When you’re 5, people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, and no matter what your answer is, they will encourage you.
I learned the hard way that that is not the case when you’re 17.
I was on my first college visit,
facing death by firing squad white knuckling a folder full of paperwork and answering questions during my panel interview. I knew the question was coming and I didn’t know how to answer it:
“What career do you plan to pursue?”
I hesitated but my voice was clear. “I want to be a poet.” The entire room erupted in laughter. My face flushed, but I wasn’t surprised by their response. It was a naive goal and I knew it.
But that was the honest answer.
When they finally stopped giggling, they said that of course I could pursue poetry, but I would definitely need to be more adaptable and learn to write more than just poetry. I didn’t need to be told that, but I forced a smile and nodded, praying the blush would fade from my cheeks quickly.
Three years later, at a different school, I enrolled in a poetry workshop. Every week, the 6 of us shared our poems and gave each other honest feedback. In that class, I wasn’t the painfully shy and timid girl I was everywhere else. I could talk for hours about what was working and not working in my classmates’ poems.
The following year, I graduated, having double-majored in economics and English, with a creative writing concentration to boot. I had my practical degree and my degree that would help me follow my dreams.
And a month later, I got my $100 check for winning a poetry competition.
Since then, I’ve bounced from one dead-end job to the next. I scribbled a few poems here and there, but the bills come first. You have to fulfill your obligations before your dreams. And the longer I waited, the more impossible it seemed. Even my “practical degree” wasn’t delivering.
My reserves were depleted.
Then, a couple weeks ago, I went to a poetry workshop at the library that was led by a local poet. It was more nerve-wracking than the panel interview. I had to read my poem twice because they couldn’t hear me the first time. My hands were shaking and I was almost crying, but they all said they loved it.
Last week, I went back to the library for a one-on-one with a different poet. It was supposed to be a critique of one poem. She ended up reading about 5 and instead of circling things to change, she just underlined the things she loved and told me to get to work on getting published.
I went through every resource she gave me. I bookmarked every writing contest, checked out every writing group, and researched the publishing history of my favorite poets. Then, like a good student, I went back to the library.
There were the latest issues of Writer’s Market and The Writer – all of those things that tell you where you could get your poetry published. But where was Poetry magazine, where was any journal or magazine at all that would publish poetry? I went to the main branch. Same story.
In desperation, I went to the closest bookstore, and I have never felt so grateful to a Barnes & Noble in my life. They had an entire wall of poetry and I left the store with a list of ten magazines to research.
So, no, poetry isn’t dead.
I probably won’t be the next Billy Collins, but I have to believe I will be somebody. I can still be a poet.