Once I sat in a fiction workshop with Gordon Weaver. I was not a fiction writer, but I was in the class, making whatever pretense I could muster up at the time. He picked up my story, read a couple of sentences from it, and said, “You wrote that, Gerald, and you call yourself a poet?”
I’ve repeated this to myself many times in the past couple of decades. Weaver is the kind of teacher who never really leaves you alone even if you haven’t seen him for 15 or 20 years. So often I write sentences unfit for a poet. All poets do to tell the truth, and when they do, they need a Gordon Weaver in their heads reminding them what’s what.
But I am not a poet. I only call myself a poet sometimes.
I write every day. I write something or anything. More anything than something. Or perhaps I write everything. Certainly, I’m not averse to trying my hand at fiction, journalism, academic prose, random ramblings, or anything else that holds my attention for a minute or two.
You are a writer when you are writing. That’s the definition taught to me in school, not by Gordon Weaver, but by people who did not mind making corny proclamations.
You are a poet then, I have determined, when you are writing poetry. I’m not above corny proclamations in the least.
I did not write a poem today. I did not write a poem yesterday. I doubt I will write a poem tomorrow. I am not a poet. I do not write poetry. Not this week.
Once a man who had three or four books of poetry published told me he had not written a poem for six months, and that he often went that long between poems. I wanted to kiss him. I don’t think I did, but the inscription he left in my copy of his book made me wonder if I at least expressed the sentiment out loud. He taught me how to give myself permission to go for long stretches without concerning myself with poetry. My poetry teachers took that permission away from me until I got out from under their care, but I still had it to give back to myself when I could.
I have a degree in poetry, but I’m not a poet. I’m not writing poetry right now.
I considered writing a poem today, but I didn’t have anything to say. I considered what I might put into a poem. I tallied up images and ideas the day had yielded. The best one was a butterfly that I watched for a time thinking I would take a picture of it until I realized it was dying not posing. That’s the kind of irony I might squander on a poem if it didn’t sound too much like Stevie Smith’s “not waving but drowning.”
Mainly I just thought my mental energy wasn’t there for poetry. I’m not one of those people who believes poetry requires inspiration either. We make our own inspiration, and writer’s block is just another way of saying lazy. But I’m okay with lazy today.
I want to retreat from the effort of words. I want to repot plants, clean out closets, read books, and take pictures. I want to putter around and let the strain of teaching too many people seep out of me.
That isn’t wasted time. It’s the kind of time that allows the image of a dying butterfly to settle into my consciousness, that lets an idea from one book take up residence with an idea from another, that gives conflicting feelings time to shake hands, back up, and start taking punches at each other all over again.
Last summer I spent a month with a group of teachers who repeated like a mantra “Sharon writes poetry” each time we shared our free writes and journal exercises. But it’s not true. I don’t write poetry. I’m not writing poetry now.
I can write any old sentence at all right here right now, and it will be okay. I give myself permission, the voice of Gordon Weaver that lives in my head notwithstanding. Today I do not call myself a poet.