Writing Poetry With Patience
Poet laureate of Virginia
Professor, Old Dominion University
When I was a teenager in the late ’60s, the Black Arts Movement was at its apex and socially conscious poetry was one of its strongest arms. Because of this, I always assumed poetry was a necessary feature of American culture. It allowed people to talk about what was wrong in society and celebrate the good things that had been neglected. This fed my lunatic idealism and faith in words.
Part of the way oppression operates – and this is true for all communities – is through silencing. I’m in a position now, as a black poet laureate, to be heard by many people. Speaking about various issues, speaking “truth to power” as the saying goes, has been an important part of my life in poetry.
If I have a talent with language and I don’t talk about what’s happening around me, I’m being dishonest. Being an artist requires that I be attentive to life as we know it today. Talking about it. Screaming about it. Singing about it.
Perhaps I believe too much in what poetry can mean to society. I know it will never operate on the scale of popular music, but that’s a good thing. Poets aren’t thinking about big contracts or hits. That allows them to write without keeping one eye on sales – with the best they can muster of heart, intellect, and imagination.
As an older writer, I approach my poems with more patience. I write a draft. I wait. I worry. I write another draft. I work it over. I write more. I turn back. Rearrange the stanzas. Reread and cross out. I keep thinking there’s a chance I’ve missed something, that there’s a door waiting to open, a moment that will light up the whole poem. That’s what I’m hoping patience will give me: the key. If I rush, I won’t find it.
– Conversation condensed and edited by Mary Architzel Westbrook