When I first started this blog in April 2017 I was not a poet. All of my activity on The Used Life was centered on posts like this one: those with a decidedly philosophical bent aimed at exploring the nuances of human creativity and the art of living. It wasn’t until later—sometime in early 2018—that I decided to try my hand at poetry, albeit for the second time in my life. And since then, I’ve dedicated myself to my craft wholeheartedly. I have studied extensively artists from a diversity of backgrounds, conducted various experiments in style and voice, and attempted to fuse my love of music, psychology, philosophy, and the visual arts with various modes of storytelling and poetic expression. I’ve even published my first chapbook. In short, I eat, sleep, and breathe poetry. It’s the most soulful form of self-expression of which I am capable. My whole personality in action. Yet, I am new at it. And sometimes I don’t feel like a real poet at all (more on that below).
But as I reflect on my journey thus far, I realize that some of my greatest and most fulfilling moments as a poet were those in which I was a truly a novice. Trying things I’d never tried with language before. Things I never knew I was capable of. And all while having no idea what I was doing or where I was going. How glorious! Indeed, the more I write and, consequently, the more I get in my head about writing, the more desirable being a novice becomes. That is, the more I recognize being a novice as a state of mind. As one who values the importance of preserving the magic of being new at something. It’a perspective that’s touched by innocence, I think. A real sense of adventure, of innovation, of play, and more importantly, of humility and reverence for one’s craft. It’s then I begin thinking that the day I feel like an expert poet is probably the day I should stop writing altogether.
Here are some thoughts on the benefits of being a perennial novice:
A novice is free(r) of self-conscious restraints.
These days, I begin most of my poetic exercises (including those that never become poems published here or elsewhere) by forcing myself to act as a novice. My mantra: write as if you don’t know better. Lest I fall victim to the rules, real or imagined. I try to begin without preconceived ideas (or as few as possible, anyway), which I accomplish by placing limits on myself. For the first stanza, say, I only allow myself to use certain words or images—those I grab from the book nearest me, whichever window is open on my laptop screen, or even a playlist I happen to be listening to. I have no idea what those words will become or in which direction they’ll take me. But it’s a hell of a ride. Because in those moments I am playing most freely. I am wholly absorbed. Being entirely spontaneous and lost in the process of creating something new. That is, I’m flying. Ants on Parade was written that way. As was Zero Hour.
Interestingly, I find that’s when my inner visions really begin to take shape. And it’s almost effortless. I work without a single care for what I should be saying or how I should be saying it. Or, for that matter, what particular point I should be making (for me, the single greatest creative buzzkill and the reason I refuse to analyze my own work). Indeed, I find the most unexpected and fulfilling outcome of exercises like this is that the points that need to be made make themselves. And in ways that are far more inventive and elegant than my intellect alone could ever have designed.
Novices are freer to be who they are.
It’s true that I only recently started writing poetry again after a 20-year hiatus. But it’s also true that I have been writing since I was first able. I have vague memories of my mother sitting with me and teaching me to read very early on. And of the short stories I used to write when I was 6 and 7 years old. As I got older, of course, my interests (writing and otherwise) got more complicated. I was never quite sure where I belonged, first as a student and then as a professional.
I always felt my interests straddled too many lines. Crossed too many unconventional barriers. And I didn’t really “fit” in a particular field. Indeed, when I started this blog, I thought psychology might be the direction I was heading in, but the more I focused on my poetry, the less I began to see the delineations between “writer” and “psychologist.”
Indeed, my friend, Tim, brought this issue back to the forefront of my attention just the other day in a comment he left on a recent post: “You seem to understand my own feelings in ways I often don’t. And then you write your thoughts down in ways that make mine seem to make so much more sense.”
My response: “That is a writer’s job, I imagine, the primary job…I also think that is the point at which writer and psychologist are one and the same.”
When I am creating, those barriers don’t exist. And they are of absolutely no use to the imagination. It’s then I realize there is more than one way to become who you are. Because, in those moments, I forget, at least temporarily, that those categories and arbitrary delineations exist in the first place. I act as if I don’t know better, as a novice would. And focus on the purity of self-expression instead—or rather, I allow myself the privilege of expressing myself fully. Then, many of these issues seem to resolve themselves.
A perennial novice recognizes the value of “not knowing.”
Which is something I am currently working on. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I often suffer from bouts of what’s commonly called “impostor syndrome.” That doesn’t mean I am not proud of my work. Or that I don’t think it has merit. Or that I think I’m lacking in ability. But it does mean I’ve got this crazy idea that I’m not a real poet. As if there’s a club somewhere that I am not part of. And that only real, serious poets belong to.
I can tell you now that one of the biggest reasons I feel this way is that (gulp) I don’t read contemporary poetry. In fact, outside of the handful of poets I’ve chosen to study intensively, I don’t read poetry at all. I have read more poetry here on WordPress over the past few years than I probably have in the last decade. There. Phew. I said it. I am a poet who doesn’t read (much) poetry. I prefer to read psychology books and listen to music. I study mostly with my ears. And I don’t give any thought to proper poetic forms. I wouldn’t know what most of them are without looking them up in a glossary of literary terms. Now I really feel like a fraud.
Just last night, as I was looking through Poet’s Market 2020 for prospective magazine/journal submissions, I had the unfortunate experience of coming across a series of journals that boasted lists of their recently published poets. Surely a distinguished series of names. Not that I know the difference since I don’t read contemporary poetry. In that moment, I was crippled by a thought: Oh, God! I can’t submit my work there! I don’t even know those poets’ names! They’ll find out. They’ll find out I’m not one of them.
Except I cannot allow myself to actually be crippled by that thought (a promise I made to myself in the new year). But it was enough to stop me dead for a few moments. Until I realized I can’t be different. I can’t make my interests or my imagination be different. And I really don’t want to. It wouldn’t be any fun then. So, I guess I’ll keep on being a poet who doesn’t read poetry. And who, by all measures, has no idea what she’s doing. Quite possibly the more courageous alternative.