A birth of a poet in five acts: A personal essay

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I.

I am seven years old, and poetry is Jack Prelutsky’s giant pizzas. My mother still reminds me that she waited in line for hours to get his book signed for my brother and me. Poetry, now, lives in magical worlds beyond sidewalks with made-up words, rhymes and monsters antagonizing neatly-rhythmed adventures. It lives in the books I reach for after lunch break in room 27 when my eyes, not yet nearsighted, cannot always grasp a full page of plot, cannot focus on the events of a mighty chapter book — or wish to break up stanzas of a rhyming fantasy with lively illustrations.

When I am seven years old, the world is an even stranger place than the settings of children’s poems. There are nightmares of snakes and ghosts, swelling Santa Ana winds that transform into tornadoes and animated movie villains that lurk in my closet at night. Metaphors and hyperbole cannot exist for a child with an overactive imagination; there are only wings and earthquakes — disaster and wonder. The mundane is a treasure map; the world is an uncharted and infinitely expansive ocean, but I have not yet defined imagination as a compass or poetry as a rudder to sail through it. At this point, poetry is still that unfamiliar rhyming paragraph about pine trees that I must memorize and perform for my first grade class. An artful entity, removed from a little girl’s fingertips, owned by distant grown-ups who wield language carefully, like a paintbrush.

II.

I am thirteen years old, and poetry is a beat-up composition notebook full of forced metaphors and exaggerated growing pains. In college-ruled lines lie stanzas I don’t want anyone to read yet I still hold a secret and exasperating desire to be heard. At thirteen, I no longer fear hurricanes and wind, but I have found a way to make rain rhyme on paper and drip down in graphite. Fear comes from different places now — test scores, calorie counts or any other pesky number running through my head. Poetry is a makeshift shield from, or maybe sword against, or perhaps an empathetic listener to those adolescent streams of insecurity. I dip my toes into the waters of an imagination I have learned to tame.

Poetry is my eighth grade teacher’s assignment to “write something you know about,” to “write about where you are from,” as she showed us a TED Talk by Sarah Kay before passing period on a Thursday in spring. I write about waiting in the airport and wondering where strangers are flying to and wondering whether everyone in life is actually a stranger, and I feel so incredibly clever for it. For the first time, poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, and poetry no longer feels out of reach, regulated by the mysterious producers of textbooks. Words provide a safe haven, a make-believe world where a terrified teenage girl can even dare to feign an understanding of love.

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III.

I am seventeen, and poetry provides some illogical yet effective procedure to define my body and voice. The desire to be heard has weakened, and what motivation remains is the need to explain and understand the world that surrounds me. Sometimes I type without knowing where the cursor is headed, only to find, when completed, a poem I have written a million times before; sometimes I write without knowing how I even feel about a topic, trusting that resulting words will always know. I reread and laugh now at my middle school angst, but I refuse to invalidate the joy of my younger (and perhaps more pretentious) self in discovering the creative outlet I now cling to for sanity.

Poetry comes in videos I binge watch of Sarah Kay speaking about New York, a city I’ve only visited once but still manage to idolize. I find myself watching video after video, chasing that dreamlike, distant intimacy instead of working on any of my college applications. Poetry comes in meeting Sarah Kay after driving an hour to Pomona College without an outside mirror, in telling her about a video I watched in eighth grade.

IV.

I am eighteen, and poetry makes my knees shake as my voice wobbles into a microphone. No matter how many wooden stages I face, that final breath in the split second before speaking never seems to get any less terrifying. Fears of monsters and fears of mirrors subside and what remains is the fear of uncertainty, of knowing that I am bringing an audience into a private space, a land nurtured by the once overactive imagination of a seven year old.

At 18, I still feel like a child, and I still write the poems I wrote at 13, though hopefully with more self-awareness. In the midst of my greatest adventure, as I move to a new city and come to love new people, I find myself writing about my mother who I have always known and writing about my home where I have always lived. My instructor tells me to write what I know but also to write about the unknown. I learn that metaphors can make me feel clever and sarcasm can make me feel funny, but nothing ever feels so scary or gratifying as the specific. I cannot introduce myself to strangers, but I willingly write for them my guarded secrets.

No matter what age I live to call my own, I do not believe, for a life of me, that I will ever be able to write a sonnet. End rhymes escape me, and I’ve never crafted an adequate refrain. I look and search for poetry in birds and sunsets, but I only seem to find it in those places when someone else has written the words for me. I find my poetry in my mother’s hands — in her right thumb that doesn’t bend the way it’s supposed to. I find it in the bedtime stories my father told me throughout my childhood — stories about his first dog and scorpion stings and riding bicycles through dust storms. In the space between word choice — hold synonymous to clutch.

In my sneakers that have touched different continents

In the way hands hold or the way fingers clutch

Whether they bend in the expected manner or not

In the way writer or poet feels too presumptuous to claim

In the lines and stanzas ruthlessly tossed with a backspace

The stories I keep writing but might never get quite right

Specific lies and make-believe truths

Hands I haven’t touched but

Hold through words in distant intimacy

Stories I want so badly for the world to own that

I write them over and over

Tripping over metaphors

Still a child learning to run

Hands I clutch because I hold their stories

Stories I clutch because they hold my home

My home I clutch because it holds what I know

I write what I know into the unknown

And what I find there I clutch

As my own

The birth of a poem

Like the birth of a poet

Ever-changing

A story to which

I’ve yet to find a perfect ending

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].