All the Things I’m Not

This post has sat in my drafts for over a year while I’ve thought about whether or not to post it. It’s been rewritten and tweaked multiple times, but I think it is time.

Let’s have a discussion. (Long post ahead.)

I am not a teacher. I don’t work for education. I don’t edit a literary journal. I have no writing degree, graduate or otherwise. And yet I am a poet.

I write this because it seems like nearly all of the poet blogs, poet bios, and poet anything I see about poets mentions at least one of those things. Teaching, editing, and fancy degrees. And these are all noble things. I am thankful to teachers and editors. We need them. Degrees of higher learning can be very beneficial. But they do not define the making of a poet.

Poetry is a notoriously low (or nearly no) paying job. There is no harm or shame in keeping a day job when you are a writer of any kind. Only the lucky few get to have “making up words” as their only job. Having a day job that has nothing to do with the written word does not discredit the writer. Having a degree in something other than language or writing, or even no degree at all, does not discredit the writer. And yet, it is easy to feel like it does.

These thoughts are coming from just one person. Me. While my hands are on the glass of the shop window and I’m peering into the big world of poetry in which I don’t feel like I have a place yet. To someone who has no place and is looking to make one… this is a trend I’ve noticed.

poetryThe unfortunate side of this is that for a new poet (and many experienced poets too), writing is already daunting. Submitting your work is daunting. Going through bio after bio in a journal or blog after blog and seeing that you are the odd man out by not living a life of writing degrees or literary jobs is daunting. It’s a fast track to making a poet feel like they don’t belong. That they aren’t a real poet.

That seems to be a theme in the writing world, doesn’t it? What makes a “real” writer.

I’ve also noticed two breeds of poets. I’m sure we could break this down into many more types, but for the sake of this post I am looking at a generalized view. There are those who study their craft intensely, taking workshops and doing personal study, reading about craft and breaking down the poetry of others to feel like they understand the technique. Then there are those who just write.

One is not better than the other in my eyes.

For some people the study is extremely important to them. It’s how they create their best work. And especially if you want to follow a particular form or style of poetry, then I think study is a very good and important thing.

For others poetry is a feeling without textbook definition. If I am not following a specified form, this is the category I fall into. My study is almost solely reading the poetry of many, many other poets both modern and classical. It’s identifying in those readings what ‘feels’ like the flow of poetry to me, and what tosses me out of the story or mood. In some ways this is study, but it is not the diagramming and journaling form of study that I mentioned above.

I feel like I have learned a lot simply from reading the work of others. I have learned new ways of writing I want to try. I have learned ways of saying things that I had never considered. I have seen examples of poetry that are similar to the words bouncing around in my head that, prior to reading, were not sure how to form themselves and now are ready to give it a try. Reading the work of others makes me fall more and more in love with poetry and inspires me more and more to tell my own stories.

I don’t break down the poem in any form other than the conversation I have with it in my head. For me personally, it feels presumptuous to do otherwise. This is because this is the exact part of poetry I hated most in school. Who am I to say what the poet meant?

I have said before that for me poetry is truth. The truth that I mean when I write it and the truth that you glean from reading it may be very different, but that is okay and that is the beauty of poetry. Specific enough to translate a feeling, while often vague enough to not specify something so exactly the same way prose might. Of course there are exceptions to this. Poetry is often a wonderful land of exceptions. This is one of the reasons I think it can be so inclusive if we let it.

I’d already been thinking and working on this post for awhile when I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic”. When I saw that even she addressed part of this issue – validation of being a writer by having a literary degree – I felt like this post may be a good thing to put out into the world after all. It isn’t just me feeling this way.

I want to make something clear. I mean no ill will toward those writers who do have day jobs in the literary world or have literary degrees. We, as writers, need people in those jobs, and there is a lot to be learned from the right teachers. But I worry that other new writers who do not fit that bill, especially in poetry, will see the overwhelming list of credentials for the poets being published and rather than fighting for their art and their words and insisting on telling their stories… they will give up.

A writer is a writer because they write. No other facet of their life makes them a writer. The other facets of their life is what shapes and informs their writing. The other facets of their life help to create their stories and their ideas. And those facets are a combination of what the world gives us and what we choose to make of ourselves in the world.

No matter how you choose to shape yourself, if you write, you are a writer. Being similar to others who have come before you does not make you unoriginal. Being different does not mean you have no place.

Just write. As easy and difficult as that may be. If you want your words to find a place in the world, they have to be written first.

And then, when they’re written, write more. Don’t give up.

*Photo by user cromaconceptovisual at Pixabay, creative commons usage

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8 thoughts on “All the Things I’m Not

  1. Lissa.
    I hear you. I get it. I do. I’ve felt much of what you’ve expressed and just want to say you are not the odd one out, but that many of those who are more visible (blogs, social media) are vocal about their background and credentials. The world is full of “working-man” poets who hold day jobs completely unrelated to academia and publishing.

    Unfortunately, those people are often busy working and tending families and lack the time and resources to promote themselves, and so, sadly, we know less of the “everyday” poet than we do of the professors, editors, publishers.

    I am not a teacher, did not attend an MFA program, and do not fit the mold of an “academic poet.” And so, I created my own circle. You can too! Start a writing group, or a poetry book club. Host a reading. Volunteer at a local literacy center or library — share your passion for writing by igniting others.

    The more you plug in, the more you find others who share your passion and drive and background. The best part is that YOU decide what success means to you.

    Write on!

    • I have read Rattle! It’s one of my current Top Three I’d like to be in one day. And you made an excellent point that I didn’t touch on in the post. We see the editor/teacher/MFA/workshop poets so much more because they are the ones fighting to be heard, to make their presence known. There are plenty of writers of all sorts who never submit their work, never run a blog, never try to be published. They just write and tuck it away, perhaps share it with family and friends. That’s what I love about writers. There’s pretty much a writer out there to fit every stripe.

      In this post I think I just wanted to put a note out there in the void of the internet for other poets who may not fit that most vocal bill, to remind them that they are NOT alone. Just like you. Just like me. Just like so many others we don’t know about.

      If you don’t find others that seem like you, it doesn’t mean you don’t fit in, it just means we need your voice more than ever. =) It has taken me time to learn this and I am still learning, from so many wonderful poets and writers…of all kinds of stripes.

  2. Lissa, this post was so much like me when I was younger. I learned by listening to other poets at readings and by reading as many poets’ books as I could find. I wrote because that’s what I do. I felt intimidated by people who had been published, who had studied at colleges or workshops, who seemed to be poets. I thought maybe I was a dilettante, a poetaster. Or anyway, not very significant as a writer. Which is still true. My work falls well under the bar of ‘significant’ by the standards of literary culture.

    But I kept at it. Many years later–AFTER, as it happened, my poems started seeing print (it was print in those days) and after I began to read in public–I decided to get a degree. Mostly because I wanted more focus, for my own writing self, not to find an entry into the World of Poetry. And also because, at 38, I could finally afford to attend grad school. So, I encourage you to write, just as you do; and to read, as you are…and let that be enough –because it is. It is enough.

    And I have always felt like an outsider to poetry as a discipline with a literary cosmos surrounding it, just as I am an outsider to academia even though I have a job at a college. Yes, I teach–one class a semester, and not a creative writing class–what I do is tutor, and administer a writing center. It is not the job one might associate with an MFA. It is my 9-to-5-with-benefits. It is, in its own way, creative; but it has often interfered with my writing. As did child-raising, and ushering the elderly beloveds through their decline, and all the rest.

    I am glad you posted this. It is part of the process of being a writer to decide how public to be. Blogging is one method of starting that process. Things will change for you along the way. You may feel differently another time, may back away from the public and then re-enter later. All good.

    Keep writing.

    • Thank you so much for your incredibly sweet and thoughtful reply, Ann. I finally decided to post this because I knew I couldn’t be the only one. I knew there had to be others that once felt this way or more still that are just stepping up to the point of this too. I really just wanted this to be a post that says it’s okay to be wherever you are, and to question where you fit in and to feel lost in the process. I’m still a baby in the poetry world, both the world of writing and the world of publishing, but I’m learning or at least trying to. I think perhaps it is extra easy for poets to feel like outsiders, no matter what place in the community they fill. Your comment means a lot to me. Thank you again!

  3. I’m sorry that you don’t feel like you have a place you “belong” yet in the world of poetry, Lissa. While I am not a poet, I have great respect for those that can express their emotions in that way. Living in Vancouver has shown me a lot of really amazing communities of writers and poets who are not from a lit background…. I will say as someone who works in publishing, please don’t take bios too seriously! Publishers tend to push whatever “literary” aspect they can with biographies to give their authors more “authority,” mostly for marketing efforts and grants/prizes…. but that is, in my experience, rarely where their talent really came from. ❤

    • It’s good to hear from you! You make a really good point about publishers. That makes me think about something my husband told me last year. Sometimes seeing others with tons of credentials only means they’ve been doing it longer than you, or submitting more than you, or generally giving their art more time in their life than you are. They’re dedicated and they’re good, so their credentials begin to stack up. It doesn’t necessarily rule you or your work out, so you should still try no matter what. All of the greats would have gotten nowhere if they gave up. And there are plenty of people that still have important things to say who are never ‘the greats’, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still matter. =)

  4. Pingback: Edges & outcomes « ann e michael

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