Friday, April 5, 2013

An Encouraging Word

Fields of Satchmo, the new book of Wild American poems by Michael J. Vaughn. Only 99 cents on Amazon Kindle.

In the fall of 2011, I had just finished The Popcorn Girl, the most recent in a line of several overlapping novel projects, and I was worn out. (Looking back, I think it was the Memento-like psychological twists that taxed me). I needed a break, and visiting an old neighborhood - poetry - seemed like just the thing. I had been quite an active poet in the '90s, leading an open mic, working on a literary journal, and placing poems in more than 50 journals - had even finished second in the 2000 Austin International Poetry Festival to finish off the decade. After that, however, it was three, maybe four poems a year.

Which is a shame, really, because poetry is a wonderful place to stretch the imaginative muscles, to engage in wordplay, to conduct mad linguistic experiments. People are always surprised, in fact, that my poems are so non-linear, coming from a novelist. (I found the same to be true of my prose hero, Raymond Carver, whose poems are refreshingly free of narrative bounds.)

I was hesitant, though, and couldn't seem to get started. That's when I mentioned it to my pal Ellen Lee Gibson, who has this amazing capacity to be a fan of my work even though she's a long-time friend (it's difficult to separate an authorial voice from a friend's voice, that's why many people can't read a friend's work objectively). And this is what Ellen said:

"I miss your poems."

Simple statement, but it's the wording that got to me. Not "You should definitely write poems," but something much more personal and touching. So I ordered up a latte, started writing, and produced 120 poems over the next four months. Talk about pulling a finger from the dike!

These poems astounded me. In those ten prose-filled years, I had stored up a new voice, full of swagger and wild imagination. By the end of the year, 28 of them had been accepted by literary journals around the world, and I began to consider finally putting out my first collection. Now it's out: Fields of Satchmo, named for a poem that conducts a mad compression of slavery America until Louis Armstrong rises from a field of manure, trumpet in hand, like a gorgeous sunflower.

Watch out what you say to your writer friends. You might be lighting a fuse. And sometimes, in only four words. Thanks, Ellen. You're awesome.

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