Poetry is the grass that comes up in the cracks of the sidewalk.
I’ve been a housepainter and on one particular job there’s a woman from Germany. As we precariously dangle from ladders, she wants to find out more about me. What do I do when I’m not painting houses. I paint pictures with words as a poet. She gets a look on her face like someone awesome has just walked into the room. I look around and we’re the only ones there.
She explains that poets in her country are revered revolutionaries. Some time later I read a newspaper headline: Polish Poet Shot to Death for Treason. I utter a sound like the moment somebody hits a baseball right into my throat. It’s not a memory I remember too often.
I really understand the part about revolutionary. It’s revolutionary to be a woman poet in the seventies; there is poetry after Beat. It’s revolutionary in the 1800s when stalwart women poets, who quite often start out with male pen names, publish poetry with any name at all; the most prolific of women poets is Anonymous. Then, women are called poetesses; obscured by "ess" sounds. It’s revolutionary for women to speak our words in our own voices.
As to the awesome part, well I don’t know about that. Sometimes I just like to play with the words. I can cram as much as possible into the usual five minutes allotted at fundraisers; 15-20 minutes, whoo, turn me loose. This is possible for poets: a poem, perhaps two, can be written on a matchbook cover. I prayer-form to thousands and to three when there could be more; I also know that three is enough.
Poems are ashes blown by the wind.
I come to California from New England in 1979. The purposes of moving are to write, to heal which aren’t necessarily separate activities. Before I begin writing again, I do a purging, transformation ritual. I take a bag full of poems written ten years before and burn every page. When I tell this story, I sometimes get a reaction like the listener’s throat has just suddenly closed off oxygen to the lungs. It’s a ghastly sound so I don’t tell the story too often.
Fire is transformation; burning the poems enlightens the way I write poetry. I decide to stop saying I’m a writer and say: I am a poet. My verse forever changes. Taking my self seriously as a poet is a profound moment. I understand how Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Bronte craft words to sound like bells, feel like the moors. I become fluent in the poetic language of the disturbed common ground found in a book From the Ashes written by young residents of Watts after the 1968 Martin Luther King assassination riot.
A poet’s verse is a stone thrown into the pond.
In 1980 I begin reading poetry in public, like with other people in the room. Then I move out to women’s bookstores and bars. There’s a line in one of the bar dyke poems about lesbians being beaten to death by strangers and lovers. I’m cautioned that “we” shouldn’t tell “those” stories because “they” could be used against “us” by homophobes. I take out the “and lovers” for one reading. I put the words back in. I witness the life of another bar dyke who is beaten to death by her lover. If I lie about that, I’m not a poet.
I view and explain life in poetry, metaphors, alliterations. When I write news articles, columns, short stories, they’re disguised poems. I use commas, periods, whole sentences. They’re poems none the less. Poetry isn’t just form. My work as a poet is to take everything of a story, image, feeling, anything really and write the essence. The listener brings it back out to everything. It’s a different everything than mine and that’s as it should be.
Poetry is the work I love to do. The Tibetan Buddhist monks create intricate, exquisite sand paintings, then sweep them away when completed. They love that the creation and prayer is their work and that is enough. Still, I probably won’t burn any more poems any time soon.