How Many Poems Does it Take?

In preparing to teach an online poetry workshop next month, I’ve been spending some time with my books from my MFA courses, revisiting the lessons and exercises that helped propel my creative writing forward. Though I still think of myself as a youngin’ in the scope of a poet’s long writing career and life, I do enjoy looking back and measuring how far I’ve come since deciding to pursue a creative writing career.

I remember one particularly grueling day during the first residency of my MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts: Whidbey Writers Workshop, when I called my mom to vent about how exhausted and overwhelmed I felt. After realizing just how much work I had to do in order to truly become a good writer, a real writer, I had drained myself of all creative juices by the end of the 10-day residency. Complaining to my mom, I said “What am I doing here? I mean—how many poems can one person write?”

At the time, I felt as if I’d never have the motivation or inspiration to keep that up level of creative output for an entire lifetime the way my literary idols have done. Of course now, I laugh at that question because I know that, while on any given day I might have a hard time doing so, I will be writing poems for the rest of my life not as much by choice or discipline so much as by love—love for the written word. How many poems can one person writer? I suppose one would have to ask the prolific poets of our time who have made a career and a life of writing—poets like David Wagoner, Tess Gallagher, Madeline Defrees, W.S. Merwyn, and Adrienne Rich.

Certainly my wonderful years of under- and post-graduate creative writing studies have been instrumental in learning to be a better writer. Perhaps most importantly, time and practice have been the framework for whatever progress I have managed to make. But the most surprising vehicle of growth and change in my literary life has come from my role as poetry and translations editor of the Los Angeles Review.

Though the work of reading submissions, working with contributing authors, copyediting, funding, distributing, and building support for a literary magazine are very often maddening and labor-intensive, the rewards are undoubtedly worth all that stress. I am lucky to be part of an editing team–fearlessly led by my writing-life partner and dear friend, Kelly Davio—that values the written word enough to work together on a daily basis in order to keep our magazine at the level of quality we’ve established.

I have been proud to support and promote the best poetry and poetry in translation, and the writers who work in these genres. All of the magazine’s past contributors have truly become part of a unique group of creative and sharing artists. Reading and publishing such a vast amount of creative writing has helped me see the cracks in my own work, and has inspired me to keep moving forward no matter the struggle.

Best of all, being part of a greater movement towards cultivating and preserving great literature makes me feel less alone in what is, most of the time, a pretty solitary lifestyle. Just knowing that I am at least in some small way contributing to this larger endeavor helps me find the discipline and inspiration it takes to keep thinking about how many poems it will take to fill my lifetime.

I usually only have enough foresight and gumption to get me to the next poem, story, or chapter I need to write, and not much beyond. But somehow I manage this way, taking my writing step by step and always having just enough to keep going. And usually, that just-barely-enough is plenty to keep me satisfied, as long as I have some company along the way.

One thought on “How Many Poems Does it Take?

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