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: 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!

Celebrating National Poetry Month ~ Thomas Lux

The Gentleman Who Spoke Like Music

– for Peter Davison, 1928-2004

who was kind to me
though he did not have to be.
Who brought into the world a thousand books.
(Right there: a life well lived.)
Who wrote a dozen or so himself,
some prose about others,
some his own poems.
(Right there: a life well lived.)
Who corrected my spelling, gently, and
my history too, who once
or twice a year
would buy me lunch
and later let me leave his office
with shopping bags of books to read.
Who wore a bowtie sometimes,
and a vest, I think even a hanky
in his jacket pocket.
Who was generous to me,
the gentleman who spoke like music, who
was kind to me
though he did not have to be.

from Thomas Lux’s God Particles

Celebrating National Poetry Month ~ Beth Gylys

The Glass Ball

Across the room, the young man,
son of our host, smokes and hums,
rocking in a chair to the slow
rise and fall of acoustic guitar,
his long hair pulled away from a face
both soft and strong. Almost man,
almost boy, he seems to balance there
to something we can’t see, a
nd from his mouth rise perfect rings,
one after another, through the open window.

We guests watch, talk quietly,
our glasses still half-full of champagne.
This is the moment before someone
rises to take a dish to the sink,
before the first moves to say goodnight.
It’s the moment you would like to keep
safe in a glass ball—the contented
faces blurred by sleep—to shake
and watch the silver bits of confetti
as they glitter dizzyingly down

published in Limp Wrist

Celebrating National Poetry Month ~ Jeffrey Harrison


for Ellen

The cruelest thing I did to my younger sister
wasn’t shooting a homemade blowdart into her knee,
where it dangled for a breathless second

before dropping off, but telling her we had
another, older sister who’d gone away.
What my motives were I can’t recall: a whim,

or was it some need of mine to toy with loss,
to probe the ache of imaginary wounds?
But that first sentence was like a strand of DNA

that replicated itself in coiling lies
when my sister began asking her desperate questions.
I called our older sister Isabel

and gave her hazel eyes and long blonde hair.
I had her run away to California
where she took drugs and made hippie jewelry.

Before I knew it, she’d moved to Santa Fe
and opened a shop. She sent a postcard
every year or so, but she’d stopped calling.

I can still see my younger sister staring at me,
her eyes widening with desolationthen
filling with tears. I can still remember

how thrilled and horrified I wast
hat something I’d just made up
had that kind of power, and I can still feel

the blowdart of remorse stabbing me in the heart
as I rushed to tell her none of it was true.
But it was too late. Our other sister

had already taken shape, and we could no
tcall her back from her life far away
or tell her how badly we missed her.

From Feeding the Fire (Sarabande Books, 2001).

Celebrating National Poetry Month ~ Denise Duhamel

In honor of National Poetry Month, enjoy this Denise Duhamel poem:


for K.

Sex was as beautiful as flowers.
The orchid unfolding between his legs,
the baby’s breath on his chest,
the blue bells under his arms.
Tea roses on your nightgown,
and, of course, you would have wanted him:
the only boy at camp who didn’t vie to tie your underwear to a tree,
who instead folded it neatly and hid it
so you’d later find it under your pillow.
Although he could have, he didn’t follow tradition
and read your letters — he secured them,
along with your diary, between your mattress
and the cot springs. The only boy who gave you privacy.
So you gave him yourself. At sixteen,
you’d collected all the pamphlets. You knew
about the pill, nonoxynol-9 and condoms.
Still, sex was as delicate as flowers.
An infection, like the limp cactus
I watered too much in the glass terrarium
my first boyfriend gave me.
Maybe your sex could not take so much love.
Maybe your sex needed to be diluted
with sketchier pasts, a stronger fear of AIDS,
a few more seeds of mistrust. Or maybe,
more simply, it wasn’t your fault. Chlamydia
is easily treated, the doctor assures you
although now your mother must know
and your father, too, with whom you haven’t spoken
in months. I stood holding you once
when you were just a baby, your diaper
in the crook of my elbow, and I was counting
the days, longing to be a teenager.
I said I had the back of your head
with my other hand, no problem,
because I really thought I had — and, besides,
anyone could take care of a little kid.
But when I took my hand away from your neck
just a second, you flipped backwards
like a blossoming bud a movie camera had captured
on high-speed film. Your mother caught you
and held you for the rest of the day.
The doctor says you are not pregnant,
the yellow pollens whirling
outside the girls’ tent. The sleeping bags
stacked and rolled up tight
like the whorls of petals, rolled up unfairly tight
and meant only for one.

from Smile