The first poem I liked was Bukowski‘s ‘An Almost Made Up Poem’, about a heartbreaking love for a woman that took her own life. I had read poetry before that – I had read and liked Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Kipling (not knowing the implications of that at the time), but they hadn’t grabbed me by the throat and turned me inside out. There was something about Bukowski’s writing that sounded like he was furiously scribbling away in his journal, and I felt like I was in his head, and there was no time for rhyme or for beautiful words except they sounded beautiful anyway because they were true.
I was fifteen when I read that poem and I’ve since met a lot of men who love Bukowski, especially the ones that are just starting as poets. He’s the Hemingway of poetry, he’s a lad’s lad, he’s cool enough to openly admit you like him (despite the numerous claims of him being a misogynist). I still like Bukowski and I have realised that my soft spot for embarrassing honesty comes from him, just like my disregard for rhyme. I have never cared for lyrics that sound pretty but don’t mean much, and I only like abstract imagery in moderation.
After Bukowski, I moved on to more broody things. I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. As a teenager, I related to ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, especially the line “I think I made you up inside my head”, and kept the poem as the screensaver on my phone for months. I remember classmates laughing at me for being pretentious (which I was), but that’s how I learnt the power of repetition, that love is supposed to tear you apart, and that exaggerating is acceptable even when you’re striving for honesty in your writing.
When I realised I actually liked poetry, I started taking out poetry collections at the library. I’d choose them at random – picking out two or three every other week in the English language section. That’s how I stumbled across Helen Farish, and her poem ‘Look at these’, a short poem where she writes: “Seeing you makes me want to lift up my top,/ breathe in and say Look! Look at these!” It’s a snapshot in time, vulnerability that’s confined to a very specific action. With its eight lines, the poem stunned me with everything it encompassed. It showed the universality of a brief moment. After that, I started writing about small things, too. Nothing was too small to be made into a song – blue sweaters worn by ex-boyfriends, catchphrases friends used, the scent of someone’s cologne.
In a poetry anthology of female poets, I found the poem ‘Bitch’ by Carolyn Kizer, where seeing an ex-lover provokes the dog in Kizer to first growl, then bark, and then, as the conversation about old days unfolds, to whimper and grovel. It’s a metaphor that sounds exactly right, the lines “Down, girl! Keep your distance/ Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain” describing my thoughts when I interact with my ex-boyfriends. It was funny, it was fitting, it was – again – relatable. I haven’t mastered the art of elegantly constructed metaphors yet, but she inspired me to try. She also inspired me not to be afraid to use self-deprecating humour.
When Maya Angelou came, so did life. ‘Caged Bird’ taught me that pain matters, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ taught me to believe. She didn’t teach me how to write, she taught me how to live. So many small wisdoms that she imparted I live by today. I was told yesterday that I’m too full of myself and need to learn to be humble. I don’t think that’s what my friend meant. I think he meant I need to be more modest, but Maya Angelou taught me there’s a difference between the two and what I need is humility, not modesty. She said this, and it’s ingrained in me forever and ever:
You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals. As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper. Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire’. You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.Dr. Maya Angelou
Later, I became more interested in my roots and started reading Russian poets, like Yesenin, Akhmatova, Akhamadulina. Their melancholy, dark humour, detailed descriptions (like Akhmatova describing putting on the left mitten on the right hand in ‘A Song of the Final Meeting’) taught me to pay attention to the mundane, to romanticise, and to remember. Yesenin’s lilacs, Akhmadulina’s green dreams in winter – I remember visiting Russia when I was seventeen and going through my grandmother’s bookshelves, taking photos of these poems I didn’t want to forget. Two years later, I’d find a compilation of Russian poets in a second-hand store in Marylebone, remembering poems I heard when I was too young to understand them, underlining phrases that I wanted to mimick in my lyrics.
Then the age of Instagram poets dawned, and I discovered Rupi Kaur and Charly Cox. Rupi Kaur’s ‘milk and honey’ was the first poetry collection I bought, and I brought it with me on my trips around Europe. She helped me through my first breakup in high school and taught me that my feelings were valid enough to write about. Charly Cox came much later when I stumbled upon ‘She Must Be Mad’ at the library in Ghent, while visiting my parents over Christmas over a year ago. She was speaking about her experiences, but it was like reading my own diary. I had been moving in that direction all along – confessional storytelling and embarrassing truth are what I live for. But here was someone almost my age, doing it at the same time as me, and I felt seen. It gave me hope, like good poetry always did.