Truth and Consequences: On Writing and Not Writing Poetry

Appalachian Heritage, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Truth and Consequences: On Writing and Not Writing Poetry


From this vantage point, the ten-year silence in my writing life, from my mid-twenties until my mid-thirties, no longer seems particularly important. Or rather, it seems as if it should not be. I am in my late fifties. I have been writing again for longer than I stopped, for longer than what I've called my first writing life, which began in my early teens and ended with that silence. Since age thirty-five, I have published six books of poems, have poetry and prose in several journals, written and performed a one-woman play, carved out a meager living as a creative writing teacher, and earned an MFA. But I cannot write about this abundance without addressing the silence, the negative space in my life with words.

I began writing poetry when so many girls begin, at age thirteen when there is simply nothing else to do with all of that. When I was not writing, I was crying, though nothing in particular was wrong, then, in my life. I oozed adolescent angst. It had to go somewhere; it might as well be on the page.

Do I exaggerate? Of course I exaggerate. I was thirteen.

But I am not exaggerating when I say that no one--not my parents nor their friends, not my peers nor teachers--related to me as if I were thirteen. I looked older. I spoke older. I read older, jumping quickly over the "Young Adult" section of the local library in my small Appalachian town into the 19th Century Romantics in the library of the college where my father taught. Only my heart was thirteen, but that was not obvious from the physical and intellectual package.

Within a year, I embarked upon a "relationship" with a man ten years my senior; my poems no longer cried out for a nameless, formless love, but chronicled an emotionally abusive relationship which I longed to transform into true love or, at least, to maintain. Within two years, I was a published poet, first through Scholastic's national high school competition and then in some of the new Appalachian literary journals. I traveled to conferences and participated in readings with writers my parents' age. Within three years, I was included in a feature article in Ms. Magazine as an up-and-coming Appalachian woman writer.

And woven into that brief autobiography: anorexia, promiscuity, alcohol abuse, depression.

Throughout all of that, I kept writing, though the "I" in those lyric poems I wrote bears little resemblance to the self I now remember. The picture that emerges from those poems is that of a young woman who is operating from a core of strength and self-sufficiency and whom you know will emerge largely unscathed from the chaos of which she writes.

I was not that girl. She was my mask.

                        ***

Former poet laureate Billy Collins is a strong proponent of the "poet as persona" theory, having said, "[T]he important breakthrough moment for a poet is when he or she has developed a kind of character through which he or she can speak with ease. This character--or persona--resembles the poet in many ways but is clearly a refinement of the actual person." (1)

During those prolific years of my first writing life this is exactly what I was doing--unconsciously, perhaps, and certainly without ever having heard the advice of the not-yet poet laureate, I had created a persona from which I could stand at some distance from my life. And this was a logical, even laudable progression for me as a young writer; my poetry had climbed up out of the primordial ooze into something more crafted, literary. My persona (I named her "the lady") allowed me Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility" in order to write and revise increasingly mature poems. (2) But like the rest of my life at that time, this maturity, this temporary distance from the muddled reality of my life, was too much, too soon.

                        ***

"Poetry found me. / It almost saved me. / It was not enough" This stanza from my poem, Curriculum Vitae 2005, is about these early writing years. …

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