Becoming the Living Poet

The new post up at Creative Juices Arts is just beautiful. Here’s my favorite quotation (that I’m seriously thinking of putting up on my wall), but you should definitely go read the whole thing: here.

There’s art that you might not like.

There’s art that is not technically sophisticated.

There’s art that might be judged harshly by some outside authority or arbitrary standard.

There’s art that does not please the artist.

There’s art that appears to be completely meaningless or confusing.

There’s art that doesn’t match the vision you had in your head.

There’s art that might bring up shame about your artistic skills.

There’s art that might get you in touch with some uncomfortable feelings.

There’s art that is not realistic.

There’s art that is messy.

There’s art that is childlike.

But none of it is really BAD art. There’s nothing wrong with the art itself. The art is just art.
What makes it seem bad is our expectations about what we think it SHOULD be.

Another day, another step away from perfectionism and towards accepting myself as a living poet. So glad I found this article to help me on my path.

Many, many eons ago (OK it wasn’t that long ago, it was over the summer) I entered the Art of Nonconformity’s Unconventional Writing Contest. I wrote about the contest on this blog and told my readers that whether I won or lost they would get to read my entry. Well, I lost and never got around to posting my entry until now. Given how I’ve been squirming over feeling like an outsider lately, now seemed like a good time to revisit the post. Hope you enjoy it:


There are no certainties, even grammatical ones… only that which bears the imprint of our choice, our taste, our uncertainty, our desire, and our weakness can be beautiful. ~ Marcel Proust

It seems a little odd to confess this in a post for a blog called The Art of Nonconformity, but I have to say it if any of the words that follow are going to ring true:

I never wanted to be a nonconformist.

I wanted to be a normal person with normal values living a gloriously successful and yet undeniably normal life.

I wanted this long before I had bothered to define what it meant to be normal. (I still haven’t been able to define it really. Something about being the beneficiary of media images that laud your lifestyle choices and possessing an implicit understanding that by and large you are just like everyone else and that’s awesome.)

The path to normality is of course, the opposite of what this blog ordinarily discusses: conformity.

I was never very passionate in my courtship of conformity, but court it I did for a time.

I did it because I thought it was the mature and responsible thing to do. I did it because I thought living a life that my family could be proud of and my acquaintances could understand was the path to true adulthood.

But luckily, rather than fall into this marriage of convenience, I met another love: authenticity.

I passionately desired to learn who I was, define my own values, and live a life authentic to those values.

Still, for many years the concept of nonconformity did not sit well with me, because as Proust alluded, the beauty of nonconformity is its uncertainty. For me, as for many people, that uncertainty felt frightening. I suppose in that capacity I am normal. Where I deviated from the norm was in how I responded to that fear. I refused to allow my fears to create artificial limitations on the life I could lead.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave. ~ Mark Twain

If you are a reluctant nonconformist following these steps will allow you to minimize the painful aspects of nonconformity so that you can skip to the fun parts:

For the Reluctant Nonconformist: 6 Steps To Accepting Your Nonconformity

1. Acknowledge that you have a lot to learn.

Because you have made the decision not to conform to societal standards of the good life, no one can teach you anything, right?


If you’re going to go off into the wilderness and forge your own path, you need to know more about the lay of the land, not less.

But what, you may wonder, is it that you need to learn?

The most important thing you need to learn is that there is a world outside the one you daily encounter where people live differently, believe different things, and find satisfaction living lives you’ve
never imagined were possible.

Read, travel, talk to new people – do whatever you need to do to realize that the ways of living you’ve been taught are just one option among many.

2. Make a habit of questioning everything.

Now that you’ve exposed yourself to as much new knowledge and experiences as you can digest, bone up on critical thinking skills and begin formulating your own opinions on the things you read and hear.

The vast majority of people tend to unconsciously doubt their own opinions when they differ from those of the majority. Psychology studies have shown this to be true even when people try to interpret unambiguous sensory information.

Nonconformists tend to have a reputation for questioning authority. That can be important too, but more important is the ability to question your own assumptions. If you haven’t questioned yourself on
the reasons you hold certain beliefs, how do you know you didn’t acquire them simply because they were being chanted by the crowd before you knew enough to question them?

3. Recognize that criticism only tells you the value system of the criticizer.

One of the most difficult skills for any nonconformist to learn is how to deal with criticism. Chris Guilebeau already addressed the topic of critics in his post, How To Respond To Critics. One aspect of criticism that Guilebeau didn’t address was how to determine whether or not a piece of criticism is valid.

First of all, remember that even the best advice is never universally applicable. Approach a piece of criticism as you would an advice article in a magazine you picked up at the dentist’s office. Advice articles are
written by human beings who have their own particular biases and based on those biases make assumptions about what goals their readers find desirable.

Even the people who criticize you in good faith (which may not be the majority) are doing so through the lens of their own value system. Before applying someone else’s critical statement to your own life, think about what the statement says about the values and motives of the speaker. Decide whether the speaker’s assumptions about what your priorities should be are close enough to what your priorities actually
are for the criticism to be useful.

Only tiniest fraction of the criticisms you will receive in your lifetime, the ones that make sense in terms of your own values and goals, should be allowed have any concrete effect on your actions.

4. Realize that your happiness is not dependent on others being happy for you.

As a nonconformist, you will spend a great deal of time either walking away from critics or attempting to explain yourself with only marginal success. This makes perfect sense once you realize that the main
reason people criticize is because they don’t understand.

Put yourself in the critic’s shoes for a second. How could they understand? Few people have lived the life you’re living or attempting to live, and if others are living that life, your critic certainly hasn’t met any of those kinds of people.

The most fearful critics will often be the most vocal, looking you straight in the eye you and telling you that your kind of life is selfish, immoral, irresponsible, or unnatural. How can you be happy living a life like that? How could your life have gone so wrong? They will ask with condescending concern.

It isn’t just fear of uncertainty that keeps people from straying from the pothole-ridden path of a ‘normal’ life. It’s the inability to imagine a life could be happy that others would not automatically identify as happy.

Sometimes you’ll have to do it alone, but make a point of celebrating your happiness. Give yourself credit for accomplishing the goals that matter to you even if no one else recognizes them as valuable.

Remember that normal people who pity freaks seldom realize that the freaks pity them back.

5. Surround yourself with other nonconformists.

Deciding you’re a nonconformist doesn’t mean you’re the one exception to John Donne’s assertion that no man is an island. You don’t have to be an island to live by your own values. In fact, it’s harder if you try to be. Even though you may feel misunderstood a lot of the time; the world is not against you.

There are a lot of nonconformists out there, many more than you’ve been lead to believe, and they often forge lasting bonds of friendship with one another on the basis of mutual respect for one another’s

In the ‘real’ world you can usually find nonconformists by going to gatherings for people who share your interests and seeking out the people who are completely obsessed with the thing they’re interested
in. In this society it is odd to have an all-consuming passion for something after you leave childhood. If someone has maintained one; then that person is probably a nonconformist.

On the internet it’s easier to find places where nonconformists congregate. I’ve had good luck finding nonconformists at Freak Revolution and The Fluent Self, but there are thousands upon thousands of cyber ‘tribes’ out there.

6. Be prepared to surprise yourself.

The best and the hardest part of being a nonconformist is that you have no idea what the life you’re creating entirely from scratch without a recipe is going to look like.

You can have goals and make plans, but if your only guide is your own values, desires, and preferences; then your plan will inevitably change as you do. After you become more certain of who you are and what you want, and gradually begin to feel less constrained by what others think of you and what sitcoms and advertisements tell you your life should look like, you could end up anywhere.

If you think that’s a good thing; then you’re well on your way to being happy in the nonconformist lifestyle you have chosen.

I haven’t been blogging here lately. I could say the reason was because I was so so so busy, but it’d be a lie. The real reason I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been crippled by perfectionism, self doubt, and fear of exposure. I’ve been afraid of what I might say.

I think my biggest secret has been how full of fear I am at pretty much every moment. I’m afraid I’m making the wrong life choices. I’m afraid I’m making the right life choices but that I’m too inept, slow, or cowardly to make them turn out as well as they could. I worry that I’m not that great a poet and not so hot a content writer either. I worry that I am a fraud and that everyone will find out at any moment.

In short I’m a first year MFA. I haven’t done things perfectly, and I’m not going to write this blog perfectly, but that’s OK.

The words on my about page pretty much say it all:

“Becoming the Living Poet is about honestly acknowledging the psychological and financial barriers to being a poet and confronting them with mindfulness, authenticity, and, on a good day, maybe even a little grace.”

I’m been anxiety-ridden and weakened by depression, but I’m still on the road to becoming a living poet.

Ready, set, go!

1. Stretch my shoulders every evening before going to bed.

I’ve been having some pretty gnarly shoulder stiffness and occasional pain for a few months now. A friend recently showed me two shoulder stretches that might help sooth the tension. I’m terrible about doing anything physical that involves a routine, but this is definitely worth attempting. It’s certainly better than my usual way of handling bodily pain – ignoring it or throwing a pill at it.

2. Unpack one box per week.

I am so close to being fully unpacked. If I unpacked one box per week I’d be done by the end of October and I wouldn’t have the excuse of not having time because it’s only one box. That takes maybe an hour. Two at the most.

3. Relaxation Yoga

There’s a free relaxation yoga class from 5-6pm on Tuesday evenings at the gym on campus (RM 147). I don’t have class then and I can definitely spare an hour to do something that has been on my ‘to do’ list for about a year now.

4. Look into women’s self defense class.

I know there’s one on campus. I don’t have the info. on it yet, but I think I know where to find it. First step is getting a date, a time, and a location.

5. Get HPV vaccination.

It’s a solid, proactive step to take in preventing cervical cancer later in life and I’m only eligible for the shot until my next birthday.

There’s lots more I want to get done, but I’ve found that having more than five goals in my head at one time can get a bit over-whelming. I’ll bump a couple of these off and then move on to more.

It’s been over a month since I wrote a new blog post and I’m starting to feel the blog’s absence. I’ve been thinking a great deal about poetry and producing some new and exciting work – that part of the MFA has been wonderful. I can feel myself truly growing and stretching as a poet, even though I’ve only been been an MFA for about a month. It’s been really surprising that studying poetry in the ways I’ve been studying it can have such an intense impact on the way I write in such a short time. but I haven’t had time to do much useful introspection. It’s been hard settling into a new place and I’ve been barreling through it rather than taking the time to tend to my own comfort. To a certain degree it’s been necessary. There’s been a lot to get done and I’ve had to be really focused to adjust to the new workload. Still, at the same time, I don’t want to stop taking time for my own personal growth process. Prioritizing things like stress management and self esteem building is probably, in many ways, more essential now than it was before I got to graduate school.

So I’m going to try to ease into blogging once a week again, but I’m going to be more realistic about it this time. I’m not going to keep up a Bay Area literary events calendar because I don’t have the time, but I will periodically post announcements for literary events that interest me here and on twitter. I’m not going to post about submissions every single week, but I will post periodic submission updates and goals, and encourage readers to share their goals in turn if they feel comfortable. I’m going to remove the “shoulds” from this blog and thereby remove the giant mental block I’ve had about blogging all month. I’m going to give myself permission to not blog perfectly, just as I’ve been struggling to give myself permission to not write perfectly.

Was reading “Notes on Poetry” by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard a few weeks ago. This quote stuck with me:

“We are always, even in prose, led and willing to write what we have not sought and what perhaps does not even seek what we sought.

is laziness.”

It’s a dadaist manifesto, so the words go way beyond stepping away from “shoulds” into stepping away from “why” and “how,” which would be a huge leap from me. But I think there’s something to the idea that “perfection is laziness.” that doing something spontaneous and imperfect is more courageous or more worthwhile in some way.

So submissions update:

I made the Transfer Magazine and Out of Nothing deadlines and turned in my submissions. I also entered the Anne Fields Poetry Contest, a contest for SFSU writing grad students specifically. Unfortunately I missed the 13th Moon deadline. Perhaps better luck next year. I am still committed to submitting work to Bitter Oleander and Room Magazine.

That’s all for now. If you’ll excuse me I have a persona poem to write.

My funk is officially over, completely chased away by the excitement of my first week of MFA classes. If you’d like to hear more on that topic (of classes, not my funk, my funk is ancient history), please checkout my most recent post over at MFA Chronicles.

Unfortunately, so much has been happening in my offline life that I’ve been letting this blog get a little stagnate. Time to check back in with the goals I’ve discussed for myself and the blog and figure out how to make them compatible with the busy life of an MFAer.

So one big thing I wanted to focus on was getting myself, and anyone else who wants to participate to submit more work for publication.

Here’s my current list of places I’ll be submitting to in the near future:

Transfer Magazine, the nearly one hundred year old publication of SFSU student work has a submission deadline of Sept. 3rd.

contest being held by 13th Moon Press is having a feminist poetry and fiction competition. The deadline is September 8th.

Out of Nothing has a submission deadline of October 1st. I really like their list of topics: the vacuum, salvage / remainders, imaginary spaces possessed of imaginary dimensions, darkness / lightlessness, reduced or infinitesimal means, the exponential, self-abnegating symbols, the blank, obliteration, the inconsequential, refusal, the contentless / general contentlessness, the generic and / or undifferentiated and / or the contra-original, adhesive agents in search of clients to bind, none of the above or below. Sufficive to say it’s a somewhat experimental publication.

Room Magazine is accepting submission on the theme of travel. The deadline is March 15th, 2010.

-I also plan to submit to the Bitter Oleander Press which doesn’t have a submission deadline.

So those are the places I’ll be submitting work. Posting this means I’m committed to getting the submissions typed, stamped, and in the mail.

Post the places you’re planning to submit to in the comments if you want a cheering section and a space to point to and say, See, I’m really going to do this!

I haven’t twittered in weeks and now the names feel strange to me, probably in part because my time zone has changed so the streams I was most used to viewing are no longer appearing at the times I am most likely to be online.

So I did it, the scary impossible task. I found housing in the Bay Area. Unfortunately I won’t be able to move in for another two weeks, until then I’m staying with friends. But I have an address now.

I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to find housing, that I’d have to live with my mom and commute the two hours to the Bay Area. Yet, now I have housing and it doesn’t make me happy. I’m in a terrible funk. It’s a walking funk. It’s a functioning funk. But it’s a deep sadness that refuses to answer to a name and refuses to dissipate.

If I wasn’t using this blog chiefly as a means of writing my way to the other side of something I don’t think I’d tell you this. I haven’t told anyone else. They’d want an explanation or worse, they’d shrug and tell me it will pass. And it will pass. It’s just that these kinds of lingering funks never feel like they’re going to pass when you’re sitting in the middle of them.

I’ve kind of been in denial about how wrenching this move was going to be. Before I went to Denmark I sometimes had vague flashes of recognition that when I left the United States I was leaving behind much more than my native soil; I was leaving an entire life behind to begin a new one. I think it was hard for me to acknowledge before I had done the deed that moving my life to San Francisco would be murdering the life I had in San Diego. Moving my life from the San Joaquin Valley to San Diego was definitely a death knoll to the life that had been. In retrospect it was a small price to pay for the new pieces of myself that I found in Southern California. I hope after a short, cathartic mourning period, I’ll eventually feel the same way about my life in San Francisco, that anything I lost in attaining it was a price I’d gladly pay again.

But for now, every one keeps asking me if I’m happy that I’m starting an MFA program. It was after all the big dream I worked towards for the last 3 years or more. I tell them I’m ecstatic, but the truth is I am grieving for the simple pleasures of my old life in San Diego. I miss my friends. I miss knowing what tomorrow will look like. I miss feeling like I belonged somewhere. I feel a lot like Wile E. Coyote, like I’ve wondered off a ledge and am temporarily walking on air until I have the presence of mind to look down.

I’m told the first semester is hard on every graduate student, that it’s a period of intense stress and confusion when the best thing you can do is be patient with yourself and ask as many questions (stupid and otherwise) as you can until the new landscape begins to become clear to you.

Tomorrow is my program orientation and the day after my first day of classes. I wish I felt more prepared, but I am ready to be compassionate with myself about my sadness and my fear. I was going to write that I was strong enough to do this, but I think what I really need to remember is that this is going to be fun, that I’m going to meet a lot of talented writers, get a lot of useful feedback on my work, and read a lot of poetry books I’ve never read before. These are the first steps towards the life I wanted and just because they’re not easy doesn’t mean they’ll be painful. Just because I will have to work harder than I have in a long time, doesn’t mean I’m walking into a struggle to survive. I’ve already learned the things I need to know about surviving. This is a story of thriving.

February 2020
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