life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Writing Poetry as Patriotism: A 9/11 Reflection

high angle photography of city buildings
Photo by Samuel Walker on

9/11/01 gave Americans pause. We paused to mourn, we paused to reflect, and we paused to resolve. Along with that pause, though, came poetry. People needed catharsis amid crisis, and poems, no matter how good or bad, helped us. Some of the stanzas written were angry, some were sad, and others were just reaching and exploring to make sense of immense tragedy.

Americans wrote poems of every conceivable stripe. Now, as the vivid images of 9/11 turn “adult” by reaching an 18th anniversary, poetry writing has waxed and waned. There have been national events that have spurred on the creation of more poems, certainly, but the problem is one of motivation: Once the flames of inspiration have cooled, so do passions for writing.

As people accept whatever happened, be that a terrorist attack or a personal milestone, their desire to produce poems is seen as a mere whim — something brought on by extraordinary circumstances, and definitely not something to continue in “normal” times. But this line of thinking is flawed; after all, poetry has historically served as the documentation of our everyday lives in the present. Why should today be any different?

Billy Collins writes about Cheerios and the forgetfulness of old age. Tracy K. Smith writes of museums and cathedrals. Aimee Nezhukumatathil pens pieces about baked goods and auctions. Everything (literally everything) is the stuff of poetry — why should we reserve a whole genre for some special occasion, treating it like the good silver or the fine china? Life is too short to keep our words safely untarnished in credenzas of the mind; break out the good stuff and use it now! Not just for the funeral, the wedding, or the remembrance.

Eighteen years ago, more than three thousand people breathed their last. What poems passed with them? We who remain are charged with an obligation — to communicate our selves so that others may learn, recall, and understand their own humanity. The absolute best way to accomplish this task is through poetry. Don’t wait for another tragedy, another landmark in personal history, or another ceremony to strike your creative fancy. There are poems within you right now. Write about the unconsidered objects in your office, that funny thing a child does, the weather wherever you aren’t. Write about a long-forgotten item buried in a drawer. Write the smells on your daily commute. Write poems. America needs them.


poetry, Uncategorized

On losing role models

Jake Adam York
Jake Adam York

Yesterday, in the midst of national mourning over Newtown, CT, America quietly lost one of its brightest young poetry stars. Jake Adam York, author of A Murmuration of Starlings and other great books, passed away after a stroke. The thing that makes this so difficult for me is not that I was close to Jake as some of my friends were, but the fact that he and I share so many similar “markers” in our lives. We’re roughly the same age (he was a little older than I), we both write “Southern” literature, although in very different ways, and we have followed fairly similar professional paths within higher education. His accomplishments far surpass my few little awards and recognitions, but we both shared similar goals and ambitions, as well. His voice was unique and upbeat, and I found myself going to his work frequently as a guide, especially for my regional work.

People who knew him well described him as kind, open, warm, and fun to be around. As I was telling a friend of mine who befriended Jake early on his career, I knew his work and his voice primarily through reading his stellar poetry. But secondarily, I felt like I understood him as a person through his seminars, workshops, and videos of his readings and speaking engagements. Granted, none of these media replace truly knowing a person. However, by gaining a sense of his perspectives, his vision, and his understandings, I felt like I was participating in life alongside him as a fellow poet. Maybe that statement is a little selfish, and certainly it isn’t intended to be.

His legacy should inspire writers and poets everywhere to produce their finest work. None of us knows when our last breath will be, and we should aspire to disseminate work that reflects the very best of ourselves. Jake did. As our country and the literary community continue to heal from tragedy, we owe it to ourselves to reflect on all our gifts and blessings, especially in this season. Pondering the bittersweet combination of loss and generosity should motivate us to use our talents for the betterment of our world at large. Our role models, no matter what field they may be in, always point us toward things higher, greater, and more important than ourselves. We owe it to their memories to preserve the spirit of excellence by doing our utmost.