A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
Oh – you have my number, Wynston Hugh!
Since childhood I’ve been crazy about language and its ultra-super powers. Really! It has the ability to hurt, to heal, to humor, to incite riot, to bring calm, to shove old ladies out of the paths of oncoming cars – or at least to warn them that they’re about to be splattered.
Is there anything it can’t do?
Still, going from loving language enough to marry it, (or just live in sin, raising lots of little bastard words along the way) to being a poet? Quel Voyage!
When I was in the third grade, an amazing local poet named Billie Jean James visited my school. I was already in love with language (and yes – I was one of those kids with mainly books for friends. Looking back on it, personal hygiene might have played an unfortunate role in my lack of popularity; my friends the books didn’t care how I smelled… but I digress). Billie Jean read some of her work to us, and then taught us to write concrete poems. I still remember mine – but I’ll spare The Tart and her gentle readers.
After that I was, for a time, a poem-writing fiend. I had a short attention span so I got really into haiku. I even began to entertain notions of being a poet when I grew up.
I made the mistake a few years later, of confiding this to an older person, a playwright. Don’t ask me what I was doing hanging around with playwrights at that tender age when I should have been hanging out in front of the 7-11 learning USEFUL skills, like how to tap for beer – but again… I digress.
“So you want to be a writer,” he said, stroking his Van Dyck* beard. “What do you think you want to write?”
“Haiku,” I told him, beaming with the best that was in my fourteen-year-old self.
“That’s ridiculous. You’ll never get anywhere writing poetry.”
And until that very moment – it had never occurred to me writing poetry SHOULD get you anywhere. It was just something one did for the love of it.
The notion of having to earn a living had been a far-off concept like… knowing that someday you would have to learn algebra in order to graduate high school, or that smoking could cause lung cancer. It was not something to be concerned about in the now.
But once I began thinking of poetry as something that should be getting me somewhere, it became less appealing. The pressure of having to do something with it was too much. Gone was the innocent joy of writing just to write. And no, it didn’t at that time occur to me that I could do things concurrently – like say, write poetry while earning a living, or tapping for beer.
So I stopped.
Flash forward several years. (Cue montage of me with hilariously outdated hairstyles, thus demonstrating the passage of time). I read poetry, loved poetry, wanted to marry Lawrence Ferlinghetti and keep Gary Snyder on the side. But I didn’t write poetry.
You couldn’t get anywhere by doing that.
Somehow, I did become a published author, writing amusing middle grade fiction. Not that you can necessarily get anywhere doing that either… but it’s fun and by now I have learned to do more than one thing at a time.
I’ve managed to write while being a Child Advocate.
I’ve managed to write while running a Tae Kwon Do school.
I’ve managed to write while producing children’s theatre.
Still – no poetry.
And that remained the case until a kid in my life came out to me as transgender. This is a kid I’d been close to for years. I’d seen the struggle without knowing what it was about. There was anguish, and fear, and discomfort, and hope. And she poured her tale into me. And then I got to know a couple of other kids who were trans as well. And I felt their story.
I called my friend Ellen Hopkins and said, “You’ve got to write something for these kids.”
She patiently listened to me go on and on and on, before telling me, “No – It sounds to me like YOU need to write this story.”
It took awhile. A long while. And when I finally sat down to do it, this poem bubbled up. It wailed and waved its arms and refused to be put into prose.
Because when one of your Very Good Friends is the most-amazing-verse-novelist-in-the-world Ellen F. Hopkins**, and you start writing a novel that is shrieking to be verse… Well – there’s a lot to panic about.
So I kept trying to shove this story back into prose and it kept leaping out of the closet, insisting that I was trying to force it to be something it was not.
I had the ultimate trans story, right?
I called Ellen again and told her I was having this issue. She was great about it. She said to just let it be what it needs to be. That the tale is such an internal one, operating at such a depth in regard to consciousness, that the verse medium is honestly its best servant.
She said that poetry is the truest way to tell certain stories and that I should just relax and go with it.
Not that you need to go anywhere with poetry.
Now I can honestly say that there is no greater joy to me than language. Playing with it, honing it, rubbing it all over me, luxuriating in it. Writing for the sheer ecstasy of writing. I’m that crazy-in-love. But I would be lying if I didn’t also admit that there is a certain… happiness at the thought of running into a certain playwright again.
On a day that I just happen to have a copy of FREAKBOY under my arm.
*This is the only part of the story I made up. He was clean-shaven. But it sounds good, right?
** F is not really her middle initial – but I think of her with affection as Ellen F*@%#ing Hopkins, because she’s THAT awesome.
Kristin Clark fell in love with the English language early. She reads constantly, and has from the time she was small, written on a variety of things. These include her father’s beloved copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, her mother’s living room walls, and even the family dog. This last was accomplished using blueberry juice on patches of white fur. We are not making this up.
She now writes on a computer.
Her first two books (under the name Kristin Clark Venuti) were the middle grade novels LEAVING THE BELLWEATHERS, an E.B. White Honor Book, and THE BUTLER GETS A BREAK, both from Egmont U.S.A. LEAVING THE BELLWEATHERS was also published by Brilliance Audio and is available on iTunes.
FREAKBOY , a transgender coming-of-age novel in verse from FSG/Macmillan, is Kristin’s YA debut. It publishes 2013.