The Creation of a Poet: A Guest Post With Gwyn McVay

When Shawn asked me to write a guest post, he suggested the topic of “how you got into poetry.” This is actually a bit puzzling for me to write about, because I wasn’t really given a choice in the matter — rather, trained for the vocation from infancy.

What do I mean here? I mean that I was a colicky baby — as my mother, until the very end of her life, never let me forget. My parents discovered that taking me for a car ride, in itself, didn’t always solve the problem, but taking me for a car ride and reciting nursery rhymes helped greatly. Until, that is, I started screaming when the poetry stopped. To save her sanity, my mother crammed like a college student before finals and memorized reams of verse.

When she began teaching night classes (math must have been a blessed relief from all the doggerel), my father had me to deal with, and by then I had fallen hard for a book called Milkman Bill. I wanted this read to me over and over and oy vey is mir, over. Dad’s sanity-saving ploy one night involved reading me the book word-for-word backwards: that is, “truck shiny his into climbed Bill Milkman.” Only my mother came home, caught him doing this, and chewed him out for potentially causing dyslexia. Far from it. I loved the fresh idea that you could juggle words for comic effect.

And of course, being the children of two academics, my sister and I were raised in a house that resembled a small library, albeit one with Legos all over the floor. I was taken aback at times to go over to friends’ houses and discover walls bare of books. I remember bouncing on the bed as Dad read Vachel Lindsay.

By age four, I had produced the following magnum opus:

Nature is green.
Nature is wild.
Why, nature can be
Just like a child!

To my absolute dismay, this poem, typed out (the privilege of using Mom’s electric typewriter was, at the time, the coolest thing ever) and suitably decorated with drawings, stayed on my grandmother’s fridge until she moved to a nursing home — sometime in her early nineties. I trust that you kind readers of Shawn’s blog will avoid asking me pointed workshoppy questions about this quatrain, namely whether I meant that children were green as well as wild.

I found a best friend who liked books too, and we played at being the characters from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. By my second semester at Penn State, I had declared an English major with a concentration in writing, and was looking for a writing-intensive course to fill my fall schedule. I spotted a section of English 213 — which turned out to be taught by poet, translator, essayist, and memoirist Bruce Weigl — and thought, “Oh, poetry. That should be easy.” (When did these words come back to haunt me? When I sat down to write my four-hour master’s degree candidacy exam, after turning in a thesis advised by another great poet, Carolyn Forché.)

But how do you train a poet in childhood? You indulge her curiosity. You take her to the library as a treat and let her roam the whole thing. On Saturdays, when we lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota, we would head downtown to a used-book store called The Book Fair. (Lancaster County friends, take note: Aaron’s Books in Lititz similarly encourages kids to plop down and read.) You take her out into green, wild nature: I have photographic evidence of my involvement in the Audubon Society literally before I could walk. You give her chemistry sets, Erector sets, and the aforementioned Legos, all of which train the mind to build intricate structures. You give her notebooks, blank books, journals. You may, of course, wish to point out that the Jabberwock has jaws that bite and claws that catch.

That is how I got into poetry: standing a while in uffish thought beneath the Tumtum tree. Or maybe it was a Truffula Tree, one of the few saved by the Lorax. Both species are good at showing your future poet how sounds can be arranged into patterns, and how much fun this is.

Check out Gwyn’s latest book of poems, “Ordinary Beans,” HERE

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