The World of Ten Thousand Poems

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

If you walked into my kitchen right now you’d see the cartoon I snipped from a December 2006 New Yorker posted on a cupboard door beside one of Snoopy typing away on the roof of his doghouse, and a photograph of our now not-so-new new president signing something into law.

In the New Yorker cartoon a “suit” with a briefcase stands with his shoulders somewhat slumped and a puzzled, slightly grouchy look on his face. He’s staring at the gabby snail addressing him from the sidewalk below. The caption reads: “I’m your spirit animal.”

This cartoon (along with some knowing laughter) seems like a good place to begin a short saga of writing life which Snail has guided, occasionally stepping aside for Raven or Butterfly.


Indeed I have, in the world of ten thousand poems, put together many manuscripts—both chapbooks and full-length collections—beginning with my Master’s thesis Fireweed, an early effort with a few good poems in it and many earnest but flawed attempts at poems. (I confess: Some years ago I did sneak into the college library and remove Fireweed from the shelf permanently—the kind of heist I’ve heard other poets admit to as well, especially after a glass of wine.) My next manuscript was called Confronting the Angel, a title I soon jettisoned when I was advised that angels were “out” (this was the early eighties) then reclaimed—but jettisoned again when angels were suddenly “in” once more, materializing (or so it seemed) on poetry book covers everywhere.

The new decade brought a reworked sequence of sixty plus pages called Words in Earthquake Country. I felt especially sympathetic to this title and its inherent metaphor—it felt kindred too because in real-time I live within sixty miles of several major California faults. Words was also abandoned then reclaimed again (briefly) after my experience of the Loma Prieta earthquake and my inability for a few hours to check on the welfare of my children a hundred miles away. (For weeks afterward I felt like I was seasick, walking on liquid earth. Twenty-one years later I still remember vividly the sound the quake made—the roar of a train bearing down on us.)

Loma Prieta, 1989

upwind upriver glass
shook my son into the arms

of his sister and news
telephoned their feet

they stood fast there
bold as headlines

cracked bloodlines in plaster
incisions in concrete

some true things collapsed
a bridge in our minds

snapped and fear
furrowed like headlights

in the belly of the bay
hands and knees crawled

but the way was
flashlit the way was after

shock pilgrims
everything tumbledown

and shrines of dead

Fast forward a few more years: to Water Signs, another collection and title that hung on, making a few publisher rounds even as it outlived itself, until the poems in it morphed drastically and thus cried out for more change. The transformation occurred; the new version was called Eden Street; like all Edenic stories, this one too was short-lived.

So many false starts in this world of ten thousand poems!—Many tries at chapbooks too, titles like Glassworks, Attar, Face in the Glass, Archipelagos of Old Age, among the few I can remember. Most went the way of all those others I filed in the bright blue twenty-gallon recycling cans beneath the pink crepe myrtle in my yard.

Each time I unloosed and tossed yet another stack of poetic history in, I bowed to the loquacious snail at my feet.


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