On Becoming a Poet: A Brief Memoir C.E. Chaffin Guest Column

view_column On Becoming a Poet: A Brief Memoir

by C.E. Chaffin

Published in Issue No. 144 ~ May, 2009

My mother was very verbal but not physically affectionate. I can remember standing in my crib at night, hanging on the rail, afraid to bother her because my older brother was such a handful. My mother told me that from an early age I made up poems and songs, and I remember doing so in the back seat of our 1954 Ford when she drove to the market. Later, she read us “Alice in Wonderland,” “Hiawatha,” “Evangeline” and other great books. I was particularly taken by the poetry, though I was equally interested in music.

My father was a bombastic bloviator who could suck up all the oxygen in the room with his drunken pronouncements. He was also very verbal, though he used his skills more for polemics than explication. I learned from him how to cheat in an argument, how to go for the irrationally personal. Not a good skill to have learned, though it contributed to my understanding of psychology.

I have often observed that many poets seem to suffer a pre-verbal insult that leaves them with language as their hope for emotional connection. My mother did not hold me much except to feed me; she was more interested that my clothes were clean. I can remember her attending to my baby daughter, Sarah, as an infant–she put her down while Sarah was crying, alone in a big chair, to look for Kleenex. When she found some, she returned to clean Sarah up before holding her stiffly again. When my mom hugged you, it was like being embraced with paper clips; there was always some tightly held physical reserve. It’s not that she didn’t love us, she did, it’s that her expression of love was clean socks folded in a drawer, that special gift you requested for Christmas, the book you so loved from the library that she’d order as a surprise.

Back to my theory. If a child is deprived of normal physical bonding prior to language acquisition, which increases exponentially somewhere around the age of two, I think language can become the chief means by which such a child seeks bonding. If true, it makes sense that poets spend the rest of their lives trying to express in words what they could not gain in touch and comfort. At the least, I think this holds true for me, though I have made emotional strides since. Still, there is nothing like the exalted oneness with reality that the artist can experience in creating a poem, the union with the ineffable, as in Rilke or Eliot’s timeless moment.

There was a salient moment in my life in second grade. The teacher had us all write poems. Mine was perfect as to meter and rhyme, but my best friend garnered much more attention for his long run-on poem with sloppy meter and repeated rhymes. I couldn’t understand why his work was preferred. It seemed so unfair! But he deserved to win; although his formal skills did not match mine at the age of seven, his story was much more interesting. Yet I still notice this emotional scar today. Why would it have been such a big deal unless I had already known I was a poet? I never felt that way about any other assignments.

Later in elementary school, especially in sixth grade, I began turning in my history reports and such in the form of perfectly rhymed tetrameter quatrains. I never thought it unusual and my teachers didn’t complain. It probably made for more succinctness in my reports, a welcome quality for any teacher.

In middle school, I didn’t write much poetry, only a little fiction. I was too popular at that stage of my life to be bothered with it. But when I took a creative writing course in high school, the teacher took some deep dislike to me. One day after I read a short piece in class, she turned to me, her face filled with rage, and in front of the whole class said, “Mr. Chaffin, you will never be a poet!” I thought her outburst strange, as if some demon had suddenly taken over her matronly body. No one else was ever singled out in the same way. I chalked it up to madness, as there was something supernaturally vicious about it. She was near retirement anyway.

There was also a teacher in high school who drove me away from poetry. In California, he had an unfortunate Alabama accent, and to this day I can still hear him reciting, “The highwayman came riding over the purple moor” with the usual extension of vowels and dropping of consonants like “g” and “r.” I despised him as an English teacher because of it. Whatever he read, he crucified. Things got worse as an English major at UCLA, where I encountered him taking a summer course. There he was, the man who’d nearly ruined poetry for me. And when the UCLA literary magazine came out, there he was in its pages while I had been rejected. I was chagrined, but to be fair, at that time I was so enamored of Eliot that I was writing near nonsense sagas (one professor called my work “a confused blur of images,” which was kind), thinking that I could take a shortcut to Imagism and High Modernism simply by imitation. I tended to imitate everyone I studied; I wrote fifty sonnets when we studied Shakespeare and tomes of blank verse about Nature when we studied Wordsworth. In a way I relived the history of poetry in English by imitating every period that we studied. Yet I did manage to write a few decent poems as an undergraduate and get paid for them through national magazines, all Christian, like Eternity and His. I was so fanatical about Christianity in those days that I thought it only right to submit to Christian venues.

During the first two years of medical school I really hit my stride, though many of the poems from that period still echoed Frost and Eliot (two strong voices that are hard to banish from your head). I had a feature in a Christian literary magazine called Arkenstone in 1977, though my submissions to “worldly” magazines didn’t go so well. In any case, for me medical school was a poetic renaissance that continued through my residency in psychiatry, and some of the poems I wrote in my 20s formed the basis for my first book, “Elementary,” which was published when I was 42 and pretty much done with medicine.

During my years of early medical practice I had a literary correspondent who was a fiction writer by trade, though like most writers he thought himself the equal of a poet, and he was obsessively hard on my work. This made me a better craftsman, and I still have files of his criticism in storage somewhere. We would debate individual words in my poems, like “gouge” vs. “spike” for the experience of walking on rocks and oysters at low tide. I learned from him to be careful and deliberate about my diction, to leave no stone unturned for the right word.

I suppose about every other year from the age of 30 to 40, I submitted a manuscript to the Yale Series of Younger Poets, but I had a poor grasp of contemporary poetry at the time and likely what I submitted was at best anachronistic, at worst, derivative. Of course, I never won.

Which brings me to the publication of my first book in 1997, when I responded to an ad in Poets and Writers from Mellen Press asking for thematic manuscripts. As most of my poems up to that point were nature-oriented, I sent them a manuscript of nature poems divided into the four elements: Water, Air, Fire and Earth, the ancient division of Heraclitus and Galen. If the book was successful I wouldn’t know. They only printed three hundred copies, but my daughter told me she saw a used one for sale on the net for $150, which I subsequently confirmed, when the original price for the paperback was $14.95. So maybe there are some collectors out there who have faith in me.

After the publication of that book, I joined the literary webolution and began publishing fifty poems or more a year because of the blessed convenience of e-mail (I hated licking stamps and waiting for six to nine months for a reply from the print journals). Despite wide publication, I couldn’t win a manuscript contest nor find a small press to take any of the manuscripts I so laboriously assembled. Then one day in the Fall of 2008, after surviving a two-year depression culminating in ECT (I am unapologetically manic-depressive), the death of my oldest daughter and a serious motorcycle accident, an e-zine called Abandoned Towers took four of four poems submitted, which I thought odd. Afterwards they asked for more, and did I have enough for a book, and Oh yes! I said. Considering all the work I had put in, it felt good to be noticed. It’s said that luck is when preparation meets opportunity, but I waited a long time for the opportunity.

A shorter version of this story is available in my de-published poem, “How I Got Published,” below. That’s one strange thing about the net. When an e-zine publishes you and they go bust and don’t maintain archives, it’s as if you’ve never been published–but that’s not strictly true–it’s rather depublication. This poem was depublished in The Cortland Review. It does refer to the mental illness I battled all the while I was becoming a poet, a topic I would need more time than this short essay to address.

One last thing: I believe in Platonic anamnesis. I feel as if I was always a poet, not a doctor or butcher or candlestick maker. My life as a poet has consisted of me remembering who I am, reclaiming my essential nature. Life, I think, is about becoming who we always were–before environmental factors and immaturity seduced us away from our true selves and true calling.

About the composition of poetry, I will say only this: A poem sprouts organically from the mind’s response to either external or internal stimuli or both; once put on paper, it needs to mature over time like a good wine, subject to periodic revisions in pursuit of poetic perfection. A poem isn’t just written, it gestates, is born, and must be raised and fed and educated until presented to an editor as a polished débutante. Here’s the poem I mentioned above:

How I Got Published

When I think of a fire I know what to grab

after my kids are safe: not my Stratocaster.

whose rosewood fingerboard is spooned

between the frets from loving use,

nor my irreplaceable pink paisley blazer

custom made in the 60s, but my poems

(see me run through coiling smoke,

cradling manila folders,

arm hairs curled like fuses.)

In high school my writing teacher

(whose silver-brown wig stuck to her head

like a frozen salad) screamed at me:

“You will never be a poet, Mr. Chaffin!”

Shame stole my voice and made

my purple acne blaze so even the girl

I loved in secret looked away.

In college a professor called my poems

“a confused blur of images”

and was probably right,

though I comforted myself

that he was gay and taught

Restoration Literature.

After my fourth trip to the bughouse

for fires beyond those that sear mere flesh

I started writing poems to feed my mind

something besides itself. Afterwards,

just as new medications began to lift

my suicidal melancholy,

I was published.

C. E. Chaffin

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C.E. Chaffin is a SoCal native and attended UCLA. His recent poetry collection, "Unexpected Light," [http://www.cechaffin.com/light.html] is available through booksellers everywhere. He's been widely published on the web and in print.