2alleghenymonongahelaWant to know something awesome? My girl at Red Hen Press– the incomparable Stephtacular, the Stephtacular you all know and love– just sent me news that my collection Allegheny, Monongahela was listed on

Poetry Foundation’s Contemporary Bestsellers List for the week of October 11, 2009.

Now, that’s pretty cool– Steph and I both worked our asses off (and we’re still working!), not specifically for this, but to make sure A, M is as visible to the public as it can possibly be on a tight budget and with limited time (Steph works 12 and 14 hour days regularly–REGULARLY–for a whole fleet of authors, not just me).

But it gets cooler. Want to know some of the other names on that list?

Philip Levine. Mary Oliver. Louise Gluck. Sherman Alexie. Charles Bukowski. Yusef Komunyakaa. Michael Dickman. GARRISON KEILLOR.

And me. Holy Christ, right?

I bet you know some of those names even if you’re not a poetry geek. And let me tell you, writing poetry can feel like the loneliest, geekiest, most navel-gazingly pointless endeavor in the world sometimes. I regularly spend 12 and 14 hour days trying to make a metaphor that truly communicates what I felt or saw or realized about something–a metaphor that slices as close to the truth of the matter as the blunt edge of language can.

On a good day, I get so close I go to bed certain I’ve actually said what I mean. And for about thirty seconds, I feel amazing!

And then, I remember that A. only a few other people have learned to read that kind of language, B. even fewer actively spend time applying that learning by reading poems and collections, and C. an even smaller number among those will ever read my poem.

POETRY FAIL.

I know poetry gets a bad rap because people think it’s difficult. They think it’s obscure, and that poets deliberately try to be confusing or obtuse. With a few notable exceptions that I won’t go off on here, that’s simply not true.

If you don’t get a poem, it’s not because the poet is smarter than you.

It’s not because you’re not capable of getting it.

It’s because you just don’t know the language the poem is speaking in. You wouldn’t feel bad about yourself for not understanding a person who walked up to you and began speaking Urdu if you had never learned Urdu, right? And you wouldn’t assume that this Urdu-speaking person is spouting nonsense, either. You’d recognize that the Urdu-speaker, like most people, is probably saying something cogent and understandable…just not in a way that you can understand. But if you learned Urdu– even just a little Urdu– you totally would.

Poetry works the same way. If you read a poem every day, pretty soon you would start to understand the language of poetry. And yeah, you’d like some poems better than others. You’d “get” some poets more easily, because their language makes sense to you. But you’d see pretty quickly that poetry, at its very core, is about trying to communicate. And–let’s be logical here– if poetry is about trying to communicate, then it’s trying to be clear and precise, not incomprehensible.

I mean, when you tell someone who is important to you that you love him or her, does I love you really sum up what you feel? Do you want to say, I love you, or do you want to say, I love you the way water loves oxygen– you are part of me; I am not myself without you? If you add a metaphor to it, doesn’t that I love you get a little closer to the kind of feeling you truly have? Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s close.

Poets try to put into words human emotions and experiences that do not fit into words. Seriously. That’s what poetry is about. Maybe it seems like a fool’s errand to try to put into language precisely the things that language can’t hold, but unless there is some other way to talk about those emotions and experiences that I somehow missed, then writing is the only thing I can do, the only way I can edge toward the truth.

Any writing– poetry included– is an attempt at telepathy. When I write a poem, I am thinking of you. I am trying to reach through the time and space that separate us– the version of me who is writing, and the version of you who might one day read what I’m writing– and connect.

I try to do this every day. Every single day, I am trying to reach out and tell someone else: let me share something I know with you.

So yeah. This Poetry Foundation thing? I am pretty freaking psyched about it. This means Steph’s hard work at Red Hen is paying off. This means that my feverish typing is worth it. People are reading the things I’ve written! Maybe they like them, maybe they don’t. The point is, they’re reading them, and as they read, the version of me who wrote those poems is connecting with all of them.

And that feels pretty amazing.

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5 responses »

  1. leDeb says:

    Congratulations!! I have a copy of your book and I love it. My favorite poem is “Heirloom Recipe” because it reminds me of my mother talking about her grandmother. Love, love, love.

  2. ebats says:

    Thanks, leDeb! I’m so glad you like that poem– it’s based on a real recipe we found in my grandma’s files after she died, and I think it was her mom’s.

    hope you’re doing well– xoxo

  3. stephoh says:

    {blushing} Erinn, you’re amazing.

  4. Kari says:

    Congrats!!!!

  5. Kirsey says:

    That is VERY cool! Huge congrats!

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