Thursday, September 16, 2021

rhymes and other youthful indiscretions

 I was around 21 when I took my first poetry workshop as an undergrad.  My first one had been fiction writing at 19, where I was told understandably that my sentences were just too long and windy and prone to losing the reader entirely. The instructor, who was an alumni who had at some point won some major award for prose, does get credit for introducing me to Lorrie Moore's work--a longtime favorite. I slogged through vapid short stories that I don't even remember the details of that semester--made most difficult by the photocopies we had to make and bring to class every couple of weeks and which were a bitch to get in the early 90's--most printed on a slow xerox in a copy store nested in a strip mall between the failing video store and a dry cleaner. Also typed on my sad little typewriter and clotted with correction fluid. Since my focus was the lit track--courses in American and British lit--with a lean toward drama and minor in theatre, the workshops were mostly just for fun.   While I had been writing a bit my freshman year after I came back from NC,-skinny little poems mostly about social issues--I had taken a break on verse.

When I landed in the poetry one in the spring of 1996, I was a little older, though maybe not wiser.  My other classes included my senior seminar devoted to Paradise Lost and a course on Greek mythology that would be more helpful than I imagined. The poems, when I began to write them, rhymed in a way that I thought was reminiscent of Dickinson, but was more likely reminiscent of Hallmark cards and dirty limericks. .  I was by no means the worst poet in the class, but then we were all pretty bad. If you'd asked me--I thought I was a genius. Because my only references were about one to hundred years in the past, the poems I was writing mirrored those, having no conception of what modern poetry even looked like. Most were broken into four end-rhymed stanzas.  But I was good at that minicry--clever even , in my slant rhymes and ear for rhythm. By the summer after, I was shaking it off, like a butterfly shakes off a cocoon and the poems were better--worth of a couple writing prizes my last year there. This was the summer I took to submitting again.  Took to reading my poems into tape recorder as I revised. By that final year, my fifth, I was in deep for the long haul. .

I often talk about my grad school self making that decision to do this poetry thing as a pursuit (if not a career proper.)  That was the year I studied Eliot and something broken open in terms of voice. But it probably was a couple years earlier when I began to pursue it seriously, if not well. Somewhere in a  file folder, I have all those college poems --most typed on that same typewriter and dispersed among my workshop mates--all English majors themselves though none of them would become writers.  Later, when I was applying to my MFA program in 2003, , I would ask that teacher to write me a recommendation and she would decline, saying she did not remember me. Since she had at one point, my freshman year, been my advisor, I wondered if she was just being nice.  . (I instead garnered glowing recommendations from the editor of my first chap and a dramatic lit teacher I had during my MA years at DePaul.) I got into the program and four years later, emerged an even better a writer with a first book already under my belt. 

I don't think you can guage a writer by what they are producing at 21, any more than the poet I was I was at 27 is the same poet I am at 47, or the same I was at 37. I still rhyme, just in different ways, and probably more now than I did a decade ago--just more internal rhyme that helps power the machine of the poem and helps to keep it rolling. Whatever I wrote then honed skills in rhythm and movement that only propelled me along after I'd shed the end-rhyme. Sometimes I can hear that 21 year old poet in a lien I write, and it makes me happy to know she's still there.


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