So, I have this poetry collection coming out?
You can hear the hesitation with which I write that. I trained myself, over many years, to take compliments well. When someone said “You look beautiful,” I learned to say “Thank you.” (I didn’t train myself to believe it, but I did train myself not to say something like, “Oh, but I looked dreadful this morning, you should see me when I first wake up.”) I think I need to train myself to talk about my poetry in the same way, so I can say “I have a poetry collection coming out” as though it were a normal thing, as though I didn’t worry about it terribly.
Why do I worry about it? Because I’ve never in my life had confidence in myself as a poet. No, wait, I did have confidence once, when I was in high school. Back then, I wrote poetry constantly and confidently. I published some of it in the school poetry magazine. It was college that created problems for me, specifically the poetry classes I took at the University of Virginia. UVA has a famous creative writing program, with famous poets teaching in it. And, I’m sure without intending it or perhaps even realizing it, they convinced me that what I wrote was not worth writing.
Here, by the way, is the poetry collection, and I can tell you that I’m very proud of it. It’s forthcoming from the wonderful Papaveria Press.
In my literature classes, we studied poetry from all eras. But in creative writing classes, we were expected to read modern poetry, and to appreciate modern poets specifically. A lot of what we were reading, I simply did not like, but I got the distinct sense that I was supposed to write that sort of thing. (I should say, here, that there is a great deal of modern poetry I love, if by modern we mean 20th century. But we were reading the poetry of the 1970s and 80s, and I had a difficult time getting excited about any of it. Contemporary poetry feels more spacious now than it did back then.)
The last poetry class I took was with a famousish poet, the kind of poet who gets into all the anthologies. My first poem was about a woman who has dragons moving into her house — small ones, that get “tangled in her hangers.” I remember those words from the poem. When we critiqued it, my classmates couldn’t understand what I was trying to do — why dragons? They were, of course, a metaphor — but I wasn’t treating them as a metaphor in an obvious way, just writing about what a pain it was to have dragons (small ones) in your house.
That class didn’t stop me from writing poetry. I kept writing and even publishing poetry, all through law school. (I published poetry before I published prose.) But I didn’t talk about it, as though poetry were some sort of disease it was best not to discuss too much. I was surprised when people liked my poems — it’s been a surprise to me, over the last few years, that they’ve been reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies, and that editors like Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow ask me for poems. The greatest surprise was when, with great trepidation, I posted some poems on Facebook and people told me how much they liked them — shared them with friends, commented.
And now I have this poetry collection coming out, so I’m determined to talk about it.
It’s not polite to write about poetry without including some, so here is a poem that should be appropriate for the season:
Autumn, the Fool
The leaves float on the water like patches of motley.
Autumn, the fool, has dropped them into the lake,
where they rival the costume, not of the staid brown duck,
but the splendid drake.
He capers down the lanes in his ragged garments,
a comical figure shedding last year’s leaves,
but as he passes the crickets begin their wailing
and the chipmunk grieves.
The willow bends down to watch herself in the water
and shivers at the sight of her yellow hair.
Autumn the fool has passed her, and soon her branches
will be bare.
By the way, if you’re interested in the collection, it’s meant as a companion to my short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting, which is being reissued by Papaveria Press in a beautiful new edition: