Five Poets Who Changed My Life
Author: Sinclair Sexsmith
July 15, 2010
Tell me, what is it you will do/with your one wild and precious life?
—”The Summer Day”
So closes Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” Every time I read those words I still feel as though I cannot breathe. These questions…I’m plagued daily, monthly, yearly, with questions like these, how can I possibly answer them? But no sooner does Oliver’s poetry pose these impossible questions does she answer them through the natural world—through feathers and stone, trees and birds, and turtles perched on a log. The simple turning of the world. She makes the most complicated of things, like the human heart, or a summer breeze, seem bearable, possible, understandable. She is more than the purity of poetry, she is also spiritual in a way that I deeply yearn not just to express but to understand: how a river looks when sunlight hits it, what it sounds like when the rain pelts the trees, how to pray.
When I read Mary Oliver’s poems, my heart opens up. And I remember my connection to the raw earth, and I ache to do justice to those feelings in my body with my own work.
Our friend gives you a sharp knife,
shows how the useful blades open.
I used to share a secret notebook with my best friend in middle school, and we were only allowed to write notes to each other in sonnets. When I got more serious about poetry, I studied form. Sestinas, pantoums, villanelles, ghazals—the more rare and difficult, the more fun it was to fit my words into them. When I started reading Marilyn Hacker’s work, I saw my own form experimentations differently. I seek deeper meaning, not just following structure but nuance, metaphor, inner emotional landscape, communication.
Her book, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons is a phenomenal work, mentioned already in this Five Poets series by folks such as Julie R. Enszer, a novel in sonnets. I carried it around in my book bag for months, reading and re-reading, amazed that a novel could be told in such tight form. Amazed that such tight form could release such flow and spirit. It was then I was introduced to the garland of sonnets, linking them to each other, and I had a new challenge on my hands. Thank you, Marilyn.
How dare we, how dare I,
call what bellows in my body
anything but god?
—”Anything But God”
Tara Hardy runs the Bent Writing Institute for queers in Seattle, and I spent four years studying and training and learning everything I could from her. Not just about writing, but about life. About being queer. About telling our stories—my stories—and staying true to our friends, lovers, community. She is a phenomenal performance poet, a many-time winner of various Slam competitions, and I found so many of my hobbies coming together into one place: theater, in delivering my words with even more intention and impact on stage in performance poetry; book arts, for the making of poetry chapbooks; community, showing up week after week to witness and watch and judge and compete; and, of course, writing.
I was so lucky to have been at the right place in the right time to study with Tara. I miss Bent, that Thursday night class with some of the most talented writers I’ve ever worked with and those many intertwined circles of writers. I will always be sure to see Tara if she comes anywhere near me to perform. Her work inspires me to reach.
We are all just trying to be holy. My applejack,
my silent night, just mash your lips against me.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.
—”Snow and Dirty Rain”
I was enamored of Richard Siken’s collection Crush as soon as I picked it up. I read the first poem and had to sit down. When words rush across a page like that I get lightheaded, my senses swell up like I’ve been stung and I start seeing the spaces between letters like they’re lit from behind. I still read some of his meandering, long lines over and over, leading me always to that peak of rhythm and stillness and puncture that I feel impaled with his precision. The style of Siken’s work gave me a permission to be a bloody mess of a heart on the page in ways that the preach of subtlety in highbrow poetry never did. I’m less afraid of the raw mess because of how he writes. I only hope his next book will come out soon.
Longing, of course,
become its own object, the way
that desire can make anything into a god.
—”The Death of Antinoüs”
The ordinary becomes extraordinary in Doty’s work, though not in the same way as Mary Oliver’s. The ordinary here is more urban, more about people and culture, buildings and streets, interactions and relationships. Going to the gym, walking a dog, waking from a dream: the precision of insight Doty is able to portray on the page, in simple lines, using so few words, is frequently marvelous.
By which I mean, I marvel at how he arranges words and letters and whitespace on a page. I marvel at the range of emotion, how he can take me from a dream and packing boxes to the reality of a lover’s death, an embrace, a loss and grief so big it fills volumes of poetry books. His queer content encourages me that my ordinary queer life can, too, be made extraordinary in poetry, with just the right juxtaposition of things like drag and fabulous clothes with autumn and a trompe l’oeil.
And now that I notice the quotes I keep choosing to illustrate my favorites, I am realizing Doty too has an aspect of the spiritual made real, made knowable, to which I am so frequently drawn. The faith and grace that holds the corners of his poems up teach me things about life and death and writing and love. And really, what else is there? What else would I spend my time pursuing? What else would I do with this wild and precious life of mine?