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It’s odd to think that my debut poetry collection, WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE, was published six years ago.
It feels like yesterday, but it also feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened since 2016. I finished college, graduated with my M.A. in community care, and wrote a book (an actual, legitimate, this-is-something-I’ve-been-dreaming-about-for-a-decade book). I went to therapy, started an antidepressant, realized I wasn’t happy with who I was, and completely reevaluated my life plan. I cried a lot. I raged a lot — mostly at the world, but sometimes at myself, at all the people I knew were somewhere inside me. I burned a lot of candles, played a lot of D&D, and thought a lot about the poetry I wrote when I was 19.
Poetry was all the rage in 2014. Tumblr poets took a largely inaccessible genre of literature and modernized it. As a freshman in college, I wouldn’t have thought that I would be interested in, let alone enjoy, poetry. But people I followed on Tumblr, both readers and writers alike, taught me that poetry was more relevant than I thought. Poetry could be whatever I wanted it to.
At the time, I was recovering from an emotionally abusive relationship, and found solace in poetry. I wrote a lot about grief and love as a way to process my emotions. However, what started as therapy quickly became a vie for popularity. Tumblr poets had a decent platform. The more poetry I wrote, the more popular I became, until I realized that I could potentially make a career out of it.
I wasn’t the only one. Literary magazines started to pop up, magazines that Tumblr poets, including myself, submitted to in the hopes of getting published. My work took off, and I decided to apply to a summer writing workshop — a workshop that, over the years, led to some incredible opportunities. I was awed by how quickly I became “part of the poetry community,” so I went along with it.
It took a conversation with a fellow poet for me to realize that my relationship with poetry wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. I genuinely enjoyed poetry. But I didn’t love it, not like I loved speculative fiction. I was writing poetry because it was popular. I was so concerned with followers and publications that my creative spark, my voice, was lost in the performance. While I was careful to attribute and credit where necessary, I had lost the ability to create spontaneously. I was no longer creating for myself.
I loved poetry. I still do. But I wanted to maintain some semblance of artistic integrity. Art isn’t created in a vacuum, but the line between inspiration and plagiarism is easily blurred, especially in the era of social media. I didn’t feel that attribution and credit were enough. I needed to rediscover my inner voice. So I stopped writing poetry. At that point, my debut collection was already in the works. I didn’t want to back out of the contract, so I intentionally went through every piece in the manuscript prior to publication, crediting inspiration as much as possible.
I’m writing this because I recently realized that WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE is missing an attribution - the opening preface (”To love fiercely ...”) is after Arundhati Roy. I honestly don’t know how it got past me. But I immediately contacted my publisher in the hopes of correcting the omission. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to get in touch with my editor, despite numerous attempts via multiple avenues. It seems Words Dance Publishing has dropped off the face of the Earth.
I’ve often considered taking my book off the shelves. I was 19 and heartbroken, high on the buzz of popularity; I wasn’t ready to publish a collection. WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE isn’t my ideal debut, even if it’s technically a genre I don’t write anymore. But I can’t change it. And part of me thinks it’s fitting. WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE is a testament to my personal journey. It chronicles my progress over the past few years and speaks to the tension inherent in creative work. We all have to balance inspiration and individuality while honoring the contributions of writers that have come before us.
Is it even possible to maintain the integrity of a creative work with the pervasiveness of social media and the common practice of sharing ideas? I don’t know. But I don’t want to shy away from hard questions. So many writers suffer in shame because they feel they are the only ones who struggle with thorny ethical issues when thorny ethical issues are part and parcel of active creativity.
I can’t fix the attribution. I can’t go back in time and tell my 19-year-old self to stay away from poetry. But I can give myself grace and practice transparency, so other creatives at the beginning of their careers can learn from my mistakes. So I’m leaving WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE in circulation — I wouldn’t even know how to go about contacting booksellers to try and obtain the rights to the collection. I haven’t received royalties for years, but I’m going to donate what I’ve received over the years to Cave Canem, a home for African American poetry.
I find myself oddly grateful for WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE, even if it’s embarrassing. If anything, my time as a poet confirmed my love for speculative fiction. I want to write space fairy tales more than anything. And I really, really hope that one day, you’ll be able to read the books that are such a significant part of my heart.
If you’ve been around since my poetry days, thanks for sticking with me, and for witnessing my journey as a creative slash advocate slash nerd. I’m sending you all my love.