I’ve been a few places at the beck and call of poetry. About a year and a half ago, my family and I went to Lisbon, Portugal. There, I was part of the Disquiet International Literary Program. I took a host of great workshops, learned under some great editors, poets, and publishers, and took in the culture of the region. My sons, my wife, and I will never forget the adventures we had there.
That being said, the trip served more as an editing escape than an impetus for new work. Oh sure, there was one little poem I wrote about a kid playing a violin for Euros, but largely, visiting Portugal meant a time to revise and perfect established work. It also meant a time to clear head-space otherwise cluttered by the obligations of everyday life. I was on the fringe of publishing my most recent book, Hard Inheritance, at that time, and this retreat allowed respected peers to exert their influence and offer judicious advice over its contents. My boys learned a little Portuguese, we dined on native foods, including exotic seafood dishes, and we generally broadened our perspective on this world we share.
With this history (and others) in mind, you can see why I’m always a little skeptical of poems wherein the author turns an artistic opportunity into their lame family-room vacation slide show: “And here is Edith standing by the fountain, facing east. [Click] And here is Edith standing by the fountain, facing west. [Click] And, oh yeah, here’s the fountain without Edith. [Click]” We know you’ve traveled. We know you’re fortunate enough to afford trips. We saw your social media posts.
But in your writing, can’t you offer us something truly remarkable stimulated by your travels? Take those brick streets, those tile building fronts, those pastries made with a 1,500-year-old recipe, and turn them into something meaningful. This is not the first Friday of a new school year — the one where the teacher expects you to stand up and read your trite five-paragraph essay on “What I did on My Vacation.”
And frankly, that’s not what we, your audience, want. Take the seemingly insignificant detail and expound it into meaning for us. That’s what poetry does. It takes the textures of ancient walls, the smells of the labyrinthine streets, the stilted but friendly grammar of the Tuk-Tuk driver, and combines them all into a portrait from whence we can extract something deeper. Give us life. Flood our brains with emotion fueled by imagery. Make us breathe a little heavier.
The poem is not the place for your snooty “How Great I Art” moments. That kind of poetry wrinkles noses in disgust, squints eyes in pity, smirks lips into plain repugnance. Instead, give us your revelations — those moments of gravity, levity, and epiphany that draw us to poetry in the first place. We know you’re proud of your travels, and well you should be. But the poem is not the place to name-drop, nor is it the place to boast, even if there is a form called “The Brag.” Don’t shut the reader’s mind with ego. Open it with relevance. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is today’s sermon. Please contribute to our benevolent offering as you head out the exit doors at the front and sides.