A Poetic Mentor

I can write poetry.  I love writing poetry.  But I have no idea how to edit poetry.

It’s easy to open my mind and let words stream out, so long as I have an inspiration or at least something that can keep my attention for longer than five minutes.  However, when I come behind myself and look at my words, I see words.  Lots of words.  And some words are really pretty.

But stripping back the words and finding the reality of what I’m trying to communicate is almost impossible.  This frustrating inability isn’t because of arrogance.  I don’t look at my own writing and see perfection.

I see rough drafts and imperfections and spider web thoughts splayed across a page or a screen and I know that I need to fix something and I want to fix everything.  But I don’t know where to start.  I don’t know where the problems are lurking.  I just don’t know.

I stare helplessly at the letters that have been strung into words that have been strung into phrases or clauses and I stare at them some more and look for…anything.

I can find the missing punctuation.

I can find the mis-spellings.

I can find some of the awkward phrases.

But I just stare most of the time and let the befuddlement seep past the frustration levels and fill me with anxiety.

I just can’t do it.

A year ago, I met a lovely poet, Robert Okaji (You really need to go to his site and immerse yourself in his writing.  It’s amazing) who started reading my blog and I started reading his poetry.

And this tentative friendship slowly started to grow.  He wrote me comments, compliments about my writing.  And I would stare at the screen and likely flutter my hand over my heart (I can see you all rolling your eyes at my over-dramatic response.  Suck it up).

My writing is precious to me.  I know that I can string together some pretty darlings, but I don’t know when they are pretty.  Therefore, hearing compliments from published, successful writers makes me world pause and my confidence skyrocket.

Flash forward to last night:

Months ago, I asked Robert if I might use his poetry in my classroom; he agreed.  And then I suddenly had a stupid-anxiety-attack because I was trying something new and working with someone new and I doubted everything I was doing.  So I retreated from my plans and withdrew because somehow this sense of terror destroyed all of my good intentions.

Thankfully, Robert continued to gently prod me, sent me his poetry, sent me reminders.  He continued to “like” my blog posts and write me kind words of encouragement and I finally realized that I was bowing before my anxiety and self-doubt.

I reconstructed my spine and asked him if he would read my poetry, give me suggestions on what to do.  And this blessed man agreed, even though I was nothing more than a pattern of letters on a screen.  I asked to call him.

He agreed.

And last night, I curled up in my room, dialed eleven numbers, and panicked but forced myself to hit the call button.

One ring, maybe two, and a warm, gentle voice poured out of the speaker and I nearly started crying.  I know this sounds histrionic, but I really was panicking.  I hate making phone calls to people I don’t know.  Invariably, I make an ass of myself and I hate losing my dignity and sense of personal integrity.

But Robert gently nudged me through the conversation, allowed me to do my stupid Adult-ADD stumbles from topic to topic, and we switched from talking about his poetry to talking about my poetry to talking about reader-response theory analysis to talking about life.

I am forty-four and I am still mystified at my simplicity and ignorance.  I am forty-four and am still shocked at how stupidly insecure I can be.  Last October, when I was trying to prepare a recorded lecture for my students, I was sitting with a teacher I truly admired.  And though I knew what I was doing, I was suddenly convinced (thanks to neuroses) that my colleague would think I was wrong, stupid.  She saw my trembling distress and eased out of me my anxiety, and as I confessed, I started to cry.

I don’t cry in school.  But I cried then.  And this blessed colleague comforted me and guided me through a ritual that she uses to calm herself.  And as I pressed my thumb into finger joints and concentrated on following my friend (because she is more than just a colleague to me), the anxiety trickled away and was replaced by a fragile confidence.

I recorded the lecture for my students.  Everything went well.

And last night, I should have repeated the ritual my colleague taught me.  But I was too busy writing notes, too busy listening to my mentor guiding me through my crowded lines so I could see the tangled, poetic skeleton suspended within.

I was too busy laughing and apologizing over and over for my awkward social skills.  I was too busy seeing that I really do know what I’m doing.  I just have to stop being so damn scared.

Last night, Robert told me about some of his personal writing prompts, writing poetry from another character’s perspective.  I told him that I always dreamed of writing a poem from the perspective of the young woman J. Alfred Prufrock was supposed to meet.

Robert told me to write it and my inner-I-can’t-do-it-demon flared, told me that I couldn’t.

Fifteen minutes ago, I reached a good stopping point on the rough draft of “Rejected.”

It’s not perfect.

But I could see where I was going and teased out a poetic skeleton.

I can do this.

Time to edit.

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