realize you’re better than you thought you would have become.
- What if it’s bad?
Look, the first poem I ever tried to get published was about a worm. I was twelve years old. My grandpa had bought me a subscription to a creative writing magazine some time ago, and every issue would have a call for submissions under a certain theme. There came a day when I read an issue and the call for submissions was on the theme “stars.” In the ostentatiously determined manner of a twelve-year-old, I marched to the printer, grabbed a piece of printing paper, and eagerly started to write. You may want to pause this story and wonder why I didn’t a) write on lined paper, or b) type up my poem and print it out. The answer is that I have no clue. All I remember was I wrote about how people misjudged a worm for assuming she (not he, as I was determined to assert myself as a feminist carving out a space for females in literature even during the preteen years) couldn’t feel simply because she couldn’t see. Worms are blind. I had recently learned that in science and found the fact poetic, apparently. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure my first stanza went like this:
Just because I cannot see
People assume I cannot feel
So I tunnel to reach the stars.
Only imagine this in the childish scrawl of a twelve-year-old who never quite mastered printing or cursive.
I somehow convinced my parents to mail off my submission to this magazine (which will remain nameless even though I think I thoughtlessly let the slip somewhere else and you could probably find it if you searched hard enough). I remember I didn’t edit. To be fair to little childhood me, I didn’t really know what editing was. I was pretty sure I had spelled everything correctly, so I didn’t think there was anything more I could do. Needless to say, that poem was not published. I never heard back from the magazine. I like to think the submission was lost in the mail and torn to shreds by angry pigeons.
Let’s fast forward a few years. This is from a document titled “June 2013,” so I would have been in Gr. 10:
Nothing is old.
Jimmy was born yesterday
And he fell in love with life.
People around him cooed
Like he was some sort of _____.
Jimmy had never learned the word for ________
But he knew what it was
And he knew it was good
(He didn’t know what “good” was either
But his heart would beat faster and he felt like a butterfly in spring).
People are reborn.
Nothing is old.
What the fuck? Who is Jimmy? Who are these cooing people? What is a butterfly in spring supposed to feel like? What did I mean when I said that people are reborn and nothing is old? I have pondered these questions for days and still don’t have any of the answers.
Let’s fast-forward some more to 2015, when 17-year-old me had just started to apply to creative writing magazines geared towards teenage writers. I did start to write some good-ish poetry at this point (see “Dear Persephone” in Issue I of Inklette). I also wrote the following the summer before I started university:
layers of tomorrow
stand, pull apart the popsicle purple
layers of tomorrow
(onion-thin, i can taste them in my
open mouth, also purple)
they change what today is, already
faded in a haze of sun and shade
i slide in between and around,
like a dream
my mouth has been coloured
like a crayon; i am a child again
when the layers have all been
unravelled, the core of tomorrow
can be found inside what happened
as the sunlight changed
Ok, so, not terrible. Not as bad as the poem about Jimmy, at least. It’s undoubtedly awkwardly written and clunky, but I think there are some salvageable images.
Let’s fast forward again to February 2017, where I wrote a series of poems and submitted them for a university poetry contest. This is one of my poems from my submission for the English Society Creative Writing Award for Poetry, which I won:
The sonnet is about love.
The sonnet is about love. The scent of
lovers’ newfound bodies, gone. The memor
ies, here, always. The difference becomes
important, now that Trump is president.
I love you. The room is empty. I love
you anyways. Echoes of it all: noise
less. Four hundred years ago: Shakespeare, his
dark mistress. Fragments: so ugly. We want
the whole story. Who was she? It doesn’t
matter: this is America and she
has decided to love that glimmer we
see of ourselves on the dark TV screen
before it turns on. Not a mirror but
a lapse in time we thought would disappear.
It’s an unrhymed sonnet. I left it in blank verse because I wanted to challenge the definition of the sonnet, and because I wanted to take the conventions of this art form and destroy them in order to explore the mindset of American nationalism in the aftermath of the recent American election. Call it pretentious (seriously, go ahead – I’m one of the most pretentious people I know and I’d probably take it as a compliment), but this is my work and I’m proud of it.
Anyway, my point is this: even though I periodically look back at my work and decide that everything I’ve ever written is terrible, I know that I’m constantly getting better. I’ve been writing for at least seven years (19-12 = 7 = see, I can do math), and it has only been within the past two years that I’ve classified some of what I’ve written as “sort of good.” As difficult as this may be to accept, in order to write good poetry, one first has to write “sort of good” poetry. In order to write “sort of good” poetry, one first has to write bad poetry. If I can find the courage (or stupidity) within myself to dig up the memories and the proof of the bad poetry I used to write, not to mention leave it floating around on the Internet where nothing ever disappears, then you can find the courage (or stupidity) within yourselves to write and know that it will probably be bad at first. Embrace the badness. My final point is this: I would rather read bad poetry than no poetry at all.
JOANNA CLEARY has been part of the Inklette team since 2015 and is pathetically in love with poetry. Her work has previously appeared in Cicada Magazine, Inklette Magazine, Glass Kite Anthology, Parallel Ink, Phosphene Literary Journal, HIV Here and Now, and On the Rusk. She is the 2017 recipient of the 2017 University of Waterloo Creative Writing Society Award for Poetry