I have a friend. One of those friends. The type who goes to parties intent on sharing her personal life with anyone who will listen, hoping to get some sort of support/advice/sympathy. She’s tragic and gorgeous, so of course a good chunk of the party is always willing to comply.
I can remember clearly a night a couple years ago when this friend holed up in the far corner of a backyard barbeque with a self-proclaimed “nutritionist,” and listened intently for most of an hour to piece after piece of diet advice from this almost total stranger.
This almost 400 pound total stranger.
To be clear, I am a large person myself. 263 pounds. Hypertension. Fatty liver. Cheeseburgers in every artery. I am the last guy anybody should ever go to for diet advice—and that’s my point.
I have friends who take diet advice from fat people, financial advice from broke people, and life advice from the chronically unhappy, and none of it has ever made any sense to me. If I ever start telling you my ten best tips to lose weight and feel great, walk away. There’s nothing I could say that you should trust.
It is the same way with poetry.
Workshop after workshop, chatroom after chatroom, conference after conference—experience tells me that it is the loudest voices and flashiest personas that get listened to, and the shy poet in the corner who is writing some of the most exciting work of our time never seems to get heard at all.
So my project this month was to try to upend that. Instead of going to the magazines and websites and other usual sources for advice on how to be a better poet, I went straight to the source. I spoke to a couple of the best poets I know—people I want to write and be more like—and did my best to listen to what they have to say. I’d encourage you to check out both of these poets yourself—if you like what they write, maybe you’ll find something useful in what they have to say about writing.
First, National Book Award finalist Patricia Smith, whom I love both for her musicality and for her fierce openness dealing with really difficult subject matter time and time again:
I’d say never settle for the language as it is presented to you. Writers often make the mistake of assuming that we’re all working from the same canvas–but a good part of the joy in writing poetry is tweaking, reshaping, inventing, learning rules (prosody–absolutely necessary) in order to shatter them in gleeful and blatantly sinful ways. If the word you need doesn’t exist, create it! That’s a way of stamping a signature on your work. Your goal should be having a reader recognize your work, whether or not your name is on it. For that to happen, you’ve got to wrangle language and make it your bitch! (Did I just say that?)
Next, Pushcart Prize winning poet Matt Mason, whom I love for his humor, his theatricality, and his ability to take on even the deepest subjects with warmth and gentleness that completely disarm his audience:
I would tell the developing poet: don’t try and write poems to match what you think poetry, as established, is. Imagine what you wish poetry was and write that.
I say this as after college I wanted to keep learning about poetry so would go to book stores and pick up this and that award-winning poetry book and find myself disliking every one. Seeing this, I had a long time wondering if what I was writing was poetry. Fortunately, I kept writing it and, when I heard Galway Kinnell, award winning and established poet, read “Oatmeal,” finally heard a “big” poet read a poem I wish I’d written, so maybe what I was writing WAS poetry.
Well, hopefully it is, at least…
These people are my heroes. If there is anyone on the planet I need to learn from, it’s them, and now here in this blog research I have the thumbnail versions of exactly how these people approach poetry and the poet’s life. If there is any advice anywhere I can trust to help make me better at what I do, it is this.
So now to you. Who are your heroes? Who are your 400 lb nutritionists? Who should you be listening to, and whom should you take with a grain of salt?
There’s a whole world of good, useful and trustable knowledge and experience out there, just waiting for us. It’s about time we dove in…