Revelations of a Autodidact
I have a naturally curious mind.
I like to learn things but
I do not like to be taught. -Winston Churchill
I’m descended from a long line of domestic artists. My aunts, mother and sister all bake, sew, and knit with the same confidence and skill Michelangelo used to wield his paintbrush and sculpting tools.
I burn the crusts on pies. I can’t hem a straight line, or get all the nasty pubic hairs off the bottom of a toilet seat with one swipe of a sponge. My memories are full of battles I had with my mother, god bless her, and the struggle to teach me how to do things her way.
The summer before last, I learned to knit at an upscale craft store in Brentwood. It cost me ninety dollars (imported hand-dyed silk and cotton yarn from England is expensive). I learned in five minutes. The clerk showed me how to “cast on” the first two rows, and then handed me the needles. I felt no reluctance. I just started knitting.
When my mother saw me knitting two days later, I can still recall the irritation on her face while she watched me. I remember the conversation we had about my reluctance, and stubborn refusal to learn in the traditional way: the passing of this art from mother to daughter.
Despite my rebellious nature, I've learned many things from my mother, including the valuable skill of forthrightness, and I’ve approached my literary edcuation in the same manner. At this moment, I’ve yet to enter the hallowed halls of academia.
My artistic beginnings are rooted in photography and journalism (the print kind; the one whose dubious ethics vanished when it was absorbed by the electronic media). When I entered the poetry scene, I found myself overwhelmed. Who knew Los Angeles had so many poets, and that the scene was so diverse. I was excited, but keenly felt my lack of skill in this medium would keep me from “getting ahead.”
Yes, I admit to harboring a competitive streak. The upside is that it fuels my desire to hone my gift, and to grow as a writer.
My first revelation: There is freedom in learning from strangers. You can’t get hurt, you can even experience the almost lurid thrill of putting yourself – creatively speaking – in the hands of someone who knows nothing about you, and who in all likelihood will never see you again.
For example, a master poet who taught a one-day workshop I attended last summer, who had no bond with me, also had no compunction to tell all the attendees what he liked/disliked about their work. He was respectful with his encouragement, and direct assessment of our individual and collective progress.
I discovered, paradoxically, the word of someone I’d never even met before held more weight than those of my closest friends who are ever reluctant to give feedback when asked.
The pieces I started that day solidified the foundation for a series of rebirth poems I’ve been working on for the past year. The exercises he introduced me to have gave me a much-needed touch of discipline, and re-ignited an appreciation for classic poetry forms I'd begun to eschew in favor of more contemporary language.
Which leads me to my next revelation: Learning from one’s peers. There are two poets I often turn to for an honest critique. The first is Angel Perales, author of The Brown Recluse (2002 Rumrazor Press), in whose perceptions on poetic matters I have absolute faith.
The second is Karen Corcoran Dabkowski, the editor of The Blue House, an independent poetry ezine that features a select group of maverick and talented poets.
The most important axiom I learned from the both of them is NOT to follow the status quo, not to "dumb down" my poetry for publication purposes or to please an audience.
I’ve also learned how to let a poem follow its course, which sometimes means letting go of my pre-conceived notions of how I think it should progress, and then end.
Finally, I’ve learned to remind myself if I don’t like what either one of them have to say, I'm the one who requested the assessment, and these two are generous enough to give it to me.
In the years I've been in the poetry scene, I’ve witnessed poets who turn to each other seeking artistic guidance and direction with a great deal of success.
A few of my peers know my work best through hearing it at open-mics, reading it via email, or in a literary journal. Our no matter where we are, invariably turn to poetry.
Our journals come out, the recitation of new lines commences, and the feedback begins. At whatever level a poet may be, there are those who do take the time to help another along. The rewards are an appreciation for diversity of thought, the strengthening of bonds within our community, and the chance to learn something in return.
My third revelation: My role as an editor, and the constant exposure to so MUCH poetry and prose over the last two years have forced me to take a more hard-line approach with my writing.
Where I used to declare a poem or prose piece (including this essay) done in one draft, I now take the time to let a piece develop. I sit on it, or set it aside. I think about it, and wonder what I am REALLY trying to say; am I conveying my ideas correctly, and honestly enough?
The competitive streak I have been blessed with, along with a certain amount of arrogance will not let my writing rest until it’s crafted to MY satisfaction.
It’s almost perverse to approach my journey through writing in such an unorthodox fashion, but it’s worked. I look at the flotsam I churned out in my first year, and wonder what could've happened if I’d taken a more traditional route to better myself as a writer.
Technically, I would’ve been better, (I don’t suck, but I’m no Shakespeare!) but I don’t know if I would’ve kept my commitment to writing.
Would I have gone out of my way to look deep within myself to find the truths I seek through writing? Would I have met all the wonderful folks I know now? Would I have been brave enough to keep asking questions, to keep my desire to learn alive, to push myself into areas of writing I frankly found intimidating? Would I have even started poeticdiversity?
My last revelation: I will be going back to higher education later this year to finish my interrupted studies and get my piece of parchment. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who brave the academic route; the sacrifices they make, and the time they invest to complete a course of discipline I still have to master. But, I’ll never forget what I have learned on my own, and from those around me.
I play well with others, but always on my terms.