Becoming the Living Poet

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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.

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.

I’m getting ready to take the train from Aarhus to Copenhagen for the second time this month and am fairly certain it will go significantly better this time. I’m a little nervous about how successful I’ll be at the task of finding housing and settling-in in the next 10 days, but I have faith and a few tricks up my sleeve. I am confident I can figure out a way to land on my feet.

Got some good news a couple of days ago. I answered a call for graduate instructional aides and was selected to lead group discussions in an intro. to poetry class. The task sounds rather similar to the apprentice teaching I did for ‘intro to poetry’ classes as an undergraduate, but hopefully there’ll be a little more responsibility. It’ll be good to be working with beginning poets again. I love sharing my love of poetry with people who are only just beginning to find their poetic passion. It helps put me in touch with my younger poet self and remember what it was like to discover a new literary world that few others seemed to understand or appreciate. Plus, I always have to think harder about poetry when I’m putting in a position of needing to explain it to someone, which allows me to see it from angles I don’t bother to tilt towards much anymore. I think this is going to be a great experience.

The big news for this blog’s immediate future is the impending internet blackout. I’m not at all certain when I’ll have internet access again, hopefully within 10 days or life will get unpleasantly interesting.

Before I go, I thought I’d copy and paste some of the links that have been clogging up my tabs lately.

For your perusing pleasure:

Emma Newman over at Post-Apocalyptic Publishing just keeps getting more and more good ideas about how to promote her writing. First she began podcasting her novel, Twenty Years Later, chapter by chapter to rave reviews (her efforts have caught the attention of a small press who are now considering publishing her work, everyone cross your fingers). Now she has come up with the idea of creating a short story club in which members submit suggestions for stories, she selects one of the ideas, and then sends the completed story to her group as a special treat just for them. I think it sounds like a brilliant way to connect with readers who might later purchase her novel after enjoying her stories so much. I am eager to observe how this idea works out. Here is the info. on the club if you’d like to participate.

Over at there’s a lovely article rather simplistically titled, What Is A Writer?. The article talks about how myth’s about who a ‘real writer’ is or how a ‘real writer’ should behave creates submitter’s block and prevents good writers from getting their work out into the world. I’ve been suffering from a nasty case of submitter’s blog myself, a topic I’d like to address on this blog as soon as I get moved into my new place.

The Los Angeles Times featured an article on their website called The Lost Art of Reading which I absolutely adore and really should print out so I can read it again a few years from now. The article is about how in an instant information saturated world, reading is a form of meditation.

So I’m here online and I shouldn’t be. I’m here because I forgot my passport, couldn’t get on my plane, and had to pay a fee to transfer my ticket back to Sacramento to a week later than I wanted to leave Denmark.

For the last few days I’ve been alternately crying and disassociating because I’ve been having trouble dealing with how stupid and incompetent I feel. I’ve done some brainstorming on how I can be more organized and less distracted by anxiety in the future, but a part of me just doesn’t see the steps I’ve taken to do better next time as good enough. A part of me wants to hurt the lesson into me until I learn it good and proper this time.

This is a form of self abuse and I need to stop tolerating it.

A while back I wrote a post about self-forgiveness. It’s one of my favorite posts on the blog because every time I re-read it, it never fails to help me feel calmer and more accepting of my personal growth process.

In the post I quoted this passage on the Mayo Clinic’s article on forgiveness:

Also, remember that forgiveness often isn’t a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.

It’s been a rough few days and it’s bound to be an even rougher week if I can’t ever so gently and ever so lovingly snap myself out of this doom spiral.

Yesterday morning as I was tumbling through the darkness, through the haze of emotional pain and indifference, I heard a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering urgently, Pull up! Pull up! The voice was my survival instinct and it was telling me if I didn’t point my psyche in a direction other than down I was going to crash hard, I was going to hurt myself. While I am very grateful to that tiny voice that protects me time and again from full on comatosed, can’t leave the bed depression and physical self injury, that’s a lot of burden for one tiny voice to shoulder. I need to stop pushing myself towards some sort of psychological abyss and expecting my sense of self preservation to pull me back from the brink in the nick of time.

In short, I need to make good on this promise to become my own best friend. I need to stop casting the first stone whenever I make a mistake.

My partner and I have been having a lot of communication problems lately, mostly because I’ve been so clogged up with shame over the mistake I made and also because a part of me has been expecting my partner to help make it right for me. My partner hasn’t been able to do or say much to stop the pain because it’s no longer my partner’s forgiveness I am seeking, that was given long ago. The person who refuses to be compassionate is myself towards myself.

I decided to catch up on a few Freak Revolution posts in the hopes of finding something that would either help alleviate some of the angst or at least help remind me not to expect the person I love to fix it for me. (Freak Revolution is a blog about communication and self acceptance. Not sure why I haven’t added it to my blog roll yet. I read it all the time. I’m remedying that now.) I came across a post that did both. It’s called The Little Girl and the Hammer.

The post is about a difficult time in the author’s childhood right after her parents had divorced when she felt that the only time she could get positive attention was when she was injured so after healing from a broken wrist she tried to break her own ankle with a hammer so that the positive attention wouldn’t stop. When she realized she couldn’t intentionally injure herself, she became very clutzy and suffered a lot more injuries that she did and did not intentionally cause depending upon your definition of intention.

Now I don’t think that’s why I forgot my passport. I don’t think I unconsciously wanted to push back an already difficult move on a tight deadline by a whole week and cost myself $500 in flight and train fees (the airport is in Copenhagen, not Aarhus, so one of the things I had to pay for was the two way ticket back to Aarhus to take the 3 hour train ride of shame back to my departure point). I do think the fact that I got literally feverish with depression and cried on and off for days after making the mistake has a lot to do with how and when my needs got met when I was growing up.

Like the writer in The Little Girl and the Hammer, I too had a somewhat difficult relationship with my mother. I wasn’t neglected, but my mother was a very emotional person (not unlike I am now, really). She was a single mother, not at all ready to have a child, who did as good a job as she could have under the circumstances as she struggled to feed and cloth me and keep a roof over my head. She was a survivor, a refugee from an alcoholic family and a short, but disastrous marriage.

From an early age I had the impression that the odds were stacked against us. My mom was holding back the big scary world as best she could, and it was my responsibility to help in the only way I could, to be as strong as she was. Unfortunately I was a very sensitive child, so that often didn’t work out too well. My mom wasn’t always terribly sympathetic of my eccentricities, but she did care about me deeply, she just didn’t always have the patience necessary to deal with my moods. Thinking back I can recognize a great deal of my mother in how I often see the world, a long series of catastrophes that need attending too with brief respites of peace which are to be aggressively defended from any intrusion of negativity.

My mother was dealing with her own issues and I don’t blame her for this in any way, but it seems to me that I was taught the lesson that minor sadness, anger, and pain should be dealt with as quietly as possible and that the only hurt that warranted another person’s attention was disaster level hurt. Thus, I learned to hold in my pain for as long as I could and then if I couldn’t keep it invisible, fall apart as completely and dramatically as possible to ensure I got sympathy for the pain I was supposed to be hiding.

Acknowledging that those were the coping mechanisms I learned as a child, it’s time for my adult self to further acknowledge that there are other ways of coping with emotional pain.

I’ve spent many years of my life hoping the pain would just go away. I’d go to college (nope, still dealing with anxiety and depression), graduate from college and get a job I enjoyed (still there), get into a healthy relationship with a person who loved and respected me (still anxious and depressed, though admittedly less than when I was in emotionally abusive relationships).

It isn’t my external circumstances that cause the anxiety and depression. Admittedly, lapses in self respect that cause me to put myself in bad circumstances and do self destructive things (like not doing the self care I needed in order to calm my anxiety long enough to focus on packing properly and thus nearly trapping myself in a foreign country) add fuel to the emotional instability fire, but these are just symptoms.

The real problem is that I get so wrapped up in the ‘shoulds’ and the endless layers of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing that surround not doing a task perfectly that I forget to ask myself a more fundamental question: What do I need to ensure that this task gets done and that my emotional needs are met while I’m completing it?

So OMG I need to pack, but I don’t know where to start, ahh, ahh, ahh, what if I forget something?!?!?! doesn’t address the underlying question: I’m feeling anxious right now and trying to avoid the source of anxiety, what do I need to feel less afraid and overwhelmed? What do I need right now to ensure that I don’t forget anything and can get home safely?

The answer was probably to sit down, make a cup of tea, and write a list of everything that needed to be in my suitcase, and then possibly to have my partner read over the list to see if I’d forgotten anything. And most importantly, to forgive myself for the things I couldn’t finish before I left, and focus on the things that had to be finished in order to leave.

I recently read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and came upon this great quote:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are pecularily in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notions of us.

I am ready to recommit myself to the path of self love and self-forgiveness. I am ready to stop crying, brush off the mistakes of the past however egregious, and move forward in the quest to find housing in San Francisco and begin my studies as an MFA poet. I am prepared and committed to offer myself encouragement when I stumble, rather than condemnation.

When I was writing this post I also ran into this quote, which was a heartening reminder of what’s really important:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. — Theodore Roosevelt