The library where I work has some sort of program nearly every night of the week. Usually I only wish I could attend them, as I’m either already working at the library, or I’m not working (which means I’m catching up from the time I was working and so, despite good intentions, forget to go to most of the programs I want to).
Tonight, though, I was determined not to miss the program, even though I was working. I arranged to have my desk covered and then I went, because I couldn’t miss it: a panel about writing poetry, headed up by one of my favorite Utah Valley University professors, Dr. Laura Hamblin.
I have two degrees from UVU. The first one was the Associates I got when I wanted desperately to get a Bachelor’s but hadn’t figured out how yet. Then, when I got a grant and went back to school after I had Haley, I did two catch-up semesters at UVU (which was then called, I don’t know, Utah Valley Community College? It’s changed names so many times I can’t remember) before BYU would let me in. One of the classes was Literature of the Restoration (during which, upon examining the syllabus, one of the younger and very righteous students said “why aren’t we reading anything by Joseph Smith?” no...not that Restoration) and I immediately fell in love with the professor. Not in a weird way, but in a I-want-to-be-her-when-I-grow-up way. She was intelligent and wise and funny and irreverent, and I still remember the things I learned in her classes.
My second UVU degree is my Secondary Ed degree. I got this one a few years after I got my English BA from BYU, so that the state would let me teach. Even though I didn’t need to take a poetry writing class to get my teaching certificate, I still needed to take a poetry writing class, because it meant I could take another class from Dr. Hamblin.
And honestly: I learned as much about being a teacher in that class, just from her example, than I did about writing poetry. (Although I wrote some poems I still love and wish I had found homes for. Especially my villanelle.) She taught me to feel like a writer—to believe I was a writer. And so she also taught me that good writing teachers help their students to feel like good writers.
One of the conversations we had (through comments back and forth on drafts of poems) was about the necessity of poetry. I wrote that I couldn’t imagine not writing poems. How would I understand things? Where would I find solace if not in that white space that opens up sometimes when you’re buried in syllables and imagery?
But then I got busy teaching high school students that they were writers. And I had Kaleb and I lived for three years in the warm cocoon of stay-at-home motherhood. I became a librarian. I took children places and taught them things and washed their clothes. I taught scrapbooking courses and wrote scrapbooking articles. Somehow, even though for fifteen years I had made sense out of everything by writing poems, I stopped writing poems.
I lost my ability to believe I am a writer.
Tonight during the program, Laura introduced herself as a poet, as did the other speakers, Rob Blair and Heather Holland Duncan. That made me think. Actually, it smacked me in the face. How do you get to the point of knowing you can call yourself a poet?
I scribbled on the only piece of paper I could find in my work bag (usually I have my work-bag notebook but I took it out the other day to write a shopping list), a rich, fast flood of words because it was one of those moments of insight: I stopped, somewhere, thinking of myself as a poet.
Is it because I stopped writing poems? Or did I stop writing them because I stopped seeing myself as a poet? No one else but me is going to know or care whether or not I see myself in that light. Who would, in the past ten years of my life? Kendell, who thinks poetry is stupid? My kids, who see me (as they should) simply as their mom? My friends, whom I love but are not of the writerly persuasion?
Somehow during the past decade, my sense of myself as not just a writer in general, but a poet specifically, has become my crazy little secret. It isn’t even a dirty secret...just sort of silly. Isn’t poetry what angsty teenagers write? I convinced myself I should be embarrassed about being a poet. Or: wanting to be a poet, because I never actually was a real one, was I?
So when one of those awkward silences that happen sometimes during writing panels opened up, I got brave. I don’t usually ask questions (remember: in the presence of writers, my voice shakes and my heart pounds), but I raised my hand and asked the question. “You all introduced yourselves as poets. What happened in your life to allow you to claim that?”
I was hoping for ah-ha moments. The first poem in print, or the first public reading, or that time someone introduced them as “my friend, the poet.” Something big. Something memorable. Instead, one of them said, “Well, I wrote my first poem when I was six,” and another talked about the difference between being a poet and a good poet. Being a poet means, in other words, that you write poems.
Which is something I believe and have tried to teach others: to be a writer, write.
Perhaps I asked the wrong question. Probably in that context, I couldn’t ask what I really meant because of all the words it would take to get there. But what I really want to know is: how do you find the courage to say I am a poet and then carve out the space in your life that allows you to actually be a poet? How do I carve that space, in between children and a house and a yard and running and work and a husband who thinks so little about writing he never thinks about it at all?
How do I find that old part of myself who was a poet?
And perhaps I didn’t just ask the wrong question. Maybe I also asked it of the wrong people. Maybe they can’t tell me because they only have that answer for themselves. Maybe—yes, really—it is one of the questions I have to find my own answers for.
I think she’s still there, my poet-self. She makes faint wiggles sometimes (as when, this fall, I tried writing a poem about my reaction to the statue of St. Peter in the Basillica), so I know she’s still around.
I want to unearth her from where I’ve buried her.
I want, one day, to call myself a poet and to know that it is true.