Coming out of the Poetry Closet
By Erika Grumet
It’s a little ironic, I was the one who proposed that the topic for this month’s Big Think… should be “writing about ourselves as writers.” Of all the members of the Ivory Tower team, I’m the one who really struggles to self-identify as “a writer” and in fact often actively resists the label. (Admittedly, I resist the label “poet” even more, though I have no idea why.) How do you write about yourself as a writer when you don’t think you are one?
Here is the place where I tell you that I have an epic case of imposter syndrome. My superpower might actually be Self Doubt.
Most people, when they hear my response to applying the label “writer” to myself, think that publication is the benchmark for “real writer.” It makes sense that one would hold that as the standard by which to measure, but from the very beginning, I have been clear that publication isn’t the pinnacle, and reaching that milestone would be a bonus prize. (Maybe one day, please?) I fully expect that won’t happen, and if it does, I assume it will lie a long way off. If we assume that “being a writer” is actually a milestone on this journey with an undefined end, it’s probably helpful to begin with the fact that “writer,” “poet” and “published” weren’t signposts on the original map I drew for the journey. In fact, the only goals I set out with were “some kind of stability or consistency in my life” and “to be a better writer.” It’s also good if you’re reading this to know that this journey only started after a very long hiatus from writing, outside of what was required for school or work, and one or two pieces of narrative nonfiction.
Silence is a powerful word. It’s used in catchy slogans to invoke tremendous emotion. Silence is violence, is complicity, =death. Silence can be very powerful. Many of us aren’t comfortable with it in our interpersonal relationships…just think how easy it is to wander to worst case scenarios when a friend or lover is out of touch for longer than usual. On a more global level we have things like GLSEN’s Day of Silence to draw attention to the way LGBTQ youth are silenced in their schools…in books we have the Ellen Jamesians in The World According to Garp who cut out their own tongues in solidarity with a rape survivor whose tongue was cut out by her rapists. I own a Silence=Death t-shirt. I’ve studied the words of MLK Jr pertaining to silence as I studied rhetoric in my English classes. It was trauma and violence in my own life that forced me into silence, at a time in my life when what I probably needed was to be louder than ever. I didn’t set out to write about trauma or violence or any of that, but there are times it just comes out on the page that way.
You never know what might make you find your scream, though. At least I don’t. And in 2020, while everyone was already busy coping with a pandemic, my life was shredding itself in other ways, too. Pandemic stress plus isolation, plus interpersonal stress should have been enough, but throw major illness on top of that, and you’ve got one very lost person, if that person is me. I found myself searching for some kind of stability. But the world is trapped at home, half a year or so into a pandemic, so whatever I decide I’m going to to find, this stability has to be something I can get to on the internet, and it’s also got to be something I can do with limited funds and with the disability/health-related challenges I’m now dealing with. An opportunity to take a short writing class crossed my path and I took advantage. Paper and pens are cheap; I’ve got those in the house already. The class was a disappointment, but during the six weeks of class, a post in a summer-camp alumni group introduced me to Adam who has gently, patiently, and generously mentored me during the last half a year and then some, and who deserves major credit for the writer I am right now. Adam connected me with the writing group and Ivory Tower Boiler Room.
Remember that superpower I mentioned earlier…Self Doubt? Here’s where it comes flooding back. I started showing up at the writing group, daily. The thing is, I’m sitting in a writing group filled with PhDs and PhD candidates, and people with MFAs, too. And then there’s me. I’ve got a social work degree. I’m sitting here in a virtual room full of people with with direction and goals and credentials and I am completely overwhelmed. I felt unprepared, inadequate. But the structure, the stability, it was exactly what I’d been looking for, and it meant I was writing every day. I didn’t have to share, so no matter how bad my work was (or I thought it was,) no one had to see most of it (Adam and I and have continued to work one on one, so I only had to worry about one other set of eyes, though I’ve surprisingly sought out more than that at times.) What makes someone a writer? Can you be a writer if you don’t share your work with anyone? I hadn’t come to the space looking to be a writer, but I was surrounded by them. I certainly hadn’t come with the intention of writing poetry. I thought I had long since left that behind. I started by writing one poem as a joke, a challenge from someone who wondered if I could replicate the emo angst of my adolescence now that I am well into adulthood. I shared it with a couple of people who told me it was good–one of whom even said “You should think about submitting that for publication!” Most people would hear this and be thrilled, right? I hear it and question everything. I am incapable of just believing that my work is good, I’m looking for the cutting remark that comes after the compliment, the one that says something about my amateur status, lack of credentials, or reminds me in some other way that I don’t belong.
Still, one well-received poem does not earn the label “writer” or “poet”–there are a lot of cliches about beginner’s luck or how often stopped clocks are right that I could insert here. By this time I’d already fallen in love with the community, and the routine, and the idea of quitting is just not something I can entertain. I’ve found that the more I write, the more I need to write. Some people might say that’s what makes me into a writer, although I don’t feel it yet.
I came to the Ivory Tower Boiler Room and to my take on our Big Think question with a very clear picture of myself as “not a writer,” but also unable to define what would make me a writer. I came to writing with no intention of writing poetry, and within the Ivory Tower family, I think other than my flaming case of imposter syndrome, one of the other things I’m known for is poetry. Sometimes the world is a funhouse mirror. I keep Pablo Neruda’s poem “Poetry” open on my screen most of the time. He says “Poetry arrived in search of me.” The poet Danez Smith has talked about being the vessel for poems to come through; I have the quote as my pinned Tweet. I keep returning to the quote from Matthew Zapruder that Andrew shared in the introduction to our poetry playhouse episode:
“I really do think that so much of what keeps people away from poetry is a firmly held and incorrect idea about poetic language: that whatever is on the page can’t possibly be what is “really” meant. It’s a paradox, because to read poetry is to look for that transcendence poetry can give, the way it can bring us out of ordinary experience, into different levels of understanding, or more exciting, even magical realms. But in order for that to happen, a reader has to at first be completely attentive to the words on the page, and read at least at first in the same way we would a piece of prose or any writing. Otherwise there can be no meaningful encounter with a poem.”
I’m the mechanism for poetry to come out on the pages. I have this task, a seemingly immense task of taking vision, and turning it into verse. As with many things, I’m wondering “who the fuck thought that was a good idea? But in order to take on the task of writing poems, perhaps even becoming a poet one day, I have discovered some things. I look much more closely at small details sometimes-the fuzz on a peach, the holes in a leaf and how the edges of those holes shift from brown to yellow to green, the look my cat gives me when he’s about to do something he knows he shouldn’t but he wants me to see it, or the look my kids get on their faces when they’re not sure it’s okay to use a “reserved word.” William Blake may not be my favorite poet, but what he says about the world in a grain of sand, I get it. I’ve been working to fine tune my ability to see those things, and to think about how I preserve those details. People tell me I talk too much, but with poems, I’m so deliberate about the words I choose.
I began this piece firmly believing that I’m “not a writer.” I saw it as a title, a label I would eventually earn once I met some undefined set of standards, and I had no idea who was defining those standards either. I started writing last year, certain I would never be “a real writer.” I’m not so sure that’s the truth anymore; I’ve referred to this as my “cocoon phase”-I’m not quite ready to consistently call myself “writer” and for some reason, “poet” still feels unattainable. I do sometimes refer to myself as a writer; in fact, while I was writing this I completely unconsciously typed a sentence which began “as a writer” and had to laugh at myself, and share the moment with my Ivory Tower family who cheered me on. I look at my work differently right now-I don’t automatically hate it, which is progress, and sometimes I even look at it and decide I want to keep it around and work on. There’s even stuff that I’ve worked on, put to rest and pulled out again but I can look at it now as craft or art, with a distance that I couldn’t have a few months ago even after a break from it. Writing has become something I need to do every day now; if I don’t do it, I think about doing it, about what I should be working on or how to make things work. Edits and revisions and timelines take up new spaces in my head and the page I keep with totally random sentences or phrases that sound nice that I might be able to build something around gets longer and longer. I write a lot now–essays, blog content, attempts at short stories and lots and lots of poems. What has surprised me though is that I often read differently now, with attention to different details, and a different critical eye. Words feel different somehow. I am starting to see that I think like a writer, at least some of the time, that I look through a writer’s eyes when I take in what’s around me. I’m not quite ready to call myself a writer yet, but I am emerging into a new space, and discovering words and passions in a new way. It’s thrilling and frightening and comforting all at once. It’s been a process so far, cracking open the door and letting the light in, and letting my words and my voice out. There have been some signposts I never knew to look out for on the path to calling myself a “writer,” changes in the way I connect with and look at my own work, in the way I want to work, in my comfort and willingness to share it with others. I’m confident that one day, no matter how far off it might be, I will be able to fling the door open all the way, and all the words will spill out and I’ll claim my space as a blogger, as a poet and as a writer.