Becoming a Poet

Things have been a little quiet here on the blog (and in my kitchen) lately. If you follow me on Instagram, then you’ve probably already seen some hints pop up in the feed, but just to rip the band aid quickly, I’ve decided to leave G and am in the middle of moving this week. As you can imagine, it’s a little bit insane. You don’t live in a house for several years and not accumulate odds and ends in every nook & cranny. Slowly but surely, I’m boxing and labeling and running out packing tape and dealing with all that fun stuff. Food has taken a backseat (chili twice in less than seven days? Don’t mind if I do!) to the move, but I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of cooking & sharing in the coming weeks.

For now, though, I want to jumpstart a little series I hope to run this year. Something completely unrelated to food and cooking and photography, but nevertheless integral to my life. And I really haven’t written about it much on here before so I figured it was time to make it a little more front and center. Curious about what it is yet?

Poetry, of course.

Well, and writing in general. Poetry is the reason I’m here in Roanoke and, to an extent, why I decided to stay in Roanoke. It’s something I’m pretty obsessed with—anyone want to do a virtual poetry bookclub? Say yes!—but also something that defines me.

If you’ve been reading the blog for too many years, you might remember my ex who I called The Poet. He wasn’t the only poet though, I’m the other one in that dichotomy.

Is it weird to say “Hi, my name is Jes and I’m a poet?” Sure. It’s really weird. And, truth be told, it’s something I’ve identified less as over the past two years, but something I’m working on making into a bigger part of my life.

Hence this mini-series on writing.

So to kick it off, I figured the best plan of action would be to give a bit of background. Like why poetry? And how?

I suppose like most writers, writing was something I just always did. But from a pretty early age (i.e. five or six years old), I realized that fiction just wasn’t my thing. I would sit down and start writing little stories (you know, on that giant lined paper designed for kids learning how to write the alphabet) and my attention would trail off at page two or three (maybe two paragraphs in, honestly). I just didn’t want to have to make up a story. Even back then, the real world fascinated me more than something I could make up in my head, so I began to write little poems about what I saw around me.

Take for instance the beginning of the first poem I ever remember writing:
“Samantha, Samantha, wave your tail,
hold it pretty and wag it like a sail.”

There was more to it than that, but, thankfully I’ve forgotten it. The neighborhood dog that I was madly in love with? Fodder for my creative brain. Something fictional about goblins or aliens or some girl named Mary? Not going to happen.

It’s strange, looking back, and realizing that creative writing simply was not taught in any of the schools I attended, and as a result, reading and writing about books because my true love. Sure, I worked on and contributed to the terrifyingly emo high school lit magazine, but outside of that, I didn’t really know that writing was a thing—A thing that people actually do for a living. So I applied for college, was accepted to several, and ended up at the only place I applied to in my home state (I desperately wanted to leave the South)—Emory University.

This is actually from Freshman year. It was a poem I was working on while flying from NYC to Atlanta.

Cue Freshman year Intro to Poetry class. See Jes realize that she really enjoys writing and cares about the craft. Know that Jes will not, in any way-shape-form allow herself to be a Creative Writing major because, well, jobs. Employment. Paying the bills. That sort of thing. Fast forward a few years to Jes meeting The Poet at a poetry conference. Next, the drunken workshops at Estoria (pitchers of PBR and mad hangovers), submitting to journals, getting the first poem accepted at a major lit journal, applying to MFA programs, deciding to go to Hollins on fellowship.

Does that seem like a fast transition? It really was. And I find myself wondering what would have happened if I’d never met The Poet. But remember how I said I never liked making up stories?

From one of the many MFA hikes

The MFA is a post I need to write all on its own. It was amazing. And hell. And easy. And the most work I’ve ever put into something. I highly recommend pursuing one if you’re interested in writing and if the program gives you a full ride. It’s not a degree that guarantees you a job—or anything close to a job—so, for the love of all things sacred, DO NOT go into debt for it.

But the main thing I learned during the two years at Hollins was that I seriously do not like writing fiction. I adore reading short stories and novels, but the process of trying to write a short story for mixed-genre workshop my first year was painful. And the resulting “story” was utter garbage. That semester, more than anything, solidified my identity as a Poet.

But I knew that writing poetry wasn’t going to translate into a full-time job, and, while I’d been lucky enough to teach an English class on the collected poetries of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, with the academic job market shrinking, I knew that my lifelong dream of becoming an English professor probably wasn’t going to work out either.

So I joined The Man. I sold out and worked for a small company whose execs only had one goal—to make money. And it worked out for awhile, but I was miserable and not even attempting to write anything post-graduation. I joked around that I was on a “writing sabbatical” for a year, but that time off lasted a lot longer than one year.

Pantone bug!

It was during my time with that job that I became interested in graphic design and began to take classes at the local community college, staring with Adobe InDesign (the layout editing program). One thing led to another which led to the teacher reading my blog and passing along my info to The Roanoker magazine and all of a sudden I was a freelance photographer who specialized in food but also contributed to other editorials. And, eventually, after several months of shooting photos, I talked them into letting me contribute articles as well. Which meant I could call myself a freelance writer as well as a Poet.

Well, hot damn.

Since March of last year, I’ve been writing restaurant reviews, talking about mountain bikes, and covering environmental issues ever since. It’s been a crazy ride with many to-the-minute deadline scrambles (my habit of procrastinating didn’t magically evaporate post-school) but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Ah, but poetry—where did that go? Honestly, until a few months ago, I wasn’t reading, let alone writing any. I was a Poet who never wrote poetry. I was burned out, depressed, sick of Roanoke, you-name-it, but then I was invited by some of my colleagues who also stuck around after graduating from the MFA to join them in an informal monthly workshop. Well, with a deadline, you gotta write something, no? And so I’ve started to. And it’s been rough. I’d seriously forgotten how workshops rip apart what you think is solid work and toss the scraps to the wind. But that’s a good thing, and something you should always want as a writer: honest criticism.

Wine & cheese & writer friends make it all better.

It turns out that, for me, all those tropes of the solitary writer fall short. In order to want to write, I crave like-minded people. Workshopping has made poetry come back to the forefront. Writing, like so many things in my life, is only worthwhile within community, and I’m stoked to be back in the game.

So that long-winded, rambly post in which I said I’d give you a history of my life as a writer? I realize it didn’t quite turn out as planned—but isn’t that the way it all goes?

Going forward, what would you, as readers, like to get out of the writing series? Stories about the MFA program, snippets of poems I’m currently digging, book reviews? Throw your thoughts in to the hat and then I’ll know where to direct this thing.

Look for recipes starting next week when I’ve made it to the other side of the move. 2014, I can’t wait to see what you have in store for me. It’s bound to be a wild year!

This post was sponsored by Grammerly, an automated online proofreader that finds and explains grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes in all types of writing. As a sometimes teacher, I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker to see if any of my students are ripping off other sources (Wikipedia, I’m looking at you). Thankfully, in the undergrad courses, no one did. But always better safe than sorry, right?

All thoughts, opinions, photos and words expressed are my own.

7 Responses to “Becoming a Poet”
  1. Caitlin says:

    WOW! after seeing your instagram pic yesterday about moving, i kept thinking about how i hoped you’d do a post soon about what you’ve been up to. and i’m blown away! i’ve been following you for a little less than two and a half years, so i wasn’t aware at all about the poet or your education. what an amazing story and transition period you are going through right now. it must be hard. but exciting.

    i’d love to read about your new life as a poet, your schooling, and favorite poets. my favorite poet of all time is raymond carver. have you ever read his poem, hummingbird? his poetry book, all of us, has a million dog ears, asterisks, and underlines.

  2. Chrissy says:

    First of all, hugs to you as you go through this transition. Moving is hard no matter what, but moving on from someone complicates things even more. I am thinking of you and wishing you the best.

    That said, I’m also really excited about your new series (obviously!). I’ll be most interested in how you carve out a writing life with everything else going on. I also love anything process-related. And if you are serious about a virtual poetry book club, I would be interested. One of my unofficial goals for 2014 is to read more poetry.

    All that to say: I’m happy that you’re making your way back to poetry. <3

  3. Monika says:

    Wow, so many changes! I don’t have a smart phone (ergo no Instagram account) so I was totally unaware of your move. Change can be good, though, and I can’t wait to hear about what 2014 has in store for you. :)

    I’d especially love to hear about your MFA experience, and it would be great if you’d share some of your poetry and book reviews. I deliberated over applying to an MFA program, but have applied to law school instead. I figure either way, I’ll definitely get in my share of writing. And, yes to a virtual poetry club!

  4. FoodFeud says:

    AhhhH!!! I am so excited for you. Wow, life is a whirlwind, huh?
    Firstly, I hope all is well with you and that you can settle into yr new life in Roanoke peacefully.
    Secondly, holy shit that’s all amazing! I’ve recently started thinking about getting an mFA too. I write poetry constantly (self-releasing my second book next month) but I’ve never really had much formal training. It’s interesting to see what fell into place for you, and how.
    And YES if you are serious about a poetry book club, YES!
    Best of luck to you, Jes. And if you ever feel like sharing yr poetry, I’d really love to read some.

  5. Jenny says:

    Here’s to going back to your core! I dabble in writing sometimes but only seem to be able to when I’m angsty. Ha! No discipline otherwise. Poetry book club sounds great.

  6. Eileen says:

    Wow, what a huge change–I hope you’re doing ok. And even though it’s clearly a big wrench, it sounds like it’s going to be good for you. And can I say I totally want to see pics of your new apartment? :) I’ve kind of been in the same post-MFA non-poetry-writing place for a while. It certainly helps that I spend practically all my time writing and editing other things! But I think it would be good to get back into the art side too. (Did people in your MFA always argue about art vs craft too? Because that certainly happened.)

    Also I very heartily second that although MFAs are awesome, NO ONE here should attend an MFA poetry-writing program without a full ride. NO.

  7. Renae says:

    Wow, you have so much going on. First of all, I hope the move went as smoothly as possible. The end of a relationship is always a sad/weird time and moving can be a pain, but here’s so hoping a fresh new start is exactly what you need to get back to yourself and your poetry.

    What would I like out of a poetry series? I’m not sure because I’ve never really been into poetry. I love fiction (reading it, that is – like you I hate writing it!) and as an English major I have a soft spot for the most of the poets English majors learn in Brit Lit and American Lit classes, but I’ve never felt compelled to pursue any poetry on my own. So maybe your series can convince me to look again and find an interest in it; I’m open-minded! :) I’d also be interested in hearing more about your experience in the MFA program. Every year or two I announce I’m going back to school, but for a different pursuit every time and then I second guess myself on whether it’s what I really want to do and I never get past applying. Also, how do you have time to do all the things you do and work full time??

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