Remembering the Era of Poetry Chapbooks

Compared to Holden Caulfield of the J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye by my high school creative writing teacher, I thought that I had a foothold in the world as a poet. I hadn’t read the novel yet so I had no idea the mental state of the character Caulfield. True, my creative writing journal reflected on the day-to-day emotional abuse I endured and my naive socio-political views (why was the world so polluted and why were men creeps?), but I don’t think I was in a similar mental state to Caulfield.

However, I didn’t fare much better with my poetry mentors, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and the angst they fostered in my soul. I knew that my view was melancholic and ultra dramatic as I jotted down song lyrics that sifted through my brain and wrote poems from a small town teenage mindset. This didn’t stop me from soaking in the poetry in the form of lyrics from 1960s rock artists. They were so profound. And then when my generation born in the 1960s formed bands and released albums I gravitated towards their despairing observations. I thought we were all screwed at the time too.

With bands like the 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., The Waterboys, Aztec Camera, and U’2 blaring from my stereo speakers, I turned my mind to penning songs which I eventually belted out on stages in Seattle and surrounding areas. And during that time, I began writing real poems inspired by Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ana Castillo, and other Latin American or Spanish poets. I also enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s poetry during that time.

Even though I entertained magic realism and read humor books too, I wrote to the tune of melancholia and the angst unfortunately continued well into my forties. In 1989, I produced my first chapbook called “Blue Persephone.” The writing landed somewhere between song lyrics and poetry and I did include lyrics to my songs. I was inspired by a friend who created her chapbook on a word processor and with the help of Kinkos Copy Center. At the time all the do-it-yourself rock musicians and writers relied on Kinkos for printing demo tape covers, chapbooks, and other artistic ventures.

Since I met and befriended musicians with varying skills, I traded with a musician friend for the graphic design of my poetry chapbooks. I chose Neptune blue for the cover and wished that I had chosen card stock instead of heavy weight paper. My friend designed the cover and layout of the poems. And while I saved on the graphic design costs, the printing costs ate into my meager funds. I was able to at least sell the book at my music gigs and at other events. I also had some folks order copies of the book. I guess I was self-publishing before Amazon came along.

While my second chapbook, “Persephone Lost” had a better design with a mauve cardstock cover and an ancient image of the goddess Persephone, I think the poetry was bleak and not my best work. I did like the maps I cut from National Geographic magazines included in the design. Similar to Sylvia Plath I reached low as far as despair and depression went, but I didn’t stick my head in an oven and end my life. Fortunately, I kept writing and eventually my poetic gift grew in strength thanks to my sophisticated tastes in poets, including W. H. Auden recommended to me by Gerard Langley of the English band, The Blue Aeroplanes.

By the late 1990s, I directed and staged to spoken word productions for a fringe arts festival. While I wrote all the pieces for the productions, my sister, an actress, helped shape the production. We turned poetry on its ear, moved it outside of the literary box, and even added television type jingles as satire. The poems reflected on the ways pop culture had ravaged society and I squeezed in my socio-political views which had matured since my teen years.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, my poems landed in the pages of Seattle-based literary journals and I joined poetry readings around the city. By the end of the 1990s, I joined a Latino literary troupe called Los Nortenos. We hosted and read our work at Day of the Dead and Cinco de Mayo events. Then, during my last year of living in Seattle, I published two poems in a literary journal associated with North Seattle Community College.

Since then, I hit a poetry desert that has spanned nearly two decades. I decided to concentrate on short fiction and novels. Occasionally a poem wormed its way out of my brain onto the pages of a journal, but it wasn’t like the previous era when I published poems and presented them to the public. I’ve watched my colleagues from Los Nortenos go on to win awards for their poetry and accolades leaving me on the shore watching the ship sail off without me.

Perhaps, the poetry muse will return for me. I know that the planets and placements in my natal astrology chart scream poetic gift, but somewhere along the way life circumstances stole my muse from me. And this week as I attend an online writing conference, I remembered those chapbooks that I published in 1989 and 1990. I remember the care that went into every word and even the silent pauses when I crafted those poems knowing that I would never join the ranks of W.H. Auden and certainly not Mary Oliver.

There’s this grim view in our society that poetry is something anyone can write, like a housewife in her spare time. But a true poet is someone who dedicates themselves to the power of the right word married to the appropriate landscape and dancing to exotic rhythms. Poetry derives too from life experiences when those traumas don’t destroy the poet and he or she lives to see another day transformed. Not everyone has the depth of a poet or will dig as deep into the collective unconscious in the same way. The poet doesn’t fear the shadow lands and in fact lives there.

I can’t fake a poem for the sake of writing one. When I return to the muse, I prefer to gift her with truth and integrity. While I honor the poets who came before me and even my contemporaries, writing for the sake of writing is not good enough for me. If I return to poetry it’s because the poems write themselves through me and that I have something wise to say that doesn’t resemble the teenage angst of Holden Caulfield.