Poetry is an important part of who I am and how I see the world. Poetry opens me up to possibilities of sound and rhythm, plus it helps me say what is so hard to put into words. I also love how poetry demands that I see the space we live in as more than black and white. Through poetry, I can bear witness to current and historical events and tell a story about them. These and so many other reasons are why I write poetry and why I continue to struggle to find the right words to express an image, a feeling or the hardened ground after last week’s sleet storm in Raleigh.
As an eight-year-old, I loved hearing the pounding hoof beats in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, followed by his easy end rhymes. I also couldn’t get enough of Walt Whitman’s extended metaphor about Lincoln’s assassination in “O, Captain! My Captain!” I, too, wanted to express something grand and meaningful. I first got my chance my sophomore year of high school when I won second place in the annual poetry contest. I wrote a three page poem about the epic fight between King Arthur and Sir Mordred. After trying the next year and not making the award cut, I stopped writing poetry until my mid-twenties when a friend invited me to an open mic. I felt that what I wrote could have been better, but I didn’t know what I needed to do get better.
Now fast forward to five years ago when I first started sending my short stories and essays out to various publication markets. I didn’t get any takers for these pieces and I was getting tired of all of the rejections. Then one of my writing teachers suggested reading and writing poetry to become a stronger fiction or memoir writer. I could do this! After all, I had written poetry before. The third poem I wrote after my nineteen year hiatus won honorable mention in NC State’s annual poetry contest. Wow! Maybe I needed to keep doing this poetry thing. It was called “Ghostcards” and it was about the dual hanging deaths of two 14-year-old African American boys in Shubuta, Mississippi in 1942. Langston Hughes had portrayed the boys’ fate in “Bitter River” and I wanted to present my own version using the color gray throughout the poem.
The title of my poem “Ghostcards” came to me in a dream and wouldn’t let me go until I had finished writing the poem. A lot of my poems emerge similarly, while others come from the newspaper, random encounters, personal experiences or strange family behaviors. For instance, I’m working on a poem about when I was a kid my family went to McDonald’s for dinner every two weeks and my dad always ordered the wrong hamburger for my mom. She complained, but he kept doing it for the next five years. Now, that’s a poem!
Even if you’re not a writer, I encourage you to read poetry to discover a fresh insight into an old idea or see how a poet performs acrobatics with his words. You just might learn something cool about yourself or the fellow drinking black coffee two tables over at the Panera.