On becoming a poet
As of May 2020, I haven’t been a poet for two years.
Like many teenagers who dipped into questionably darker phases, I wrote an impressive amount of overdramatic, vague, and awkwardly verbose poems throughout my middle and high school years. I don’t think I would’ve called myself a poet then. Although I was happy with my work and happy that I was doing it, I knew that there were real poets my age with publication lists longer than I could hope for, entire books published and best-selling, honors and experiences that I was just learning about. I’d like to think I did my best, but it wasn’t enough to be exemplary.
And so I began college with variously sourced insecurities about not having written and accomplished enough, and these worries quadrupled with my new environment. Although I was used to writing often, my creative process had never been concrete and only grew more sporadic. Now experiencing unfamiliar stress that turned to disillusionment far more quickly than I want to admit, I slipped into the longest lapse of writer’s block I’d ever faced without realizing it.
I don’t mean that poetry suddenly, cleanly left my life. Every couple months, a few lines would come to me, and part of a poem would struggle onto a page. For a while, I read my old exaggerated, clunky work at open mics despite never being able to speak without stuttering. I still worked on my college’s literary magazine like I had in high school and loved it.
But it wasn’t the same. Eventually, those lines stopped finding me. I ran out of material and motivation to embarrass myself at the mic. I settled for providing a home for others’ work since I no longer produced my own. And I held on to a single half-decent poem I had written during my college freshman year, accepting that my high school poetry wasn’t much to be proud of and desperately needing this poem as proof that I had been a writer—a poet.
My writer acquaintances and friends remained as high-performing as ever, and in an attempt to ignore that I was falling more and more behind, I quietly pushed poetry aside. Other creative pursuits had always interested me, so I picked up a camera, a ukulele, different sorts of pens. I took a screenwriting class, the only creative writing class I would take in two years, and briefly fell in love. For another moment, music was home. I realized how powerful and intricate art becomes as you combine mediums and considered devoting myself to film.
I still love all these outlets dearly, but I missed poetry.
When quarantine began, I returned home and finished my sophomore year from behind a screen. Left with a daunting vacancy where academic work used to be, I succumbed to hundreds of hours of Animal Crossing and other games to fill the space. This limbo went on for weeks until I became too acquainted with sleepless nights spent regretting my two years of wasted time.
Finally, I surprised myself and began to write again: poems about the things I didn’t want to talk about, the things I spoke far too much on, family, cultural disconnect, shame, Taco Bell, my past relationship, my favorite childhood drink. The hiatus was hardly a waste; staying silent for two years made everything build up and burst, and it turned out that poetry was still my favorite way to make peace, understand, and remember.
I still don’t write like the people I admire and I still feel behind, but I am writing again. This change means everything to me. I’ve even returned to old poems, rewriting a few and sending them to magazines and journals along with my newer ones. I’m so surprised and grateful to say that some of my work, even refurbished older ones, have found homes. I think the rejection letters that inevitably come along are part of what it means to be a poet.
I’m working toward deserving that title. When I remember my high school self dutifully toiling over her clumsy work out of sheer love for the creative process, I see a poet. Here’s to hoping that soon enough I’ll also get there.
Noreen Ocampo is figuring out how to write. She is a Filipina American student majoring in English and film at Emory University, and she aims to work in the intersection of storytelling and education. She would also like to thank the editors at Marías at Sampaguitas, Royal Rose, Versification, and other publications who have kindly provided a home for her poems.