Reading Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead on a swing outside, overlooking ancient trees, gave me chills. If a more intimate way to love life exists, I’m not aware of it. The man is a poetry god. I saw him speak on a panel once, and spent the entire hour wondering how someone so young and stunningly good-looking speaks fluent truth and lyrical language.
I have a hard time considering myself a poet. There’s something intimidating about the label. I write poetry. It’s not my strongest genre, by any means, but I enjoy it. My prose is often inspired by poetry, and I admire gifted poets like no other. This might make me a poet. Not sure why that label makes me feel undeserving.
It took me a long while to embrace being called a writer, too. I recently reflected on the way I can’t even journal without being a “writer” and obsessing over language, crossing out weak words, or criticizing how many times I used the word “I.” When it’s a journal! Of course the whole time is spent talking about my thoughts, myself, my experiences. Who am I trying to impress? Sometimes I just want to write for the sake of writing—without worrying whether the words pack any punch or are worth writing out.
The sister who got me connected with where I live, and is also a poet, asked me to write a reflection to publish in their monthly newsletter. I’m being OCD about it, taking forever to write the thing. I’m trying to remember that many of the sisters taught grade school English and are therefore appalled by the way creative writers regularly break grammatical rules. Writing in unconventionally punctuated sentences allows me to feel most true to myself. I’m trying to return to composition-class-style writing for this reflection. It’s restrictive, though. Grammar is such a powerful tool when used properly, as well as when abused consciously. It took me forever to learn my English teacher in high school was right—that I needed to learn the rules of grammar before I could successfully break them. I was slow to catch onto grammar—never fully grasping it until college. That’s why I loved working at the university’s writing center. We strived to empower students, many of them coming in with low self-esteem about their writing ability due to some struggles with grammar.
I wish I could make all of the grammar snobs take a linguistics class. The rules for speaking are very different than the rules for writing. I’m an English major, and I still say I’m doing “good” when someone asks me how I’m doing. I know, if I’m writing—even an e-mail—to use “well.” I’m not uneducated, yet people who like black and white thinking are quick to assume such things when someone doesn’t speak like they learned a person is supposed to. What a shame there’s not more poets out there, encouraging people to test the limits of language.
Not what you see, but what you perceive:
that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement
of derangements; I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.
–From “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Terrance Hayes