The first poems I wrote were, as well as I can remember, pseudo-Wordsworthian affairs of intense emotion and dubious quality. I was in about seventh or eight grade, and had never read poetry till then, excepting perhaps Shel Silverstein and Mother Goose. So it is a generous anachronism to call these early efforts “poetry” at all. They were written by hand in my journal. I never showed them to anyone, and have not looked at them since. In 12th grade, an English teacher in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Mrs. Brown, had us all write sonnets. As I recall, I wrote mine about a girl I had fallen in love with shortly before she left for Germany the previous year. She had been an exchange student at my former high school, in Boone, North Carolina. My poem had the phrase “beneath West-German skies,” which existed for the purpose of rhyming with “her eyes.” I later learned German in order to woo her, but never had the chance to make the attempt.
Both of these early efforts were more or less knocked from my lungs by the catastrophe of love. In a sense, this is as it should be, for all poems are really love poems. What else could make one willingly endure the torments of composition?
My first real initiation into the craft of poetry occurred in the fall of 1989, when I was a Freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. I took a creative writing workshop taught by one of the most brilliant men I have ever met, Robert Kirkpatrick, whose brilliance as a teacher, scholar, and poet was matched only by his kindness and integrity as a human being. He was an extraordinary man, who unfortunately passed away before I had a chance to show him a book of my poems. After looking at my first chapbook manuscript, he said, after a long silence, “You might actually be a poet.”
Sometimes a poem takes me fifteen minutes to write, sometimes fifteen years. Yet regardless of how long the preparatory meditation, a poem usually comes out in one mental act. That act, however, may be partial and fragmentary, it’s completion not arriving until much later. Rarely have hours and hours of “chiseling” proven useful, except as a form of technical training, since this tends to dull one’s sense of the overall rhetorical shape or fundamental gesture of the poem.