Every journey has milestones. If you don’t know exactly where you are going, or how far, you may see those markers without really recognizing them as milestones or finding them particularly meaningful. And sometimes, the journey you are actually taking is different than the one you thought you were taking; each step of the journey opens up new possibilities, and so each step of the journey is, in essence, the beginning of another journey. My own personal practice of poetry has been like this. I want to use this week’s post to share a couple of milestones on my own journey.
My journey started in earnest about five and a half years ago: On 12-August-2012, I began an active, daily practice of poetry. I didn’t have any clear idea where it might lead. The idea was to read (A LOT) and write (A LITTLE) daily, a ratio of 50:1 pages roughly, and do that for a while and see what happened.
I’ve loved poetry since I was a child, and began committing other people’s poems to memory when I was in primary six. When I was in secondary school, and while first starting university, I had aspirations of being a “writer” of some sort, and remember a dream where someone told me I probably wouldn’t be able to make a living writing poetry. Truth, although I remember as a young teen resenting that information, taking it as a judgment of the quality and importance of my writing rather than as it was intended…a general truth about supply and demand economics as far as poetry goes.
As a general rule, this is true. Nigerian performance poet Dike Chukwumerije is the hardest-working, most beautiful and deserving exception to this rule that I know. His poetry celebrates diversity, transmits history and lessons learned from it, provides a living, breathing, laughing, weeping, hope-instilling chronicle of what it means to be Nigerian…the difficult heritage, immediate necessities, and future possibilities. Recently, Dike and his team took the Made In Nigeria / Simply Poetry show for their first performance in the northeast, in Maiduguri. After the show, this is what he had to say about it: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10159962000480257&id=684490256 And after I read this, I felt compelled to engage in a centuries-old Hausa tradition and compose a praise-song in honour of his visit. Which resulted in this:
AFTER THE MAIDUGURI SHOW
I dreamt I’d been leaning against a window
during a lesson, had fallen asleep and somehow
fallen through the opening into an outside
I didn’t recognize. There was only one kind
of plant here. Every single thing with leaves
was all this one same species. And only one
kind of lizard. And one kind of bird. Gone
were the kingfisher, cormorant, and chicken.
Gone were the kite, parrot and the river
eagle. Only this one kind of bird was here.
It was as if heaven had lost its all of its
creativity, had gone in for automation, gone
in for efficiency. The nightingale, after all,
really isn’t good for anything. Neither so
the hummingbird, neither stork nor ibis. Why
waste the space, the energy and air on such
variety? Imagine this: a heaven that has
decided we are simply too lazy to appreciate
all the effort that goes into diversity. In
fact, perhaps we might best go back and check
our scriptures…but of course, if heaven’s
gone in for automation and efficiency, then
there would only be one book to check, no
bothering with that tailoring of revelations
to a specific audience, specific people in
a specific time and place. In fact, if we
go back to check, there probably wouldn’t
be a book at all. Why bother, if such a vast
majority seems not to care to read between
its lines? Why not just send signs? Or rather,
sign. No plurality. No diversity. Nothing
to catch the interest. Keep everything plain
and simple and homogenous. That way it would
be easiest, for sure. No debate, nothing
to contemplate, potentially misinterpret or
misunderstand, no mysteries, no wonderment.
We wouldn’t need language then, no poetry
or stories. There would be no lessons to be
passed down, generation to generation, no
hard-learned truths to share, no experience
worth mentioning that was any different
than anyone else’s. No addresses needed,
no geography. All places and all people
safely boring, all of us the same the same.
And there’d be no beauty, no new experience,
no wonderment. As above, so below. And so
there’d be no joy. No creativity. There’d be no
one like Dike Chukwumerije, no #MadeInNigeria
– Laura M Kaminski (Halima Ayuba), 25-February-2018,
after reading Dike’s posts about the Maiduguri show.
If you have never been exposed to Dike’s poetry, you can either find some of his spoken word performance videos on YouTube, or you can begin with one of my all-time favourite poetry books ever, On My Way To Azure Shores, which includes a number of his early poems as well as his own more recent comments on each of them.
Somehow, someway, with that 50:1 poems read to poetry-sketches written ratio, I stumbled on through into 2013 and 2014, and actually had a couple of poems accepted for publication. It was also during this time that I discovered the online journal Right Hand Pointing (Short Poetry, Short Fiction, and Short Art). Short poems are amazing.
Personally, I have a tendency to overwrite, as if I’m sprinting on a track for each poem. I start the lines some distance before the beginning of the actual poem (as warm-up, presumably), and end well after the ideal finishing line for the poem, cooling down. I’ve gradually learned to take a blank piece of paper and cover the first line of each poem, whether in my journal or on the screen, and read the poem without it, see if it’s really needed. If not, move the cover-sheet down one line at a time until I get to the first line that’s actually essential. Then repeat the process from the last line working up, until I figure out what parts of what I’ve written are the poem itself, and what lines were just warm-up and cool-down.
I submitted a few times to Right Hand Pointing, and actually even had a poem accepted. But that wasn’t really the milestone. I kept hanging around like a puppy on the porch, reading each issue carefully and trying to understand what makes short poems work. The editor, Dale Wisely, one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever met, eventually invited me to be a volunteer reader for RHP. (THAT was a milestone. I didn’t recognize it at the time, because I didn’t know where I was going, but it was.) The rest of the story there is predictable…you feed the puppy, the puppy doesn’t leave. It grows. And it stays. And I have stayed at RHP, and I have grown. I’m a full-fledged editor there now, and reading more short poems than ever before (particularly these past two weeks, when we’ve had a flood of submissions of poems under 30 words).
Volunteering to read through submissions has been enlightening. It has forced me to think more about how and why a poem does or doesn’t work. It has pushed me to really explore the aesthetics of different journals, try to recognize what makes a poem “RHP-material” or “The Lake-material” or “Peacock Journal-material” and so on…to find the common ground beneath the poems editors have selected for such journals, to try to find what makes a poem fit one place and not another. This has actually done wonders for my own submission process in terms of choosing what pieces to send where for the best chance of placing them. I still miss, but not nearly as often.
Reading submissions has also given me this: EVERYONE misses sometimes, no matter how many Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, no matter how many awards and published collections…everyone misjudges and sends in something that really doesn’t fit or doesn’t work as a poem every now and then. It’s no big deal. It’s okay. Declines just mean you’re still on the court, in the game. They’re a signal to do what you always do when you miss the net. You recover the rebound. Dribble. Shoot again.
And being on the other side of the submissions desk has given me a LOT of empathy, patience with other editors. Insight into the workload involved and dedication required to maintain a venue through which other poets’ poems can reach readers. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had absolutely no clue what it takes to edit a journal until I was invited to participate more actively at RHP. Dale’s invitation to be a part of Right Hand Pointing was a milestone, even though I didn’t realize it fully at the time it happened.
Today, I’ve reached another milestone, and this one I recognize as such. Like becoming someone who edits at two different journals (Right Hand Pointing and Praxis Magazine Online), this milestone is something I couldn’t have envisioned as even being a possibility five and a half years ago. Today, I received a message in Submittable that begins like this:
Dear Laura Kaminski,
I am happy to inform you that your essay, ‘Wow! Now What?’, has been accepted for publication, and it will be included in the upcoming anthology from Black Lawrence Press, ‘Far Villages: Welcome Essays for New and Beginner Poets’.
An essay. Accepted. For those of you who know my poetry, I have enough trouble with English punctuation that I resort to using dashes over-frequently – because I tend to write the way I speak, with asides and pauses whenever I stop to think or become distracted by something interesting. I split my infinitives. I splice my commas. And begin sentences with connectives. For those of you who know me personally, you know I love to share what I’ve learned, but will never be qualified to teach because I never finished university. But my essay has been accepted by anthology editor Abayomi Animashaun, who edited the amazing anthology Others Will Enter the Gates (Black Lawrence Press, 2015).
So Mum? Whenever you get around to reading this, thank you for sticking with me and encouraging me, even though you’ve never gotten to have the Mum-moment of watching me walk across a stage and accept a certificate and graduate from anything. Ever. Thank you for believing in me, and reading my poems, even the ones that go on too long in both directions, even the ones that miss entirely. This one’s for you.