Some years ago, I attended an evening “poetry event” sponsored by Sawyer Free Library. Consisting of readings by some of Gloucester’s favorite published poets, it concluded with a workshop, dividing the audience into groups, each one guided by a poet.
The Friend Room was filled to capacity, and when the readings ended, people scrambled to the table of “sign-up” sheets, hoping to connect with their poet of choice. The point of the workshop was for all participants to attempt writing a poem. Since I was close to the sign-up table, I got my first choice — Pat Lowery Collins, whom I greatly admired as a poet, artist, and novelist, as well.
I already knew, and dismissively admitted to my group, that I couldn’t write a poem. But I didn’t know that Pat would send me away from the workshop with an observation that has self-validated any strength and direction I might have as a writer today.
She said, “I’ll bet you can write a poem; but, of course, you are primarily an essayist.” I gave the poem a try, and surprised myself by writing what felt like a not-too-bad poem that night; I’ve not written another poem since. But I liked my new label. Scraping ideas from actual experiences brings my words from a deeper place, a stronger place, a place with more reliable roots.
Since receiving one of my always-favorite gifts at Christmas, the current volume of “ Best American Essays,” I’ve been happily engrossed in writings on the most diverse subjects. I run my finger through the table of contents, checking first for authors familiar to me; then some title catches my imagination, so I go there next.
After my curiosity settles, I read Robert Atwan’s foreword. He’s been the series editor for more than 20 years, and his words regarding this particular volume, form an essay in and of themselves.