What Narcissism Meant to Me: My Entry into the Poetry World

I was out of writing after flopping in my last creative writing class in college. I later decided to quit my Ph.D. program before I even started it and found a job with the Federal government. For about four years I wrote nothing but government documents and stories. I read some works by Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, and Donald Antrim – postmodern guys in favor with my previous program – but I wrote nothing really creative. Only when I moved up from Florida to the D.C. area did I get back on the horse.

I started with fiction writing classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, but after a while, I could tell that I wasn’t going to succeed going in that direction. I didn’t really want to write anything very long, and I didn’t feel I was cut out for a novel. Instead, I started going to poetry slams, reading poems that I wrote out of humor and for fun. But I couldn’t really memorize these poems; I just didn’t feel like putting put forth the effort.

It was only after I went to a fundraiser at the Borders in D.C. that I saw and heard a writer who really inspired: Jeffrey McDaniel. His work was both humorous and powerful, with fantastic metaphors. I bought The Splinter Factory, which I truly enjoyed and immediately ordered some of the rest of his books online. I learned he was an academic, though he cut his teeth on slams. My poetry took its direction from his verse, and I noticed that it was improving.

My first real mentor, though we only met once, was Tony Hoagland. I read a review of one of his books in The Believer, and I soon traveled to Borders to purchase my copy of What Narcissism Means to Me. Hoagland’s cutting humor, and his poems’ emotional impact, had a big impact on me. I emailed him asking him for what books I should read, and he was cool enough to send a big fat list of great books. This was my education with poetry, as well as some of the classes I took at The Writer’s Center.

I began to publish my poetry in great journals like the Iowa Review and Fourteen Hills. Poetry seemed like something I could do, and I could participate in readings, a good social outlet for an introvert. Since then, I’ve worked very hard on my poetry, more than most things in my life. There have been some ups and downs, but I have managed to publish a good book of poetry and I’m working on another collection.

Although neither McDaniel nor Hoagland are as big an influence as they used to be, I am thankful to them for sparking me forward in this “poetic life.” The seriousness of their work, twinned with their sardonic humor, provided models that I could follow, relaunched me into creative writing. I will always be grateful for that.