In poetry class this week—four students, three hours a day—we’ve been working on our writerly habits. We’re reading every day, sometimes dissecting each line and wringing the meaning out of it, sometimes just letting the words wash over us. We’re writing every day, sometimes quickly, sometimes laboriously, sometimes rhyming, sometimes about things you can’t even see. We’re looking for inspiration everywhere: in the puddles of melted snow left on the carpet by the Nordic skiing class, in the pages of a newspaper, in the huge canvasses and tulle-clad mannequins at the art museum.
I’m a writer begrudgingly. Words have always flowed naturally and grammar has always been obvious, but I’ve never really had much propensity or passion for it. Sure, I can string together sentences and paragraphs into nice-sounding essays. I don’t mind doing it. But I’m not a writer. I don’t live and breathe it. I don’t do it for fun. Grand success or publication have never been my goal. Beyond worksheets and example paragraphs, it’s not an integral part of my career. I don’t reserve time for it.
And if there’s one thing I’m really not, it’s a poet. I love poetry. I read it daily. I teach it whenever possible. It runs on a loop through my mind, little lines from one poem weaving themselves together with phrases from another, from a traffic sign, from a novel. But I hadn’t written a poem…ever? Since high school, that hotbed of hormones and unrequited love and dramatic betrayals?
I don’t write poems because they have to be perfect. Poetry is all about precision of language, I taught my students. Never say very sad when you can say in despair. A leaf is not just a leaf. It’s a tiny shield held by each twig, and autumn is a nuclear bomb that wipes out the entire battlefield. Every line, every word demands the poet’s best. It demands that you write travel and cross it out and write journey instead and then cross it out and write travel. It taunts me, that perfect word or perfect place to break the line. How does one punctuate poetry when it’s all about feeling and flow? What if the reader doesn’t follow the rhythm I tried to force with dashes and line breaks and commas?
I don’t write poems because they have to be personal. They’re supposed to be distilled emotion, some revelatory story about how the world is beautiful or sad or confused, some outpouring of angst or joy or rage. Even imagistic poems, ones about nature or art, reveal something so personal about the way the poet sees the world. I’m not always good at that stuff. I’d rather that people not know how I feel. I don’t share secrets because then they wouldn’t be secrets. In what has become a cultural cliché, I’ll say that I’m not very good at vulnerability. Be it a poem or an essay like this, I find myself always shying away from the deep end, always covering my tracks, always afraid of who will read what I say and what they’ll think of me after.
So sitting there in my classroom talking about writerly habits and putting emotion into our poems and having the courage to read aloud lines we’re proud of or share and publish our work, I feel like a bit of a phony. I pledged to write along with my students every day, so I’ve produced more poems in two weeks than I have in a lifetime, probably, but I’m not especially proud of anything I’ve done. I’ve been just as hesitant to share it as the four quiet girls who sit in a circle with me each day. I’ve tried to lasso emotion and drag it into words, but surrounded as I am by the greats—the Donnes, the Audens, the Olivers, the Berrys—it all seems paltry and dull.
But we also read some Emerson this week. That eternal optimist, believer in the power of one, that oft-quoted maximist tells us “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Guess it’s time to practice what I teach.
There’s smoke, there’s fire
After Concourse 2007 by Mark Sheinkman
New England night when
we stood outside the crowded cottage,
our breath fogging in clouds around our
You pulled out a pack:
red and white, crisp and sharp,
slim and ready to kill
(my mother always said).
Eighteen bronze and white soldiers
lined up inside,
ready to shoot.
With practiced ease
you slipped one out,
gripped it expertly between your
and buried the pack back
into the pocket of that black coat.
A lighter must have lived there too
because with no movement at all,
a flame came to life between your
Like a boy with a secret,
you cupped your
to shield the light as an orange circle
glowed just under your
As we talked, thin ribbons
of white curled through the graphite night
bumping against that black coat,
twisting and weaving from your
like so many strands of seaweed
or the eels that swim among them.
The flame-fueled secret you’d created
floated up, escaping through your long
and disappearing into the night.
Every day after
I’d see you out there,
sharing secrets with the sky,
Later it became
habit to follow you
and stand huddled
on the walk outside the bar.
Never joining in,
per your request,
didn’t stop me wondering
what the secret was.
Sometimes you’d rest your
and tip up your
when you exhaled,
I can still feel it in my