I was in college in a small school in Central Pennsylvania and must have ended up in the large lecture hall to hear Maya Angelou by accident, if not for an assignment. Poetry wasn’t quite my thing. To this day, I will not forget the sound of Maya Angelou’s voice, the richness of a voice pronouncing words I had already heard, but in a music I had never known. The room around the words was utterly still. The experience sent me off into the stacks to read for myself some of the poems I had heard Angelou read. Rereading I realized I could begin to rehear the music I had heard in person; following the lines, as I read out-loud, I felt my own voice approximate the same sounds. This was thrilling and utterly new. The experience of being surprised by the beautiful dynamism of language, by the sounds of words in the air, is what I carry, how I hope to move on.
In her essay “The Holograph,” poet Brenda Hillman speaks of handwriting a poem over and over as a method of revision in her own practice:
Emerging signs are very close to the nerves of the hand. Seeing a letter formed in stages… pulled into the thread or wick, to the thing of the word itself, gives a sense of participatory process, that the poem is still unfolding, that all of its unconscious dream nature has not yet been foreclosed upon.…
Hillman writes too about our “atavistic connections to the written expression.” Thinking about that “atavistic” quality, that reversion to the ancestral, Poetry Daily asked each member of its new editorial board to name the poem that first sparked poetry in them—the first poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—the poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.
We then asked each editor to write about that special experience and to create a writing prompt for others based on an observation about the poem. We also asked them, finally, to handwrite that poem—as a kind of homage to its maker, the poet who came before—and an homage to the poem itself as a thing that first sparked their writing.
“I also like to recopy poems other than my own onto new pages,” Hillman observes in conclusion to her essay, “because there is an intimacy about that as well.”
We are excited to present to you these sixteen intimate homages to the relationship between poet as reader and poet as writer, and to what sparks poetry.
Sally Keith on Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall”
My prompt is a simple one. Choose a poet you have been recommended or do not know very well. Spend an afternoon reading a selection of the poet’s poems out-loud. Allow that the selection is large enough to contain diverse poems but small enough to hold in your head and read through a number of times. Find two or three favorite poems and then a moment in each poem, the sound of which you love. Could you describe why you like the sound? Are the moments that attract you similar or different? Read the selection again. Now forget about all this and put your attention toward a poem, motivated by sound rather than meaning.
Sally Keith’s fourth collection of poetry, River House was published by Milkweed Editions in 2015; she is the author of The Fact of the Matter (Milkweed 2012) and two previous collections of poetry, Design, winner of the 2000 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and Dwelling Song (UGA 2004). She has published poems in a variety of literary journals, including Gettysburg Review, New England Review, A Public Space, Black Clock and Literary Imagination. Recent Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, she is a member of the MFA Faculty at George Mason University and lives in Washington DC.