Becoming a Poet: Before I Found Poetry

This is the beginning of a series that tells the story of how I became a poet and why I love poetry. That’s me (second from the left) standing (very) awkwardly with a group of friends. young kwoya

When I was in elementary school, I looked around at my classmates and saw budding musicians, gymnasts, and confident leaders and I thought: Where do I fit in? I’m not particularly good at anything. Except reading. Of course at that time, I’d only found books…fiction mainly. I loved fairy tales (I read stories from all around the world) and soon finished the entire shelf of fairy tales in our school library. One of my parents’ favorite jokes is how I mistakenly thought I had to read 20 books in two weeks for “BOOK IT,” a reading program that was sponsored by Pizza Hut during the late ‘80’s. I managed to meet my goal, but nagged my parents to their wits end in the process. Needless to say, my journey as a poet began with being an avid reader.

My first book publication came in the form of my 4th grade teacher “publishing” our books by binding them and putting them in the school library. The title of my book was “SAY WHAT???” and it told the story of me finding out I was going to have a little sister. I wish I could find a copy of it now and repackage it to be the Caldecott Prize winning book I thought it was at the time! In middle school my language arts teacher read a descriptive paragraph of mine and left the room to show it to another teacher immediately. She didn’t say much, but she told me I was good at descriptive writing.  Back then, moments like that meant a lot to me. I wasn’t a student who demanded or even sought attention. I often chose to stay in the background and under the radar. This is part of the reason why now as an instructor, I call on students who are reluctant to speak up because I know there is part of them that desperately wants to share, and yes, be noticed.

By 8th grade, I’d read all of the fiction books in my library that I thought were worth reading. Our school librarian had even begun to lend me her personal books.  She knew I was desperately serious about reading. I’d seen the books of Maya Angelou’s poetry on the library racks, but I always avoided them. I thought it would be boring. When I finished reading Angelou’s autobiographies, however, all that was left was her poetry. I checked out my first book of poetry, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and began reading. I was immediately struck with the realization that this was another world of language I wasn’t aware of. There existed a “secret code” within the English language that the people around me didn’t know. If I could learn this language, I could understand and experience things others couldn’t. That impetus is what began my love for poetic language. Poetry wasn’t boring. It was mysterious, captivating and edible, like all good art should be.

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