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Airing your poetry in public

One writer shares how she learned more about reading and writing poetry in public

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From junior high school on, I was led to believe that poetry was the most rarified of literary art forms, practiced only by those whose extraordinary interpretive powers allowed them to craft the perfectly distilled construction of words.

So for more years than I dare count, I have kept my journal of furtive late-night scribblings buried under novels and newspapers on the table next to my bed. I have always felt it would be pretentious to say I write poetry - after all, what do I know of villanelles and quatrains?

But over the past decade, poetry has become more accessible. There's Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, an ambitious poetry audio-video archive for participants from all walks of life. Andrew Caroll's American Poetry Project hands out books of poetry all over the United States in train stations and subways. A whole subculture of refrigerator poets is hooked on Dave Kapell's liberating "Magnetic Poetry." There are poetry slams around every corner, as well as workshops, how-to books, and online poetry chat rooms and Web sites. It seems within the past few years as if everyone is writing poetry, some of it exquisite, much of it appalling.

All this has given me courage. So, OK, I admit it. I write poetry. Now what? Now the questions begin. Is it good poetry (and who is the arbiter)? Is it worth trying to share it? Trying to improve it? Am I ready to expose it to the light of day?

I come across an article in the New York Times Magazine on 1996 Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska that proves a turning point. Not only does her poetry strike a chord with me, she also tells the reviewer something that justifies my own scribblings and why I might feel the need to share them: "Poetry doesn't save mankind or people. It is my strong belief that poetry cannot save the world. It may help the individual reader to think. It may enrich his spiritual life. Reading it, one may feel a little less alone."

So after 16 years of marriage, I finally show my husband a poem, one he has inspired. He is moved. I am moved. So far so good. But what about someone less invested? I try a friend, herself a poet. She likes the three I send her, one more than the others because the concept is clearly defined. Constructive feedback. I like this.


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