When I was a twenty-something trying to become a writer, a friend and I met at a picnic table near a tiny creek in our faux wood apartment complex in North Carolina. We read poems to each other and then we wrote. We breathed through the sounds and lines. We discussed the choices poets made. Then we wrote. I can still feel the cheap notebook paper beneath my plastic ballpoint, how it felt to spill lines across the page, to connect points with other writers in the cosmos of time and space. Poetry made us willing to try things with words, made us wonder what surprising turns awaited, allowed us to explore a wider sky.
Also, poetry humanized us. Made it okay to be broke, okay to live in a lousy apartment complex, okay to come from troubled families, okay to dream that someday we would write something meaningful, something beautiful, something that would lift us into our next incarnations of self.
Early on, my poet mentors were female. Jean Valentine, Lucille Clifton, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, and Margaret Atwood. I needed these poets to tell me how to live a life that wasn’t the traditional American dream. Raised in Virginia, in a culture (at the time) with exacting requirements for dress and behavior and a reluctance to name aloud the troubles that might mark a life, it was clear that I wasn’t going to live within ordinary standards, that I wanted to say things I wasn’t supposed to say, that I found the limitations unbearable. These poets taught me that I could be what I am, an untamable person, a person who writes.
Valentine showed me how to deliver irrevocable sorrows with clarity and white space. Clifton taught me to speak of abundance in a wild sparsity of words. Plath shed light on the shallow niceties that kill the spirit. Lorde taught me the radical epiphany that despite being a woman, I had rights. Atwood existed as poet and novelist, a thing it took me a while to believe could be real. (Reading their work again as I write this, I feel the bright gasp of oxygen break across me, the way that poetry breathes right into the brain.)
I felt seen in all my own young brokenness when I read Valentine’s “Broken-down Girl” where she writes, “the youngest sister,/who fumbled down in such sincere pieces/Silver pieces!” I felt her exhorting me to go on, showing me what could be lost if I did not unbreak myself, how I would never become an “open book,/telstar.”
In her sonnet, “won’t you celebrate with me,” Clifton lays plain the struggle of a person “both nonwhite and woman” with a devastating invitation, “come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” The secret of this failure is held in this line, “one hand holding tight/my other hand,” to remind us, above all, that strength begins by being on our own sides.
In “Three Women” Plath had the gall, the nerve, and the prowess to create a chorus of pregnant women’s experiences of birth (and the world), one birthing a death, one birthing a loss, and one birthing her own motherhood, dust-cloud points of possibility I had not foreseen for friends having babies.
When Lourde writes “There are so many roots to the tree of anger/that sometimes the branches shatter/before they bear,” in “Who Said It was Simple,” her rage is understandable, for how many would choose to be in the body they are given? Especially, as Lourde notes, one that needs to be liberated because of oppression for both her color and her sex.
Lastly, with these four lines, Margaret Atwood warned me about love though I did not listen.
[you fit into me]
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
(I should have listened.)
Back when I started writing, the internet was a fledgling, so I encountered these poems on the page, in slim, crinkling books from the library, with only the line breaks and white space and my liminal knowledge of form or free verse to guide me. I waded into each woman’s set of ideas, warnings, exhortations without context. I found them where they still reside, in the galaxy of language where poems float, waiting to be plucked from the sky and inhaled, and there I found my context.
Frankie Rollins is the author of Do You Feel Like Writing? A Creative Guide To Artistic Confidence, and two books of fiction, The Grief Manuscript and The Sin Eater & Other Stories. She was shortlisted for Aesthetica’s Creative Writing Award 2023. Frankie is the founder of the Fifth Brain Collective, a platform offering online classes and coaching and community for creative people.