Speaking as one poet to another, may I ask you a personal question?
WHAT IS YOUR PASSION?
If your hasty response is something like HAIKU or even POETRY in general, I’d say you’re not being honest with yourself. Your passion is the subject that inspires your best work, and it is often ephemeral. And while there are hundreds of famous passion poems such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How do I love thee sonnet, great poems have been sparked by much baser things. Just ask Marcel Proust about his Madeleine, Carl Sandberg about Arithmetic or Ted Kooser about a Tatoo.
Some of my most successful poems were inspired by a house demolition, a disabled vet and my favorite season, yet none of them sparked a collection. Try as I might, I can’t write a satisfactory four-season cycle of poems because I only feel passionate about autumn. My day job, however, is a passion that inspired a whole book.
I teach English to adult immigrants. These inspirational people overcome unimaginable hardships just get here, only to be faced with daily obstacles of a different nature once they arrive, yet they carve twelve hours a week from their jobs and families in order to attend class. The collection began with two stories that haunted me for months before I was able to record them: Young Means Forever Unchanging (a Poetry Matters prize winner) about a seemingly hopeless student who demonstrated progress in a most poetic fashion, and Adios Fernan about a student whose unexpected departure saddened and worried me. Once I told their stories, the others came pouring out, and I realized I had created a profile of a unique segment of American society that we all need to understand. My students inspire me still with their every insightful, mistaken, or witty remark, yet their stories are on hold while I record my recent travels while they still spark within me, and I’m OK with that. There is nothing more tedious than a poem written under pressure.
The visionary choreographer Martha Graham once said, Great dancers are not great because of their technique but because of their passion. So what do you feel passionate about today? That’s the thing you should write about today, whether on your laptop or on a napkin.
J.C. Elkin is the author of World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom (Apprentice House 2014), and founder of The Broadneck Writers’ Workshop, www.broadneckwritersworkshop.com. Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Kansas City Voices, Empirical, Kestrel, Off the Coast, Ducts, and Steam Ticket. Visit Jane’s webpage at http://www.broadneckwritersworkshop.com/jane-c-elkin.html