I’m taking a poetry class this winter from an educational institute that caters to retired folks. The class is The Distaff Side: Seven Women Poets, and each week we hear background about and read five or six poems by a female poet. For homework we’re to choose one poem and use it as a prompt for our own poem to be shared in class.
One week’s poet was Lisel Mueller, a women who was born in pre-Hitler Germany Her family left for American when the Nazis came to power. The poem I chose, “When I Am Asked,” is her response to being asked about starting to write poetry. I chose this poem because it seems appropriate, as I’ve often been asked by those who knew me in one of my previous lives how in the world I became a poet. As I sat down to write my poem, I realized I haven’t often mentioned the real reason.
Mueller writes in the poem “When I am asked” how she got started:
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
My tale is similar to Mueller’s, except it was the death of my mother-in-law, not my mother that got me started. I was closer to my wife’s mother than to my own, and her death combined the shock at losing her with my joy at seeing her released from the pain of her year-long battle with metastatic breast cancer. I was moved by my grief to write a poem about her death, and that got me started.
At the same time, I was having flashbacks and nightmares about my combat experiences in Vietnam. After realizing that writing about Mom’s death had helped me accept it and heal me, I decided to write poetry about the flashbacks and nightmares. This is what I have told my friends is what got me started, to heal from the trauma of war.
I was fortunate at the time to be in a critique group led by a poet in her 80s, Lois Beebe Hayna, who started writing poetry in her 60s. I was in my late 50s, early 60s, so I saw it was possible. Incidentally, she died this past April at the age of 104, and published three of her best books of poetry after turning 100.
I had read somewhere a poem by Mary Oliver that clicked with me, and I bought and read every book of hers I could find. I started to imitate her subjects and style. At the time I was learning to be a volunteer naturalist on the prairie, so her work was a good fit.
After I had written perhaps a dozen poems, I moved from Colorado Springs to Denver and tried to join a critique group to help me continue to learn to write poetry. I couldn’t find one and another poet who had had the same problem suggested WyoPoets. I joined in 2008 and was fortunate to learn from Barbara Smith in the workshop that year. Then I joined Wyoming Writers in 2009. I was fortunate that Ted Kooser was the leader of the poetry workshops for Wyoming Writers, and he helped me also. I had read several of his poetry books, so I knew his work.
I took Kooser’s and Oliver’s advice and read as much poetry as I could to see how others did it. I read lots in earning my degrees in English, but took no creative writing courses. I could dissect the frog but not create one for an imaginary garden.
I read books on writing by Kooser, Oliver, Steven King, Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, and many others. I wrote as much as I could, sent poems off, and finally got some published. I’ve now had over 120 poems published and three books of poetry, with a fourth soon to come.
Mueller closes by writing what I cannot write nearly so gracefully:
I … placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
My goal is to be like Lois, my first mentor, and help others learn the craft and joy of writing poetry. And oh yes, would love, like Lois, to live to at least 104 and keep writing poetry along the way.
-----Art Elser is a poet and writer who has been published in many journals and anthologies. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, is a collection of 120 haiku selected from over 2,000 he has written. His other books include a memoir, What's It All About, Alfie?, and two books of poetry, We Leave the Safety of the Sea and A Death at Tollgate Creek. Art lives in Denver with his wife, Kathy, and their pup, Walker.
Want more from Art? Sign up for the WyoPoets Spring Workshop for a full day of workshops on poetic art, craft, and self-publishing. Learn more on the WyoPoets website.