The Poems, the poets, the writers

When I was teaching at Old Dominion University, I had the good fortune to meet many different poets and writers over the years. Each year, ODU was host to the annual Literary Festival; in addition, the English Department hosted an annual visiting writing series, which has now evolved into a visiting writer in residence. There were writers and poets such as William Styron, Gerald Stern, Maxine Hong Kingston, Galway Kinnell, W. P. Kinsella, Carolyn Forche, Maxine Kumin, Tim O’Brien, Bruce Weigl, Toi Derricotte, Christopher Buckley, and many, many more.

The Literary Festival was always a predictably busy week in the department, and I could count on at least two things happening: I would get my fall cold, and I would spend lots of money on books by new authors whose readings I had attended. Christopher Buckley was not a Festival reader; he was a visiting writer who my friend and office mate Mari had invited to read, which made me exceedingly lucky. I had direct access to this wonderful writer. The two of us, Mari and I, took him to dinner before his reading, and then I had the privilege of introducing him before his reading. Introducing a poet is no small thing. You must be familiar with his background and his work if your are going to do him justice, so I did not do an off-the-cuff introduction. I prepared and made notes because I did not want to slight him and because I truly loved his poems. After his reading, I ended up buying every title that he had brought with him so that I could get all of them signed. In them, he urged me to keep writing. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not.

I have many reasons/excuses as to why I have not kept up on my writing. Some legitimate, most not. And now with Google, I can put in names of others who were in workshops with me, or who came after me, and see just how far they have come. Buckley has won a Guggenheim and deservedly so. He has written six or seven more books since I met him. I have sent nothing out to be published. Fear of failure? Fear of success?

I really don’t know. I just know that if I don’t get off my ass soon, I’ll have died without ever having reached any of my goals as far as my writing goes, and that’s only because I won’t have tried. I’ve published, but not the things I intended to publish. The purpose of this blog is to exercise my mind, to flex myself creatively. And I believe that it is working, because I’m starting to come back to the memories that matter in my creative cortex, if you will. The literary festivals, the talks with writers, Christopher Buckley, lines that I wished that I had written, working on one line over and over, creating something like “My Father’s Hands” and knowing that it was good. Knowing that feeling again.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember–poems, essays, journal entries, long diatribes about things that make me crazy, musings about life. Words are to me what drugs are to an addict. I roll them around my tongue, taste them, hear them. I cannot live without them. I test phrases in my head constantly. Opening lines pop into my consciousness at all hours of the day and night. I wonder if this happens to other people, and then I realize that of course it does, but other people do things with it. And that’s what separates me from the ones who succeed. They actually do something past this step. They take the next step, and I am paralyzed on this one step. It’s as if I am still on my childhood porch, waiting for permission to leave, to go exploring in the neighborhood. But I know, deep in my soul, permission was granted years ago.

That first step is a killer, or it’s salvation.

Why Saints and Sinners?

Perhaps you are wondering why I chose “Saints and Sinners” as the subject for my first poem. Actually, if you know me, you know that it’s not a far-fetched category at all. Even though I’m not catholic, I love the mysteries of the rites of the catholic church: the incense, the forbidden Latin, the years and years of secrets. But that’s not why I chose my first line.

You see, several years ago, my best friend Mari and I sat in on a graduate poetry seminar with poet Toi Derricotte. During the first class, she had us do an exercise that, at first, I thought was a bit childish. But upon reflection, I thought that it was really a wonderful way to do several things at once in a workshop environment. She brought out what she called her magic box. Of course, in spite of our ages and inbred cynicism, we were intrigued. She told us that this box had incredible power that she was going to share with us, but only a little bit for each of us. What was this box? Of course, it was a box of words.

We each took two words from the box, and we drafted a poem using these two words. We then went around the circle and shared our very rough drafts of our poems and identified our two words. I thought that my two words were pure gold; they were azure and smoke. I don’t remember what poem I threw together, but I remember the words, and I remember the exercise. It broke the ice, immediately had us talking and creating and reacting to each other. I don’t remember much else about that group, but I remember my two words and that my poem had something to do with religion. Hence, when I had to come up with my first line for the first poem on this site, it seemed completely natural to turn to azure smoke. I have carried the phrase “saints and sinners” around with me for years but never used it in a poem, so I thought that it would be perfect as the inaugural poem title for this site.