When I was seven, I won a poetry contest. There was an awards night, and I stood at the front of the room, wearing a dress that my mother had sewn me: maroon background with a tropical fruit pattern. A politician spoke in that “these are kids, everyone!” tone that adults often use when talking about kids, in front of kids. The politician then announced something terrifying. She intended to hold a microphone in front of each award recipient, who was then to explain their work to the room of parents. For better or for worse, my surname has ensured that I will be last in nearly every line, and I tried to stay calm while I thought of something to say about my poem. I wish I had the poem now, but it is lost in time, and I can’t quite remember it. I can guarantee you that it celebrated end rhymes and that it was unreasonably cheerful. (I didn’t go poetically dark until adolescence.) As the politician bent before me and put the microphone in front of my face, I looked at her frozen smile and decided to boil it down as best I could: “It’s about the flowers and the rain,” I said. The room awww-ed and laughed, and I’m sure I did look cute. I had a bob cut and a fruit dress.
The truth is, I have never felt comfortable discussing my work. I’d rather discuss other people’s poetry. Nevertheless, at the end of every poetry reading I’ve done, people tell me that they like my introductions to my poems as much as the poetry itself. Once in a while, they say they like them better, which I try not to take personally! As a college instructor, I have noticed that my students often go a bit pale when I mention that we’ll study poetry during the semester. Some of them even get a little angry, as if I had added, “…because you’re so bad at understanding it.” I can’t blame anyone for not understanding poetry when it’s likely that no one ever taught them how. I have been teaching since August 2000 and have, over the years, received the confessions of even tenured professors: that they do not understand poetry and therefore, try to avoid teaching it.
Poems are puzzles, and perhaps that’s the first piece of information that many people never receive. No one would buy a puzzle (do people still buy puzzles?) and then return it because, when they opened the box, it was still in pieces. However, often people toss aside a poem if they can’t understand everything about it after the initial reading.
And so…in response to my fans (do poets have fans or sympathizers?) who think I should provide some introduction to what the hell my poetry means, I am starting a blog that will discuss some of my poems. Since I can’t imagine only writing about my poetry every week, I’m also going to post interviews with people who are poets, artists, filmmakers, writers, “spiritual”-types, and heretics.
I’m a firm believer that you should always begin with Star Trek. Below is a poem called, “Where No One Has Gone Before.” It’s from my book Sister Nun, which you can learn more about here. When I wrote this poem, a friend of mine had recently recommended the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (an excellent series, by the way) and said that she liked it better than Star Trek: The Next Generation because it was grittier. Characters’ wounds, physical and psychological, don’t get cleaned up and shined for the next week’s episode, she told me. These wounds dog the characters as relentlessly as Cylons. Meanwhile, on STNG, all I can say is that they must have the most AMAZING therapists in the future. Even poor Picard, who gets abducted by the Borg—the show’s most terrible enemy—and forced to destroy a number of Federation ships full of people, was pretty much all right after working out some family issues at their French vineyard. I like that possibility, and I figured that, after so much conflict and so many uncertainties, Sister Nun would like it, too.
I hope you enjoy the poem, and until next week, live long and prosper!
(For the audio version of this poem, click here or below.)
Where No One Has Gone Before
Sister would like to marry
Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the
Star Ship Enterprise and wear
high-suspended collars, brightly
lit like autumn, where all the
shames and dishonors we’ve endured
or committed, all the garish
wounds, marring the soft skin beneath
our eyes, across our scalps, the
stiffness in our arms, our lower
backs, the stars blinding us with
hope; tamed, refreshed, pressed
good as new within a day, or a
week, as clean and black as a
vacuum in space.