Let’s be honest about this: Poetry scares people. It can be a challenge to understand and refers to French people a lot. School doesn’t help, since most of the time teenagers are forced to read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and count syllables in Robert Frost’s work. While I now, as a poet, enjoy both of those things (in terribly small, occasional doses), at 16 I would have rather read transcripts of “The Lawrence Welk Show” than study poetry.
So, until about the age of 21, I thought I hated the stuff. I studied literature but only scanned through anything with funky line endings and rhymes. Then in my final year of college, I was blessed to take classes with two poets, Kathleen West and Tony Hoagland, that changed not only the way I looked at poetry, but at writing, human understanding and myself.
Though T.S. Eliot dubbed April “the cruelest month,” since 1996, it’s also National Poetry Month, an opportunity for the converted to spread the gospel. The springtime celebration was begun by the Academy of American Poets in an effort to save poetry from the dust heap of indifference. Like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, National Poetry Month seeks to fill the gaps in our education and understanding of poetry.
Is some poetry plodding and pretentious? Sure, but a ton of it is shocking and sexy and sad. This year, we asked some of our local talent to help testify. Each poet submitted an example of his or her work and, per a recommendation from former Santa Fe Poet Laureate Valerie Martinez, wrote a bit about the origin and process of the poem, adding to the overall splendification of your reading experience. Splendification isn’t a word, you say? Oh, but now it is—such is the power of the Poet. Viva Poetry!
First Day of Seventh Grade
My sister was sure she’d left a paper at the elementary school. So we broke in. At eleven o’clock the classrooms are all blur and paper. If you don’t steal anything the cameras don’t care.
While she pushed on the lock, I waited by the nurse’s office. How I had prayed for the threat of lice, the soft parting of hair with a tongue-depressor and the first hint of sex. But her office was all threat now, dim floodlight and a jar of cotton swabs.
I’d always wanted to know this place, to trace its secret scalp at midnight. But there, then, the building did not prickle, and the cameras rolled on slow, helpless.
from Freshwater Dredge (Destructible Heart Press, 2007)
The Poet’s Process
Like so much of The Dredge Cycle [of which Freshwater Dredge is the first volume], this did and did not happen. The speaker’s longing—to see the building’s true self, to be privileged with this knowledge—is pretty familiar, but I never broke into my elementary school. Writing it became about vicariously reliving my childhood. The speaker and his sister are far braver than my sister and I ever were. As I realized their plan to break in, I started to reconcile my childhood with his, and the last line became as much about his epiphany as about our worlds intersecting. That happens in these poems a lot.