This weekend is the beginning of an array of “holiday” festivities awaiting me—houses humming with sweater-adorned bodies sipping equally adorned cocktails. Everything smells vaguely of pine, cinnamon and candle wax. The food and conversation is bite-sized: light, airy morsels of vacation plans and movies, shopping and relatives, directions on how to baste something. Inevitably, talk turns to careers, professions, and jobs. And that’s when the awkward pause happens. Whenever my husband introduces me as a “poet”, I can see the confused scrunch forming on foreheads, the nervous laugh bubbling up or the uncertain head nod like he’s suddenly speaking a foreign language.
Here in LA people are familiar with screenwriters and novelists. Actors, producers, even Oscar-nominated sound engineers are not out of the ordinary at gatherings. But poets? My party cohorts don’t know what to do with that information. Perhaps they have a hazy recollection of a bushy-bearded Walt Whitman or a tightly-buttoned up Emily Dickinson from their high school English class. Some might have even indulged in a few angst-ridden lines of rhyme in their teenage years. But they don’t know what to make of it when they meet a person who calls herself a "poet" standing in front of them. They don’t even know what questions to ask about being a poet and I totally get it. There’s something about poetry that makes people’s palms sweat. It makes them anxious like I’m going to force them to recite a Shakespeare sonnet in front of everyone. For most people, poetry is other-worldly and distant. Most of what we know of poets and poetry comes from either English classes or Hollywood movies, and neither version really helps to bridge the gap to real life. The examples are painted as either reclusive and awkward or glamorous and troubled. I suppose on any given day I could be one of those things—but most of the time, it seems like too much energy to try.
Being a poet today living in America doesn’t much feel like those movie depictions, although who can resist a tormented Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath or Willem Dafoe as T.S. Eliot? Most poets today have been writing for years on their lunch breaks and on Friday nights, at kitchen tables and cafes and bars. We are workers just like everyone else. We watch Jon Stewart like the rest of the world. We carpool and occasionally, if forced, jog. We will smile if provoked and almost never wear black turtlenecks. Mostly, our minds are never quiet, even while driving our cars and washing the dishes, we are writing and revising lines in our heads. We write where we can, when we can, on cocktail napkins and grocery lists, because we are haunted—by words, by trying to find just the right way to fit it all together. The poets I know write as much as they can in between being parents and caretakers, while holding down jobs and paying their bills. We do live in the real world, at least some of the time.
And every so often we get enough poems together and lay them out on our living room floors, all those white pages and black ink. All our work and imagination and days and days of writing strung together. In those moments, yes, we are other-worldly, at least until the cat and the kids come running through. So the next time you are at a cocktail party, take a look around, the one scribbling in the corner just might be a poet. Offer her a drink and she might smile and recite a few lines…
Cheers! Hope your 2014 is filled with good poems and many free moments to write. And yes, that is a cocktail with bacon.