When I was in Elementary school, I don’t know which grade and I don’t know what age, I read a poem by Emily Dickinson. I really liked the way she used language and I felt like I understood what she was saying without being able to really say out loud what she was really saying. I became a tried and true Emily Dickinson fan. I reached out to others, as well, trying Bronte and Shakespeare and eventually nabbing Poe into my circle of authors I loved to read.
By High School I was positively obsessed with poetry and novels and reading things that could captivate me. Words that could make me feel something that made me think “OMG. ME TOO!” Or, “That’s so true!” It was a love affair. I ate up everything. I read a lot of Science Fiction but mostly humorous things like Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony. I was delighted and happy with the way they effortlessly utilized puns to make me laugh. I read “Jane Eyre” but did not care much for “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma” putting the final nail in the coffin of “Emily does not appreciate old books.” I yearned for a challenge. I probably could have read “Moby Dick” but instead I began writing poetry. I began searching for something that I could fall in love with.
There was this one evening I was particularly interested in something good to read. At this point there were two places I could depend on for a good recommendation: My High School Creative Writing teacher, Mrs. T, and Borders (the book store). I browsed one evening and came upon a book called “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” A book that had never been recommended to me and, since it was published in 1999 and this was about 2002, probably not read all that much by very many people who could recommend it. I loved it. It was eerily similar to one of my all ready favorites, “The Catcher in the Rye.” I was hooked.
This is around the time that I continued to encourage myself to be a writer one day. Specifically I had decided to be a poet. So I applied and was accepted into a Camp for the arts, in the Creative Writing program. It was here that I learned that you could actually BREAK THE RULES. You were allowed to write whatever you wanted and you didn’t have to rhyme and you know what? If you wanted to, you could forget about punctuation altogether.
We read Billy Collins and Naomi Shihab Nye and “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. We had to do assignments where we wrote a warped view of a popular superhero, we looked to the National Enquirer for writing prompts. We wrote the kinds of things I had been searching for.
So far I had evolved from child writer (obsessed with Shel Silverstein and short rhyming poems) to adolescent, full of angst and rules, and was now entering into a strange location in which I was looking for literature to show me some kind of way. Show me what to do, oh Literature gods. I read Oliver and more Collins and searched for writers who wrote things that spoke to me. I read “The Bell Jar” and felt crazy. I thought they were all speaking to me.
I entered the University’s Creative Writing with the most naïve outlooks of life. I thought that all writing had to enlighten and teach. All poetry somehow had to teach essential world truths. Had to teach me how to be a better person and writer. I read books my Dad read (“Listen as the day unfolds, challenge what the future holds” etc and etc.), falling for books like “Johnathan Livingston Seagull” and “Illusions.” I read “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran and was convinced it held all the truth I needed (outside the Bible of course) and read and re-read all of these books until I am sure quoting them became my friends least favorite thing about me.
Somehow I stumbled into a writing program though, that did not share my world view on poetry. I found myself one day, after numerous intro classes that gave me safe poems to read, poems that did not challenge much beyond asking me to describe a sunset in a different way that had not been done before, I found myself in a class reading a book called “Tender Buttons” by Gertrude Stein.
“A box is made sometimes and them to see to see to it neatly and to have the holes stopped up makes it necessary to use paper.”
And I thought: WHAT THE…………
And then I fell in love.
I fell in love with the kinds of writing that could challenge me to think differently. It was refreshing to read something that did not tell me how to think but instead painted with words. It didn’t have to make immediate sense didn’t have to follow all the rules. It didn’t have to reveal anything extraordinary except that language itself is immense and infinite. It can be misunderstood and misheard and it can tell a story and it can teach you to just appreciate the word “bread.”
I discovered Anne Carson, who lives in Canada, and devoured all I could find by her. I relished my classes that taught me to think differently, to approach language and poetry in a different way. I loved my Professor who was constantly teasing out the parts of me that still wanted a poem to enlighten me. I read Alice Notley and cried when I heard the poem “Red Shift” by Ted Berrigan.
We read Beckett and Arianna Reines and Claudia Rankine. With these poems and “hybrid” works of writing I challenged thoughts and what “writing” had to be. I read Delillo and decided to never read a book that had a beginning, middle, and end again. We read a book that will forever stay with me, “The Material of Poetry: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics” by Gerald L. Bruns.
Two of my favorite quotes, from two different chapters of my life:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
--Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
I was tired of
ideas, or, rather, the activity of ideas, a kind of exercise, had
first invigorated me and then made me sleepy, so that I felt
just as one does after a long, early morning walk, returning
unable to decide whether to drink more coffee or go back to
sleep. The uncommon run of keeping oneself to oneself. The
piggy-back plant is o.k.
--Lyn Hejinian, from “My Life”
My “what the….” moment sparked in me an admiration for all writing that can challenge me to think differently but can still tap into something human inside me. Writing that can move me without telling me why I should be moved. When I think “What the…” I think of a poem that challenged me, that moved me, that made me sparkle instead and want to share with the world all of the words I had read. To make you feel what I feel when I read something that doesn’t make sense, at first, but soon, doesn’t have to make sense at all.
Emily Idzior is an aspiring poet and librarian who has to shush people poetically. She has a MA in salad making and wishes she loved tea without sugar but, alas, has a sweet tooth. She cannot quit waffles or coffee and writes in her personal blog once a year.
Also, she has a cat.