Concerning Craft: Poetry as Practice, Poetry as Life

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

irene1Please meet poet and novelist, Irene Latham, whose poem “Artichoke” appears in our Winter 2015 Food Issue.  This is Irene’s first time publishing in LPR, so I wanted to seize upon the opportunity to showcase our newest contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. And now, Irene Latham on her poem, “Artichoke”:

The longer I write poetry, the less I feel I know about writing poetry. Which makes it a bit difficult when someone comes along and asks me to write a little something about the craft of writing poetry. What can I share with other poets that they will be able to apply to their own writing?

Perhaps this: learning to write poetry is a lifelong journey. While I have no doubt accumulated my 10,000 hours, I don’t consider myself an expert. I am learning every day.

My approach to poetry is different now than it was last year, or a dozen years ago, or back when I was four years old writing love poems for my mother. When I was four, I wrote to say one thing: “I love you.” I could argue that every single poem I’ve written since then is also a love poem – but it’s not my job to tell you what my poems should mean to you. Poetry is a gift to the reader who can make it whatever he or she wants it to be.

These days I reject the notion of writing poetry as my “work.” Work is something one does, an act, something outside oneself. Clock in-clock out. There is no clocking out of my poetic life. It isn’t work so much as practice. I don’t craft so much as listen, play, discover. If I could go back and tell my younger poet self one thing it would be, slow down. Pay attention. Rest. Approach the page with the reverence a bee gives an aster. The practice of writing poetry is a way to love the world – not a way to conquer it.

I know what some of you reading this are thinking: enough with the spiritual murmurations. To which I say, never enough. To write poetry is to be insatiable, curious, passionate. The mechanics aren’t nearly so important as the essence. It’s the message that matters. Keep practicing, and you will discover more effective ways of delivering that message.

As a reader of poetry, and as a writer, what I crave most in the poetic experience is to be surprised and delighted. I want to discover fresh ways of saying “I love you.” I revel in language and imagination and creative presentation. Surprise me, O Lord, as the seed surprises itself.

In my experience the shortest distance between being a beginner poet and a widely published one is not measured by time or determination. It’s in the willingness to learn, the open-ness one has to all the world has to offer. The only way to fail at poetry is to stop writing it. Meanwhile, you must Live Your Poem. How? Find out here.

And how am I different from the poet I was a dozen years ago? Back then I was chasing poetry. I thought I could Make It Happen. As if I have any control over anything. And yes, in those years I have experienced the joy and perils of book deals and readers and my poems being included alongside such loveliness as is the Food issue of Little Patuxent Review. But I no longer take credit for any of it. It isn’t something I did so much as a gift that’s been given me.

These days I allow the world to come to me. I show up every day at the page to meet it. I trust myself as a poet. I practice and marvel and explore. I believe the words will come, and when they do, I will be there to catch them.

And sometimes, if I am very still and patient, I happen upon a call for food poems and the world brings me a new way of seeing an artichoke.

Irene Latham’s first works were love poems crafted for her mother. Her latest collection for adults, The Sky between Us, features poems that explore what nature can teach us about being human. She has served as poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal since 2003 and is the author of two award-winning novels for children. Her debut collection of poems for children, Dear Wandering Wildebeest (Millbrook Press, 2014), is set at an African water hole.