When I was thirteen years old, I announced that I was going to be a poet when I grew up. I had already been writing poetry for years – since the age of 10 – and both my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Alexander, and my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Melchior, had encouraged me. Mrs. Melchior, in particular, was a lover of words.
When I handed her my latest poem, she would gaze over her glasses at me and crow, “Wonderful!” in her gravelly voice. I took to carrying a marble bound notebook with me wherever I went in case inspiration struck.
Those writing notebooks became my refuge in high school and college, but it was soon apparent that I wasn’t going to be a poet when I grew up. I began writing short stories and went to a graduate writing program where the lines between poetry and prose were clearly drawn. You could be one or the other, not both. By my early thirties, I was working on a first novel I later abandoned.
Another novel, also abandoned, and then another followed. The third try was the charm, and finally, at the age of 45, my first book was published. At long last, I could say with conviction that I was a novelist, but there was this dirty little secret I didn’t like to mention. I still wrote poems from time to time in my journals or on scraps of paper that I tucked into manilla folders and left on my desk.
After my first novel was published, I went through an unexpected poetry binge for a couple of years. I needed a different form to clear my head for the next long prose project. I made friends with a number of poets and began attending monthly open mic poetry readings in the town I had recently come to live in. I quickly discovered that there were plenty of writers in the area, but the fiction writers tended to stay in their houses wrestling with the next manuscript. The poets were out and about, though, and loved to gather for readings, the more often the better. If I was to find a community of writers in my new town, I discovered, I would find it among the poets.
So I became a “closet poet.” I published a few poems in online journals, but I thought of it as writing I did for fun and distraction, not the real work of producing the next book. For this reason alone, the poetry was more valuable than I knew. But it was valuable for other reasons, too. In reading and writing poetry, I was reminded of the rhythm of words and sentences, and the importance of giving every word and every line its weight. The careful attention poetry demands made me a more careful prose writer.
Poems rest on the line or word when the poem “turns” and takes on unexpected or more complex meanings. A good poem contains worlds within it and holds up to multiple re-readings. The distillation of poetry means that each word must be essential. Short stories demand the same attention to language and turns of meaning. They move, in many ways, in a similar fashion to poems, from the establishment of an inciting line or incident to the deft registering of a moment of insight or meaning.
A novel works with a much broader canvas, but paying attention to the shape of sentences and rhythm of paragraphs is important, and shaping the plot so that it leads to a satisfying resolution is crucial. Poetry has helped to give me an intuitive sense for these elements of the craft of writing a book-length manuscript. Perhaps that word craft is key here, for though craft exists in every writing form, you could argue that poets practice it at the highest level. I have learned from poetry to value craft and pay attention to it.
My most recent book, a memoir, took me a new direction. The story was already a given and the voice was mine, unvarnished and undisguised.
The subject of the book is my friendship with an unusual poet who lived off the grid and sold his books of poems on the street for a penny. Writing about Robert Dunn’s unique life and his poems brought me into the world of poetry again.
Robert taught me a great deal about being dedicated to writing and living on one’s own terms. You could say that he turned his life into a poetic act. I tried to capture the spirit – and poetry – of his way of seeing the world in prose, and drew on my experience writing poems to do this.
There is always more to be written – short stories, novels, essays, and poems. Writing in different forms gives me the sense that I can find a way to say what I want to say. Having a variety of options available makes me feel that I am not limited in terms of imagination or language.
With this comes freedom, and as I grow older, I have come to see that freedom to write whatever one wants, however one wants, is a writer’s greatest friend and tool.
Poetry, more than anything else, has given me that freedom.
I’m grateful to Mrs. Melchoir and a host of others who showed me that writing, and poetry, might always be there for me, and always possible.
Katherine Towler is author of the novels Snow Island, Evening Ferry, and Island Light, a trilogy set on a fictional New England island spanning the second half of the 20th century. She is editor of the anthology A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. Her most recent book is a memoir, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth.
She has published her short prose, poetry, and interviews with authors in Agni, The Sun, Poetry International, NH Home magazine, the Huffington Post, and the Tusculum Review. She teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at Southern New Hampshire University and lives in Portsmouth, NH. Visit her website at www.katherinetowler.com