When I arrived at college, I had grand plans. I was going to be a doctor! I was going to save the world! I’d done very well in high school math and science, so college would be a breeze!
In about a month, I realized the following things:
1. Having friends means having a social life. Having a social life means less time to study (and, in my case, even go to classes, because daylight hours were prime sleeping time.)
2. High school math and science weren’t difficult. College math and science were being taught in Swahili.
3. I didn’t enjoy math and science courses half as much as my humanities courses, and if I continued on in my planned career path, I would end up being in school for approximately twelve years doing something I didn’t care that much for.
When it came time to declare my major, I chose theater and creative writing. Because if you want two completely marketable skills, those are the ones to choose!
My concentration in creative writing was poetry. I’d written quite a bit of poetry in high school and enjoyed the writing of it, and my stories weren’t anything I wanted to share with anyone (they’re still not – I write fiction like a third-grader. “I would like to go to the store,” Mom said. “The store?” I said. “Yes,” Mom said. We went to the store. We bought eggs. We came home. I like my puppy dog. He smiles with his tail.) (OK, before you’re all, “THAT LINE IS STOLEN AND YOU ARE A THIEF OF FUNNINESS!” I stole “My dog smiles with his tail” from one of the only two funny episodes of the television series Just Shoot Me, entitled “Slow Donnie.” So if you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of David Cross’s, go watch it, and when you’re gasping with laughter over “My pants are tight!” you can thank me. Now stop calling me a thief and continue reading, killjoy.) I believe journalism was also offered, but I think you have to be, oh, what’s the word, “serious” to write that? Or possibly “objective?” So that was a no. Poetry it was.
Those of us majoring in poetry – there weren’t many (I know! It’s surprising, right?) – were in the same core writing classes throughout the years. We were assigned a mentor, and she stayed with us and taught our writing classes and workshops. In these workshops, there would be some teaching, reading of major works, discussion of poetry, reading aloud of your own work, and discussion by your peers and the teacher of your work, in the hope of you re-writing it to improve it.
OK, first? I did not write rhyming poetry. I can’t rhyme for shit. I’ve written a few rhyming poems in my day, and they’re about as good as my fiction – not very. So don’t ask me to write a poem for your Nana’s 90th birthday, because it’s not likely to happen, or if it does, I’m going to call you up at 3 a.m. asking you to help me rhyme “nursing home” or “adult diapers” and you’re going to regret you asked.
How can I explain poetry class? Alright, there were some good poets in the class. Some poets that, when they read, I felt so daunted to read in front of them that I was afraid to read when it was my turn. (In their defense, they were all very nice. Surprisingly non-existent concentration of talented douchebags in my class.)
There were those of us (I include myself here, generously) that fell in the middle. We weren’t blowing anyone away with our talent, but we weren’t scaring anyone with our shananigans, or members of the class for the wrong reasons, either. We worked hard, we took the criticism to heart, we re-wrote, and we kept our heads down.
And then there was everyone else. Oh, my. No one really got turned away. There weren’t so many of us that they could afford to be choosy. The ones that stood out for me as being…um…note-worthy?
· The metalhead who wrote lyrics for his “band” (I put this in quotes because when someone asked him if he had a band, he said no) as his poetry assignments; he also wrote very angry poems about the female anatomy of the members of the class who turned him down when he asked them out
· The girl who couldn’t speak above a murmur, no matter how many times we asked her to speak up; we had trouble critiquing her work, because WE COULDN’T HEAR IT
· The rabid feminist who only wrote poems about women – I’m sorry, “womyn” – and then, when that stopped being shocking, started spelling every word with an “en” with a “yn” in order to “regain the English language” – we got a lot of “childryn” and “downtroddyn” and “heavyn” and no one really had the heart to tell her (or the courage – she was ANGRY) that really the point of the “yn” was to take the word “man” out of female-centric words, not to replace the entire “en” letter cluster
· The “sensitive” guy who was obviously there because he thought being a poet would get him laid (it didn’t) – he wrote a lot of “and then I gazed at her tender feminine beauty and was reminded of heaven’s gates” and would look up with bright eyes like “right, ladies? Right? So, you wanna come back to my dorm, see how tender I can be? Hmm? Anyone?”
Then there was our teacher. I’m not going to name names, because I’ve read her work, and at one point (and it wasn’t all that long ago), she was quite an excellent poet. However, we’d gotten her late in life. Very late in life. Dementia-had-possibly-set-in late in life. In researching this, I’ve found out a lot about her, and admire her quite a bit – even more than I did then, knowing what I know now – and none of what I am about to say is an indictment against her talent, which is really quite prodigious.
Have you ever spent any time with poets? We’re an interesting bunch. If I could sum it up in one word, that would would be…eccentric. I don’t think any poet would argue that. I bet even Robert Frost, who was known to be salt-of-the-earth, had his eccentricities. I think it has something to do with forming your words into perfect phrases and shapes on the page. It does something to your mind, maybe.
Our teacher could not remember the time of our classes. Ever. We had many classes we ran ourselves, because honestly, we didn’t need her there to critique each other’s work. Names? Forget it. We were required to meet her once a week in her office for consultations senior year, so she could look over our senior portfolio. In that year, I was called Jamie (close), Amanda (not too far off), Autumn (same first letter, I guess), Janet (a number of times, I think perhaps I reminded her of someone with this name), Laura (I don’t know), and, a couple of times, her OWN first name, which would make her smile. She’d say, “Isn’t it funny how we have the same first name?” And what do you say to a 80-something-year-old woman who’s so pleased by this? I’d just laugh and nod. My first name was written on the cover of my portfolio, and she actually asked, “Who’s this? Why is this person’s name on here?” I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that without hurting her feelings (I used to care about these things a lot more than I do now – ah, youth, when people’s feelings mattered.) If I didn’t respond, though, I was pretty sure she’d think I was stealing someone’s senior portfolio. Then again, she’d probably forget it in the next twenty minutes. Or five seconds. Debatable.
She also sometimes would get incensed. About the environment, or politics, or something that we’d talk about in class. And she would erupt into a fury that was just something to see. If you’ve never seen a woman in her 80’s – a tiny little bird-boned woman with unnaturally colored hair and a lot of gauzy scarves – up on a classroom desk screaming that we were raping Mother Earth, well, you haven’t lived.
She also had stories about other famous poets. “I hate him,” she said once, in a light, musing tone, when a classmate mentioned another poet he admired, “because he murdered his wife. Oh, I know, I know, they say it was suicide. But I think we all know better, don’t we, ladies?” The “womyn” girl nodded sagely. She knew. She was convinced, evyn. I wasn’t so sure.
As for where my very prestigious degree in poetry has gotten me: I’ve been published. I have never been paid for it, but I’ve seen my writing in print. I’ve done two readings, in front of actual people (and, you’d think, as someone who acted on a regular basis for years, this wouldn’t be the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was. It most definitely was. Imagine pouring your heart out in front of a room full of people with only you onstage – not singing, not acting, just you. And a mike. It’s kind of like being naked and having people judge you. However, when you’re done, you feel like you can conquer the world, so there’s that.)
I would recommend, however, to up-and-coming poets: DO NOT MAJOR IN POETRY. If you are a poet, you can be a poet without a degree. Take the classes, by all means. Get a minor. But major in something sensible, like Accounting, so when the real world finally smashes you around the face and neck with a battering ram and you realize, hey, I have to pay these student loans BACK? What the HELL? You can provide for yourself and write on the side.
Also, watch out for men bearing bad poetry. I promise they just want to get in your pants. And once they’re there? They don’t know what they’re doing. Because no one else has ever been stupid enough to fall for that “I’m a sensitive poet” bullshit so they have no experience. Trust me on this one, okay?