Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In my 16 years as a high school English teacher in Pasadena, CA, I knew several students through the years who kept notebooks of their writings. I remember one young man in particular named Carlton, a shy, studious tenth-grader who always carried around a thick blue canvas binder filled to the brim with looseleaf sheets that sometimes poked out around the edges of the notebook.

An Early Bloomer, a True Poet

Carlton honored me one time by allowing me to see what was inside his blue notebook. After school one day, he asked me if I wanted to see his writings. Of course I said yes, because I'd been curious since he'd first walked into my class with the fat book under his arm. I knew he loved poetry, and I knew he wrote it, too. I just had no idea how long he'd been writing and how committed he was to mastering this art.

Carlton had dozens and dozens of poems written in pencil, in his handwriting, that he had evidently put his heart and soul into writing. The pride and joy in flipping through his book and sharing tidbits with me about this poem or that one were very clear in his face and voice. Some of his poems mimicked the style of old classics. He said: "I know it's not good to copy other writers' way of expressing themselves, but I want to understand famous poets better, so I practice writing like they do. Of course, I'm trying to develop my unique style along the way." How astute this was! I was impressed with his approach and noted, also, that most of the writings were poems reflecting his own thoughts in his own way.

Carlton was absolutely right that what he was practicing was wise. By the end of the year, when he showed me his new collections of poems in the now-fatter notebook, I saw his growth and knew he'd be a well-regarded poet someday. Carlton lived and breathed poetry. He read and wrote it every day, throughout the day. He loved discussing poetry and analyzing it privately.

I came to learn that he came from a poor family, which I suspected by the way he dressed and the shoes he wore. His hair was often unruly, uncombed. I also suspected he didn't bathe daily. I noticed that he wasn't a social student and was often alone during lunchtime and after school. He was a loner, basically. But he always carried himself serenely. He had a kind smile on his face and spoke softly and courteously to others. He seemed, to me, a gentle soul, and I was happy that he was my student. I wondered, sometimes, if he was a poet because of a limited social circle, or if his dedication to writing created his isolation. At any rate, he did not seem unhappy with how he had chosen to live his life through literature.

Unfortunately, I lost contact with Carlton after a couple of years. Did he give up his love of poetry? Did he go to college? If so, did he graduate? What line of work did he go into, for few poets can make a living from their poetry. I wish I knew what happened to Carlton, because I felt in my heart when he was in my class that he was a good human being who enhanced his world in his own quiet, shy, creative way. He didn't seem to share his poems with many people, but he did share with others occasionally. In class, he shared openly, and my other students showed appreciation of his talent. I wondered how Carlton's family felt about his passion for poetry, and if they openly nurtured it. I hope they did.

Carlton was one of the more pronounced cases I've personally known of someone showing, early on, a deep love of poetry and engaging in poetry writing at a young age. I've known many students who kept diaries or journals, or who started collecting their writings while in high school. No one, however, was like Carlton: he had obviously been writing for many years before I met him, and he very clearly was totally dedicated to honing his art, his craft, to being the best poet he could be. It was in his blood. This student was a true poet in his heart and soul.

Other Poets Start Later

I am also much inspired by people who take up poetry writing later in their lives. Perhaps they happened upon a book that moved them deeply and transformed their lives. This happens, you know.

Or perhaps the late bloomers in poetry took a class and were motivated or inspired to write poems. Perhaps they suffered a crisis in their lives that was assuaged through the act of writing poetry. Perhaps a love of songs, of music, metamorphosed into writing poetry for the sake of the poetry, without music. This happened to Rod McKuen, a famous singer and songwriter in the 1960's through the 1980's who also published poems as poems in the 1980's. Sometimes success in one genre of writing, such as short stories or novels, spills over into new territory: poetry. This happens, too, such as with Ray Bradbury.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes people decide they enjoy writing poetry when they're not teenagers anymore, or are not such young adults either. They may be grandparents. They may be retired from their occupations. Perhaps it's because now they have time to think, to slow down the hectic pace of life, to savor moments with greater attention to what these moments hold and represent.

These poets, too, are worthy of admiration. Starting late, they may not have the big fat notebooks of poets like Carlton. But what these late bloomers lost in quantity, they gained in focus and dedication.

A Case in Point:
A Texan Named Rosalinda

Rosalinda Vargas recently published an e-book of poetry titled Not Only Dark Poems. This is her first book-length publication of her poems, since one was published as a single poem in The Writer's Gallery Magazine in 2009. Rosalinda is a silver-haired, regal-looking lady who also happens to be a proud grandmother. In her native Texas, she is supported in her new venture by her husband and family.

The e-book is a skillful blending of poems either in English or in Spanish. There is a buoyancy, a sense of whimsy throughout Rosalinda's poems. She does justice to her title. These are, by and large, not dark poems, but poems her grandchildren or other young people can relate to and enjoy. Some are tongue-in-cheek, as in these lines: "In the morning I drink coffee/In the evening I drink tea/Today nothing bothers me/Tomorrow we shall see."

The topics Rosalinda covers are topics we all know well and care about: family routines, romantic attraction, nature, dealing with change, children's fears, animals in our lives. Rosalinda sees these topics through fresh eyes, as an innocent child might see them, and describes them in clear language and catchy rhythms. She likes rhyme, and her poems' consistent embracing of rhythm and rhyme make these appealing to younger audiences. I can picture Rosalinda reading her poems aloud to audiences and relishing the descriptions she has created.

Rosalinda's poetry is a labor of love. She may have come to poetry late, but she has embraced it and takes joy in her creations. I can visualize her devoting more and more hours to writing poetry as she savors the rewards of a poet expressing herself in ways comfortable and dear to her. More power to Rosalinda! Her e-book is available at http://www.offthebookshelf.com/ .

Let Us Not Be Afraid to Create Poetry

Carlton and Rosalinda have one big thing in common: They were not afraid to begin creating poetry. For each of them, there was a moment, or many moments, that called to them and exhorted them to take pen to paper and to express themselves in a poem. For each of these writers, there was that all-important first poem, their first effort, their first creation.

One of my favorite aphorisms in my adult life has been this:  The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Sometimes attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, this simple statement captures so much of our lives. Everything must begin somewhere. Whether our poetry writing journey spans hundreds of poems over decades of time, or whether our poetry writing began last year and resulted in only three poems written thus far, the important thing is:  We have written poetry. For this, we are better off in this life. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Birds criss-cross my backyard, chirping their joy in the blue and stopping to feed at my eight birdfeeders on shepherd hooks here and there amongst the flowers. A few bolder souls go to the top of the two-tiered concrete fountain gurgling in a corner of my patio and shower unashamedly in front of me. They shake their feathers dry and swoop away contentedly.

This is what Sundays are for. Stopping, slowing, bringing the simplicity and beauty of the natural world into our consciousness. Breathing in a new beginning for a new week. Sipping my cup of hot chamomile tea under the large canvas umbrella and noticing the pink corona of flowers on the potted cactus near my feet. Seeing that the bonsai pine and the bonsai bougainvillea flourish in their ceramic dishes in the shadowed corner of our deck. Listening to the gentle chimes of the tall bronze pipes strung together and swaying reassuringly in the breeze under the eaves of my bedroom wall.

Yes, this is what Sundays are for. Not thinking of the news. Not thinking of the refrigerator needing repairs. Not thinking of my unemployed relatives a thousand miles away, or the heartbreak that their struggles bring to me on other days. Not thinking of my dear friend's cancer that saddens me at other times of silence.

The human soul needs a respite. It needs a private, sheltered room where it can lie down in peace and breathe deeply and still its sorrow or absorption in duties that perennially call. Where it can regain its strength and reclaim its beauty and humanity. Where it can rebirth itself and remember to be strong, not to waver, not to abandon anyone when darkness comes.

The beauty that summons me outdoors restores peace this Sunday, any Sunday, any day I care to truly see, reminding me that Someone much greater than I will always find a way to show us hope and serenity.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


In the old times, long before the advent of telephones, telegraphs, and even something as ordinary today as newspapers, there was one written form of communication that kept humanity connected: personal letters. Communicating our news, our thoughts and fears, our hopes, our daily lives, our plans was important, as it still is. But since people not in our immediate presence couldn't be contacted privately and directly back in the old days, we couldn't stay in touch unless we wrote a personal letter--signed, sealed, and delivered by one human being to another.

A piece of paper: the magical link to keeping humanity together, in touch mentally, emotionally, spiritually!

How easy it is for today's texters and e-mailers to forget that personal one-on-one communication wasn't always an instant thing. It wasn't always easy, wasn't something we could do while standing in line to get a cup of coffee and rush to work.

Anyone with anything of import to say, back in the old days, said it in letters. Important people, rich people, business people. Lovers arranging a tryst, and husbands and wives missing one another. Doctors sharing information about a patient's illness, attorneys discussing an inheritance, scientists describing a new discovery. Friends and family and neighbors writing about the vicissitudes of daily life and their commitment to navigating one day after another. Staying in touch was harder, of course, if you were poor and didn't have paper and ink. But everyone with these fundamental items--paper and ink--was practically assured that he or she was tethered to someone else of importance in life, no matter how far away that person was.

How easy it is for us today to forget the tremendous importance of these simple pieces of paper, so fragile and ephemeral as physical things, in our understanding and appreciation of mankind, of the history of humanity, of our evolution as societies flung far and wide. Letters delivered, read, shared, discussed. Stained with tears of sadness at tragic news, or with tears of joy at love professed. Folded in apron pockets, or soldiers' tunics, or within the folds of magistrates' or emperors' flowing robes. Opened and re-opened, tucked away in dusty boxes or drawers. Or torn in anger or despair, a piece of paper destroyed for the words it carried. How amazing it is that letters survived, tied with ribbons and scented with perfume, or stuffed into trunks in attics, or placed in books for memory's sake.

Generation after generation, century after century, eon after eon, these elemental, simple pieces of paper carried literary DNA's of our human connectedness and evolution. That old letters survived at all is another realization to startle us, to amaze us with its implausibility, to make us marvel at how this early form of communication among the masses--so widespread, yet so personal and private--kept humanity linked.

Letter-writing as it was in the old days--the taking of pen or pencil in our hand to set our thoughts to paper--may fully become a lost art someday, as things seem now. Our fingers clicking on plastic while words form magically on lighted screens will also someday seem archaic. But let us never forget the immense power of people wanting to communicate, the indestructibility of their ancient means of doing so, and the permanence of something so impermanent as mere pieces of paper.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


As a published author and longtime writer, I like to tell my audiences:  "We all have stories inside us." I truly believe this. One of the differences between an author and the rest of our world is that the author is a bit less afraid of writing, of taking time to tell his or her story.  An author usually believes, rightly or wrongly, that the story inside him or her is worth telling, and the author takes that risk. It's a leap of faith, but it's done with less fear than most people feel.

In her book, Julia Cameron speaks briefly but from her heart about what "the writing life"--or what I call "the literary self" in this blog--is like. Her book is tiny (only 4 X 6 inches, 102 pages), but it's filled with wisdom. Here are some of the things she says about writing that I heartily embrace:
  • "Why should we write? We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world." (page 1)
  • "Most of us think we can't write. It doesn't have to be like that." (page 10)
  • "The drive to write is a primary human instinct...that primal glee we felt as children when we learned the letters that formed our names and then the words that formed our world...." (page 22)
  • "What writing brings to a life is clarity and tenderness...Writing gives us a place to say what we need to say, but also to hear what we need to hear." (page 52)
And so on. Julia's wisdom is soul-stretching. You might want to read her little book and begin the task of wiping fear of writing from your heart and mind. You have stories (and songs, poems, lectures, etc.?) to tell! Let's relish developing "the literary self" that lives in all of us.