Poetry is a one-way ticket to the poorhouse, the professor warned us, but he was too late. I’d already boarded the train with my suitcase of iambic aspirations. I’d spent my last penny on a nonrefundable ticket, the cheapest one I could find. I left no breadcrumbs, no way to get back to my former life. The train passed another me in a business suit on my way to an important meeting, then a few towns later, I was a mother of four drunk in suburbia. Finally, I arrived at the gorgeous poorhouse, a blank notebook waiting atop my pillow.
one nation under God
Congress adopted the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942. Twelve years later, they added “under God.” Imagine if their revision had read “under the arts” instead. My students say the most contemporary poet they know is Robert Frost, the most contemporary painter Grant Wood—though mostly they don’t remember his name, only his “pitchfork people.” Both white men, both long dead—what if they were early chapters, not epilogue, of our nation’s creative narrative? What if the POETRY category on Jeopardy! prompted responses like Claudia Rankine and Ocean Vuong? What if each crisp bill in our wallets promised In Poets We Trust?
one that got away
In my dream I am writing the perfect sonnet. The rhyme scheme is exquisite, and each rhyming end word contains its opposite meaning—“womb” and “tomb” have nothing on me! Why didn’t anyone ever think of these combinations before? I wonder. I guess no one ever tried as hard as I did. Or had as much talent. I pull the sheet from the typewriter and the right margin bell dings a congratulatory ring which, you may have guessed, is my alarm clock. I run to my laptop and try to recreate the poem, not remembering a word, only my hubris.
The teacher said, Every poem is a one-night stand; novels are marriage. If that’s true, I eloped at seventeen, just to prove I could. My novel, Something Lacking, Something Gained, filled ten spiral notebooks with sheets of paper besides—1414 pages in all. If being a poet made me a loose[leaf] writer, I wanted to show I could go the distance—commit to characters, propose to a worthy plot. Now fiction and I are separated. When we bump into each other, my hair is usually mussed, my skin still reeking of poem. It’s awkward. We never even bothered to divorce.
My acceptances from Louis McKee for his magazine One Trick Pony came in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2005. He even used one of my poems “Mack” for a broadside. I didn’t show this poem to my then-husband because it referenced his porn obsession. “Mack” was my therapeutic, sideways attempt to confront this without having to confront him. I didn’t meet Lou in person until 2009, the year of my divorce, and we had a good laugh about how now I could safely include “Mack” in my next book. Then Louis died in 2011, two years before Blowout was published.
I once heard Phillip Lopate speak about his writing life. He mentioned how “Real Phillip” was the one on the page, or maybe the one at the typewriter, surely not the one walking around in the world, having conversations, buying socks. I could relate. “Real Julie” is always writing, too, even when she doesn’t have a pen, even when she isn’t near a keyboard. A good chunk of my childhood can be summed up by my mother shouting, Put down that notebook and ____! I put it down, reluctantly. But the words kept leaping up like popcorn in my head.
one in a million
The professor told us that when her first book won the Yale Series for Younger Poets, she’d been chosen as the most promising of six manuscripts entered. Six? We were so proud of her and jealous at the same time. One student said, I think they get 800 submissions now. Another said, I heard it was a million! To calm us down, our professor told us she was in the same continuing ed class as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Her teacher told them, You three gals are great—but you are gals. Maybe one of you will make it.
I teach my students about rejection (“I get knocked down...”), though I should prepare them for acceptance, too (“No Rain”). What happens after the first book gets published, wins a prize—that’s when the doubts creep in. What if the first time was only a fluke?, we wonder. What are the odds we’ll be chosen for anything ever again? (“Tainted Love.”) I should say: “My Sharona,” always have something in progress; being “done” is dangerous for both ego and nerves. Never chase a high; raise your standards. And no matter how the chips fall, make sure you dance “La Macarena.”
I used to think my relationship to poetry was a one-way street—I gave and gave, but got so little back. A small pub once in a while, maybe a coffee shop reading. Why are you doing this? my friends would ask. My friends in advertising or film or banking were sick of hearing me whine. They offered me job leads or said I should freelance for glossy magazines. I dutifully wrote puff pieces for American Health and Seven Days. They paid the bills, but I felt empty inside. Then, my literary epiphany—poetry was a one-way street giving everything to me.
back to square one
Plato once said: The painting of a bed is no good to lie upon. When someone asks what a poem is good for, I might say comfort, insight, or a new way of looking at the world. All true, but also incomplete. My colleague Cindy says, The difference between art and life is metaphor, so I try it. I say, A poem is a kaleidoscope or A poem is a lucky star in a humdrum constellation. Still true, but also incomplete. Mary Oliver wrote: Maybe the world without us is the real poem. Humbled again, I let the silence sing.
Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade published The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose with Noctuary Press in 2019. Denise’s latest solo book is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017), and Julie’s latest solo book is Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020). Their collaborative essays appear in such publications as Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Fourth Genre, Nimrod, No Tokens, Prairie Schooner, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review, and StoryQuarterly. They both teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.