What is Poetry?

Kim-An Lieberman April 21, 2010 1

Photo credit: The World and Journal.

Why am I interested in poetry? I sometimes get asked this very logical question, and I have no straightforward answer. The truth is long-winded. As a kid, I loved the musical language and witty rhymes of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. As a teenager, I read and wrote poems to feel connected to a bigger tradition, with Shakespeare and E. E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot all busy trying to figure out their own worlds and selves right alongside me. As a college English major, I discovered new layers of history through the jazz-infused politics of Langston Hughes and the fragmented feminism of Emily Dickinson. When I started to build a career around literature, poetry became a way for me to explore my own Vietnamese American heritage and mixed-race identity. Today, as a writer and a writing teacher, I use poetry to challenge my students (and myself) with work that is artistic, intellectual, expressive, emotional, and fun.

Here’s the better question: why should you be interested in poetry? Let me suggest some answers.

1) You already know a lot about poetry.

Believe it or not, poetry is one of the first things that you encountered in life. From alliterative baby-babble to singsong nursery rhymes, the earliest words you spoke were probably poetic. As you learned language throughout your childhood—experimenting with sounds, repeating new rhythms, uncovering hidden patterns—you were practicing the fundamentals of poetry. Reading and writing poems is a complex and lifelong pursuit, but you already have the right skills to begin.

2) Poetry offers something for everyone.

Contemporary poetry reflects an incredible range of styles—from classical Shakespearean-style sonnets and meditative haiku-influenced forms to clever postmodern narratives, from wildly experimental letterpress art to raucously funny spoken-word performances. Poets come from every walk of life and address every imaginable topic: love, death, music, architecture, a really delicious sandwich, a dearly departed goldfish, the meaning of the universe, the purpose of literature itself. Far beyond the present day, poetry has been around for centuries in almost every known language and culture. Take some time to look, and you will surely find a type of poetry that connects directly to you.

3) You can bring your friends.

Every week, Seattle is abuzz with live performances where you can hear published poets read their work, very often for free. Nationally renowned writers appear regularly at Elliott Bay Books in Capitol Hill, Open Books in Wallingford, and the Seattle Arts & Lectures series at Benaroya Hall downtown. Many local bookstores, colleges, and libraries also host readings and other poetry-related events. Find current listings in the newspaper or in local arts calendars like PoetsWest (www.poetswest.com).

4) You can impress your friends.

You don’t have to be famous, or even published, to get on stage and share your poetry. “Open mike” events welcome interested audience members to read a few minutes of their own work, sometimes in conjunction with featured poets. Just show up with a poem or two, check in with the MC, and wait your turn. Dozens of spots around town hold open mikes on a weekly or monthly basis, including It’s About Time Writers at the Ballard Library, YouthSpeaks Seattle in the U District and Renton, Seattle Poetry Slam in Belltown, Whidbey Coffee Company in Mukilteo, and SoulFood Books in Redmond.

5) You can learn to improve.

Poetry classes and writing workshops are a great way to hone your skills in a supportive group setting. Check out the local offerings at Richard Hugo House, 826 Seattle, or the University of Washington’s Experimental College. If you are currently a student, ask about the poetry courses available at your school. Alternately, if you have some friends who are interested, consider starting a writing group or workshop of your own. Pick a regular time and place to meet, ask everyone to bring a poem-in-progress, and take turns reading aloud and receiving constructive feedback. For an added challenge, design a series of weekly poetry assignments for the whole group to complete.

6) See your name in print.

If you have a few pieces that you feel ready to share with a wider readership, the Pacific Northwest is rich with literary publications that enjoy showcasing local writers. Poetry Northwest, Floating Bridge Review, Crab Creek Review, The Raven Chronicles, Seattle Review, and Bellingham Review all accept poetry submissions. For many more publishing opportunities, consult Poet’s Market (published yearly by Writer’s Digest Books) or Poets & Writers Online (www.pw.org). Before sending to any journal, be sure to read a few copies and review the submission guidelines, as each editorial board has its own unique tastes and preferences.

7) All you need is paper and pen.

Poetry is, quite literally, an open book. Browse your favorite bookstore or library for a bestselling title, an interesting journal, or a new small-press release to learn what poets are writing and publishing today. Some inspirational starting points include Scribner’s Best American Poetry series, Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam videos, and the web anthologies from the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org) and the Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org). Discover what types of poetry most genuinely appeal to you. Then grab a notebook or keyboard or piece of paper, and start writing. Write often. Write lots. See what emerges!

Kim-An Lieberman will read from her book, “Breaking the Map”, at the Skagit River Poetry Festival May 20-22. Log on to www.skagitriverpoetry.org for more details.

One Comment »

  1. Awilda Trecarichi June 23, 2010 at 1:01 am -

    oh thank goodness i found something that i want to know.. this is some very good stuff man