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I never took myself seriously as a writer because I felt that my voice wasn’t valid. Here are five poets who showed me that it is.
I first met Marilyn Nelson my senior year of undergrad at Vanderbilt University. The poet and professor Mark Jarman (who is definitely my number 6) strongly suggested I take a workshop with her. It was spring semester, and Marilyn was the visiting poet, there to teach a workshop and engage with the Vanderbilt community. I signed up, and I woke up. It was the first time I had an opportunity to build a relationship with an African-American poet of her caliber. I began to see the potential of my own words, and I began contemplating poetry as a career choice. Marilyn’s book The Fields of Praise is definitely one of my favorites. Her use of narrative and form advanced my own narrative voice. One last thing, she encouraged me to apply to a week-long poetry retreat called Cave Canem, which leads me to my next two poets.
Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady
I have to name them together because they are the ones responsible for creating Cave Canem, which is a non-profit that nurtures African-American poetry by sponsoring a summer writing retreat, readings and events, and workshops all across the United States. It’s a pretty big deal now, but when I first got there it was only a few years old, still trying to find its place in the literary community. It has definitely found that place. Cave Canem poets are everywhere, publishing and winning awards. I attended the summer workshop right after I graduated from Vanderbilt. I have to admit, I was quite intimidated. Here I am, this young 22-year-old kid from Tennessee writing and commiserating with poets who were already well established. The faculty included Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper, two powerhouses in the literary world. At the retreat, I received the foundation and love that an artist needs to go ahead and go out on his own. Toi and Cornelius were most supportive, encouraging me to refine my poetic voice. After that week, I had no doubts. I was going to be a poet.
I left Tennessee when I was 25 and moved to New York City to attend graduate school at the City College of New York where I earned my Master’s in Creative Writing. While there, I studied with two queer poets who would influence my perspective and my aesthetic. Marilyn Hacker’s poetry workshop was my first on the graduate school level. I remember being thrilled to have the opportunity to study with one of the most well-known formalists in the craft. What I did not realize, was how her queer perspective would influence my own writing. I was always hesitant to write “gay” poems, and when I brought one in to be critiqued, she was always supportive. I felt validated as a gay poet because of her astute analysis and criticism of my work. She told me to keep going, basically. Her book, Love, Death, and the Changing of Seasons, still moves me. An account of a lesbian love affair played out in sonnets and villanelles, who doesn’t love that?
Wayne was the second queer poet I studied with at City College, and it was a time that still resonates with me. The universe seemed to be just right that semester. The other poets in the class were phenomenal, and I would later form a collective with some of them. We still meet once a month to workshop together, and we talk about that fateful workshop with Wayne. Never mind the fact that he came to class fabulous every day (seriously, his fashion is on point), the energy and analysis he gave was enlightening, and a few of the poems I wrote during that time are still some of my favorites to read. Again, his influence as a queer poet gave me the courage to write more explicitly about my sexuality and, well, sex in general. After reading his collection Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, I was no longer afraid to write those “gay” poems, whatever that means.