Closing Out the "How I Discovered Poetry" Series

I mentioned in the “How I Discovered Poetry” series introduction that the series would begin with Marilyn Nelson’s “How I Discovered Poetry” and end with comments from Marilyn. I’m keeping to my promise.

Let me set this up: Someone sent Marilyn a message inquiring about “How I Discovered Poetry.” This person asked a couple of questions that boiled down to asking about the nature of the experience and an item referenced in Marilyn’s poem. Marilyn has graciously sent me her reply to the inquirer. I share it with you:

March 20 at 6:26pm
Dear Joyce – The event happened in about 1958, in a small town near a military base in Oklahoma. I was one of 2 black students in the school, and I was very smart. This was when the school integration movement was going on, fire hoses, police dogs, white adults yelling obscenities at black children in Little Rock, etc. Teacher was a middle-aged racist Okie; poem was selected purposely to humiliate me. I don’t know what the poem was, but I think it was from what we know as “the plantation school” of literature written in late 19th century — like “Birth of a Nation.” Her husband was my math teacher; no matter how well I did, he always gave me D’s. I was in 7th grade.

Thank you for reading the “How I Discovered Poetry” series. By reading, you have helped me honor National Poetry Month. I say we do this series again in 2011!

How I Discovered Poetry: Dorianne Laux

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Dorianne Laux

Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai

A song my mother sang about plucking a lark:

La tete – the head
Le nez – the nose
Les yeux – the eyes
Le cou – the neck
Les ailes – the wings

Au Claire de la lune

My mother sang to my sisters, to me, the French words translated thus:

Under the moonlight,
My friend Pierrot
Lend me your pen,
So I could write a word
My candle is out,
I’ve no more light
Open your door for me…

Frère Jacques, Frère JacquesDormez-vous, dormez-vous?

My brother’s name was John, and we called him Jack. His two names, oddly combined, made me wonder if he could hear us in the other room, one wall away.

Are you sleeping brother John?

Sur le pont d’Avignon

On the bridge of Avignon
They are dancing, they are dancing…

These were the first poems that came to me in the dark, songs from my mother’s lips. I understood very little of the language, or what the songs meant, they were simply pretty tunes meant to put us to sleep. I remember singing along to Alouette, touching my pudgy finger to my nose, my eye, my neck. I loved the part when I patted my own head. Had I been able to translate the other words to conjure the image of a lark, a bird I had never seen, never heard of until I read a poem by Adam Zagajewski when I was in my late forties, a yellow lark dead in someone’s hands, being plucked, feather by feather, of his living coat, well, I don’t know what. Those songs were my entryway into poetry. They taught me that language was mysterious, that it could lull you or waken you into a different reality or deepen reality. There was much that was wrong in my house. It wasn’t a safe place or a pretty place, children were beaten and abused, the neighborhood was tough, the landscape dry and weedy, the ground ungiving and rough. But there were songs, moments, when the mysteries of language lifted us up and made us, ragged as we were, a family. I’ve been trying to find that place, with words, ever since.

How I Discovered Poetry: Christopher Hennessy

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Christopher Hennessy



To understand why I am here,
sitting next to you, watching
how you tip your coffee just so,
or wondering why you tug
at the strand of hair
that won’t stay put behind your ear
(or why, even now, I feel the next word
must be ‘must’ but on the next line)
or imagining what you would say
if you knew I wanted you
to become a strand of words
like pearls around my neck…

to understand all of that, of me,
there are three things you must know about me
that is, the me before the ecstatic moment(s)
in my life when I came to the end
of the lobotomized frill of a boy I had been

and grabbed on to with my soul’s
monkey toes the thought that
though I wasn’t a poet
I could pretend to be one
until I was a poet…
and this would save
me from myself

Number one. I was ugly.
Or at least that’s how I saw myself.
My brain conjured sickness
like cheap tricks, and my body
was all spreading skin.
I saw ‘poetry’ as a contraption
that would make me beautiful.
Somehow when I put a word
on a piece of notebook paper
(the fringe like decoration)
and pointed to it as myword,
— a set of secret initials naming a perfect me
I felt like I would turn out
to matter, be matter, not the bloat
of space, spiraling vacuum,
that I would find
just the right word
to take away the fear
that I was, deep down, a freak
….or worse that I wasn’t here at all,
that the shoulder I was looking over
in Algebra class (where we all wrote
our poetry-less first poems)
was my own.

Number two.I was self-absorbed.
No surprise there.
My father had told me stories
about how he’d written stories
and poems and folks had listened
to him, enraptured, and mom had swooned.
Somehow I was the only one who didn’t hear him.
Somehow I hadn’t discovered blood
was mutual, that I was, in fact,
his son, though everyone told me so
every chance they could get.
So when I wrote my poems
it was this triumphant act of creation,
of original sin, of delight in the id,
of ‘I am so large I outshadow
even the father
of the Word.

Number three. I was in love.
Why else turn to poetry?
Everyone knows that.
His name was Ben
and he was brooding
but cool and he loved to write
and still he was one of the boys
who got to punch
the other boys in the shoulder,
who could shower
after gym without fear
and still write poems about wanting
to walk among fallen leaves anywhere
but where we were.
I thought I wanted
to be him, so I wrote
into him, around him, toward him….
But it was him I wanted
and every single poem
I’ve written since,
I think it must be true,
was, is, a love poem to him.

How I Discovered Poetry: Charles Jensen

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Charles Jensen

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin for almost my entire life, hanging out, with few exceptions, with the same kinds who’d been in my kindergarten and preschool classes. When I was 13, my parents sold our house and started building a new one; during the twelve months it was going to take to complete, we moved to a small island in Lake Michigan, off the tip of the peninsula separating Green Bay from the Great Lake. My 8th grade class had just 11 students in it, most of them related to each other—cousins, cousins by marriage, or the kind of cousins who called each other’s parents “aunt” and “uncle” but weren’t actually related at all.

It was during that year I had my first earnest encounter with poetry. Through Wisconsin’s Artists-in-Education program, we spent part of our year enjoying residences with working artists. One, a visual artist specializing in collage and painting, encouraged us to work up frenzied diorama-like wooden panels that somehow said something about our lives. I struggled to do this. I glued things to my board. I drew stick people. I might have tried to draw a deer. This was not my strongsuit. I almost always nearly failed art class, though only partly through a lack of trying.

The other artist was a poet named David Steingass. He seemed enormously tall, with dark hair and a thick mustache. I think he had a mustache. He does in my memory, at least. He worked with us on short poems, and the advice he gave me on one of my pieces—“Don’t break lines with weak words like ‘and’ and ‘the;’ hold out for the strong words”—has always stuck with me.

My school was so small we had one teacher for almost every subject, and we sat in desks like elementary school kids, even though we also had lockers out in the hall by the high schoolers. One of our daily tasks was to write something—anything—in a journal our teacher was forcing us to keep in order to make us write something each day. Although I see the value now, back then I resented it, and probably as some kind of “I’m hipper than this” statement, I started using my notebook to play around with poems rather than straightforward introspective writing. They were deeply influenced by the schlock fiction I loved to read—Sue Grafton, Stephen King—and often featured a strangely furious presence called “IT” that was in pursuit of an ill-fated speaker. (I know, it’s so derivative—gimme a break; I was 13.)

It was after that year, when I was back in my old home town, attending the high school my brothers attended, that my English teacher pulled me aside after class and said I should keep writing poems. So I did. I wrote and I wrote, and I showed them to her, and she’d nod her head and say, “Awesome!” Or worse, she’d shake her head, hand it back to me, and say, “You can do better than that.” I always tried harder. I started to think of poetry as I thing I could do. I never thought of it as a life. It just kind of became a part of me. It suddenly became more than just a thing I could do.

How I Discovered Poetry: Sandra Beasley

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Sandra Beasley

On the final day of the Scholastic Book Fair, I walked into our school library with a packet of dollar bills folded over and crammed down into the mini-pocket of my imperfectly pegged, not-Guess-label bluejeans. You know, the front pocket inside the pocket–the one for super-important things. I had begged my mother for a little extra money. After The Baby-sitter’s Club, after Encyclopedia Brown, after deciding I could check out the lavishly illustrated, hardcover Jane Yolen book from the library rather than needing to buy it, I had $1.50 left. I picked up Piping Down the Valleys Wild, a poetry anthology edited by Nancy Larrick. I chose it because I liked the soft- and pink-edged cover, of a lamb merrily springing along. I liked the fact that even if I only had time for a page or two, a page or two was enough.

Even now, Karla Kuskin’s poem echoes in my head: “I’m a lean dog, / a mean dog / a wild dog / and lone….” I was a lone dog that year: too desperate to be liked, too in love with my own sadness. Books were my buffer. I read poetry on the school bus. I read poetry in my grandfather’s garden, down by the unnameable purple flowers. I read poetry in my tent. I read poetry while eating artichokes one leaf at a time. I read poetry on the cold mornings in my house, standing over the air vent with my nightgown tucked under my feet, trapping all the hot air against my thighs before it could escape to the rest of the house. I read that book in bed until my eyes grew tired, and so I took turns shutting one eye, then the other. I read that book until my arms grew tired, and so I tied a length of string around the book’s spine and scotch-taped it to hang down from the ceiling via a length of packing string. The book fell down and bonked me in the face right after I’d finally gotten settled again under the covers. Emily Dickinson, Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale.

So often when we move forward in school and in life, we look back at our most-adored books with a twinge of embarrassment. We outgrow the things we loved. But I have I never had to disown the poets; they travel with me. They gather in number. I felt like a lone dog back in the day when all the other girls wore Guess jeans, and I couldn’t afford them. But I’m part of a bigger pack now. We race. We dare the moon with our howling.

How I Discovered Poetry: Laure-Anne Bosselaar

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Laure-Anne Bosselaar

Discovering Rhyme

They came cheap, the Petites Punitions
nuns flung at us for lesser sins: dyslexic
signs of the cross, skipped

confessions, whispers during Silence —
and sentences followed: copy two, ten, twenty
Lord’s Prayers or Hail Marys

on calligraphy paper, cursives
correctly curled, capitals clinging to margins,
black ink for consonants, vowels in red.

The wars I waged in those French
syllables — wanting love-red vowels to win
over habit-black consonants!

I hated hailing Mary, for anything
full of grace shamed me: I was homely,
lumpy, and had never been baptized —

three reasons for perpetual doom:
no sips of our Savior’s red liquor for me,
or tastes of His wan

flesh on my tongue. Banished,
I spent mass in the chapel’s back pews,
bored, counting red stained-

glass pieces over blue, gold
versus green in the west window
where Mary Magdalene

held Christ’s foot to her breast
so tenderly. On drizzly days, slow
raindrops sobbed down

Christ’s flank unto her longing
face­— I loved watching how nothing
distracted her from looking up at Him,

how she let Him quench His gaze
into hers. It was on one of those days
that novices sang a new hymn.

Its melody was rueful, flowed
with long ooo sounds: two words,
amour and toujours

swooned in harmony— it was
new to me: music inside a song, words
could pour melody into a tune —
swoon in harmony like Christ
and Mary Magdalene. I hadn’t heard this
as achingly before.

After that day, I slipped rhymes
in each line of my small punishments:
Hail frail Mary,
blessed art thou now… sounds
crimson with amour, rhyme’s song
pour toujours.

How I Discovered Poetry: Ellen Bass

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Ellen Bass

I think poetry itself is what lured me to fall in love with it. I didn’t come from a literary family, though my mother occasionally read a poem aloud, careful to read it well, as she was careful in all things, wrapping a sandwich in waxed paper or counting out change for a customer. She took a certain pride in knowing that you didn’t stop at the end of a line, but followed the thought through until a natural place to pause.

We didn’t have many books in our house until my brother, who is eight years older, went to college. On weekends, I’d cut myself a thick slab of salami, take a couple slices of American cheese, a knob of rye bread and a glass of milk and settle myself in the leather recliner in his empty room and read books from his shelves.

My first typewriter was a hand-me-down from my brother. I wish I still had it–a clunky black metal Remington with round silver-rimmed keys on which I taught myself to type using a fingering chart my brother made for me. Recently I was cleaning out my garage and came across a box of old papers, including some note cards on which I’d typed out poems and quotations fifty years ago:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to Cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

I added the accent marks in pencil and some of the letters are darker than others. The punctuation keys I must have hit especially hard because they have indented the cards with their force. I can’t help but wonder what this passage meant to me then, having had no experiences so painful that I would have wanted to erase them. Maybe I was preparing myself for the future. These lines certainly describe my struggles now–there’s so much I wish I could go back and do differently. Or maybe it was something beyond the content, the way poetry speaks to us about the human condition, whether we have had similar experiences ourselves or not. All I know for sure is that I had a hunger for this kind of meaningful communication–and I still do.

How I Discovered Poetry: Denise Duhamel

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Denise Duhamel


I started writing
when I found out
that there was such a thing
as contemporary poetry,
that I didn’t have to
have a plot and minor characters
and a setting
and it could be all me,
like a channel
of all-Denise-all-the-time.
When I wrote stories
in my undergraduate fiction class,
the teachers asked,
“Might this instead be a poem?”
or “Don’t your characters
ever do anything but sit
at kitchen tables remembering the past?”
I started writing poetry
because there were things I couldn’t tell
anyone, but I could write them down.
I started writing poetry before I knew
it was poetry
by way of my journal and diaries.
I started writing poetry
because when the dishes flew
or my mother sobbed on the couch
my journal fell open, each page
a wing. I started writing
poetry when I had my first crush
and I couldn’t tell anyone
about it. I started writing
poetry so I myself wouldn’t
throw dishes or sob. Sometimes
I sobbed anyway and more than once
I’ve smudged my own writing
with a tear, but I wrote
right through it. I started
writing poetry because I was a misfit—
sickly, allergic. I wrote poetry
in the children’s hospital
in fourth grade when I fell in love
with a bald boy with cancer.
He was in sixth grade
with eyes that grew larger
and more stunning every day.
He wore away but not his eyes.
I wish now that I’d read him
my poems. I remember feeling
like a ten-year-old widow.
I started writing poetry
even though I found it embarrassing
to be so naked, so embarrassing
to think anyone would be interested
in what I felt.
I still find it embarrassing.
I started writing poetry
in secret. I started showing
my poems, much later, tentatively,
I guess to say, Hi,
I see you.
I’m here.

forthcoming in Limp Wrist

How I Discovered Poetry Series!

If I compiled a list of my top ten favorite poems of all time, it is easy for me to say Marilyn Nelson‘s “How I Discovered Poetry” would be one of the first poems I would write down. (There would be no second guessing myself.) Chills creep over my body every time I read Nelson’s “How I Discovered Poetry.” Every time I read Nelson’s poem, I feel the passion I felt the first time I read it. People, this is what good poetry does to its reader.

I use “How I Discovered Poetry” every chance I can when leading a workshop. I love to see the looks on the faces of writers after they finish Nelson’s poem–the sound of the gasp as they finish the last line. I’ve also found it is a great exercise to have people use the first line of the poem as a writing prompt.

Marilyn Nelson is a powerful and talented poet whose words will make you bow to her work. Marilyn is a delightful, kind-hearted poet. Every time I’ve seen her she wears a smile that reaches out and hugs you. Marilyn Nelson is a poet who has not been polluted by her success. She is a delight.

My series titled “How I Discovered Poetry,” as you probably already assumed, is inspired by Marilyn Nelson’s poem, “How I Discovered Poetry.” This series will be posted only during April in tribute to National Poetry Month and in honor of Marilyn Nelson. The series will include responses from Denise Duhamel, Ellen Bass, Mark Bibbins, Sandra Beasley, David Trinidad, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, and more. (I’m even going to participate! I am hosting the party after all.) I think I can safely say there will be a little something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a moment every so often to visit I Was Born Doing Reference Work In Sin to check out the series.

I begin the series with Marilyn Nelson’s poem, and it will end on 4/30/09 with brief commentary from Marilyn on her poem.



It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

Marilyn Nelson, “How I Discovered Poetry” from The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems.

National Poetry Month Begins!

National Poetry Month officially starts today!

Please leave comments on this blog entry letting me know what you have planned to celebrate National Poetry Month.

In honor of National Poetry Month I am running a series in I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin titled How I Discovered Poetry. Get ready for responses from Denise Duhamel, Ellen Bass, Charles Jensen, and more.

I think you will enjoy the How I Discovered Poetry series!