When Do I Become a Poet?

When do I become a poet?

The stamp hit the metal with a pop that rang out every few seconds. It took a few minutes, but then Joy got the hang of it. Joy created a beat, hitting the ink pad, placing the paper accurately and moving the press so the design became defined. Then she would reload the stamp with ink as she moved the postcard to the finished pile. The process took about five seconds.

Every five or six stamps Joy sighed heavily before recommitting to stamping a few more postcards. This was all helping an artist friend. This design, abstract as it was, was hanging in a museum. The friend was paying Joy 10 cents for every stamp she completed so she could make about a dollar a minute if she stayed focused. This was a small satisfaction. Still, Joy lost herself in the process.

Joy stared at a postcard for a long moment trying to see what was so great about this design. Sure, the ink seemed to move in curves off the page, but Joy knew she could have created the same thing. However, her friend was the artist, and Joy was the friend who had to stamp the postcards so that they looked more authentic. If only they didn’t keep running out of postcards. Most people weren’t mailing these things—they were framing them.

Joy, the stamp girl, she thought between beats of the rhythm of stamping. When did she get to be Joy the poet?

Of course, no one saw her poetry. When she managed the courage to send her poetry somewhere it never amounted to anything. She didn’t dare show her friends who were just as creative and driven as this artist. Her words never flowed off the pages in curvy lines—they just sat there mocking her.

Joy had one other friend trying to be a poet. Every Tuesday they met at a coffee shop and talked about how neither one was a poet. They never showed each other any work. If they talked about actual poetry pieces at all, it was just to mock the fame of some other poet.

Joy despised any praise she saw for contemporary poets. In her mind, these poets did nothing but use short sentences with big words. It was all art without substance, created by accident.  She recently read a line of poetry she really liked, but when she looked up the author, he admitted that he put no intention in his poetry—he sat around and wrote things down quickly in an elevated state under the influence and when he woke up the next morning, he had a poem. Art without intention, in Joy’s mind, was child’s play.


The postcard in front of her bled together with Joy’s suddenly furious action. The ink streaking like blood and pooling on the page. She thought she could almost make out a jester’s face mocking her.

She got an idea and suddenly took her next postcard and began to write furiously.

The Jester’s smile mapped out from years of critique.

She liked it. This was going to leave a mark on the world—a stamp where she would lay claim on the culture. People would stand up at poetry readings in 200 years and begin:

The Jester’s smile mapped out from years of critique.

She knew it was the kind of line that they would debate on CNN with a breaking news banner. Joy had cracked the cultural code with this line. Fame and riches would come, and it took her only a few seconds.

She stared at the line for a few moments. Her smile slipped. She readied her ink on the stamp and pressed hard over her lines of poetry, it disappeared with only a couple letters peeking out.

Joy sighed. It was Tuesday. She had a question.

When do I become a poet?

Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in College Anymore

I followed the yellow brick road. It was lined with rite-of-passage road markers. I lost my first tooth. I sat in the front seat of a car. I started high school. I had my first kiss. I moved out of the freshman dorm. All these stops led me to the Emerald City.

In the Emerald City, I was another scarecrow in search of knowledge. I graduated college in four years. I was given a piece of paper to prove that I had a brain and ushered across the stage.

I was then led out back. They opened a door and all I could see, in every direction, were yellow bricks. There was no road, but a grand patio that covered the Earth. From my position, I saw the dirt of previous footprints lead off on different paths, but nothing concrete. I knew I would find no more road markers, but also had no path to stray from.

I picked a few sets of footprints going in one direction and I begin to walk. I quickly come across enclaves of people all working by pushing buttons and stopped to talk to them. Some people told me they had stopped at this first group because they wanted the security; others had the pressure of obligations. Few were happy with the decision to stay and they talked longingly about moving onward, someday…

I continued on and found another group that seemed oblivious to my presence in the middle of their grand party. They were distracting themselves with light and music and drink and memory lapses.

I set out again, walking for a while with a girl searching for her big break. We quickly noticed objects thrown at us as we walked. She said that the objects were clues to people’s dreams. There were lots of paintbrushes, guitars and cameras. She pointed out some larger items—an empty family photo album and a Superman cape. We came across a path full of loose-leaf pages from old scripts, and she left me to pursue that path. I continued toward the horizon.

Every chance I could, I talked to people I came across in this yellow brick desert. I started to understand some themes.
A lot of people were trying to follow specific paths. They stumbled across the inklings of a famous person they recognized—a musician or an entrepreneur—and they would begin to follow that path. Yet each time, they found the road broken or blocked.

One guy who was lying on the side of the road, looked up at me in disbelief when I asked him why all his paths were broken. Finally, he said, “I guess you can’t copy someone else’s journey, man.”

At one point I came across a large park fountain. It was surrounded by desks full of people scribbling furiously and then dashing to the fountain to dip the papers in the water. The papers disintegrated into ash each time one was submerged in the fountain, causing the writer to dejectedly return to his or her desk. Then, I saw a man run to the front, dip his paper, pull his hand out and reveal a gold star. He ran back to his desk and placed it next to several other gold stars before beginning to scribble again. I walked over to him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Collecting gold stars,” he said, without looking up.


He paused for a moment and then said, “If I don’t get gold stars, how will I know if I’m creating meaningful work?”

I left the desks and the fountain. I knew that I wanted more than simple approval in my life.

I found a field that was full of holes. I looked down and saw people inside each one. I called down to one person that seemed to be zoning out.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m working. I have to work,” she said, jumping to attention.

“Wouldn’t you rather work with other people?”

“No, other people distract me. I must work first and then I can have people in my life when I make my first million.”

I left her in her hole, knowing I wanted more out of life than to work in solitude with no one to share my day-to-day journey. So I continued to walk.

One of the great themes in stories is the journey. Stories draw us in when characters take a path to learn something about themselves, but in truth, life goes on whether we take a journey or not. The journeys just find us. Even outside the confines of the Emerald City, the people I know who are the happiest find ways to continue to learn and grow and explore. For now, I will continue to wander the Yellow Brick world and learn what I can from the journey.

Pockets of Happiness

I keep so many pockets of happiness that I decided to sew them into a jacket. Each pocket found its proper place, but happiness is such a touchy issue that my joy is dispersed and sometimes lost.

The jacket has one breast pocket facing outward over my heart. It’s my own personal nametag—the happiness I always show to the world. This pocket is where I keep my standard answers to the question, how are you? The phrases I’m pretty good and I’m alright hang out in this pocket. When people are masking deeper issues with happiness, this is the pocket they usually store their antics in.

The other outward pocket is the one on my sleeve. It’s where I keep the happiness to show people close to me and where I keep the good moments of my life. I often come across this pocket by accident like when the Colorado Rockies hit a home run or I run into my friend on a train. This is where I keep memories of laughs and love.

My day-to-day happiness goes in the two regular old pockets on the bottom of the jacket. Unfortunately, these pockets seem to have holes in them. Whatever thread I use to sew up these holes doesn’t seem to work. It sometimes feels like this happiness is elusive. Without the right ingredients for my life—job and meaning—the holes will never be filled.

I must admit that the pocket on the right has a secret compartment. I’ve found myself storing happiness in this compartment and not showing it to the world. It seems to me that when people think you’re happy, they suddenly think you’re not struggling.

With my life in turmoil at times, I don’t go into this secret pocket much. I am afraid if I do, I will lose the support system around me to deal with my problems. If I cannot secure my long-term happiness, then I don’t know that I can have short-term happiness.

The final pocket is inside the jacket. It’s hard to get to. You have to unzip the jacket and unbutton the pocket, but in rare moments I seek it out. This is where my moments of bliss lie. This is where I keep the valuable experiences that I wish were abundant enough to fill the other pockets.

The Honest Work of a Feather-Covered Chalk Boxman

The box made Alex uncomfortable, but the man was confounding. This sight took up Alex’s attention everyday evening as he looked out the window on his bus ride. There were other staples of Alex’s ride of course. He tolerated the sign twirler directing people to the Chick-Fil-A and the banjo playing man who walked between cars. Alex could calibrate his day around those rituals, but not this one.

Alex called him Boxman. Boxman spent his afternoons on the same city street, filling in the same box with chalk every day. The ritual occurred at the northwest corner of two one-way streets—Vine Street (north-to-south) and Holland Avenue (east-to-west). Boxman worked in the space just past the parked cars on Vine. He carved out his intersection—for an awaiting pawn or knight perhaps?

When Vine Street had a red light, Boxman ran out with a piece of white chalk—the big sidewalk chalk, not chalkboard chalk. He drew a box, about four feet on all sides. Without a straightedge or measuring stick, Boxman created an almost perfect square every time. Then Boxman pressed the chalk flat and rubbed it against the pavement, whiting out the area. Depending on the buses arrival at the spot, Alex saw the different phases of the project. He guessed it took Boxman about forty minutes to complete the box.

Boxman’s gray cloak, covered in feathers, added to the mystique. These were not bird feathers, but colored feathers found in craft stores; short blue, red, yellow and green feathers glued into place. Boxman also wore a traffic cone on his head. The lime green traffic cone would glow in the dusk of the winter months.

Alex saw Boxman from the Holland bus every day on his way home from work. Alex lived by routine. After work, he took the bus home to watch Jeopardy. Alex never deviated from his schedule. Boxman’s routine jarred Alex. Alex assumed his life varied drastically from Boxman, but they met on this corner every day. The craziest part, Boxman didn’t know about Alex. Alex spent hours thinking about the man with the feathered cape and the cone on his head. Boxman never thought about Alex.

A couple of times, Alex walked to work in the morning just to pass the spot of Boxman’s square. Each time, Alex was astonished to find no trace of the box, merely wet pavement.

When it rained, Boxman simply drew the box’s outline and watched the chalk rinse away. When it snowed, he shoveled out the spot. If someone parked in the spot with their hazards on, Boxman waited for the car to move before starting with the chalk.

Alex had a lot of theories about the spot. Maybe Boxman hoped aliens would land there. What if something tragic had happened in that box and he performed this ritual to pay his respects? Perhaps Boxman made that box because he knew something important would happen there in the future.

One Friday, after going to a bar while Jeopardy was tape delayed for a sports game, Alex rode the bus home late. As he passed the intersection, he saw Boxman, this time in white feathers instead of the multicolored ones. Boxman wore the same cone hat and carried two water buckets. As Alex watched from his seat in the idling bus a few feet back, Boxman dumped the first bucket in the square and then pulled out a squeegee. He began to wipe the chalk off toward a storm drain. The bus whisked on, but Alex craned his neck for a long time, looking at the white-feathered Boxman drowning his work.

Alex never talked to Boxman. He dared not walk by the man as he filled in the chalk. That would have taken Alex out of his routine. Strangers might ruin Alex’s schedule.

For something that consumed so much of Alex’s thought, it’s amazing he never found enough curiosity to end up in that box.

One Tuesday, Boxman did not show up to work on his box. He never filled that chalk box in again.

I would like to tell you why, but how should I know? Alex never asked him.


We Only Accept Perfect Stories Here, Mark Twain

Our marketing department got ahold of Huckleberry Finn… We’ve been told we have to pass. I’m positive someone will pick up this book. This is groundbreaking work—perhaps your best ever. —Editor

Dear Mr. Clemens (Mr. Twain),

I regret to inform you that we cannot publish your book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In fact, we couldn’t get beyond the first page. While you might think it’s clever to use a specific dialect in your book. It comes across as amateur.

In truth, we only accept perfect books here, Mr. Twain.

Look at that first page.

YOU don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom's Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before. Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied.

From: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/76

This is truly terrible writing and hard to follow. We like to use proper sentences. Under no circumstances should a narrator ever say, “ain’t.”

We are sure it’s a decent story, but who cares about story when you have to dumb down your IQ to read the book. These are not the kind of people we associate with for a reason. I’m sure I would feel dumber for having read the whole book.

Who do you think you are? You mention yourself in the second sentence. Don’t ever do that. You’re creating a world of fiction, so trying to sell this book as some version of the truth is preposterous.

How are we supposed to sell this book? Who is your target audience? You want us to put a book like this in the children’s section? This book is full of crude language, immature content and the n-word. We can only sell books by genre, and no adult wants to read a book with a child protagonist.

Included below is an edited version of your first page. Please rewrite it with the changes we suggested and try submitting it again.

My name is Huckleberry Finn. You may remember me from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The story held true to the events as they took place. Everyone in my life lies sometimes though, even Tom Sawyer’s relatives. I do believe most of the Bible when the Widow Douglas reads to me.
I will recap “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” for you. Tom Sawyer and I found money hidden in a cave. We split up the money and each had $600 in gold. We allowed Judge Thatcher to invest the money for us. Each day I receive a dollar from the interest, which is more money than I know what to do with.
The Widow Douglas adopted me. She attempted to educate me. It was hard to adjust to her lifestyle because she was too kind. One day, I found my old clothes and ran away.

See… This is much more marketable.

The Marketing Department of the Publisher