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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Write Me A Poem: A Literacy Narrative

Write Me A Poem
            As my husband and I entered the room, we were enveloped in soft light that glowed on the red brick wall and illuminated the honey-colored wood floors. Chairs radiated from a plain pulpit and microphone set up on one side of the room. Guests mingled and snacked at the far end , most of them dressed up for this installment of the Nacogdoches Literary Reading Series. By day, this space is used for yoga classes. The owner, a willowy vegan with a soft spot for  encouraging local talent , allows her studio to be used for the bimonthly get together. On this night, along with five other readers, I would stand behind the microphone and read.
I've read at these gatherings before, but this night was special. When I heard  “Our next speaker will be Dayna Patterson,” I carried with me a slender chapbook of poetry. On the cover, Loose Threads. It is my first published chapbook. I held it up for everyone to see and acknowledged the fact that the Reading Series helped me to imagine an audience and to craft better poems that were then accepted for publication. The audience clapped; members of my writing group cheered especially loud, and I felt dazed, wondersome, transcendent. I was a published poet. I opened the book and began to read.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I can say, looking back on my writing experiences, that I have most certainly improved over the years. One of my earliest memories of writing occurred when I was seven. As a reward for vacuuming the living room carpet, my parents gave me a small red book with the word “Journal” embossed in gold on the cover. I was delighted. I wrote and illustrated my life between the pages, and when it was full, I got and filled another, and another, and another. I have kept them all in a sturdy plastic bin (someday when I have enough bookshelves, they will fill a row or two); I am now on my 17th or 18th journal.
My private pleasure in writing about my life and experiences turned into success at school and the various writing projects I encountered there. I took AP English in high school and did very well. The teacher, Mrs. Warr, had us writing nearly every day, and when I was done with her class I could crank out a five-paragraph essay blindfolded. When I got to college, I was fairly confident in my abilities as a writer, both academic and creative.
Unfortunately, like many college students, I had some poor writing habits that limited my writing potential. To be blunt, I procrastinated. I remember climbing the stairs to the third floor of the library where my honors classical mythology class met. As I rounded the last corner with my final paper in hand, which I had stayed up all night to produce, I was dismayed to see my classmates heading out of the classroom and down the stairs. One of my friends pulled me aside and said, “Where were you during class?” In my sleepless state, I had remembered not the time class started, but the time it ended. I shamefacedly entered the classroom as everyone else left it and begged the professor to still accept my paper. I explained my mistake and miraculously he believed me. After some exasperated sighs, he accepted my paper without penalization. I got an A on the paper, which led me to believe that I wrote well under pressure. Perhaps, I thought to myself, writing a paper all night long was how I produced my best writing.
On another occasion I found myself frantically typing up a five-page American Literature paper two hours before it was due. I managed to put together five whole pages of blarney, which I turned in to the teacher. I felt relieved and hoped that I had said something that would get me the A that I wanted. When the teacher handed back a B paper, I was a little stunned. This slightly lower grade challenged my notion that I could just spit out an excellent paper, that I wrote well under extreme pressure.
My writing habits changed significantly when I got to graduate school. For one thing, I was a couple of years older, and my age led me to believe that I just couldn't gracefully pull all-nighters anymore. I had become too attached to my sleep and unwilling to stay up writing a paper. I also was better at scheduling my time. I bought a small calendar and wrote down all the due dates for my major essays so that I would be able to devote at least a weekend to each paper the week before it was due. Another factor in my decision to change was the fact that graduate-level papers tend to be more difficult and much longer. Instead of having to write five to seven page papers, I was now expected to write ten to twenty-five-page papers. I was overwhelmed by the length requirements, so I spent a good amount of time researching, taking notes, outlining my essays, and then putting all the pieces together. Graduate school changed the way I write academic essays.
As for my poetry writing, that is a bit of a different story. It is one thing to master academic writing. Writing poetry posed a whole different kind of challenge. I wrote poetry off and on as a young person and a teenager. In my last semester as an undergraduate, I took a poetry workshop class with Star Coulbrooke. I loved the way the class was structured. Each class period, everyone would bring one fresh poem they'd written to class. We would read the poem, and then everyone would say one positive thing about it. When everyone was done, we would each take turns saying something about the poem that could be improved. The format for the class was very relaxed, yet I learned a lot from my teachers and peers. At the end of the semester, we did a poetry reading in the library that was open to the public.
I don't think my poetry was particularly good at that point. I remember my kind teacher taking a poem that I had worked on all semester. She turned it over and basically told me to start over. I was a bit crestfallen, but I took her advice and wrote a better, but not a great, poem.
Since that class, I hadn't written much poetry until about two years ago. I found myself struggling to stay positive and cheerful while taking care of my two young daughters full time. It is something that I always thought I wanted to do: stay at home and raise children. What I was not prepared for were the daily challenges, the monotony, the claustrophobia/cabin fever that being a stay-at-home mom inevitably bring. I had been actively involved in education for almost my entire life. I had just finished my masters in English when we brought our firstborn home. The pace of life from graduate school to homemaker felt like a screeching halt, and I became very depressed.
As a way out of that depression, I started teaching part time so I could have a break from my kids at least once a week. That helped. I also began to write poetry. There is a kind of therapy called scriptotherapy where the patient writes about traumatic experiences to help themselves heal. My experiences of being a mother weren't traumatic, so to speak, but the change from being a student to being a mother was a difficult adjustment, and writing helped to relieve some of my stress, frustration, anxiety, and depression. It helped me to gain a little bit of critical distance from my situation; it helped me to achieve a little perspective; and it also helped me to feel connected to a larger community outside of my home, especially as my poems have been accepted for publication.
I don't aspire to be a great Poet. I don't know that I have much to teach anyone (in a didactic way, or a look-what-awesome-stuff-I-can-do-in-my-poetry way). Mostly I feel that I learn from the experience of writing my poems. They help to complete me. They are a journal of my experience. They open me from the inside out. And if anyone is inspired by one of my poems, well, that is a chocolate coat on the strawberry.

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