First Fridays with Valerie G. Keane: If This Is My Voice, Why Is It Screaming?

[photo is an excerpt from The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine]
[photo is an excerpt from The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine]

I was thinking this morning about finding your voice as a writer. I worry about that, from time to time, and then am reminded how unnecessary it is to worry about that. But when you have a very small body of work, as I do, I think that “voice” becomes that much harder to discern. Every piece you write is given much too much importance and, therefore, it feels like some grave mistake or tragic death when it does not “take root and become part of the landscape,” as Stanley Kunitz said. This is all to say I should be writing more.

I should be trying things on for size. But what about trying things on for style? It’s like when you go to the store and only have $50 to spend on clothing that you need desperately because that one, old pair of navy pants you bought in 1994 has worn out at the knees. You try things on for size, for practicality. Writing is sometimes like that when you write sparingly and not that often.

What about writing like you are on a spending spree? Trying things on for style, for whimsy, for sheer impracticality? Does this fit? No? Eh, buy it anyway. Get rid of it at the end of the season if it still doesn’t fit or you look at the style and say, “I’ve decided that’s just not me.”

There are days when I feel so silly to be just now “finding my voice” because of how long I have been on this earth already. But here I am. And what’s the other option? To not find it? That’s infinitely more ridiculous. Sharon Olds stood on the steps of the library of Columbia University after she received her PhD and said, “Now I’m finally going to write the way I want to write. I’m going to be a poet even if my poetry turns out to be bad.” She was 37. (Ok, I have a few years on her as I write this but that just makes it all the more urgent and impactful.)

Today, I renew my vow to write the crappiest poems. To try on everything in the whole store. To have my garden come up as weeds and flowers and mighty oaks. To remind myself that is it none of my business what my voice is as long as it is true. I was reading something I wrote to my 92-year-old grandmother the other week and, in the middle of it, she rolled her eyes and blurted out, “Jesus Christ….” I threw my head back and laughed so hard. She’s often not very lucid these days but it was absolutely the most perfect and well-timed comment. What a superb reminder to not take myself so seriously.

And as Stanley Kunitz, somewhere around age 101, said, “I am not done with my changes.”

173 (1)Valerie G. Keane is very honored to be part of the current Queens literary scene.  Her work will be published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the Newtown Literary Journal and she is the founder of Poetry & Coffee, a very juicy discussion group in Queens for writers and readers, where the only rule is that you cannot read your own work. When asked if she is a poet, Valerie says, “I still don’t know how you qualify as one and no one seems to know where the application form is.”  

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