Charlotte writers have an extraordinary opportunity for engagement at the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference on November 2-4. Classes are offered in a variety of genres, including Lisa Zerkle’s class, “How to be a Well-Versed Citizen of the Poetry World.”
There’s someone new in town, just arrived with the poems she wrote in a state of thrilled, urgent uncertainty. She knows she doesn’t know enough about writing but still wants more of that electric, creative state. Also new around these parts is that older guy who’s been writing on the side for years, dashing off a poem here and there and saving them for later. It’s later now, he has some time, time he wants to invest in this writing thing he’s thought so long about.
Look around. You’ll see these people, so many of them, newly arrived on the shores of poetry. They’ve thrown open the metal hatches of the getaway pods they used to escape the non-writing world they’ve left behind. They’re clambering out, duct-taped valises full of rough drafts in hand, taking their first steps into this new place. I’m here! they say. What’s next?
I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be an engaged citizen of the literary world. If this land has served us as a respite—a place with welcoming plazas and warm hearths, challenging teachers and encouraging colleagues—if we want this land to continue to thrive both for us and for the next wave of new arrivals, what’s required?
The archetype of the solitary writer, toiling alone in a garret ensconced in a haze of cigarette smoke and angst, has never been wholly accurate. Of course as writers we know the joy and sorrow of approaching the page. Stacking up lines, tearing them down, rearranging their constituent parts. What we do before and after that, however, is equally essential, I argue, and necessary to keep our literary world thriving.
Toni Morrison’s well-known encouragement reminds us that, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” By extension, if we want a vibrant, expansive literary world, we must build it. First—of course—we write, we revise. But not just that. Our writing should include book reviews, author appreciations, essays on craft which constitute another necessary facet of our writing. If we’re to articulate these reflections in a cogent way, we’re also reading broadly. Bill Griffin, a fine poet and an excellent literary citizen, recently took two notably different books along on a trip. The first, a short story collection by an author who is, he says, “bizarre, eclectic, impossible to categorize.” The second, by a poet who is “grounded and true; when I read his poems I am always amazed that something that seems so simple can be so deep.” This diversity of reading material results in “conflicting bits, the novel and the orderly, the stable and the radioactive, bouncing around in my head. What’s going to happen? Poems grow out of that stuff,” he says.
So, writing, reading, and then? I know Bill from my time serving on the board of the North Carolina Poetry Society. After I became serious about poetry, NCPS named one of the poems I’d really toiled over as a finalist for an award. I hadn’t won, but even that minor recognition validated my efforts. When, a few years later, I was asked to help out on the board, I agreed as a way of paying it forward. When I needed advice on literary citizenship, friends from my writing tribe—like Bill—came through.
Our lives are busy and not everyone can make time for a board position. But all writers can do something, say, attend a reading or an open mic, sign up for a workshop, get the word out about an upcoming book release or lit event. Someday, when your own book is fresh from the press, you’ll want a strong community there to write rave reviews, invite you to readings, send you notes of appreciation for your writing.
Don’t you want that? Introverts, this also means you. Get out there and engage with your people. Now’s the time to build that community, just as when you took your first steps into the writing world, someone was there to welcome you. Someone who offered to read one the poems sliding out from that duct-taped valise, someone who said, “This way. We’re all here together.”
Lisa Zerkle is the Curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT Poetry and Art poster series.