Monday, September 21, 2009

Life Risks

by Jonterri Gadson

In one of my meetings with Greg Orr (both names for Marita's sake lol) he made the comment that poetry must really mean something if I'm willing to take such life risks in the name of it. He's right; I have it bad for poetry, I do. I already know I won't be happy doing anything else, so it's less about poetry being some sort of talent, and more that poetry is an affliction.

I can't get the idea of taking life risks out of my head. We're all taking life risks for the sake of our art. But why? How did you come to the point where you were willing to make sacrifices to be a poet/fiction writer?

I'll start and I'm going waaay back to third grade lol.

In 3rd grade, I was taken out of the regular English lessons to go with a special tutor and write short stories for an hour every day. This was because I scored well above my grade level on the English section of the achievement tests. This was the first time I received positive recognition for writing/English.

In 7th grade, I heard about a poetry contest. I wrote down this poem and handed it in to my Language Arts teacher:
Shattered dreams of mine, created over time
By a little girl, in her own small world
with a wide expanding mind

Shattered dreams like glass
in my mind they last.
What about her future
and the time she spent preparing
for the shattered dreams to pass?

That's a pre-teen JT original, folks lol. I agonized over that last line. It's still not right, well, the whole thing is just wrong lol. I read it so much before I handed it in that I still have it memorized today. She didn't comment on it, just told me to type it up and mail it in if I wanted to. I never mailed it in.

In 8th grade, I stole my mother's poetry from a box in the garage and brought it to school. My mother wrote this poetry in the 60' a black woman in the 60' a black woman in the 60's in America. Well, anyway, the poem I turned into my 8th grade English class as my own was "Black Man Let Go of That Dirty White Hand." OMG! Oh, did I mention I was in Idaho in 8th grade. Yeah, that went over well. "It's a little militant, don't you think?" LOL I remember the beginning of this poem:

We've been in the white man's hand a little too long
Now it's time we let him know that we too are strong,
but to do this we must have black unity
but black people are not united as our people should be.

So yeah...

In high school, I was asked to read "To--" by John Keats out loud. I started out reading it with a fake English accent and trying to be funny and then I got caught up in the rhythm and the beauty of what I was reading and I actually started saying "oh!" out loud like "oh, how beautiful." It was crazy. That's the first time I remember being affected by a poem. I read that poem now and I don't see what I saw then.

In short: I grew up. I let myself down. Other people let me down. And by people I mean men lol. But family too. Religion no longer made sense to me and I felt very alone just for being alive. The one thing I was certain of was my internal drive to write. So I decided that if I was going to be here on this Earth doing this living thing then I was going to do what I was internally driven to do so I could at least maybe have a shot at happiness while I'm here.

So that's me and why I write. What about you and why you write? Why are you taking life risks (like getting an art degree lol)? I'm interested to see things we might have in common that led us to writing.


  1. I gave up a perfectly good legal career. I quit lawyering to get an MFA, and it feels like a pretty big sacrifice. Why did I quit being a lawyer? Why did I do it? I read Cormac McCarthy and he just rocked my world so much that I wanted to do what he does. Probably never will but as the years go on I'll get closer. I read the opening to Suttree over and over and over. I knew that, for me at least, I needed the support of a writing community to move forward as a writer, I would have floundered on my own, hence the MFA.

    Anybody else have their world so turned upside down by a particular writer that it pushed them out of reality land into the writing world?

  2. Really funny and moving, JayTee! I can see your using your mother's poem as your own as a great scene in a screenplay.

    I write because, no matter how hard I tried to be passionate about something practical and lucrative, I kept wanting to write. And for me, lucrative and practical didn't actually happen, so what was the point?

    I'm making up for lost time by applying to MFA programs now. It feels like a marriage to myself. I've finally gotten over my commitment issues...

  3. I'll try to keep this short, but it was always a dream of mine, when I was little, to emulate the things I loved, which were books. But by the time I got to college, I had decided the 'smart' thing to do was get a degree in computer science, get a good job, and write on the side.

    Long story short, one night, I was staring at my Calculus book, and I told myself "if I fail calculus this 4th time (I think it was. maybe third), I am going to change my major." Well, I didn't study at all, and was so unprepared for the test (I didn't even know what it was on. Not a good idea in math) that I didn't take it. Instead, I walked straight over to the dean of English, and changed my major to English.

  4. it is a strange satisfying moment when you give yourself over to your passion.

    i had given up writing for about 6 years when, in 2006, i was on a trip to japan and loving it! at one moment we were in a park and there was supposedly a statue of basho somewhere in the partk, i was too embarrassed (and tired) to ask my travel companions to help me find it, but that moment made me realize that i wanted poetry back in my life...

    like 5 months later i had applied for an mfa...

  5. "It feels like a marriage to myself. I've finally gotten over my commitment issues..."

    Kerry - I have said this exact same thing!

    My story is similar to yours too, in that I had tried to be "practical" but the only thing I really wanted to do was write/teach writing/talk about writing/etc. So, at 30, I decided it was high time to make it happen, so I applied to MFA programs and here I am.

    I didn't give up a lucrative job, but I did leave a wonderful life. It's definitely been the right decision!

  6. An affliction. An addiction. A lifestyle. I learn about myself through writing. I communicate with others through writing. These things alone do not make me a writer, though the extent to which I value them does contribute.

    Perhaps I feel as though language is my lover. My life partner. Nothing is more beautiful, more meaningful, more compelling to me. It feels tangible, even. I can weave myself into its limbs, wrap myself around its core.

    I've felt like this since I was three or four, haha. So it's perhaps not quite as sensual at its essence than I've described.

  7. I love this post, J.T., and you are a brave soul. Your tone reminds me of Alice Fulton's.

    I looked up Gregory Orr, because I'm not familiar with his work -- I know, I know - it sounds like I should be, but poetry is vast...)
    -- and I found this tidbit on

    In the opening of his essay, "The Making of Poems," broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Orr said, "I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive."

    Orr's quote resonates with me in answer to the question "why write poetry." That, and an impulse to describe.

    I was led to poetry when I was a kid by obsessive binge reading and the gentle nudging of a few supportive teachers who saw something in me, that I had some facility with language and a creative impulse.

    I wrote early poems, too; rhyming ones I still remember from age ten that I won't repeat for your and my benefit but which provided me with that initial, early nudge of wondernment -
    " I can do this. I can make the world as I see it, with words."

  8. I decided to be a poet because it's the only thing I've ever done that wouldn't let me abandon it. I eventually came to the conclusion that it was my calling, almost like a religious calling. I'm a big fat agnostic when it comes to faith in God, but ever since I started writing it in the 4th grade I've always had faith in poetry. Plus poetry keeps me balanced because it allows me to express every part of myself, not just the aspects that function well in the sunlit world. Poetry is where my shadow self can coexist with the rest of me, and when I'm not writing I can feel some part of me deep inside suffocating and clawing at the walls for air. It's hard to describe (which is why it was so hard to write the personal statement) but some part of me always knew I needed to be a poet and the process of becoming a poet has mostly consisted of getting past my need to be practical about it.


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