Even though I practically slept in the computer lab on campus so I could write, I still wouldn’t call myself a poet. I didn’t own a laptop. Real poets looked cool, spoke cool, and wore cool shoes– not to mention they were mega-talented and mysterious. Real poets were bold. Would you be surprised to know that I still struggle with being bold? I’ve been reading and writing for almost twenty years and I still experience intense periods of self-doubt. My nervousness threatens to overtake me every other time that I share my work.
By way of my creative writing classes, I’d discovered the reading series on my campus. A reading series is where a group of writers of various genres visit (usually a school campus) at specified times throughout the semester to read their work. A UA’s reading series, I heard the work of fiction writers, poets and creative non-fiction writers. Harryette Mullen (a black poet) came to U of A to read her poems and she was the first black (established) poet I’d ever met in person. I don’t remember our conversation but I remember her signing my copy of her book and as Maya Angelou would say, I remember how she made me feel. She made me feel as if I were already part of the writing community I desperately looked up to. She made me feel as if I already had what I wanted. At that same reading I met Joel Brouwer, who would become my mentor and thesis advisor when I entered grad school. It was the first day we’d ever met, but he lent me a copy of “Sleeping With the Dictionary.”
I mentioned the awards I received during my junior year in an earlier post. That spring they were awarded in a formal ceremony. My parents and family surprised me by driving up from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend the event. After I received the awards from the creative writing department, Sandy Huss took me aside and said the words that would change my life: “All of the faculty here awarded these unanimously. If you apply to the MFA program here, you’ll definitely get in.” The “MFA” she spoke of was a Master of Fine Arts—in creative writing. An MFA was an opportunity for me to finally devote my life and learning to the art of poetry. There was a place for me. There was an opportunity to do exactly what I had always loved and needed to do. Poetry had never been my side-chick. It had always been the love of my life.
I wasn’t a spoken word artist. The words moved out of me with a tangible rush as I read, but as much as I loved vowels I didn’t stretch them out over my tongue and colorfully use my hands and body while I read. I wrote poems we writers call “for the page,” about childhood, the color green, riding on the bus, or a tree that fell outside my dorm during a storm. I sat in the crowds of spoken word events, marveling at the performers that entered the stage, bravely and confidently commanding the room.
By the time I entered my first poetry workshop, I was in emotional recovery as stated in an earlier post. It was fall and while I was still struggling, I looked forward to every class. I’d wait for my poetry class on a bench outside the building for as long as an hour. I wanted every drop I could squeeze from it. My instructor was Abraham Smith, a fierce-eyed man so in love with poetry it left one with no doubt of its importance in the world. Abe was a poetry-zealot. Everything he wrote, from our class assignments to an email, appeared in poetic form. He even spoke poetry. I soaked it all in. How blessed I am that he was my first poetry instructor.
When the class was over, Abe offered to continue responding to my poems. I would put a poem in his box every week or so, and he’d put it back in his box with comments. Then, I didn’t understand what a sacrifice that was of his time. (I thanked him, of course, but I had no idea.) By spring semester I was taking my second poetry class with Joyelle McSweeney, and a fiction writing class with Maraya Cornell. Maraya was aware of my interest in poetry, and she nominated me for a departmental writing prize. Imagine my astonishment when a few weeks later I received an email that read: “Congratulations: Best Undergraduate Creative Writer.” And a few minutes after that, “Best Undergraduate Poet.” I couldn’t believe it! The University of Alabama’s Creative Writing faculty had awarded my poetry two significant prizes in one day.
At 17 years old I made a decision that would change the course of my life. I moved eight hours away from home (Charleston, S.C.) and began my college education in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I didn’t know anyone. My biological father lived in the same town, but he would continue to be MIA for as long as nine months at a time.
After my first semester, I declared my major as English. However, as I took courses, I realized that analyzing literature wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to create it. I changed my major three times. I switched to Journalism, and then to Human Development and Family Studies–finally deciding on being a marriage counselor. Poetry would have to be my side-chick.
The thing is, I didn’t know that creative writing existed as a genre. I knew what I wanted, but I thought I had to take English literature classes in order to get it. One day leaving class I noticed a flyer in Morgan Hall that read, “Creative Writing: 15 hours that could change your life!” It detailed classes for poetry and fiction. I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I signed up for my first poetry class the next semester.
It was the spring of my sophomore year when I heard this news, and that summer I decided to go home and stay until fall. I quit my part-time job as a collector at Wal-Mart Corporate Office and traveled back to South Carolina. Here’s where the story changes and I’m sorry that I can’t give many details: while there I experienced a traumatic family event that knocked me off my feet. It was so personally devastating that it left me clinically depressed for months.
I didn’t want to leave my bed. I woke crying. I hate to sound cliché, but I was so miserable I thought I was going to die–mainly because I felt I didn’t deserve to live. Alone and away from so many people I knew, I floundered. I stepped out of who I knew I was meant to be. And I wrote. I wrote crying on the greyhound bus that took me back to school. I wrote in the computer lab on campus, in the library, and even in the gym. I wrote until I couldn’t see the computer screen anymore. It felt like something I had to do. To get it out how I needed to, in the words I didn’t always say out loud.
Maya Angelou was the balm to my loveless and desperate teenage heart. She knew what it was like to love and not be loved back. She wrote about black womanhood in a way that inspired me. One of her well-known poems, “Phenomenal Woman,” changed the way I saw myself. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, I’d read Angelou’s autobiographies, so I knew about her struggles with her self-esteem and how she was often put down by others concerning her appearance. At thirteen I wondered: How could person who spent years not speaking grow up to be so powerful? I knew I wanted that. And because her poetry was so accessible, I felt like I could do it, too.
So just like that, my work as a poet truly began. I practiced writing poems the way she did. Beginning writers would think of this as a form of plagiarism, but it’s actually a way of practice. You have to read to write. You have to know what’s out there, and practice your favorite “brush strokes” until you perfect them, and then make something altogether unique.
By high school I began to have dreams of being a writer. And by dreams, I mean just that. The idea felt lofty and far away. How would I make money? How would I get a book published? I needed a real job. The only full-time writer in my family was a journalist. Maybe I could be a journalist and write poetry on the side. But of course for me, poetry wouldn’t stay in its place. It would refuse to be my side chick, though I didn’t know it at the time.
The poems I wrote by senior year came every day. I wrote so many poems I gave them away. They were silly poems about random things like cheese or pee. Seriously. But they were so satisfying to write and they amused my friends. They were so playful and fun, I didn’t know I was exercising my poetry muscle. I still have a friend from high school who read most of these poems. Every once in a while he posts something silly on my Facebook wall that makes no sense, just to remind me of them.
Poetry was already making a way for me by adding joy to my days, and I began to see writing as the gift it was.
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.
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.
As you may know I have three young children. Whenever I have them in public it’s always a gamble. Sometimes they are calm and quiet, and sometimes they frustrate me, leave me frazzled and feeling like a failure. I receive looks of all kinds, namely from people who either pity me or wonder why I tried to bring my children out in the first place. Then there are other looks…beyond judgement, that come mainly from white people. I’m alone with three kids, black, “a single mom”–and I’m obviously struggling. Because I’m aware of the many ideas people may have about how I handle my four year old tantruming and screaming in the middle of the aisle, I choose patience. I talk calmly and quietly to my kids. I don’t shush them when they are singing a Moana song as loud as they can from the grocery cart. I don’t order them to “act well” in public. I try to allow them to be themselves. Do I teach them manners and how to conduct themselves? Absolutely. But I’m not going allow my children to be diminished for the sake of people who are inconsequential to their lives, and frankly for people who don’t value their lives. Cray white people, here’s what I want you to know: I love my children as much as you love yours. They are not less than your children because they are black. I am dedicated to their health and wellbeing. Black mothers are just as gentle, kind and patient with their children as white mothers. All children deserve that.
I’m 34, and I’m just learning how to swim. I grew up in Charleston, and visited the ocean often, but I never learned to swim. I walked on my hands near the shoreline, even spent time holding my breath underwater, but I couldn’t survive in the 6 foot end of a pool. I kept promising myself I would take lessons, but I put it off.
Last year in 2016, I went through a time period when I was really down. There were so many things I wanted that I wasn’t accomplishing, and most of it had to do with my physical health. I have so many excuses—I’m a working mother of three young children, I’m a writer and a full-time teacher. It’s understandable if I don’t make it to the gym, or take good care of myself. But suddenly I got tired of my own excuses and decided to do something about what I wanted. I decided to live the life as close to the one I wanted as possible.
Last October during the low emotional point I mentioned above, I began to work out. I promised myself I would work out five days a week, and I did. I forgave myself days I couldn’t make it. I didn’t hold myself to a diet. The idea was just to develop the habit of working out Monday through Friday. It is now March 2017, and by the grace of God, I am still in practice. I try my best to take it one day at a time.
But back to swimming. A friend of mine, Daron Drew, knew that not being able to swim was a barrier. She is good at recognizing things that are holding me back. She arranged for me to get swim lessons and what a gift! I can now say that I know how to swim! I can breathe while doing the front crawl. Last week I swam in the 12 foot end of the pool!
I hope you begin something new today that you’ve wanted to do for a while. Call who you have to call, do your research, but begin.