Friday, April 5, 2013
An Encouraging Word
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.