Airing your poetry in public

One writer shares how she learned more about reading and writing poetry in public

From junior high school on, I was led to believe that poetry was the most rarified of literary art forms, practiced only by those whose extraordinary interpretive powers allowed them to craft the perfectly distilled construction of words.

So for more years than I dare count, I have kept my journal of furtive late-night scribblings buried under novels and newspapers on the table next to my bed. I have always felt it would be pretentious to say I write poetry - after all, what do I know of villanelles and quatrains?

But over the past decade, poetry has become more accessible. There's Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, an ambitious poetry audio-video archive for participants from all walks of life. Andrew Caroll's American Poetry Project hands out books of poetry all over the United States in train stations and subways. A whole subculture of refrigerator poets is hooked on Dave Kapell's liberating "Magnetic Poetry." There are poetry slams around every corner, as well as workshops, how-to books, and online poetry chat rooms and Web sites. It seems within the past few years as if everyone is writing poetry, some of it exquisite, much of it appalling.

All this has given me courage. So, OK, I admit it. I write poetry. Now what? Now the questions begin. Is it good poetry (and who is the arbiter)? Is it worth trying to share it? Trying to improve it? Am I ready to expose it to the light of day?

I come across an article in the New York Times Magazine on 1996 Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska that proves a turning point. Not only does her poetry strike a chord with me, she also tells the reviewer something that justifies my own scribblings and why I might feel the need to share them: "Poetry doesn't save mankind or people. It is my strong belief that poetry cannot save the world. It may help the individual reader to think. It may enrich his spiritual life. Reading it, one may feel a little less alone."

So after 16 years of marriage, I finally show my husband a poem, one he has inspired. He is moved. I am moved. So far so good. But what about someone less invested? I try a friend, herself a poet. She likes the three I send her, one more than the others because the concept is clearly defined. Constructive feedback. I like this.

I am motivated. I seek advice from everyone even remotely involved in the form. A poet-editor I know suggests numerous ways to connect locally - workshops and classes through adult-education programs, university English departments, open readings in bookshops and libraries.

I call the Academy of American Poets, which sponsors National Poetry Month as well as a wealth of other poetry-related activities, and publicist Tom Bevan urges keeping an eye toward the process itself, rather than getting caught up in the prospects of publishing. The key, he believes, is being a reader of poetry.

So I read more. Mary Oliver's "The Poetry Handbook" is the classic. I learn the basics of more formal construction. I get validation from Jeff Mock's recent "You Can Write Poetry" (Writer's Digest), which focuses on the process, suggesting a variety of practice sessions and exercises. I like how Susan Wooldridge's book "Poemcrazy" places the practice of poetry within the context of spiritual centering. The invaluable "Poet's Market," while centered on the possibilities of publication, is the best sourcebook out there.

I go to my first poetry reading, a benefit for the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Mass., hosted by Robert Pinsky and featuring a blockbuster lineup reading from Pinsky's new anthology "The Handbook of Heartbreak." It's an inspiring and eye-opening evening, but one that teaches me volumes about storytelling and the possibilities of structural variety.

I feel the need for something hands-on - a writer's group or a workshop. I have bits and pieces that need assembling, finished works that need fine-tuning. I go to a recommended workshop sponsored by the New England Poetry Club, and for the first time since junior high, read aloud one of my poems to a group of strangers. The critique I get is direct, nonjudgmental, and specific on both technical and emotional levels. It is an invigorating, thought-provoking, and highly constructive experience. I am learning.

I know I have a style, a voice. It is personal and nonmetrical, with uncontrived internal cadences that reflect the natural rhythms of prose but in language distilled to evoke the essence of a thought or feeling or image. It is generally straightforward, unpretentious. Will it resonate with anyone besides myself? I have taken the first steps to find that out, and the path seems wide open.

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