Writing poetry well should be like training yourself for the Olympics. The poetry Olympics. Even there are no gold medals, no silver or bronze, even though there are no endorsements, (I keep writing to Nike, “I run, I write poetry, give me shoes! But no luck.) even though the rewards of poetry are being able to go around saying, “I’m a poet,” which, if you throw in a couple dollars will get you coffee, in spite of that, you should take it seriously.
For me, that means doing what they do in the Olympics, going through training. When I meet with MFA students, they want to know how long it will take before they get their first book published. Here’s what I think about: When my kids were in karate, their teacher Ken Nagayama would say, “When an American enters the dojo, he likes to ask one question. ‘How long will it take for me to get a black belt?’ That is not the right question. That is not right thinking. Right thinking is, ‘Is this a place where I can enter the lifelong study of martial arts and learn about what it means to be human using this art form?’ That is the right question.”
Can I enter the study of poetry here? Is the right place for me at this time? Are there poets I can learn from? Red Hen Press has a list of about twenty core poets who know we have a slot for them every several years so they can focus on writing knowing their work has a home. This list includes Percival Everett, Peggy Shumaker, Camille Dungy, Doug Kearney, David Mason, Cynthia Hogue, Jim Tilley, Kim Dower and Lisa C. Krueger.
We have three poets who have undertaken to enter the dojo of poetry and let the martial arts instructor take some serious swings at their work. Lisa C. Krueger, who read last month at Poets House with David St. John and Phil Levine had two books out but wanted to see how daring and risk taking she could be with her third book. She enrolled in the Bennington MFA program. As an adult with a thriving Psychotherapy practice, it isn’t easy to become a student again, to submit to having your poetry—which feels like your children!—be whacked around by the throngs, to say nothing of the poets who lead the workshops, but that’s what she’s done. The poems that have emerged are ferocious, they have bite and wild as if they were surrounded by wolves and learned to speak anyway.
Jim Tilley retired from Morgan Stanley and dedicated himself to a life of language and ideas, but first to poetry. He’s been to Breadloaf, to Squaw, to Palm Beach, and he keeps going. Every summer. He works on his craft as hard as he ever worked in the world of finance, and the result is amazing. Poems that walk between math, light and energy. Poems that are precise and balanced, poems where the poet is paying attention to every word.
Kim Dower, a renowned publicist went back to poetry after an absence of twenty-five years and dedicated herself to attending the conferences where she could submit her poems to criticism. She takes classes with Terry Wolverton, one of Los Angeles’ treasures both as poet and writing teacher. Her second book, Slice of Moon will be out from Red Hen Press next year, and she is reading this weekend on Saturday at the Ruskin Art Club at 4 pm with Oliver de la Paz and Cynthia Hogue.
Red Hen’s core poets have this in common. They are not hoping for a black belt. They have entered the life of poetry and are in there, in the muck and grime, the wet evenings, the long winters, the pages on the floor. They’re not hoping for game, they are the game. I salute all poets who are in it for the long haul, for entering language cracked and brittle and ending up with poems whole and humming.