Guest Blogger and Issue 52 Contributor, David Salner, blogs about the long road to learning to write poetry.
No one installs a ram-intensive program on their computer without good reason. Likewise, the craft of poetry. I began installation of that program for the typical teenage reasons, several agonizing encounters with high school crushes. Writing poetry about an unrequited crush gave me a feeling of control I lacked in real life.
But the installation wasn’t complete. I had to download other files that involved writing sonnets and strict forms, all valuable training. Then to surrealist and experimental verse. I downloaded all kinds of programs. I wrote obsessively. But I’m embarrassed when I read the few examples that remain of my early writing. I would have to say of it: “The person who wrote this has learned something about poetry, but he has nothing to say.” The love poetry was better than the experimental poetry because at least it was about something.
Maybe that’s why I quit writing. Those program files were designated “rarely used” by the hard drive. I still read poetry, still loved the sound and the way the thoughts moved from one line to the next, accumulating meaning as they went. But I had little desire to write. I worked for many years in mines and factories, talked to my coworkers about hot-button issues like police brutality, war, abortion rights.
What I did during that time period was real life. Everyone is different, everyone learns in different ways, and I learned more by not pursuing an academic career. Academia would have doomed me to a cloistered existence. I tip my hat to professors who have succeeded in blending academic and ordinary life. When you come right down to it, all of us live ordinary lives. Even John Ashbery lives an ordinary life.
I found what I was doing exciting and important. It was tied in with issues I very much support. But at a certain point in my life I needed to relax, to step back a little. I had become an old guy. I won’t say exactly how old, but think of a guy who refers to AARP members as “those kids.”
A quick search of my hard drive, and I saw that those “rarely used” program files were still executable. As I got back into writing, I learned a lot from reading Philip Levine. His work was part of the reason I tried to revive the old craft, to update it, to dust off the cobwebs and see if I could still write. Dorianne Laux is another poet who writes about the trials and triumphs of ordinary people.
I am a good example of the oldster poet, not necessarily a good poet, at least not yet. A better poet of this type is my friend, Greg McBride. He was not a poet until he retired from a rigorous career. But his experience taught him to reflect with wit and tenderness on the events of an ordinary life. This is not a review of Greg’s book Porthole. But if you read it, you’ll see what I mean. He’d learned to use the events in his life as a window or porthole into all our lives.
Our work has been shaped by a lifetime of watching and listening. When we began to write seriously we had a lot to write about.
For me, learning the craft as a young person—and then quitting it entirely—were both part of who I am today. As a young, would-be writer I couldn’t have known poetry would not be a part of my immediate future. But when I finally came back to it, I valued it all the more. It helped me embrace my past.
David Salner is the author of John Henry’s Partner Speaks (Word Tech, Cincinnati, 2008) and Working Here (Rooster Hill Press, Minnesota State University, 2010). He worked for 25 years as an iron ore miner, steelworker, and laborer; he holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Recent poetry appears in Poetry Daily, New South, Tampa Review Online, Threepenny Review, and many other journals. Chapters from his novel about hard-rock miners in the Old West appear in Cottonwood Magazine. His poem, “Dear Tim,” appears in Potomac Review Issue 52. Salner lives in Frederick, Maryland, with his wife, Barbara Greenway, a high school English teacher. Find Salner on the web at http://www.davidsalner.blogspot.com/