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The Guilt-Free and Transformative Power of Poetry

Today we have a guest post from Teresa K. Miller on what it’s like to be a poet in a prose-reader’s world …

Compared to prose writers I know, I spend a lot less time actually writing. I find that if I make myself write when I’m not inspired, I largely produce work I could have skipped and usually throw out. Instead I spend most days “listening” for writing, collecting internal and external language. My creative time consists of maybe 80 percent listening, 10 percent writing, 5 percent revising, and 5 percent submitting. Sometimes the most I produce over a period of months is a page-long list of phrases that have popped into my head and a series of intriguing excerpts from overheard conversations. Then I might sit down every day for three weeks and knock out a chapbook-length poem based on a my list. That’s how I wrote Forever No Lo.

My prose-writing friends, meanwhile, tend to measure themselves by the adage that a writer is someone who writes today. This approach fosters both productivity and guilt. When they’re on, they achieve such amazing feats as drafting an entire novel in a month. When they aren’t writing daily, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety and defeat. I sidestep that guilt.

My lack of remorse could stem, in part, from the fact that I don’t see any individual poem or project as a potential source of income. Pay per word is a sexy concept, but foreign. My second journal publication brought with it a $50 check from ZYZZYVA , and I’ve made a couple of dollars per chapbook I’ve sold at readings; aside from those anomalies, if any checks have changed hands, I’ve written them for manuscript submission fees. Sure, there’s the potential for an accumulated body of work to lead to a faculty position somewhere—and there’s always the legend of Jorie Graham’s perfume inscription—but the former is a long-term cultivation of practice, not an assignment with a deadline.

This disconnect between most contemporary, innovative poetry and direct economic gain doesn’t signal irrelevance. Money aside, poems function as missives in an ongoing, nonlinear, potentially transformative conversation. While most poems by themselves may not pay rent or put food on the table, a poem that resonates cuts more deeply than any social interaction I’ve experienced. I can trace turning points in my consciousness to reading works as distinct as Lucille Clifton’s “move” and Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City. Poems have the capacity to expose or ignite personal and political issues like no other medium. They are stealthy, and they stick.

This opportunity for consequential discourse motivates me to sit down and write (when I’m finally ready) and seems to drive work circulating among many contemporary poets. I can’t comment on the fall of the paper book and the rise of online publishing in prose; poetry has maintained integrity and garnered readers through such disparate media as web journals and hand-set broadsides for as long as I’ve sought publication. New conversations splinter away from established journals in favor of more immediate exchange , as with Sous les Pavés, a zine-like project I’ve been receiving by mail from Micah Robbins . I’m inspired—and I’m keeping my day job.

Teresa is the author of Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008) and a member of San Francisco’s Sanchez Annex Grotto. She received her MFA from Mills College and has taught at the college and secondary levels. Recent work appears in E·ratio, Kadar Koli, and slouch.

*Please be sure to click through to Teresa’s poems. They are truly wonderful!

15 comments to The Guilt-Free and Transformative Power of Poetry

  • As tough as a prose writer's life is, I can't imagine a poet's. I've no skill for poetry myself, so I admire those who do!

  • There's something wonderful, though, about not even attempting to make any money at your craft and just doing it for the love of it. Kind of like prose writers but without all the anxiety – although I guess they still want to get published and get teaching jobs, so there is SOME anxiety involved. And reading Teresa's poems makes me want to read more poetry! We all need to read more poetry!

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  • Kittie Howard

    I have a deep admiration for those who write poetry. I've tried to get feelings and emotions on paper as they do but just cannot…so I am grateful for those who do.

  • I am a terrible poet, too, Kittie! Although I guess I haven't really given it much of a try. I'm so inspired by reading great poetry, though. I think it's a great way to start out a day of writing any kind of prose.

  • joshua

    poetry truly does take a unique set of talents not often seen and more rarely cultivated in our world.

  • Great post, Teresa. And I agree that we all need to read more poetry! Poetry is like sex or exercise; it takes getting off your butt and doing some work, but you're always glad afterward.

    I think the key difference in the writing process for me (and most prose writers I know) is that writing every day forces the garbage to come out so I can finally get to the good stuff. I wish that I could wait for inspiration to strike, but more often than not I find that not writing only means that when I do write, the drain is clogged and the good stuff is harder to get to. But that's the great thing about the creative process: it's different for everybody. Thanks for sharing your own, and for reminding me of the importance of poetry.

  • Thanks, Laura. I agree the process is entirely individual, which is why it makes me sad to see great writers get the "I'm a bad writer" mantra going when they hit a lull in output. Maybe they're just collecting their thoughts.

    Daily writing certainly isn't antithetical to poetry; it works wonders for Stephen Ratcliffe, for instance. I appreciate his process because it has created a compelling body of work, though, not because he wins work-ethic points. It's clear you get that distinction, too.

    Regarding Meghan's earlier comment about not attempting to make money from one's craft: I don't mean to romanticize starving artists as the "real" artists. I'm just glad that in the face of fewer direct and short-term avenues for economic gain, gifted poets keep engaging in the conversation. It's encouraging that despite the narrow shelf space devoted to poetry at big chain bookstores, many writers and readers recognize you don't have to be Billy Collins or dead to have something worthwhile to say–and they create alternate forums for exchange accordingly.

  • Laura – I love that you compare sex to exercise and reading poetry! I guess it does get that way in our old age 🙂

    And Teresa – I love Stephen Ratcliffe's work, but I don't think your point came across as suggesting that artists who work for money aren't real artists. I'm just jealous that you don't have to write every day to create great work!

    Thank you both for sharing your thoughts!

  • I am a poet, who writes transformational poetry. My collection of poetry and photographs came about because of an identity loss upheaval. It was very powerful and from its darkness I would write words to touch my feelings. The end results- the words set me free and I self published my first book of poetry at the age of 70. If anyone would like to take a peak at one of my poems and photograph go to my website and author's page on http://www.facebook.comWintersMystery

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