I am at a party, sitting in the middle of someone’s bedroom floor, holding a plastic cup and crying, because being a writer is a lovely, terrible thing, and I cannot articulate, to myself or anyone else, why I want so badly for my stories to be read by others. They are, maybe, nice art. But I sob and wave my fingers around as I struggle to explain what value my writing, my writing, adds to the world.
My friend rubs my back and tells me, “Maybe that’s why you get published. So someone else can tell you that your writing has value. Since, you know, you clearly don’t believe me when I tell you it does.”
Reclining in a black box theater, I watch a drama student mouth the words of my one-act play, Meatless, a thirty-minute farce about the factory farming industry. After the play is over and the actors have bowed into the audience, the director calls me onstage. Instead of a bouquet of flowers, I am handed a bouquet of plastic prop carrots. I am nearly in tears, because everyone in the audience laughed when they were supposed to, because my play was chosen to be performed, because it feels like the ultimate vindication that a group of college students memorized words that I had written.
It is easy to write comedy, the smooth rise and fall of a set-up and punch line. This is why: it is simple to gauge the effectiveness of a joke. I’m always quick to laugh, and if I read the story out loud without having to stop to chuckle, I know I’ve done it wrong. When I read my stories in class, I have trouble keeping a straight face when my audience giggles. I have stop, breathe. I am always chasing that feeling of elation: that I have done something right.
I am young when I find my mother’s poems in the spare bedroom. I know I’m young, because I achieved full height at the age of 12, but I remember standing eye-level to the stool that the stories sat on. I read one of them, about a man in a gray suit, over and over again. This is maybe the first time I have ever read a poem that was not a nursery rhyme.
I thought it was beautiful. Later, like many people, when I take my first writing steps, they will be in toddling stanzas. Even later after that, I will shy away from poems. I will write a few novels, many short stories, but few, very few, poems.
My students always complain when we study a piece of poetry. I think this may be because it’s hard to tell when poetry is doing its job well. It either sings to you or it doesn’t, the way some people love the twang of Bluegrass while it grates at my nerves. They like stories, because stories have a clear purpose, and I think many of them like the surety that comes with knowing that a story has been successful in its aims, or not. As a writer, I think I always shied away from poetry, because I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right and I knew, much more so than I did when I wrote short stories, that it would depend very much on the reader whether my poem sang to them or not.
I am drowning in words. There is a sea of them in my e-mail, the tidal ocean of grading, and a clear, bottomless pool in my nightly reading. For months, I have been trying to finish the last of my new novel– only 2,000 words left, with no luck. I cannot imagine writing that big.
Instead, I find myself writing a poem about a gingerbread girl, here and done in less than a page. I read over it a few times and fret about my word choice, my line breaks (am I doing it right?) but I have submitted it before the day is out, to a magazine that I admire. I try not to worry about it anymore, what its purpose is. I try to hold on to the day standing by the stool in the spare bedroom while I read about the man in the gray suit, while I remember how beautiful I thought that poem was, how it felt when I was thirteen, writing poems for MySpace because there were words in me, all built up, wanting to become a body of water themselves, that someone could swim through.
Poetry is like this, a sublime vast thing, a place where you balance precariously on the edges of broken lines, where the rules are loose, where the poets you admire, who you studied in school, might stand next to one another demanding that you clean up your rhymes and also that you should make it new. I don’t know what’s right in poetry. I don’t know how to be comfortable with that, but when I submit my poem, I feel a giddiness that comes with taking a bigger chance than you are comfortable with. By this point in my career, submitting stories feels so clinical, like brushing your teeth or taking a vitamin, something you know you ought to do. This feels like a blind date, like speaking in front of an unfamiliar crowd, like the first curve on a roller coaster. There’s something nice about it, and I can tell that it will stick with me, follow me around for a long time.
A few days later, I receive an acceptance for my poem, and it feels wonderful. I tell my husband, and he is unsurprised. “I liked that one,” he says. “It was really pretty.”
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Kristen Figgins is a writer of fabulism, whose work has appeared in such places as The Gateway Review, Puerto del Sol, Sleet Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos, Sakura Review, The Whale Road Review, and more. Her story “Track Me With Your Words, Speak Me With Your Feet” was winner of the 2015 Fiction Award from Puerto del Sol. Her first chapbook, A Narrow Line of Light, is available for purchase from Boneset Books and her novella, Nesting, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in the Summer of 2017. More at www.kristenfiggins.wordpress.com.
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