Seven things I’ve learned from writing poems

For National Poetry Month

Your voice is your legacy. And it matters. A lot of people might be writing about the same things as you, but no one else will ever write your poems. When you write a poem, you are leaving behind a piece of unique history that only you could have produced. Treasure that history and validate it, even if no one else around you does. Our words outlive us. Who knows what future generations will learn from what you leave behind.

Value honesty over perfection. Be meticulous about your wordsmithing, but don’t edit yourself to death – and don’t let anyone else edit you to death either. Too much “molding” can take the life out of a poem. Feedback from people who understand your style and your purpose is invaluable, but at the end of the day, your words belong to you.

Two poets who changed me: Naomi Shihab Nye and Carolyn Rodgers

You don’t have to explain yourself or your purpose to everyone. Some people who ask “Why do you write?” or “What is your goal?” really do want to understand the roots of our poetry passion. Others are just engaging in passive-aggressive critiques of our “worthless hobby.” You don’t have to answer to these people. In fact, a response of “You know, my motivation is very personal” – period – would work quite well here. But if you sense sincerity, do talk – you might inspire the questioner to give their own creativity a chance.

When it comes to process, every writer needs to do what works for them. I used to beat up on myself for not having the “discipline” or the inclination to write poems every day until, one day, I heard a radio interview with a poet in his nineties. This poet had published about 10 books during his lifetime. When the interviewer asked him to talk about his writing practice, he said that he did not feel compelled to write a poem every day, every month, or even every year, and that that was the thing that had kept him from depleting his creative resources. While there is something to be said for building your writing muscle through daily practice, not writing daily does not make you any less of a writer.

not too far from you
a poorly paid
scarcely considered
hunches over
paper scraps

-Poet on Board (by the author)

Make time for your creativity. I once heard a wise mystery writer say that there will always be something standing in the way of you and your writing practice. Never were truer words spoken. I have had to work on my verses during lunch hours; early, early in the morning before anyone else got up; on up into the night after everyone else had gone to bed; on the backs of envelopes and discarded flyers (when I couldn’t find any other kind of paper); or with a crayon because I’d run out of pens. I’ve written verse at the end of stressful, depressing workdays when all I wanted to do was collapse and cry. Sometimes I only put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard for 15 minutes – but I wrote. Be determined about pursuing your creativity. In the words of Lizz Wright, “Life can’t take it” [your song] “if you don’t give it.”

It’s not about pleasing people or being critically acclaimed. I don’t expect to ever receive awards or accolades for my poems. I don’t always write “right.” I have a distaste for literary competitions and anĀ aversion to giving away all my intellectual property rights. What means the most to me is connecting with my readers. Throughout the years, family, friends, classmates, acquaintances, fellow writers, and kind strangers have all shared with me their impressions of and reactions to my poems. One comment that I will always remember came from a bookstore colleague who said, simply, “They sound just like you.” Nothing in the world wrong with honors, but never, ever trade your truth for an accolade.

The poetry book I’m reading now:

Blue Hallelujahs, by Cynthia Manick

You can never know what your words might mean to someone else. Back in the day, I did a lot of poetry readings at libraries and bookstores. After one of those events, a man walked up to me and began talking to me about my book, Soul Speak. He told me that he was a single father raising a daughter on his own and that the book was going to be a big help to him in having conversations with her as she began her journey into adolescence and womanhood. When a poem comes to your mind’s doorstep, stop whatever you’re doing, write it down, and consider sharing it. Somebody else might need to hear that voice inside your head.

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