My life as a poet began with a love of words. A year before I took my first step, I was already speaking in full sentences, though only in the company of my own family. I was a shy kid who felt safest alone or in the company of one other person.
For the first several years of elementary school, I did my best to remain invisible. Then, in fourth grade, someone outside my family finally saw me: my Language Arts teacher, Miss Stephens. In Miss Stephen’s eyes, I became a person. In her class I became a poet. I started to let my cloak of invisibility slip to the classroom floor.
I’m sure Miss Stephens taught us many things about parts of speech and punctuation, but it’s the poetry I remember. She showed us how write haiku, where every syllable counts. Because of her, I think about the sounds and meanings of words every time I write or speak.
In sixth grade, I was mortified by a note passed around my class asking people to sign if they believed that “Mimi eats encyclopedias for breakfast.” Everyone in class signed that note.
As you can imagine, a child who eats encyclopedias for breakfast might find school a little boring. So Mrs. Williams, my highly perceptive teacher, invited me to create a project of my choice, which turned out to be a book of animal poems.
Like so many poets, I spent the next decade writing the tortured (and often cryptic) poems of adolescence. What I lacked in joie de vivre, I appear to have gained in courage, since I summoned the guts to enter a poetry contest run by the Chapel Hill branch of the American Association of University Women. In sixth grade I won second place with “Thoughts of a Child in a Concentration Camp.” In seventh grade, I earned first prize with my poem “Southern Belle.”
I wrote throughout high school and college, sometimes for school, but more often as a way to figure out how the world worked. Mostly I kept my volumes of journals (which now fill several bookshelves) separate from my poems. My journals were bowls to catch the overflow of adolescent emotions. I wrote the poems to craft something that might be useful to my future self and maybe, if I were lucky and diligent, to others.
I’ve always liked William Wordsworth’s definition, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” As I grew older, I started to understand the “tranquility,” a state of mind not usually available to adolescents.
When I was accepted to the Warren Wilson MFA Program in Creative Writing, my father gave me three gifts. First he asked if it would be okay for him to pay my tuition, a gift I’d never expected.I accepted with astonishment, and, I hope, a certain amount of grace. Next, he gave me Eudora Welty’s book, One Writer’s Beginnings. And finally, he told me, “I know writers often write about the people in their families. I want you to know that you can write anything you want about me. Just tell me what to read and what not to read.”
In the 26 years since Warren Wilson, I’ve made my way as a writer and as a teacher of writing. I’ve struck a balance between Wordsworth’s “powerful feelings” and his “tranquility.” I’ve helped over 25,000 students and teachers—many of whom would rather scrub a bathtub than write a poem—discover the poets within themselves. And I’ve kept exploring the world through poetry.
This week, I’m teaching poetry to fourth graders at my old school, E.C. Brooks Elementary. It’s another gift in a series of gifts, the chance to share with kids what Miss Stephens helped me discover when I was in fourth grade: that you can be seen and heard, and that paying attention to the sounds and meanings of words is one way to become visible in the world.