I had such fun hosting poets here on 1st Books for National Poetry Month that I’ve decided to continue the occasional Poetry Tuesday throughout the year. Today’s guest poet is Diane Lockward, the author of four collections of poetry, most recently, Temptation by Water. She’s a recipient of the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Poetry Fellowship, as well as awards from North American Review, Louisiana Literature, the Newburyport Art Association, and the St. Louis Poetry Center. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner, and been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac; and she hosts the lovely Blogalicious: Notes on Poetry, Poets and Books. I know you’ll enjoy her post! – Meg
I’m in a place of high excitement these days. Temptation by Water, my third full-length poetry collection, was released just a few weeks ago. That hardly seems possible when not too long ago I wondered if I’d ever have a first full-length collection.
I am not one of those poets who has stories about what a splendid poet she was in third grade. No sixth grade teacher encouraged me to gather my poems into homemade booklets. No high school English teacher recognized my gift for words. I served as editor of no literary journal in college. In short, I was without any early poetic promise whatsoever. But then, I never had a single teacher who asked me to write a poem, never had an opportunity to fall in love with poetry until years after I’d graduated college, had taught high school English for four years, married, produced three children, then decided, in spite of my lusterless undergraduate performance, to apply to graduate school. And they took me in. There I discovered, quite to my astonishment, that I had a brain! I also discovered poetry—not the writing of it, but the study of it. I fell in love with, of all things, Renaissance poetry. I could not get enough of John Donne.
When I graduated, I returned to teaching. Several years later I saw an advertisement in the English Journal. William Stafford was writing a poetry textbook for high school students, and he wanted teachers to volunteer to test the assignments. What the heck, I thought, and volunteered. Every two weeks for the next six months I received one or two poetry prompts. From the very first one, I was hooked. I had never experienced anything so emotionally intense. Poems danced around in my head all day and often all night. I tucked drafts inside my grade book and worked on them during lunch. Poetry became an irresistible temptation. Then to reel me in even deeper, Stafford took one of my poems, an acrostic, as a sample poem for his textbook, Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises (NCTE). In 1992, that poem, aptly titled “Serendipity,” became my first published poem.
I wanted more. I spent weekends going to workshops and readings. During summer vacations, I attended the Frost Place Conference, the Catskills workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center. I worked with poets who encouraged me to believe I could be a poet. I began sending my poems out for publication. Every once in a while some editor took a poem. Then an entire year went by with no editor taking anything, but that didn’t stop me—I told you I was hooked. I’ve never minded the inevitable rejections all that much. Early on I developed a theory that it takes twenty rejections to get an acceptance, so I viewed each rejection as just one step closer to an acceptance.
As acceptances started coming in again, I stepped up my game and aimed higher. In 1997, Beloit Poetry Journal took two of my poems. I was thrilled. That was by far the most prestigious journal I’d been in. The people at Poetry Daily saw the poems and sent me a letter—they were in their early days and still using snail mail—asking permission to feature both poems. When “Vegetable Love” appeared, it was sandwiched in between poems by Tom Lux and Pablo Neruda. Not bad. When “My Husband Discovers Poetry” appeared, Garrison Keillor spotted it and featured it on The Writer’s Almanac.
I also won a local contest in 1997. My prize was the publication of a first chapbook, Against Perfection. Of course, that set me to thinking that if I could have a chapbook, maybe I could have a book. I put a manuscript together and began sending it out to contests. I spent a significant amount of money on postage. I spent a lot of time waiting. For the first few years, I received only rejections. Each summer I devoted a few weeks to revising the manuscript, taking out what seemed to be the weaker poems and substituting with what I hoped were stronger poems. Every new poem I wrote was headed for that manuscript. Then I had a semi-finalist response from Sarabande. Not an acceptance but enough to encourage the belief that if I just persisted it would happen for me. But six more semi-finalist or finalist spots and it still hadn’t happened. The initial thrill of the gee-I-almost-made-it had worn off, and I was feeling like I’d never get beyond that one manuscript. Not to mention the money flying out the door.
In 2001, I decided to leave teaching and spend my days living as a writer. That summer I took another workshop in Provincetown. One day I checked my email and found a message from some guy in Kentucky who wanted my snail mail address. Hm, whatever for? But his name was vaguely familiar, so I sent the address. When I returned home, there was a letter from that guy, a publisher, inviting me to submit a manuscript if I had not yet published a first book. I remembered why the name had seemed familiar. The publisher used to be the editor of Wind Magazine where two of my poems had previously been finalists in the journal’s yearly contest. Since then, he had begun his own small press, Wind Publications, and was publishing books by poets from Kentucky and the Appalachian region. He’d remembered my name from the contest and had been following my work. When he wanted to expand his roster beyond his established region, he’d decided
to contact me. And that’s how, in 2003, my first book, Eve’s Red Dress, came into the world.
In retrospect, I am grateful that no one ever took those earlier incarnations of the manuscript. I know there were poems in them that I subsequently would have wanted to suck out with a vacuum cleaner. I am also grateful to have ended up where I did as my publisher stuck with me for the second book, What Feeds Us, and now for the third. That rarely happens with contest wins.
Now I’d be grateful for some new poems. I find myself in that odd state that’s a mixture of exhilaration over the new book and anxiety about the next one. Right now the folder is pretty empty and the blank page leers at me. I need some self-imposed discipline. I need the thrill of creating, of laying down those words, of getting high on the poems, of capitulating to temptation. I want that back. And I’m going to get it. Patience, persistence, belief, and a bit of serendipity. – Diane