Monday, April 1, 2013

Poetry, Over The Years

April is national poetry month.

Upon hearing this, I thought I'd challenge myself to write a poem each day. I decided against it, as, though it would be a fun challenge, it might force the power of poetry (and I'd rather just comment on poetry as a whole throughout the month). I also quickly realized I had done things like that in the past, but it was because I was always putting off poetry and it was a cheap way for me to rectify it.

When I was younger, I arrogantly told people I wrote poetry, but it wasn't ever more than one poem a month with a few napkins or scraps of paper with frantically scribbled phrases like "the moon crept through the branches like a garden" or "a lovely, lonely heart inside her somewhere" or "Dear Jake, Tell all the babes that you write poetry. You know they dig it the most. Love, Jake"

It'd be years before I learned what it took to be a poet. As a teenage romantic and a college student idiot, I bet on it being an unstable sleep pattern and a life bordering on a drinking problem. And I think we can all agree that I was shallow and borderline irresponsible with my lazy interpretation of the world.

Also, I was always tall. I think we can all agree on that too.

To be a poet, I believed the world wasn't supposed to be enough while simultaneously being downright overwhelming. All the while, I strutted around like I had a closet full of poems of great glory on high when, in truth, I really just wrote poems here and there between my schedule of riding bikes with friends and aimlessly channel surfing. Naturally, this sort of uninformed entitlement comes to any young man who's under the impression that black and white movies/photographs automatically means being "cultured."

There's a great deal of difference between a poet and someone who writes poetry, and it took me well over a decade to learn this.

A key example was years and years ago when my friend Brook was a poet and I was someone who wrote poetry (and mistakenly considered it the same thing). Brook was older, and probably sage-like because of it. She wrote everything all the time. She also went after poems, a notion I didn't understand back then. She tried out formats and themes. This was confusing to me, as I figured you wrote how you felt and the challenge was articulating it.


Poetry, like any medium, isn't just about emotion and message. It's about story, narrative, and range. It's also about practice. In the last few years, I've tried on various word placement strategies for size and I've purposefully gone after themes because writing a hundred shitty poems is what's necessary to write a grand one.

It's like a player practicing basketball. Sure, it's basketball, but what specifically? Free throws? Defense? Jump shots? Dribbling? It's practicing poetry, but there's heartache poems, romance poems, war poems, arrogant poems, figuring out poems, left a lover poems, traveling poems, leaving home poems, coming home poems, et cetera forever.

And while trying out themes, I tried out people. It took me a long time to be comfortable with my ability to write poems entirely about/as other people, but I'd say it's necessary for a poet to be any voice (maybe not choose that, but at least have the empathy to fuel it). However, this is all just my opinion, and, just so you know, I don't teach poetry for a living and I stuck a fork into a toaster in my twenties, so take all of this with a grain/shaker of salt.

To be clear, I'm not saying there's a minimum number of poems or voices to write before you cross a threshold, but a poet writes poems almost at a constant. A poet is a person who sees the world as poetry, and that's not a douche observation of "seeing the real magic of life" or some shit. No, it means being regularly distracted by certain phrases in conversation and wondering how little moments that have no significance whatsoever could translate into words and then storing away tiny fragments of emotion or truth or just basic observation. As long as I've known Brook, she's had that. She could write a (tremendous) poem about anything (coffee mug, french fries, South Dakota) at the drop of a hat. 

My father's also been that way forever, though it was only last year that I finally saw him do it live to strangers. He and I went to a poetry reading in September down at The Ugly Mug in Old Town Orange. My father used to do it all the time after he self-published his book of poetry, Torque (back in 2002, when self-publishing a book was definitely a printed thing and certainly more of an ordeal). But, disappointed and distracted, he later moved on, though he kept writing poems all the time. I sat in the audience, and he read two poems ("Under A Cypress On The Bank" and "Jar"), and they were spectacular. He was the first reader of the evening, and I half-expected the crowd to call it a night after him. Seriously, the man who had told me when to go to bed and helped me with my homework as a kid was also one hell of a poet as it turned out, and he stupefied the mercy out of me as an adult. He goddamn floored me.

I read three poems that evening as well, but my only comment on it is that I felt a sensational calm when I did. I think it was because, in the weeks leading up to the Wednesday night in September reading, I wondered and worried what the poetry community was like, but I very immediately discovered that most poets are alike, despite some being better than others. They can get cocky in their own right, but poetry is such a profoundly personal art. It's so damn subjective. Now, to be fair, isn't all art subjective? Isn't that what makes art the fascinating, incredible beauty that it is?

Art is free-form, sure, but poetry is such a wildly open-ended category to me. There's structure to stories, essays, paintings, sculptures, songs, all of it. But it's almost like anything with words that can't technically be put into another category can be considered poetry. It's hard to define poetry, which is why it's easy to be bad at it and why it's almost debilitating to read a truly great poem.

We're getting off-base here, which I suppose is always a possibility when I talk or write for longer than a few minutes.

The thing is those strangers in the audience were all poets and poetry-writers, and they knew how hard it can be to read your mania and madness to a crowd. Even if others thought they were better than me, their focused attitude was still more, "Hey, good for you. You're on your way."

And that could be said to anyone writing poetry at any age. I mean, hell, it was only last year that I really felt like poetry clicked for me in a way it never did before. I just all of a sudden got it. See, I've been writing poems since I was a kid (and it was a real game-changer when I rhymed "well" with "bell"), and I'd like to believe that I've evolved from poetry-writer to poet (both are awesome, by the way).

In high school, I learned how to articulate myself in poems, even though I sounded like I was trying too hard to be a "poet" (which I absolutely was). But, to be fair, who the hell wasn't writing shitty poems as a teenager?

In college, I was beautifully stumbling with a voice that was mine and learning how to go abstract without the help of a thesaurus (which immediately made my poems sound dumb, so that took some rebuilding).

In my mid-to-late twenties, I refined the functionality of my poems and the speed that I wrote them. I discovered that I was dangerously close to what I'd always wanted to sound like. I just wasn't quite there yet, as I was often only writing poems when I was stoked or troubled.

And then, last year, all of a sudden, I had no trouble writing poems. They were easy, honest, and abstract. I liked what they said, and I liked how I said them.

Even when I was younger and thought I was good at writing poems (which is a world unto itself), I still struggled with consistency and process. That's not the case anymore. I can sit down to write a poem, and if it doesn't come, it'll come later, maybe tomorrow. I'm constantly thinking about writing poems, and I maintain a frequency of at least 5-10 poems a month (and that's in between work, fun, and other writing projects - which is a combination of work and fun, I suppose).

No art is easy, but in all of my self-education with writing, poetry has been the most haphazard. It's the wilderness of the written word for me. Even though I've written books and screenplays, finally being what I first wanted to be as a little kid checking out poetry books from the library is un-fucking-real.

Ah well.


Happy Poetry Month!


Sara B said...

I enjoyed this. Keep up the good work Jake. And someday you'll be flooring your kids at a poetry reading :)

Jake Kilroy said...

Aww, well, thank you very much, Sara.

Someday. Not too soon. Oh my god, not anytime soon. Though when I do, those kids better be floor. Otherwise, they better find a new ride home.