The Poet In Spite of Herself
I stood before the audience, my notebook open as I prepared to read an excerpt from my novel. It is a historical romance based off of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. It was one of many readings that I would do to promote my new book that year. The moderator of our panel gestured to me and said, “I present to you our next reader, author and poet, Wendy Van Camp.”
I remember blinking and tilting my head to one side, like a puppy that is not quite sure of a knock at the door. I do write poetry, but until that moment I never considered myself to be “a poet”. In those few seconds, before I began my reading, I had an epiphany. The moderator was correct, I am a poet! The irony was not lost on me.
When I was in grade school, I remember saving money from my allowance in order to buy a notebook that had caught my fancy. It had a green cover with gold foil embellishments and the pages were smooth white paper without lines. I put the notebook in a place of honor among my growing book collection, but could not decide what to do with it. Then it hit me. I would fill the notebook with poetry. I had never written a poem before, but how hard could it be? I was already writing novels, stories filled with Tolkien style dwarves and elves or mermaids who did battle with titans. Not that anyone read the stories but my own young eyes. Poetry would be compatible with my childhood dream of becoming an author when I grew up.
I cradled my green notebook late at night and sprinkled the pages with little ideas that came to me in my dreams. After I had written a dozen poems, my younger brother swiped the book from my room, read my words and then proceeded to mock everything that I had written. I wilted in embarrassment. My parents mentioned that I shouldn’t be wasting my time writing in the first place. I put the recovered green notebook deep into my stacks and forgot about poetry. I continued writing my novels, but since poetry didn’t make money and was not respected, it would not be part of my life.
The years went by and after graduating college, I found myself working in government and corporate television. My idea of becoming an author shifted into a dream of becoming the next big director in Hollywood. By this time, I had spent the past five years producing and directing a half hour band showcase series called Musician Discoveries in addition to working full-time at the local cable station. Bands traveled from other states for the chance to perform on my studio stage and be featured in my low budget, labor of love.
After going through a few different hosts for the program and the threat of our studio losing its funding and thus losing access to its equipment, I decided that it was time for a change. I ended my musician series and took my programming out of the doomed studio. Instead, I purchased an expensive prosumer camera and software to edit video on my home computer.
The equipment needed to produce television was thousands of dollars in those days and there was no such thing as YouTube or even the Internet to distribute the work. I would have to leapfrog the program on public channels, hand delivering the broadcast quality tapes to the cable outlets. Yet, I felt it was time to go rogue and create television on my own terms.
I needed a new art form to showcase for the new TV series. Music had been kind to me, but I was tired of it. I thought about paintings. The cliché of being “as boring as watching paint dry” nixed that idea. Then I considered poetry. While I had not written a poem since perfunctory assignments in high school, as a director, I didn’t need to create the content. That would be the talent’s job. Readings were dynamic, the performances would be easy to capture and the thought of shooting on location in the various coffeehouses in the city was appealing in its own right. I put the production together and marched forth, a young intrepid television director with a dream to share poetry on my new program Coffeehouse Poetry.
Realty hit hard and fast. The coffeehouses would cancel my shoot time without informing me. One went out of business and I didn’t learn about it until I arrived a few hours before production. Editing on home equipment was more difficult than the broadcast quality machines I was used to. I was used to editing on analog equipment and my new home studio was in the then-new digital style. I was never happy with the production values I could afford on my small budget.
And then, there were the poets.
Never had I worked with such unruly creatives in my life. They were demanding, rude, and unreliable. As the months went by, I sunk lower into depression as each setback destroyed my program. Every time I received a rude letter or phone call from one of the poets, I felt myself give up a little more. The musicians I used to work with for Musician Discoveries understood the value of exposure that television offered. The poets did not. In the end, I produced around a dozen programs before I closed my doors. I bitterly swore to myself that I would never work with poets or have anything to do with poetry again.
Fifteen years later, I found myself shifting away from the long hours and stress of professional television production. Many of the corporations I worked for were sending their work overseas to Japan or Thailand where labor and studio space was less expensive than Los Angeles. The major studios remained, but I was facing burnout and the thought of the long commute into the city was daunting.
I remembered my original dream of becoming a novelist. My hiatus from writing was twenty years in length, but thanks to intensive training via Nanowrimo, I learned the techniques of writing books and how to market them. Science fiction is my main genre, but as a side project, I started an Austen inspired romance series. Since the romances were easier to complete, I published this series first and became known as an Austen inspired romance author.
During my early years of returning to writing, an author friend suggested that I give poetry a try in addition to the short stories. Due to its brief form, I could write plenty of them, submitting to more paying markets or use the poems as easy blog posts. I thought about the idea but cringed inside. The scar that Coffeehouse Poetry left inside me was a large one. I put the idea aside.
One Friday afternoon, after I had finished placing my wares into a science fiction convention art show, rain threatened overhead. The heat was oppressive in the atrium next to the art show where all the workshop/panel rooms were located. I had planned to stay for the ice cream social that evening, but it was several hours in the future. A writing panel would help to pass the time until the social event started.
I looked at the placards in front of the workshop doorways, but it was early in the day and most of the programming had not started at the convention. However, there was a scratched-in workshop available and its room was close to where the ice cream social was located. I ducked inside.
There were six or seven people in the room, I assumed that they were fellow attendees who would join me in the workshop. The placard said that this was a Scifaiku workshop. I had no idea what that was, but as long as the air conditioning worked and there was ice water available, I was game to give the workshop a try.
The instructor introduced herself and then informed me that all those people in the room were friends that had come to support her class. They were publishers of poetry magazines. I was the only student and she was going to teach me how to write scifaiku poetry.
I immediately wondered if I could get out of the workshop gracefully, but being the only student, I didn’t want to be rude. So I sat back and watched methods of brainstorming poems, ideas of how haiku and science fiction could be merged, and the structure to follow when writing a scifaiku poem.
The instructor said, “Now you will write a poem for the class.”
Me? Write a poem? I hadn’t done this since high school and that was a long time ago. I could hear my brother laughing deep in my memory. I remembered the poor grades I got in high school during poetry assignments. Yet, I had the format and the brainstorming techniques before me on the blackboard. I was a writer of science fiction short stories and had the background research of sci-fi concepts ingrained within me. How hard could this be? I wrote my first scifaiku, the first poem I had created in more than twenty years.
When I was done, the instructor said. “Now, I would like you to read your poem to the class.” I looked around. What class? I was the only student! All the other people in the room were publishers of poetry magazines, some of them with large followings.
I stood up. I read my poem. I sat down.
The instructor said a few words about my attempt. Then, one of the publishers leaned over and told me that she liked my poem and wanted to publish it in her magazine. She would pay me. I took her card with shock.
That would be the first scifaiku I wrote, but not the last. I sold that poem and many more after that. Later, I would illustrate the poems with simple line art and that published too. Then someone suggested that I sell the illustrated poems as art prints and suddenly, I was “an artist”.
Now here I stand, with my notebook before me, ready to read my prose to the audience and introduce my novel. The ironic laughter within disappears in the face of reality. I am now the author that I dreamed of being as a child through hard work and dedication. And yes, I am a poet too. As strange as it seems to be after all the ridicule this art form has caused me through the years. I am the poet in spite of herself.
Wendy Van Camp writes science fiction, regency romance, and poetry. Her writing blog No Wasted Ink features essays about the craft of writing, poetry, flash fiction, and author interviews. Wendy’s short stories and poems have appeared in science fiction magazines such as “Quantum Visions”, “Altered Reality Magazine”, “Scifaikuest”, and “Far Horizons”. She has won Honorable Mention at the Writers of the Future Contest and is a graduate of the James Gunn Speculative Fiction Workshop.