The poems we leave behind us

Posted by on June 29, 2012 at 12:21 am.

For the last month, I’ve spent more time staring at stacks of my poems than I have sleeping. I was finishing a book and all I could think about. Sometimes I even felt incapable of talking about anything else to my friends and family.

Finally, on Saturday, I released the book, Love Poems on Bar Napkins, here in Gainesville. And since this morning, I’ve been selling autographed copies online for $10 (what a steal). That includes shipping.

But enough plugging, I’m here to tell you a story.

Bringing together 48 poems into a collection requires a lot of reflection. Besides finding the right order, I also had to edit each poem, some of which I wrote in college. I’m a very different poet now, and I had to decide when to leave a piece alone or, in a few cases, when to completely rip it apart.

During that process, I got a lot of help from my editor, David. He made suggestions for most of my poems and pulled together the draft order for the book. David understands poetry, and his suggestions were almost always right. When I was getting ready for the final draft of the book, we spent 5 hours sitting in a coffee shop, and he gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten about a poem.

We were discussing my poem “Tequila Sunset,” and he started to make a point, a minor point that I don’t remember, this way: “I know this really happened, but…”

That poem didn’t happen. In fact, unlike the majority of my work, it isn’t even based on something I witnessed. Almost the whole thing came from inside my head, but I had him convinced I was telling a true story. That accidental compliment from David, who knows how far a poet will go to manipulate an audience with words, made me excited for my work and kept me going while I finished work on the book.

I was still riding that high two weeks later, when I flew back to Illinois to visit Jean and my family. One night, sitting in her folks’ house, Jean pulled out the suitcase in which she keeps every note I ever wrote to her in high school. (Yes, she has one of those, and I have a corresponding bag in my apartment.) Apparently, she’d been digging through a few days earlier and reading some of the poems I’d written in the early days of our relationship.

They were terrible.

But while I was reading them, I spotted what I was trying to say, the poetic idea I reached for but never quite attained. And in a few cases, I could think of a poem I wrote later that used the same idea but was good enough to include in my book, the first copies of which were being shipped to my apartment.

My father’s favorite cliche was running through my mind. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” he’d asked me a million times. I perfected the appropriate groaning response. But still, he was right. And the poems before me, written in fading pencil and creased from being carried in khaki pant pockets for a day, were the first attempts at writing the book I had just finished. The first step toward convincing David I was writing a true story.

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