This post first appeared on Substack https://anniehendrix.substack.com/
“Answer me, Américaine! Why do you young people not honor your poets?”
-Patti Smith’s Just Kids
I listened to Patti Smith’s Just Kids sometime over the summer. It was recommended to me by a relative several years ago, who saw something in my work as a songwriter that I had become dissociated from. Unlike Patti Smith, I’m not a true punk rocker, but I do use my music as a vehicle for my poetry.
I have always hesitated to call myself a poet. In the circles of people I’ve become accustomed to spending time with, when you speak the word an awkwardness louder than the cacophony of industrial life quiets the room. What does it mean to be a poet in the United States of America, especially when you haven’t yet published a substantial work, obtained a masters degree, or been crowned with the title by the Big Five?
I first learned what it meant to be a poet when the death of two students at my elementary school prompted the implementation of a poetry unit in the classroom. We learned to write as a way to process grief. The poems were compiled into a collection and dedicated to the boys who had lost their lives. This method of observing and distilling my observations and experience felt natural to me, though I didn’t continue the practice on my own until a few years later, when the trauma of my home life became too much for me to bear.
Grief at school and grief at home compounded, and like many who look to escape their real lives, I turned to reading. I remember going to the book fair at my school. I found the complete poetry collection of Edgar Allen Poe, and still haven’t entirely shaken the archaic influence of his voice. My fifth grade teacher pointed me to Emily Dickinson, and then Sylvia Plath. I felt a kinship to these women I couldn’t explain. Other children had known so certainly what they wanted to be when they grew up, and now I did too.
“I want to be a poet when I grow up,” I said.
“You can write poetry,” responded my teacher, “but that is not a way to make a living. You are going to have to do something else.”
I never stopped writing poetry, but I became split from myself. I ran from artistic medium to artistic medium in search of who I could be if not a poet. Maybe I could be an actor, a painter, or a social worker. I kept writing poetry in-between. At seventeen, I ended up in a creative writing class, hoping that maybe if I could learn to write novels I could stay true to my calling and have a better chance at a living.
“Your work is really good. There’s some real potential here. Don’t stop, seriously, but even the Poet Laureate has another job. You are going to need to find another way to make a living.”
I continued to write poetry, but I shifted my focus to music. In a series of what could be described as either good luck or poor decision making, I ended up playing in several local bands, touring around the country, running my own wedding band, and eventually deciding to go back to school to see if I could write music that would cut it in the music business. After the completion of my first album, I pitched the songs a few years in a row to different members of the music industry. The feedback was the same every time.
“As art, as music,” one music licensing executive said, “I love this. But I can’t use it. It’s like poetry.”
Wherever you go, there you are.