Five poets that changed my life…

Evie Shockley — Shockley’s work taught me that poetry is centerfold worthy. Her poem “a thousand words” is a literary and auditory masterpiece that both challenges and delights the reader. “unbelievable sale!” which addresses Martin Luther King Jr. Day themed “vacations,” showed me how poetry can turn popular culture on its head and smack it across the face. As my instructor at Rutgers University, Shockley taught me the art of revision and the joy of the unexpected. She encouraged me to learn the rules of poetry if only to break them, very thoughtfully. She introduced me to many poetic forms, including my absolute favorite, the Abecedarian. Her creative writing poetry instruction enabled me realize elements of my own queer identity that had not yet surfaced in my own conscious. Outside of Rutgers University, Shockley continues to be a tremendous support to my creative process even through biannual email correspondence. It is difficult to imagine having my own body poetic of work without her encouragement and discerning eye.

Sharon Olds — Olds’ poems gave me an understanding of the emotional magnitude a single poem could hold. Regardless of my emotional state, her work makes me weep. “Sleep Suite,” in particular, has this effect on me. Her poems were the first to show me how the nuanced language of poetry can be centered on a narrative structure. What I have heard of Olds’ writing process is a significant reminder of just how close poetry can cut to the bone. It has been said that it takes roughly seven years from the writing of one of Sharon’s poems to its being published. Time creates a distance between the poet and the speaker, the subject and the inspiration. That distance has been central to my ability to write based on personal experiences and to allow poetry to serve as a vehicle for transformation. As a queer reader of her poetry, her poem “His Costume” challenges the gender roles in a seemingly traditional flawed-American home in a way that leaves the most queer audiences spellbound.

Regie Cabico — As both a poet and performer, Cabico demonstrates the weight and value of spoken word poetry. He flawlessly translates the play between the reader and the page to the audience and stage. His range of themes, which generally border on the outrageous—or rather, swallow entirely the line that separates the everyday from the outrageous—encourages me to “go there” even if no one else will. Through Cabico’s workshops “Capturing Fire” and “Ranting Without Whining,” I learned the artistry of spoken word poetry. From unrequited text message love to stolen Thin Mints, his work cleverly articulates emotion in a way that is immediately accessible while leaving a prolonged stinging sensation, even if you are “empty as a Starbucks cup staring at a lamp from IKEA.” Regie stands as pillar for avant-garde poetry in the heart and loins of Washington, DC, where I live and write.

Cheryl Clarke — When I encountered Clarke’s work at the Barnes & Noble in East Brunswick, NJ, it was by far the most sexually explicit lesbian poetry I had ever read. Admittedly, the hot pink cover drew me in more initially than her title “Living as a Lesbian.” Regardless of my initial motivations, the collection became a fast favorite. That book made it into my bed years before any woman would. Clarke’s poetry takes the reader to “underground” places from San Juan to Morristown, NJ. I recall reading and re-reading “Space Invocation” from Clarke’s later collection “Experimental Love.” Its overt and concise sexuality brings an artfulness to its word repetition and brevity. At the time, I had not yet realized that poetry could be so fierce.

Kay Ryan — Upon reading Ryan’s work I was instantly obsessed. I love the tightness of her lines and their internal rhyme, which presents itself in awkward places upon first reading. Rhymes like “ankle,” “uncle,” and “knuckle” bend the ear and the mind. Her work demonstrates the density of language in the smallest words and phrases, “one speck its gold / and a whole life’s lead.” Her poetry centers on the subject of nature and occasionally the scientific. It is as if Ryan has a catalogue in her mind of all words and phrases that are meant to be together; there you would find “a bird’s / worth of weight” on a page with “one bird-weight / of Wordsworth.” Despite the lack of explicit human beings in Ryan’s work, though there is a potential person (if it’s a person) in “Track Track Figure,” Ryan is the nation’s first openly lesbian (and currently reigning) U.S. Poet Laureate and is a symbol for the queer literary community, no matter how “quietly” she lives her life.

[Photo: Cielo Productions]