the art of “suck”: a poet’s eternal question

Whether it’s on a word processor, a napkin, tattooed on my body, a piece of lined paper…the same question always seems to get asked when a piece of my craft is finished:

Does this suck?

I know that every poet has a voice. I know that art is beyond subjective. I know that poetry is never truly finished until the poet is dead (and that’s debatable). I know revision doesn’t die. I know, I know, I know. Even so, it still seems as if I can never gage what is good and what isn’t. It reminds me of looking at a newborn baby…you know it’s supposed to be cute, because it’s a baaaaaaby, but it’s just so darn ugly and wrinkly and it looks like a Christmas ham or an alien or something. Even so, the parents are so damn proud of their bundle of joy, a piece of themselves, that is now in their arms.

I don’t want to be cynical and call my own baby ugly, but I don’t want to be overly proud of something that isn’t very good. I find that I can’t tell whether I’m too proud or too insecure about my work: am I an egoist? Am I my own worst critic? Am I even a poet? Why am I doing this? What am I doing this for?

All by looking at a series of words, lines, white space…who gets to decide what is good? I think that the beauty of craft is that we’re all just at the mercy of our own poems. Sometimes I write something and it feels like it wrote itself. How did this even happen? How did one thing turn into something else? It reminds me of the Spicer interview when he talked about poetry being a sort of parasite. I think the parasitic nature of poetry (if you’re willing to subscribe to that) makes for a loss of control that maybe leads to a loss of knowing the goodness and validity of a poem.

Just conjecture. I’m sorry this post is all over the place. Does this suck?

It’s never ending.

Weaving in Womanhood

I’ve seen themes of my poetry dwell in the familial realm for many years. When I was younger, I would write poetry about my younger sister and how proud (or angry) I was that she was born. I would write about my Mother being the comfiest pillow ever. I would write, write, write about how much I loved being in a “girls only” household with my mom and two sisters. I would muse about the woes of being the middle child.

I think my poetry finds root in the über girl-ness of my girlhood. Growing up with all women was a beautiful blessing, empowering to say the least, but also difficult to reconcile with loss. My little family has grown to embrace womanhood and all that it should stand for, the beauty and strength it entails, the problems it produces. When writing poetry, I often think of womanhood (however one would wish to define it) because that is what I knew to observe, celebrate, and protect growing up. I think a major source of my poetry is the three women I grew up alongside. They weave themselves into every poem somehow, some way. I tend to focus on a woman’s interactions with everyday life because it has always been concerning to me that, “Hey, you’ve got no rhythm section in that family of yours!” and “Now you just need a brother to complete the family!” were acceptable and even charming things to say.

I take interest in society and the woman in my poetry, and I wonder how my poetic voice would be different if I had been raised a different way?

To cap this off, I’ll share a snippet of Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, a poem my mother has always enjoyed.

Phenomenal Woman
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Inspiration from Hell

I’m currently taking a class solely concentrated on Dante’s Divine Comedy (right now we’re journeying through the Inferno). Normally, I wouldn’t be exactly psyched about this, but I think the class has proven to be more creative inspiration than I had originally thought.

The first “surprise” response came to me when the professor made it clear that Dante was NOT a novelist, an author, a narrator… he was a poet. This I knew, but I think calling Dante Alighieri and Grace Gilbert by the same title felt uneasy. Nonetheless, thinking of classic literature as inspiration seemed pretentious and overused until the moment I realized that Dante was, indeed, the poet of poets. I thought about the conversations I would have with him concerning his thoughts on contemporary trends in poetry and “tumblr poetry” and of course, clarifications I would appreciate after reading and studying his work.

While reading his work, which has a really intriguing and vivid storytelling capacity, I noticed ways that I related to his writing style. Though I don’t have the patience or intellectual capability of writing in perfect Italian rhyme consistently throughout 100 Cantos, I think my poetry tends to take on a sequential or narrative style that can border on prose. My biggest concern with my poetry is that I think my narrative voice strangles my budding poetic voice to the point where I have trouble defining poetry in general. What makes it a poem versus a snippet of prose? Is a poem only one page and no more? is there some scale reminiscent of the one used in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to judge prose from poetry as they judge bad eggs from good eggs? These are questions I’ve continually asked myself as my poems often don’t seem to fit the binary.

Regardless, I admire Dante’s ability to intermingle extremely captivating storytelling with beautiful, breathtaking poetry…and hope I can do the same (not by way of becoming an epic poet, I think our similarities are drawn quite thin).


Grace Drawn from Grace

Throughout most of my childhood, which was spent with my favorite dense, multi-colored pencil in hand, I carried around a hefty journal (three rings, with a blue daisy on the cover) in which I wrote countless poems. I received my beloved journal as a birthday present when I was six years old, and wrote in it until the cover fell clean off when I was ten. I wouldn’t consider these poems my best work, though I would consider the artfully placed scratch n’ sniff stickers my first attempt at a poetic device.

Even if my poems were centered around my bowl of “yummy yummy mac and cheese, Mommy can I have more please” or my third grade teacher Mrs. Burke being “full of sunshine, but sometimes she yells STAY IN LINE,” I admire how instant, honest, and unabashed young Grace’s writing was. If I felt sad, I wrote a poem about mean, snot-nosed Austin Richards making me cry on the bus. If I was hungry, I wrote a poem about devouring tacos. If it was Christmas, I wrote about marrying Santa Claus. I didn’t plan or prepare to sit down and write. I didn’t think of who my audience was or cater my words to please others. I simply wrote what was going on around me.

I’ve kept the journal to remind me of my poetic roots, to remind me that poetry is a part of my childhood, to remind me that poetry has always been my way of thinking out loud. When I hit points of unwarranted hubris in my writing, when I lack desire, or when I find myself not knowing if I’ll ever be good enough, I thumb through the journal again. It’s a source of establishment, not as much content (unless I someday find myself in the throes of crafting an ode to Kraft mac and cheese).

My journal whispers to me, this is who you’ve always been. This is a part of you. This is how you think, how you love, how you dream. It never fails to send me back to the drawing board hungry to approach poetry and writing in the same way six-year-old Grace did, clumsy-scribbling about pink lemonade under the table at Ruby Tuesday’s.

Along with my three-ringed sanctuary, here is a list of sources that I tend to draw from consistently:

  1. Waiting room/passerby conversations. My annoying tendency to eavesdrop makes for some interesting inspiration…how else would I feel the need to write a poem about two old ladies bickering about a mole removal?
  2. “Cleaning.” I’m a pack rat. I keep every artifact and memory stashed in boxes, under beds, in closets, in the underwear drawer. Nearly every time I’ve attempted to polish up my bedroom, I end up stumbling upon a love letter from my ex-boyfriend or a crappy mix CD from a friend I had in middle school. My room never gets clean, in fact, I would argue it gets even worse each attempt- but I’ve written some powerfully sentimental poetry about an old prom corsage and the rotted, crunchy flower Jacob picked me in eighth grade. 
  3. Dinner time. Kitchens and restaurants are breeding grounds for poetic material, especially in my family. The conversations, the spillage, the drama, the stories, the chaos, the observations- a cesspool of painful inspiration.  
  4. Investigations and snooping. I try to piece together my childhood and the state of my current self by probing my family for information and insight about my father. I have dug through court documents, notebooks, blogs, and letters; my story feels unfairly kept from me. I investigate the unknown so I can get angry, write, and heal.
  5. Air. So much changes when the air shifts from dry, cracked breath winter to breezy, sidewalk chalk spring. The air determines mood. A summer hot pavement stroll holds different weight than a walk during the peak of golden fall.
  6. Taylor Swift’s “Red” album. The guiltiest of pleasures, but whenever I go out for a drive on my own, I listen to each of the 16 tracks (except We Are Never Getting Back Together. I hate that song) and sing, scream, cry, pound the steering wheel along with Taylor. These evening drives have been my choice of catharsis, and I almost always have to write about my automobile breakdowns to process.

To be honest about my self-professed poetic immaturity, there are times when the source of my poetry is a mixture of raw, unadulterated emotion and whatever poor, innocent thing I happen to be doing, reading, seeing when the emotional tide sets in.

Source seems endless, and I look forward to pinpointing more of where I draw from and from whom.

For now, young and cheerful Grace keeps me coming back to my writing by way of her remarkable ability to turn every Beanie Baby into a six-lined, rhyming masterpiece.

Young Grace is my source of inspiration, and my drive to continue pushing myself into the depths of joyful, fearless poeticism.