National Poetry Month: Favorite Poems and Poets

~from Communications Coordinator Jill Salahub

Hands typing on red typewriter
Image by Neel on Unsplash

Confession: for a lot of years, I didn’t read much poetry. When I did, it was either Mary Oliver or William Stafford. My favorite author at the time was Margaret Atwood, who also just so happened to write poetry, (my favorite is “The Woman Who Could Not Live With Her Faulty Heart“). My perspective and experience was fairly limited when it came to poetry. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, but rather it mystified me. I felt like I “didn’t get it” most of the time.

Then about seven years ago, I started writing with a new teacher, Laurie Wagner. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and teaches some of her writing classes online. A few women I knew kept talking about this amazing, fiercely supportive writing mentor of theirs, so when I saw her post about a new class she was offering, I signed up.

Even though it was an online course, Laurie’s energy was radiant, vibrant and raw, lighting up and electrifying the space, however virtual it might be. She is at once your favorite grade school teacher, most popular camp counselor, beloved childhood friend (the one who climbed trees and loved books), best girlfriend, and precious mother. She also is the most skilled and kind doula, and every piece I wrote for class felt like I’d given birth to something magic and wild. The class wrung me out, wrecked me, in the best possible way.

After that class ended, I signed up for Laurie’s Wild Writing online course. This is where the real magic of poetry found me. The structure of each session, in general, is Laurie reading a poem and suggesting a few lines to use as a jumping off point. Then, starting with the phrase or line of our choice, we’d write together for about 12 minutes — fast as we could, pen never leaving the page, even if all we wrote was “I don’t know what to write,” over and over. When we were done, we’d take turns sharing what we wrote — no commentary, no feedback, just read and move on to the next person. During each class, we’d repeat the process three times in a row. For the next six years, I wrote with Laurie every week. I fell utterly and completely in love, not just with Laurie and the process of wild writing, but with poetry.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug
Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

A few of my favorite poems came from Laurie’s class, were ones she used as prompts. Some of them are “If They Chop Open My Body” by Julia Alter, (find the full text on page 13 of the 2003 issue of Porter Gulch Review), and “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” by Dan Albergotti, and in particular, “Meeting the Buddha” by Craig van Rooyen, about a little girl who loses her beloved pink bunny while hiking with her father — I especially love these lines:

And when
she wakens, clutching at the emptiness beside her,
when she rubs a phantom ear between
her thumb and finger, when she cannot find the words
for the nothing in her center, then and only then,
the poem finally starts — the beginning of some
essential song she will spend her life trying
to turn to praise.

Laurie also introduced me to poets like Maya Stein and Alison Luterman and Tony Hoagland. I’ve since gone on to add my own favorites, poets like Ross Gay, Andrea Gibson, Nayyirah Waheed, Jena Schwartz, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Yusef Komunyakaa. I can now get utterly lost and spend hours on Button Poetry’s YouTube channel or Rattle. If you ask my yoga students (I’m also a yoga asana teacher), they’ll tell you one of their favorite things about my classes is the poems I read them, how I weave them into the theme for a class.

One of my current favorite poems isInstructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, because of lines like this:

Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Another recent favorite is “Living Proof” by Andrea Gibson, from her new book, Lord of the Butterflies. (Trigger warning: suicide. If you think you or someone you know could be suicidal, please call 911 immediately. If you are concerned about yourself, don’t wait. Tell a friend, or talk to a caring professional. Check out these CSU resources or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

Thank you, Laurie. Thank you poets, and poems, and poetry — words strung together out of desperation and love, stitched together with thread made from dreams and dirt, born of wisdom and pain and joy. Thank you.