After a long dry spell I started writing poetry again thanks in part to the couple afternoons a week I am honored to spend in the company of women in a local prison where I teach composition, literature, and occasionally creative writing. I have been doing this for years and there is no doubt in my mind I learn much more from them than they could ever learn from me. One of my main take-aways has been the recognition that writing is an up and down business, has its good days and bad days, but in the end it is the only real home many of us can ever hope to have.
When I finished my MFA (this goes back a number of years now) I fell into the extraordinary good fortune of being able to work for a year as the secretary for John Ashbery, who had been my professor and mentor at Brooklyn College. His previous secretary resigned just when I was about to graduate and so he offered me the job. Getting a MFA was great, but this is where an important part of my real education as a poet took place: Working for him answering correspondence, maintaining records, and hanging out in his apartment doing a variety of miscellaneous tasks offered a unique front row seat on the NYC poetry scene and made it possible for me to meet such people as Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, James Merrill, and James Schuyler.
But ironically it was somewhere along in there that my creative output slowed to a trickle as I started to pursue a PhD at the City University of New York Graduate Center; got married and moved to Raleigh where I taught in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women as well as Central Prison, the maximum security men’s prison; and later went on to teach in Fayetteville NC, home to Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. As I traveled around and taught in different places, I was keeping a journal but otherwise did little writing—and so it happened that more than a decade passed before I started again, which was about five years ago.
One reason I started back up is I realized I missed moving words around in order to try to say something well. Like all avid readers, my heart jumps when I come across a passage that seems to perfectly capture an experience I have had but not been able to understand or describe to someone else. You know what this is like. It was Emerson who said a person “dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Saying something well is its own reward and, in addition, is a means to connect with others.
Which brings us to the second reason: writing poetry allows entrance into a community of like-minded people. Rejections pile up—too many to count—but when good news arrives and we get something accepted, published, we are thrown together with others like ourselves—hello, nice to meet you. Writing is a lonely business, but a literary magazine is a kind of silent party where writers and readers meet and enjoy one another’s company. Suddenly we are no longer so alone.
A third reason I came back to writing is because I am sick of mass-produced, hastily-made junk. Poetry is a craft, so what we do is put in the time to make something that will last. And of course it is important to acknowledge that, try as we might, some pieces are just never going to succeed no matter how much time we put in to them. But then there are those others that surprise us.
Reading or writing a poem that comes together and works—that amazing moment of surprise and illumination—is a unique sort of high pleasure. In some ways I guess I would say I live for this sort of surprise and associated thrill. Of course there are those other times when nothing seems to come together, seems to work. But as Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.”
One thing I have learned from my students at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is about how sometimes it isn’t until we confront adversity, get a little or more than a little lost, maybe even hit rock bottom, that the truth shows its face. I am too quick to run away from pain when in fact it would be useful to pause so I can stop and look around in order to see what I might see there.
Ben Sloan grew up in southeast Missouri and holds a MFA from Brooklyn College. Currently, he teaches at Piedmont Virginia Community College and the Fluvanna Corretional Center for Women. His poems have appeared in various magazines including The St. Ann's Review, the Ozone Park Journal, the Hartskill Review, Piedmont Journal of Poetry & Fiction, and the Hamilton Stone Review.