Friday, February 8, 2013

Life as a Midlife Poet : How Did This Happen?

Meet Anna, poet of wedding poems
Okay,  I am not so old that I can remember medieval times. Still it is true that I have hit middle age. I can no longer enter "emerging poet" contests. For better or worse, I have emerged. This is not easy to admit. I do not feel wise enough or mature enough to have lived this long. How did it happen?

There are a few positive notes that I want to share about growing older. In the past three years, my friend Kelli Russell Agodon and I have created Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women. Every September we meet at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Nye Beach, Oregon and so far, a group of cool and varied poets come along, too. We have women join us from as far away as Maryland and Virginia, Southern California and Canada. Our ages span from 20 something to seventy something -- but who's counting?

A few years ago I was invited to curate the Jack Straw Writers Program and our group of poets, novelists, and non-fiction writers are still meeting together and sharing work several years later.
In other words, instead of needing a writing mentor, I have become one. Another surprise.

Recently, I've met a few people who I would consider ex-poets. Once they wrote poetry, now they do real estate or knit. I'm always slightly afraid of these former wordsmiths. I wonder if that will happen to me someday. I think not but it's possible.

I published my first poem at 21 while I squatting in an Edinburgh flat learning to be a writer. The next poem was ten years later and perhaps better marks my taking myself seriously as a writer. And as an adult.

Here's what I've learned about writing in my twenty-something years of sending poems into the world to journals, calendars, art galleries and in some cases, books.

1. You need writer friends. Without Poets on the Coast, my poetry group, and the fantastic literary community in the Seattle area, I don't know that I would be inspired to try new forms and new concepts in my work. It really helps to have other writers to share ideas with over time.

2.  Cross-training helps. For almost two years I've been working on an anthology of essays titled The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders with Catherine Barnett, Jared Hawkley, Brian Turner, and Ilya Kaminsky. Conceptualizing, writing, and editing a book is an enormous undertaking.
And while it certainly took time away from writing poems, the book allowed me to hone a new skill.  Working with a team of writers and copy editors and fact checkers and other folks taught me a great deal of how much work goes into creating an anthology. It's good to try new things.

3. Providing inspiration and mentorship to other poets is crucial. While I teach college students full-time, only a small handful are interested in becoming writers, still less are interested in poetry. However, teaching for the Artists Trust Edge Program, the Antioch MFA program, and Poets on the Coast allows me to feel that I'm giving back to my community. In turn, I receive incredible warmth and support from the poets I work with. It's a crucial part of the process.

4. Always experiment; write new things. In my writing life, I've written grants for projects I feared were too difficult for me because if the money came through, I'd have to "woman up" to the task. I'm in that process right now and while it's difficult, it stretches me as a writer and that's the only way I will keep interested in what I'm doing. I have a short attention span. I need new ways of conceiving poems, new ideas. Some will fail; that is what every writer confronts. Every single one of us.

5. Create new ways to bring poetry to the public. This year as part of a citywide festival I organized the Improbable Places Poetry Tour at the Alexis Hotel. With the help of Angie Vorhies, Harold Taw, Kelli Agodon and Elizabeth Austen we created an event featuring hotel poems taking place in a hotel suite. I hope to do this once a year -- bring poetry outside of schools and bookstores to where people who are not poets can experience the real power of poetry.

6. Cures include travel. For me, travel is my drug of choice. Even bad trips get you out of your own skin. Living in West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer in my mid twenties is what allowed me to write in the first place. I needed to get out of my own head and experience a world beyond Boston, Massachusetts in order to become real to myself. I believe it's still true.

7.  Don't be afraid to be wacky. The picture up top comes from a poet by the name of Anna Whitehouse whose web site states she will write a medieval wedding poem for anyone that asks her. Closer to home, here in Seattle we have the Typing Explosion and Public Health Poems with Rachel Kessler and friends. I love the idea of poems in public bathrooms featuring the playful importance of hand washing. Rachel will be bringing her project to my college this April. Wackiness is the way!


  1. What a wonderful midlife poetry time you are having! Thanks for all these great ideas.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen;

      Glad it was useful. Would love to know what kind of projects you are up to!

  2. I started writing poetry 25 years ago when I was a student at Walla Walla University then Washington State University, then I lived near University of Washington in the early 1990s where I wrote lots of poetry while wandering about the city of mist. Then I hitchhiked across the country playing guitar, and now I work as a cartographer in Georgia. Looking back at the thousands of poems I wrote, I see I wrote them as a way of mapping my way through the crazy world. I started writing an epic about scientists two years ago at age 46, so my point after all that rambling is that only now, after middle age, do I feel I have even begun to get a handle on the craft of poetry. I will never stop writing poetry. I think I will fall dead in the middle of a poem.