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headlines w/Stuart Kestenbaum

Being Ready

Tell people that you’re a poet and you can get a wide range of responses. To some, poetry died somewhere in the 19th century or in high school, and they’re fascinated that they’ve just met a contemporary practitioner. To others, it can be secular salvation, the exact words they needed to hear in a time of crisis. Most people are in between these two poles.

Sometimes, when I’m asked what I do, and after I answer that I’m a writer, there’s a pause with the follow up question, ‘what do you write?’ After I answer ‘poetry’, I’m often asked ‘when did you write your first poem?’ I don’t think that surgeons get asked ‘when did you perform your first operation’ or investment managers get asked ‘when did you buy your first stock’, but I find this is a common question for me as poet.

It could be that it’s just a fill-the-space-in-a-conversation question, or it could be that the questioner is linking poetry with inspiration, that poets can be so taken with a moment in space and time, that they must record it and make sense of it. I understand that impulse, because for many years I thought I had to wait for those moments to make a poem. The stars align, the sun’s rays break through the clouds.

Somewhere in my journey, I realized that inspiration is always simmering on the backburner. It’s our awareness that lets us know what’s already cooking on the stove. Earlier this year I taught a one-day workshop for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in Portland and I stayed overnight the day before. To clear my mind the next morning, I decided to walk instead of drive.

Teaching writing is not the same as writing, but for me in order to be a teacher I have to be a poet too. I left the house in a poetry frame of mind, walking in a neighborhood that I had lived in years before. The details of my walk began to pile up: the man behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts working fast in the early morning, one customer after another. A baby sparrow just learning to fly, skidding under a parked car. The funeral chapel where I saw my mother’s body before her burial. Chicory, the flower that thrives in vacant lots, blossoming near the curb. A man walking down the street eating a muffin. The cool air of morning. An emotion that couldn’t be named. I held these in my mind and felt them making meaning in their juxtaposition.

Stuart Kestenbaum


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