No matter how much of my free time I spend writing and think about poems, no matter how many get published, no matter how many open mics I read at, I’m not sure I’ll ever be at ease calling myself a poet.
Ill at ease and mindful of the stigma that mixes pretentiousness with flakiness, I wind up doing it anyway. And I smile and try to shift the topic to something that will give me a chance to sound like someone who isn’t going to break into rhyming couplets, use words like “authenticity” and “passion,” or mope on the stairs for the rest of the party.
Recently I had to do it again, this time on the record.
I was interviewed, along with a fellow poet, by a local college paper about an event at which we performed an original spoken word duet. We muddled through questions about the event (which we only sort of understood) and our poem (which we didn’t want to explain, as its central theme was lack of clarity).
We thought we’d done well enough, until…she closed the interview by asking us each why we write poetry.
I wasn’t prepared. I babbled, trying to outrun the cliché answers that always arrive in the mind first, having the advantage of a cheater’s headstart. I couldn’t have been less articulate if I’d been drinking absinthe.
I asked my coauthor to finish my half-baked sentence. We passed back and forth twice more, trying to save each other from sounding like poets. I’m pretty sure we failed.
Luckily, when the article was posted, we’d been spared by the reporter’s mercy or perhaps the online equivalent of column inches.
Next time, I’ll be ready. I’ll figure out why I write poetry and have a ready answer that’s brief and therefore virtuous, that doesn’t lead to more questions. I’ll practice until it doesn’t sound rehearsed and, above all, doesn’t make me sound like a poet.