I do not have favorite women poets. There, it’s out.
I do not have favorite men poets either, so it’s an even deal. What could this mean? After all, I am a poet, a poetic author (I’ve been likened to Jane Kenyon and Annie Dillard), and the owner of T. S. Poetry Press. Oh, and I manage our online presence: Tweetspeak Poetry. I should have favorite poets, should I not? At the very least, it would make it possible for me to write articles on my favorite (male or female) poets. I am so difficult.
the way a jar of honey
All that sweetness
gets stuck under the rim,
makes your hands shake
they have to work
If you want to know (or even if you don’t), I wrote this poem in response to a manager who told me one day, “You are so difficult.” That is what I do with poetry: I respond. I respond to alter a situation—in this case, I wanted to add nuance to the questionable statement about who I am and how I think (yes, I playfully sent the poem to the manager). I wanted to create context, to place myself in an object that would speak in pictures and sounds, creating a new way to understand. This is how I write, yes, and it is how I choose what poems to love. Maybe these poems are written by women and maybe by men. I can like them either way, because they are human.
The most human poems are the only poems I care to love, or publish. They are responses, they give context, they place a person—in San Francisco or London, or on Cape Cod. They alter understandings.
I have always been this way. Difficult. At least from a literary standpoint. I have always liked what I liked and taken it from there. I have not cared if you are W.B. Yeats or Mary Oliver, if you could be human in words. This is why I give publishing space to young girls and sometimes ignore old men with their pens like swords.
The painting steps out of the frame, laughing,
Leaning against the wall, red lips and long black hair
Curling around me, and the paint
Hot and quick.
Running through my fingers, it
Chatters like a saw
Spinning flax from the gold
Painting the walls red.
—Sara Barkat, age 14
Humans are ultimately tied to place, and I think that is why if I had to choose my favorite poets they would probably be the ones whose poems either create a sense of place (even if it is surreal, as in the poem “3” above) or rely on it. This is why I love Mahmoud Darwish. You cannot help but taste Palestine, and his exile from it, when you read of jasmine, apricots, doves and dust. It is also why, though I have never followed the poetry of Mary Oliver, I was recently drawn to her while planning a trip to Cape Cod.
In the anthology Cape Cod Stories, I found these lines tucked into a 36-line poem called “Mussels”:
rock over rock; I choose
the crevice, I reach
You see how it is. I loved Mary Oliver not for her whole poem, but for just two lines that relied on her life on Cape Cod and perhaps explained it (only the hardiest souls choose to live year-round on Cape Cod). The poem is not a favorite, but the two lines could become a favorite if I say them again and again, let them curl around me, feel them as they melt hot and run through my fingers, invite them to get stuck under the rim.
To have a favorite poet would mean I might stop choosing, rock over rock. I might let Mary give me anything, rather than searching her words for human mystery and the allure of the crevice.
At a recent writer’s conference, a publicist explained the theory of J. K. Rowling (and others)—whose books go downhill in terms of being tightly-edited, the more famous the author becomes. “The publishers don’t want to mess with the magic,” she said, meaning that once an author makes it, publishers hesitate to give the work its best edit, lest they accidentally edit out the inexplicable things that readers have unknowingly come to love. Instead of two outstanding lines (so to speak), we get an average thirty-six. And instead of a favorite story, we trade up (or down) for a favorite author. We stop choosing.
As a girl, I developed an early penchant for choosing. I am not sure why. My home life was oppressive, even abusive. I existed in the crevices in order to survive. Now I credit my mother—who had a hard time choosing and defending herself—for the subversive (as it turns out) act of reading poetry to my sister and I on a daily basis.
We had our favorites. “The African Chief” and “Young Charlottie.” Poems of suffering, poems of being oppressed or choosing to be oppressed (Charlottie died of her own ill-choosing to go out into a wintry night with little but a silk coat, on a horse-drawn ride to a dance with her date; the African chief also died, through a subliminal choice of what seemed like the lesser evil… to die freely on the sands instead of living as a slave).
Poems taught me to reach, rock over rock. They taught me to choose and not to give myself over to categories. They taught me, as it goes, how to be difficult—to know what I love and be unafraid to say so.
L.L. Barkat is Managing Editor of Tweetspeak Poetry, a site committed to helping people experience a whole life through the power of writing, reading, and just plain living. She is the author of six books, including the award-winning Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing. Visit her at llbarkat.com or follow her on twitter @llbarkat
Honey photo by alsjhc, Creative Commons via Flickr. Red Hand photo by Rookuzz, Creative Commons via Flickr.
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