The Origin

Yesterday I had occasion to remember what was probably the foundational moment of me becoming a writer.

I was thirteen and I lived on a small island in Wisconsin. There were 500 permanent residents, mostly related to each other in some way, and my 8th grade class had 11 students.

During the year, a poet named David Steingass came to our school to conduct what I think was a week-long residency during which time we wrote poems, workshopped them, and read poems.

I realized yesterday that, knowing I began tinkering with poems that year, it was probably a direct result of David's visit that I began trying to write poems. Our teacher made us keep a journal and we were graded on writing in it every day. Eventually I started dropping little poems into it instead of writing real entries, but that, too, was a foundational exercise for me—I do journal now every day or nearly every day and have, by and large, since college, when I was very dilligent about it.

In any case, I remember butting heads with David (yes, even as a thirteen-year-old I was this troublesome) about his insistence that lines end with "strong words." I think I was breaking my lines with prepositions! I still think of that sometimes when I write and prefer not to break on a preposition [editor's note: in the interest of full disclose, I don't deny anyone else's right to break on a preposition].

Obviously, writers-in-the-schools programs can be effective in reaching people. Had I not had this opportunity to work with David, I might never had started in poetry. It was the following year, in high school, that I found my first ongoing poetry mentor with whom I would work for the next five years.

Those first teachers...who were yours?


  1. Gary Blankenburg:


  2. I wrote poetry in high school (and before), but my English teachers never gave me much critique on it -- mostly just praise, which was encouraging in a way but not terribly helpful. It wasn't until college that I had writing teachers who actually challenged me: Maureen Picard, Mari Vlastos, Maura Stanton, Roger Mitchell. I remember my freshman year in college, I submitted an application for one of the advanced poetry-writing workshops, and Roger Mitchell turned me down, with a note outlining what he saw as the major weaknesses in my work -- about which he was 100% correct, incidentally! -- and though I was disappointed, I think on some level I recognized that he was taking my work seriously in a way nobody else had before. (I did end up reapplying and taking his advanced workshop later on, of course.)

    Fascinating post!

  3. Charles: David S. would have turned me on (to poetry) too! ~grin~

    The early teacher I remember most was Al Haines at Shoreline high school, football coach and English teacher, who read "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" to us and made me swoon and want to be a poet.
    In college, Leslie Norris was very encouraging: his critque style was to always find something to praise. Sharon Bryan was tough, a hard grader, and not afraid to tell you what you didn't want to hear. But when you earned praise, you knew it was for real.

  4. My early teacher didn't arrive until I was in college (junior year). I took a workshop with Suzanne Matson at Boston College. I had studied and read poetry, but I had never really written it.

  5. I had a nun in junior high school write on a poem I turned in for an English class You made me remember what it's like to be fourteen.

    This completely shocked me because 1. although I had been writing poetry since I was nine, I didn't know that poetry could make anyone but me feel anything and 2. I had no idea that nuns thought about anything but Jesus.

    It was an offhand comment, but it kept me writing through some horrendous times and has stayed with me.

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  7. In the 6th grade we were assigned to write a poem. My teacher, the wicked Ms. Bailey, was my nemesis. I wrote a poem about her being the spawn of the devil himself. Her hair always up in a bun, I'll never forget. A week later she began passing the poems back out. All forty students got theirs except for me. Then "Mr. Maxton please come to the hall." Silence came over the dirty classroom of trailer park kids. I walked down the aisle in my faux snakeskin boots that I wore outside of my jeans because they reminded me of the way Dolly Parton wore hers and I kinda wanted to be like her. In the hall Ms. Baily stuck her finger in my mouth and held down my tongue (I'm not kidding) and said "You are passing this class by the skin of your teeth ..." blah blah blah. Her ugly face all up in my twelve year old face. She handed me the poem and she walked back into class as her polyester brown tight pants swished between her maxi with wings thighs. A good teacher is able to seperate personal and professional stuff. I looked and she had given me an A- and only an A- because my spelling, even then, sucked. And I, on cloud nine, struted back into class in my Dolly Parton K-Mart cowboy boots.

    CODA: Ms. Bailey was last seen getting a plate of radish, deviled eggs (I told you so) and blue cheese at a salad bar in milford, ohio and is rumored to be living retirement on a golf course in southwestern Ohio with many cats. I'm confident she's stealing children and making them into gingerbread boys or at least catnip cupcakes.

  8. Not until college, but it was Rebecca Wee. The first person to tell me to keep writing & work with me.

  9. In elementary school: Mrs. Cameron

    In college: Linda Bierds