So, You Wanna Be a Poet

We all want it, in some way or another. For our words to be indelible, celebrated, and widely read. To write the next “Birches” or “Wild Geese.” To have our poems read aloud into microphones at weddings, funerals, and commencements. To be this generation’s Elizabeth Bishop or John Keats. We want our words to matter; we want them to stay alive long after we’re not.

I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer, and when I made it to grad school, then I knew I wanted to be a poet. And, if I wanted to be a poet, I had to … you guessed it! READ POETRY! And not just the iconic pieces, the ones we memorized for a homework assignment (not that I don’t love all those quintessential poems; in high school, a friend and I made up a dance-y march as we memorized the first few stanzas of “The Raven.” Twenty years later, I still know Poe like the back of my hand). While the canon is important, we need to read further, with depth and breadth. This should be the #1 rule of writing poetry: you wanna be a poet? Great! Read poems!

We need to read more women poets, more LGBTQIA+ poets, more indigenous poets, more poets who grew up in lands far different than what we call home, more poets who are people of color, more poets who live daily with chronic illness or disability. We have an entire world at our fingertips; as poets ourselves, it is our duty to seek out the beautiful, rich, diverse words that are out there, read them, and then tell others about them. Can you imagine how lovely our world would be if everyone read some poetry every day?

Here are some suggestions for you, some collections that have pierced and moved me. I hope you seek some of these out. Of course, I would love it if you would comment below some poems/poets/collections you love!

Rose by Li-Young Lee
I read this collection for a graduate poetry workshop about 15 years ago now, and I still can remember so many beautifully quiet, intimate moments from this. Lee was born in Djakarta, Indonesia to Chinese political exiles and came to the US as a young boy. If you are interested in family relationships, the body, or quiet simplicity, read this collection.

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
This is just a really cool, powerful collection that wraps up the personal, the historical, the cultural, and the mythological. Diaz is a Mojave American poet, language activist, and educator. She is enrolled in the Gila River Indian Community, and I was lucky enough to hear her read at the 2016 Milton Writers’ Conference at USD. Read this; Diaz’s words will blow you away.

Mysterious Acts by My People by Valerie Wetlaufer
The cover art alone on this collection was enough to make me want this book. Wetlaufer is a teacher, editor, and poet born and raised in Iowa. This particular collection won the Lambda Literary award in 2014. I love this book. Wetlaufer explores the deeply personal, the deeply vulnerable with lyricism and power. I got to meet her and hear her read last year. Check this one out.

Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo
Full confession: I haven’t read this collection yet, BUT it’s on its way to my house. I follow Umebinyuo on Instagram and am excited to read her debut collection. She was born and raised in Nigeria, and from other reviews I’ve read, this collection is empowering and intense.

Along with seeking out published authors, I urge you to go to your town’s open mic events, poetry readings, and writing groups. Listen to what the members of your community have to say, and if they have some books available, buy them. And read. Read read read. Read hundreds of poems, and then when you’re done with that, read hundreds more. You will be a stronger poet for it.

Featured image by LWYang, under the creative commons license on Flickr.

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