I’m taking a poetry class this summer at the local junior college. It is my way of having a stay-cation. As long as I have to be home this summer, I thought taking a class with other poets would be a fun way to beat the heat.
We have 8 poems to write in the 10 sessions, lots of poems to read and critique and essays to read. In addition, our instructor asked us to keep journals or daybooks. She wants us to write daily. She said she wouldn’t read the entries, she just wants to know “how you keep your writing space.”
The instant she mentioned, “how you keep your writing space,” I had to ask myself, “How do I keep my writing space?” How do I honor the work I do? And I knew I had to clean up my office so the writing would have a less chaotic, more enjoyable environment. I do a LOT of vertical filing and it is hard to find a clean surface in my space. So I made a promise to myself to work on cleaning up the space and being more organized.
I knew the instructor meant the space in our journals and so I looked at that too. I’ve kept journals since the dawn of time, there are boxes and boxes of the old things in the garage. When this class started, I just picked up a new composition book to use as my journal for this course. We do free write at the start of class, so I was able to see what other journals looked like. The woman next to me had a beautiful leather bound journal. The one across the table from me had a pink leather book, and I noticed the woman on my right wrote in a blank journal (no lines) in beautiful printing using multicolored inks. (I wonder if those are color-coded?) She also had taped in quotes and small colorful illustrations. She would draw a line across the page to indicate where one entry ended and the next began. (Boy, did I feel guilty sneaking peeks at her journal.)
My journals aren’t like this at all. I might have cross-outs and lines and arrows to move words around. I write my rough drafts of poems in my journals and so there are lots of circled words. I might have doodles where my mind was wandering while I thought up the best word for the line I needed. I write phone numbers and reminders in my journal and oh my goodness–I do write snippets of conversation I hear that I think would be just the thing for a poem. Like:
I came with the guy who brought the strawberries.
Never ask a deaf person how they are feeling.
What is your trajectory?
It’s hard for one beast to stampede.

(When I get stuck for a poem idea, I go back through my journals for ideas, and these are usually what I need to get me going.)
Anyway, my journals are chaotic like my room. And I wondered if that showed I didn’t have a lot of respect for my writing. How could I be such a slob? I noticed when we passed out our poems for critique, my classmates with the “Pretty” journals also had pretty, neat and tidy poems. I started to beat myself up about this when I looked at my poem that used both a left margin and cascading margins. I’d used caesuras to get wider spaces into the poem (because that is what I thought the poem was asking me to do for a poem about losing one’s memory.) Suddenly I started wondering if the man who did the most talking in class and presented a poem written in perfectly metered stanzas, if his poetry was better than mine. I’m sure his journal is beautiful too. I was really beating myself up for all the variety I’d put into my poems. (I am sooo competitive. I think our family motto is “Never good enough.”) )And then all of the sudden I stopped to ask myself why was I doing this. Each poem is special and unique. I shouldn’t be trying to write like someone else. I remembered the four journal pages I saw from Randall Jarrell (housed in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro library,) used to write his poem Lady Bates. The writing was on and off the lines, he’d doodled an Indian chief in full feather head dress, and there was a phone number and a note about a REO automobile. There was a note to himself about a tennis date too. And this made me remember that we each are on our own journey, and each piece of writing has its own journey. I guess I’ll just have to be happy with my messy self, it is in that chaos that the ideas “pop” for me and I think if I was compulsive to keep things neat and tidy, then my writing would be that way too with everything in its place and terribly predictable and boring to me.
I knew when I got the written critiques back from my classmates and my instructor for the first assigned poem, that I must be on the right path. The first word the instructor wrote on my poem critique was “Beautiful!”


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