Friday, December 18, 2015

A Poet's Life: What Happens When You're Not A MacArthur Genius (Yet)

This time of year seems ready made for contemplation. For example, is the bowl depleted or perhaps on the edge of a whole new life? And the spoon? And the artist who made them both?

In these days before the solstice, I find it impossible to escape the ever weightier question: what have I done with this one wild life? And for some reason that I cannot put into words, the beautiful vessel and spoon above make me wonder even more about my life: is my cup full?

The answer comes in fragments: traveled... written... loved... eaten delicious things ...laughed.

Tonight I'm thinking about carving out a writing life. As I hit my mid 30's and after the death of both my mother and father in the same year, I realized I needed to change my life in drastic ways. I left my rent controlled apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the wilds of the West. It was the best decision I ever made.

In Seattle, Washington where I live now, I'm part of a vibrant literary community. The opportunities I've had to read at Benaroya Hall (symphony hall) thanks to Seattle Arts and Lectures or to be interviewed on KUOW (our NPR Station) by Elizabeth Austen have been so affirming. I work to "author change" with other Hedgebrook alumni and sometimes teach at Hugo House. With poet and writer friends, I've also been able to give back to the community by starting WordsWest Literary Series in West Seattle (with Harold Taw and Katy Ellis)  and Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women (with Kelli Agodon). I teach, edit manuscripts, mentor, consult on grant applications and book marketing, give workshops --- whatever interests me at the moment. Whatever people ask me to do.

One of the things I've done regularly this year is to write with friends. These "writing dates" sustain me when my teaching responsibilities zap me. I think there's no lyrical line left in my body but when I sit down with a close friend to write for a timed exercise of 10 or 12 minutes, magic happens. Last week I actually wrote a piece with my good friend Kelli Russell Agodon that was accepted for an anthology this morning. It is through special friendships and the freedom that exists to try out any idea, any project, that I've succeeded at creating a writer's life.

This week six of my poems were accepted by four different journals and anthologies. This has never happened to me before. Never. So I may die before the New Yorker or Poetry decides my poems are worthy of their pages, I may be passed over for an NEA or a Guggenheim, but I have created a writing life. I am a writer in the world. And perhaps that's the most sustaining thing of all: a literary life. The good news? This is open to all of us --- no matter where we live or what degree we do or do not have, no matter what's in our pockets, no matter our age, religion, or race.

What do you need to be a writer in the world? Stare into the blue bowl for awhile and see if an action plan begins to emerge. After all, it's the time of year for miracles.


  1. This post is so inspiring!

    And congratulations on having so many poems accepted!

  2. Thanks Jan; thanks, Yvonne; it felt so important to write this as we head towards Solstice. We're all in this world where admitting you're a poet is a bit like saying, "I collect buttons" and so sharing this with likeminded "button collectors" as Ada Limon says, becomes so important. (Limon says that saying you're a poet is like saying you're a button collector.) Happy Solstice!

  3. Susan, a very introspective look at your year... inspiring to read. Your bundle of acceptances here at years end is awesome and had to leave you a high note. And as for miracles, I love what Albert Einstein says about them and how to live life, he said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is." Good choice.

  4. Thank you, Michael; I love the Einstein quote. May your holidays be many and bright!

  5. Congratulations on so much you've accomplished this year and in the years leading up to it. You seem to be on a roll. Ellen Young

  6. Congratulations. What a nice wrap up to a year which seems to be also a culmination of several years work. Ellen Young

  7. Wonderful inspiration, Susan! I admire all that you are doing. I have family in Portland and know how special a place the Northwest is. After 20 years of research and writing, my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses came out in August. There is so much more I want to write! Cheers for the New Year and the creative spirit, Carole Brooks Platt