My father died when I was in my early 40's. He'd been sick for over a decade so every time we saw him we thought it would be the last--until one year it finally was.
His was the "closest" death I'd known so it still took me by surprise. To deal with the grief, I started to write poetry. I'd written it before, haphazardly, knocking out a few lines when it seemed nothing else would do, but this was different.
It started to pour out of me. I'd sit every night at the table or in front of the TV banging it out. I'd loved poetry in high school, but intended to become a fiction or non-fiction writer. Who read poetry? What "future" was in it? Who paid money to buy it? If you didn't have a job teaching what good was it?
Reminiscence about my father soon turned into an attempt to recapture childhood itself, and that into an exploration of the great themes and topics. I recall handing in a few to my writing teacher at the time and he responded succinctly: "No poetry permitted." I'd picked him knowing that, but couldn't keep it in mind. My own intentions were lost.
I therefore picked for my teachers the poets. In no particular order, I gobbled Yeats, Lorca, Whitman, Ginsberg, Corso, Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Eileen Myles, Ted Berrigan, Rilke, Blake, Anna Akhmatova, the Sufis, Phil Whalen, O'Hara, William Stafford, Antonio Machado, C.P. Cavafy, and on and on. It was during this time I discovered my great grandfather was from the same town as Robert Burns, and for many years travelled throughout the Midwest reciting his poetry to anyone who'd listen. At least, there was a precedent, so maybe it wasn't prelude to a psychotic break.
The most special living poet is Robert Bly, who I got to know, and took classes from around the country. He became my guide and provided not only a style, but a methodology. Robert teaches by example that a poet is more than someone who plays with words, as the academics so often imply, but cultural architects. It's no accident they're often the last line of defense against tyranny and oppression--even now in our so-called "advanced age."
The secret is in the sound and how one "looks and opens." Another influence was Ken Macrorie, a former teacher at colleges across the land, who wrote the only real analysis of my work and it wasn't bad. He didn't charge either.
Yet I couldn't quiet shake that it was a useless exercise and on occasion tried with all my might to "give it up," but within a few days found new words popping into my head complete with a cadence that made it a crime not to write down. Okay, I was hooked. It was horrible, relentless, non stop, a curse, and a savior. It didn't help that a revival was going on at the time, and there didn't seem to be a church, coffee house or bar in the city that didn't have "poetry night" and I lived one block from St. Mark's Church, which was pretty much at the center of the kabob.
I found getting published in the many papers poets produced for each other wasn't hard, though getting into the so-called "professional" mostly university sponsored publications was nearly impossible. Surprise! Poetry comes with politics too! When I couldn't get on the schedule for the St. Mark's, I fell back on my own resources, rented the place for a night, and asked some friends to help put on a reading. We were in a large organization at the time, so there were plenty of people to invite.
Truth be told, I didn't exactly know what I was doing, or why, but with enough lead time I was committed and could make it up. My life became centered on it. So as not to bore my guests with poetry I wrote a couple of short plays, and scoured the subway platforms and waiting staffs of East Village restaurants for musicians and actors.
There was a flyer with a picture of me in a bathtub wearing fly fishing gear. I called it "an evening with me." The event became, of its own accord, a testament to the reasons I thought life was worth living and learned I wasn't the dark prince after all. I wore costumes to that effect, my mother came, along with 150 brave souls who had no idea what they were getting into yet I personally didn't see any walk out.
We videotaped it, or two thirds of it, and the tape is still somewhere in the apartment, I think. Midway through, unscripted, it came to me to say, "I'm a poet, always have been, always will be." But I didn't add the "damn it" part that plagued me. I went on after that to produce an evening of short plays, but that's another story.
Today, I still write poems because I can't help it. I don't send them out to journals any more. What's the point? I publish them occasionally on Open Salon and sometimes get two thousand readers and sometimes two. I'm not sure that makes much difference either, unless the "magic" happens and someone is actually moved by what I've written.
In any event, after a satisfactory poem is written, I'm compensated by the sense of relief from the pressure that led to the writing in the first place, and the fact that I'm liberated from it and can move on.
You can judge for yourself by clicking the tag "Ben Sen's Poetry" beneath this post. You can't erase them, but you can rate, comment or use them to reflect. It's free.