My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter in Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009. Here, I briefly note signposts along the way.
I first sensed rhythm and music, and the use of words that eventually shaped my poetry in the nursery rhymes my mother taught me, and in the naptime stories in Good Housekeeping magazine she read to my siblings and me.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the origin of words, their use, and in writing them down. My mother said that from the time I could talk I asked questions and persisted until I was satisfied with the answers.
After I learned to read, I became an insatiable reader. In spite of limited family resources, I was encouraged to read by my mother and my teachers. Still, today, I can flash back to the adventure stories and children’s classics I read during a summer of limited activity while I was recovering from undefined rheumatic fever.
Through my college years, I did not like poetry because I was not supposed to. I was unaware that it existed in the very essence of nursery rhymes; the playground chants, jingles and teases I so enjoyed; the patriotic and celebratory songs I sang off-key and at the top of my lungs; and in the school band and glee club music that was a big part of my life.
I write in a straightforward style, striving for precise imagery and letting story and language dictate mode, stanza, and line. Epiphanies, symbolism, philosophical assertions, and layers of complexity may or may not arise as I write. Beginning with the known, I try to give a poem life and spirit by imagining the unknown. Form flows out of content. Sometimes this is conventional, other times it is free verse.
I write to communicate in plainspoken English, and to express myself in poetic speech that which I have read, heard, remembered, or ought to have remembered in a manner described by Wendell Berry in his essay “The Responsibility of the Poet” (What Are People For? Essays).
Once I reimagine a notion, I draft notes, research, compose verses, edit, “sleep on it,” rewrite, redraft, edit, “sleep on it,” sometimes repeating this cycle forty or fifty times for years until I am satisfied.
I find the following tools crucial to writing poems: (1) read it aloud as I write; (2) observe audience comments and body language when reading publicly; (3) record and listen back to public readings; and (4) keep an attitude that a poem is always a draft.
Listening to CD’s and watching DVD’s of either the author or a trained interpreter reading are invaluable to understanding a poem. More and more digital recordings are packaged with books. With the growth of the World Wide Web, audio poetry has become the new medium. Three sites with extensive selections are The Poetry Archives, www.poetsarchives.org, The Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org and PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, www.pbs.org.