A few years back, I found myself at a crossroads concerning my poetic growth. I’ve been a poet my whole life, starting with the earliest poem I can remember—something about climbing a tree and smelling the sea—but at that point, I was stuck.
Remember the mentors you relied on when you initially started taking yourself seriously? For me, it was Dr. Paul Rice, who blasted my awful poem during his workshop (I deserved it) but later ended up respecting me and my work to the point of sharing his own. I’d sit across from him, exchanging my sheaf of marked-up drafts for his, wondering how I got so lucky. Sadly, shortly after I started graduate school, Dr. Rice passed away. All I could think about were the poems he would never be able to see. He had, in effect, devoted me to the practice of befriending poets, people I could share with who would tell me honestly that the “peach lips and fire tongue” image that I used for a candle simply made me sound stoned.
After Dr. Rice, I had Anna. We exchanged numbers after a particularly rousing session of a graduate school workshop. Anna and I took poeting to another level, cooking Sunday night dinners at her condo and sharing personal secrets along with our words. We were the same age, and she heartily cheered my work, but her verse was far more eloquent and mature than mine—it seared with pain. Then, right in the thick of our journey, she was gone.
I was left, just as I had been with Dr. Rice, with a selection of unpublished work, hers and mine, and the desire for another poetry peersomeone who would teach me and also ask me to teach. Naturally, I knew a handful of poets at that point—I still do—and rubbed shoulders with them regularly. But as for another Dr. Rice? Another Anna? It wasn’t as easy as joining a literary organization. I would have to break out of my comfort zone, and direct my request to a higher poetic power.
I decided to post an ad on Craigslist.
“I want to meet POETS,” I typed. (I’ve always been straightforward.) Beneath my earnest headline, I described how I yearned for a workshop buddy who wrote contemporary verse, someone who wasn’t afraid to give and accept feedback. I also asked for a sample poem, just to weed out the people I didn’t jive with stylistically.
My ad had been up for about a week when I got my first response, from a person named Alex. He or she agreed to meet for a cup of coffee.
As it turned out, Alex was a girl, younger than me, but, like Anna, more mature and less neurotic—even married. I liked her immediately—the way she had layered a sweater over a floral dress for protection from the fall day and worn her hair in a messy top knot. It took no time for us to determine our words would harmonize and to schedule our next meeting. We gulped down our mugs of latte froth, satisfied that neither of us was a dangerous criminal. You never know with Craigslist.
It’s time for a confession: I’m guilty of trying to befriend people instantly. I’m liable to spill my personal flaws without hesitation, hoping to open another heart or to encourage a bond. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noted that some people take me up on it, and we match up emotionally fast enough that I don’t end up bleeding—symbolically, of course—all over my neighborhood coffee shop. Other times, acquaintances merely exhale a chilly breath in my direction and refuse to give in. I still forge ahead, handing over my secrets and my fears like sticks of chewing gum until I’m pretty much naked and alone on a one-way street.
But that day in the coffee shop with Alex was perfect. She matched me, detail for detail, until we were able to read each other’s opening lines with understanding. It didn’t seem to deter her that I was over thirty and clearly emotionally stunted. Hell, how else does a poet flourish if not by being weird?
Our next venture together would be to recruit a third poet for the group. We were doing so well, we figured we had the authority to decide if someone else could hang with us. Alex already had one up her sleeve, a blonde-haired deep thinker called “Beatrix” on Facebook, though we later found out that was not her name.
The first meeting with Beatrix was everything I’d hoped for. She told us, with wild abandon, how a particularly heavy meal consisting of an all-beef hot dog had lulled her to sleep behind the wheel and she’d crashed her car. All this before I’d read a single letter of her work—a kindred spirit! We’d found the third leg of our triangle.
“I was hesitant to join this group because, you know, I figured you’d both be bad poets,” she admitted once with her mouth full of homemade bread. (Her obsession for a spell was trying out baked goods on us at the morning sessions.) Alex and I laughed at her comment heartily. After all, who would have guessed that we’d find each other by chance and our poetic muses would click? But it was just the way I’d found Dr. Rice and Anna. By perfect chance, by a stumble that led me to a door waiting for me to open.
A poetic friendship, a good one, is hardly ever something that requires a group. None of my other best friends accompanied me when I’d sit for over an hour in Dr. Rice’s office; none of them were invited to Anna’s for pasta on the weekends. Befriending a poet is always a journey I take alone. My college besties, the ones I get beers and tacos with for the purpose of bitching about our boyfriends, have always understood that they weren’t invited. But when I met Alex, a few of my writerly pals made remarks about the fact that she never came around to make friends with the literary crowd and never attended our events. I would shrug helplessly. Wasn’t it enough that I’d met someone, on Craigslist, in fact, who was helping me with my work?
Oh, about my work. Well, it was flourishing. Whereas I’d written about basic themes such as love, loss and childhood previously, I was foraying into new subjects, new images, a better understanding of words and their connotations, better lines breaks—and endings, according to Alex, were becoming my specialty.
“Those final lines,” she’d emphasize dramatically, and I’d humbly hang my head like any proper poet who received a kiss on the head by her muse and longed for another.
Blond Beatrix also appreciated my efforts—and I, hers—but when I dumped my boyfriend that spring and began moaning regularly about “hopeless solitude during the decade of the thirties,” she declared me to be “too negative” and exited our group abruptly, like an old woman offended by a crude theater performance. I was struck dumb by her callousness, too thick with emotion to understand that not all poets—or, in fact, not most—would be as Anna had been, close to my heart.
It was awkward for a bit after Beatrix. Alex and I pretended not to care, though we traded stories we’d seen about her on social media. We decided to distract ourselves with a performance. We’d share a stage at a local poetry feature, roughly forty-five minutes, by splitting it into 22-and-a-half minutes each. We’d gather a chapbook’s worth of our best poems. It was a reason to make order of them, to spread them over a hardwood floor and peer at them from above. Well, I can’t speak for her, but it’s what I did.
We chose a night in November, both being superstitious about the necessity for dry, chilly air to pique the intellect. I had a two-pocketed black folder; I kept Anna’s poems in one side, the favorites I’d been mailed by her classmates from Hunter College. They made me feel lucky.
The night we read, I wrote the word “breathe” on the side of my finger in obnoxious, blood-black ink. On the way to the coffee shop, I sang the second soprano notes of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” waking my lungs up in hopes that they would not shut down on me later. My outfit was stereotypically dark, snug enough to my body that I would not be swallowed into shadows but would cast a distinct silhouette. This would be my night to read about the dark crown of my mother’s hair; the pets who died behind my best friend’s house; the dream, no, the nightmare, I had once of a long trip to nowhere on a train. The lines on my tongue fell into rows and tasted sweet, like a packet of Pixy Stix straws. I had the most poetic guts I’d ever had my life right then, thanks to Alex.
My 22-and-a-half minutes were filled, somehow, with the fifteen or so poems I’d chosen to read. I spoke as slowly as I could manage, but I was secretly nervous. A friend’s father even emerged from the audience later to accuse me of being not animated enough. I was hurt, but, really, didn’t he realize what a feat I had just performed? Panic disorder with Ativan tablets in my purse and all? Even if my audience thought I had a long way to go, it didn’t change how far I’d already come. I tossed the folder into the back seat of my car that night; my poems and Anna’s fanned and fell out everywhere. In my mind, it was like confetti.
Less than a year later, Alex’s husband got a job on the West Coast. They moved to California; I, meanwhile, moved across town. Our poetic bubble had drifted over the proverbial fence and out of sight. Ardent attempts to stay in touch since then have been, well, not all that ardent. With some friendships, there’s a certain base ingredient that must be present; with a poetship, that ingredient is verse. Without those mornings of looking over the top of my coffee mug at Alex, communicating how the words “shrink wrap” didn’t have a poetic quality, I could not make our vehicle run.
Would I be able to write alone? Was that—is that—the next thing? I try sometimes to imagine Dr. Rice, Anna, Alex, or anyone, really, writing without me. I picture them before they even knew me, during childhood maybe, hunched over a desk or stretched out on a sidewalk, the lines ringing, silent and heavy, in no one’s ears.