On poetry and purpose

A few days ago, I read an article on The Atlantic that struck a chord. In it, author Sherman Alexie reveals that a single line of poetry inspired him to dedicate himself to the arts.

Bang. It was right there. It was waiting for me. People talk about “that moment when you just know”—I don’t think that many people actually have that moment. But I did. And from then on, there was never a Plan B.

I truly envy people with the ability to completely trust that hope has the power to transform yearning into reality with enough single-minded focus. I’m still mustering up the courage to tell myself the same, and in my own way I’m inching ever closer to taking that leap of faith.

After reading the article, I thought it would be a good exercise to search my personal history for my own creative epiphany. I then promptly got consumed in a hot streak playing Candy Crush Saga and the thought escaped into the recesses of my brain. But last night, I had a very vivid dream that I’d like to believe was the thought forcing its way back up to my consciousness.

In it, I was behind the wheel of a station wagon and pulled into the driveway of a generic suburban house. Sherman Alexie proceeded to hop into the passenger seat and off we went, driving and talking. He asked me why I spent so much time engrossed in Twitter, and I explained that it was a great way to reach out and build links. He suggested that this was only true if I was writing something that actually connected people. The rest of the conversation is a bit fuzzy for me, but I do distinctly remember that as I drove I realized that I was not completely in control of the vehicle. It was not out of control, per se, but the brakes would not completely stop the car, only slow it down.

I woke up thinking, “I must tweet this!” Not the most enlightened interpretation of what is actually a lovely metaphor, but in my defense I hadn’t had my coffee yet.

It took less than a minute of pondering before I arrived at the genesis of my love for poetry. I was 10 years old, and I was given the complete works of Elizabeth Bishop as part of a summer writing seminar. While the course picked apart form and pattern and symbolism in her more famous long-form poems, in flipping through the book I came across an opening line that struck me instantly. Much like Alexie, it only took this one line for me to know that, at my very core, I was and always would be in love with poetry.

The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.

Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;

until a name
and all its connotation are the same.

Conversation, Elizabeth Bishop

She packs an amazing punch into a very short sentence (and the very short poem that follows). The tumult in the heart keeps asking questions. She posits there is a purpose to the emotional chaos we all feel to a certain degree. The confusion of love, of life, of the complex internal interactions we have with ourselves is itself a sentient force. I believe that being a creative person means embracing the intensity of these interactions, good or bad. That belief took root the day I read this poem, and it gave me a voracious appetite for words in any form.

That same year, I also had a run-in with prose that helped shape my artistic vision. I went into our basement and browsed our home library, picking out a book based solely on the cover. Despite the wisdom in the old adage, this turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. The book was The Martian Chronicles. I read it in one sitting, staying up late into the night to get to the end. When Ray Bradbury passed away last year, I cried as if he were family.

In a week and a half, I will no longer be working at my current job. In a month and a half, I will no longer be living in Beijing. I’m not entirely sure what the next step is , but somehow hurtling headlong into the future isn’t such a terrifying thing when I stop and remind myself who I am.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

And this is a beautiful thing.

7 thoughts on “On poetry and purpose

  1. I always knew you were a writer. I enjoy reading every word you put to print, twitter, Facebook or wherever your writing happens to fall. I especially enjoyed your early work at the age of 10! Take time to dream, then follow your heart. Your writing over the last five years has kept me informed, laughing out loud and at times wondering when your best seller will appear in print or on Kindle! Keep writing; it is a gift that not everyone has.

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