Diary of a Poet

Chop Wood, Carry Water: Publishing a First Poetry Book After Fifty

I asked writers who’d published their first books of poetry at or beyond the age of fifty to discuss their experiences. Was there any particular reason they’d waited to publish? Did they think there was an advantage to publishing later in life? How had publishing a first book changed their lives?

The responses from over twenty writers became the subject of September’s “The Reading Life” column in my newsletter, Sticks & Stones, due to subscribers on Monday, September 2. Subscribe here.

There was much more than I could fit into the column, however. I’m sharing some of the best lines from these writers’ answers in this month’s blog.

I hope you’ll enjoy these thoughtful, perceptive, and often humorous comments on the pain and pleasure of writing and poetry as much as I did.

Margo Berdeshevsky: “I’ve long believed that poetry is the language of the soul.”

Donna Vorreyer: “Poetry is one place where the voice of age can ring clear and meaningful in the world.”

Connie Post: “I hope in some way, our poems can help others to understand how we can heal the earth.”

Roy Mash: “Publishing a first book is like having another child, only without having to clean up the diapers.”

Susan Kay Anderson: “I have four or five manuscripts that I keep working on and revising and trying out different titles.”

Karen George: “Poetry has made me more fully appreciate the other arts—music, dance, visual art—which continue to enrich my life and enhance my writing.”

Tim Applegate: “I was no longer a poet working in obscurity; I was now a poet working in near obscurity.”

Catherine Hodges: “I find memory to be both sedimentary and palimpsestic (my computer says that’s not a word, but I disagree).”

Kathleen Lynch: “I am deeply grateful to be one of the unknown stonemasons, troweling my cement on the great cathedral of Poetry.”

Mary Peelen: “I feel as if the pain and suffering I’ve endured have culminated in something creative and that makes it all (nearly?) worthwhile.”

Gene Barry: “Learn all of the rules, then break them.”

Caroline Johnson: “My advice to writers is to never give up.”

Lynn Otto: “A loving consideration of the reader – when I’m revising a poem or deciding whether to share it in some way, that’s my aim, my guide.”

Gail Goepfert: “Poetry found me when I was ready.”

Dan Zev Levinson: “I’ve always carried this deep sense of transmission, of conveying a message from one age to another.”

Robert Eastwood: “I’ve left my words and thoughts, not only to my family, but also to those possible future few who may one day take interest.”

Lynne Knight: “I remember going to a Bay Area Writer’s Weekend led by Robert Hass, and he said that when you’re a poet, there’s a little bird sitting on your shoulder saying Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”

Amy Miller: “It’s like the Zen saying, ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.’”

Lois P. Jones: “Some part of you is folded into the page and structure of the lines and layout and even the cover.”

Lennart Lundh: “No one in their right mind would have wanted a book of mine right out of high school.”

Katherine Gekkar: “I think my poems are stronger now than they were when I was younger.”

Kathleen McClung: “Now, pushing 60, I feel more practical, confident and strategic than I did as a young writer.”

Rebecca Foust: “The real gift writing has bestowed on my life: community.”

2 replies »

  1. Too late for inclusion in your fascinating compendium of responses, but I published two books after the age of 60 and at a time when there’s a danger of drifting into the shadows at the age of the hyperactive highway, my insistence on maintaining momentum was much encouraged. .As W.B. Yeats says, ‘One loses, as one grows older, something of the lightness of one’s dreams; one begins to take life up in both hands, and to care more for the fruit than the flower, and that is no great loss perhaps’.

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