Letter to Mrs. Vorreyer’s English class

Hello from Plummer’s Hollow! Thanks for all the postcards. I am gratified and humbled by your response to my poem, and I’m amazed by how many of you say you enjoy writing. When I was in 7th grade, I think I was one of two or three kids in the entire school who liked poetry.

Since there are 51 of you and there’s only one of me, I hope you won’t mind if I respond to you in one, big letter. I was really impressed by how many great lines, original insights, and eye-catching designs you guys came up with. It seems as if this kind of wondering (what if ghosts/aliens/dragons etc. were real) is a good way to get in the habit of questioning your preconceptions and trying to see things from radically different perspectives — two very useful habits for writers and artists to get into.

I know you aren’t expecting critiques, but I do want to mention a few of my favorite lines from the poems:

  • Anthony B., about spirits: “They would walk with humans/ like a man about to touch a porcupine.” Great comparison!
  • Agatha K., “What nobody knows about angels”: “Their wings are ill-fitting.” Angels are usually thought of as perfect beings, so it’s refreshing to think of them this way.
  • Magdalene H., “If Ghosts Were Real”: “They would fear most the day you would come join them.” Good idea to implicate the reader in the last line.
  • Ryan T., “Spirits”: “They try to communicate with you to warn you of their presence” A subtle way of suggesting the paradoxical nature of their existence, especially when combined with the last line: “They are afraid of the silence of death.”
  • Finn V., “If There Were Aliens”: I like the hint of reference to our society’s on-going political debate over the status of undocumented immigrants in the lines “They would speak only English// They would be afraid/ of what is beyond.” Not only is it interesting and unexpected to say such things about space aliens, but it gets the reader thinking about xenophobia generally, and the role it might play in our lives — without actually telling anyone what to think or making any explicit political pronouncements.
  • James M., “If I Knew a Ghost”: I love the image in the opening line — “He would be warm and free as a worn-out sofa.”
  • Brett B., “Ghosts”: “Their lips are cracked beyond repair.” I really like that for some reason. Also the bit about Jarritos! I guess I like poems that are funny and serious at the same time. That’s not always easy to pull off.
  • Jasmine M., “If Aliens Came to Earth”: I kind of agree with the suggestion that beings from another world might be more intrigued by our oceans than anything else!
  • Stella L., “Would Ghosts”: “Would they run through the street/ like a plastic bag/ being pulled elsewhere by the calm wind” I’ve always liked the sort of everyday uncanniness of those so-called urban tumbleweeds, so I think connecting them with ghosts is a good idea.
  • Emily O., “Mermaid Under the Sea”: I like “She would have eyes that changed color/ as often as the tide.” It’s a good trick to make people think you’re writing about one thing while really, or in addition, writing about something else — in this case, the sea. Poems work best when we don’t understand them completely after the first reading.
  • Terry D., “If You Could Actually Ride a Unicorn”: “You would notice the fleas in the fur.” I love the hyper-realism in this portrait of a mythical being. As with Agatha’s angels, focusing on the imperfections makes it seem more tangible.
  • Selin T., “Broken Ghost”: “A ghost is like a secret/ for it has left its home/ and will never return.” I like the way this gets me thinking about secrets as well as ghosts.

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Now let me take a shot at answering your questions. A few of you wondered how long it took me to write the poem. I don’t remember for sure, but probably no more than a couple of hours. Or, since I’ve been writing poetry for almost 40 years, you could also say it took me 40 years to write it, since everything I’ve learned in that time shapes each poem I write.

Several people asked where I got the ideas for the specific images and comparisons in the poem. I don’t remember with absolute certainty, but let’s see… I find potatoes a little creepy with their eyes that turn into sprouts — they have a life after death, so to speak. So that’s probably where that came from. With the missing eyebrows, I think my guiding idea was that ghosts would be incapable of emotions such as surprise or anger, so they would have no need of eyebrows to raise or wrinkle.

Why banks and stock exchanges? These are ghostly places to me because they are concerned entirely with money, which is the ultimate in spookiness since on the one hand we’ve made it essential to survival, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really exist. Besides, why would ghosts hang around cemeteries? Do the living hang around the hospitals where they were born?

I’m not entirely sure where the part about stepping into traffic as into a cold mountain lake came from. It’s the part of the poem I’m proudest of, though. As for “ah,” I like both its ubiquity as an expression and its ambiguity. I picture ghosts as being equally common, ambiguous and bland. A ghost would never do something as melodramatic as moan, you see.

Joseph M. asked, “Why do you write poetry? Do you just like writing it, or do you want to tell a message, or what?” A mixture of both, I guess, but more than that, I write poetry to find things out. It’s my way of trying to make sense of the world — and to find out what I think. Usually when I begin a poem I have little idea about where it’s going, but attentiveness to the sound and rhythm of the language and to the ideas behind the images that come to me as I write takes me in new and unexpected directions. I think the feeling a writer gets after writing a successful poem probably isn’t too different from what a scientist feels after making some new discovery: a great deal of excitement and wonder. I live for wonder.

Many of you asked where I get my ideas, or what inspires me. The short answer is everything. I’m curious about everything and read as widely as possible, especially nonfiction — and other poets. That’s critically important, too. As is regular engagement with the world outside my door. There are some poets for whom writing is primarily a game with language, and that’s fine, but for me, it’s about connecting with the world and with other people.

Does living in the mountains help me write? Yes, I suppose so, but anyone with an internet connection has to be wary of distractions! I also need to travel now and then to avoid the feeling of isolation one sometimes gets living in the country, though the internet really helps in that regard. I don’t think it’s easier to write poems about nature than about people — if anything, the opposite is probably true. My favorite poets, such as Tomas Tranströmer, who just won the Nobel Prize, manage to write equally well about both.

Mary K. asked if I set out to write about ghosts in a way no one had written before. No, it’s really just a mental habit which I’ve had ever since I was a kid: if everyone else says one thing, I’ll say the opposite.

What was the hardest part about writing the poem? I don’t remember for sure, but I seem to recall the lines in the middle were the ones I spent the most time on. (Unfortunately, since I draft everything in Word, I don’t keep any paper trail of my changes the way I used to when I wrote everything out by hand.)

What is the hardest part of writing in general, for me? Getting started. Often all it takes is a word or a fragment of an idea, though, to spark something good.

What do I do when I get writer’s block? I’m not sure I ever have, but I do go through somewhat dry spells in which I would rather take pictures or make videos than write. My response is to go ahead and do that — eventually I’ll get tired of it and go back to writing. Also, having a daily blog habit is a great spur to regular writing.

How hard is it to edit a magazine? Not hard, but very time-consuming. And of course making the decision to curate other people’s work does mean I have to give up some of the time I might otherwise spend writing my own. But I think it pays off, because I learn so much from reading other people, and that ultimately enriches my own work. The hardest part is having to turn away good work because there just isn’t quite enough room for it. But at the online magazine I edit, three-quarters of the time I have other people editing issues and making those tough decisions, and all I have to do is arrange the issues and create a podcast.

How do I make money off my poetry? I don’t! Sadly, there is almost no money in poetry publishing in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, this is liberating in a way, because it frees me to give my poetry away online, and let people use it to make other works of their own, as long as they give me credit somewhere. Thanks to this attitude, I’ve been able to embark on a number of creative collaborations with other writers and artists. So while it would be great to be able to make a living doing this, there are many other ways besides money to measure success.

Jack R. asked about building an audience: how do you get people outside your family to read your work? First of all, if some of your family members do read your work, you’re more fortunate than many writers. There are lots of online critique groups, though I’ve never tried them myself. Facebook can be a decent place to share writing. I’m personally fond of blogs, though I realize blogging isn’t for everyone. The most important thing to remember I guess is that if you want other writers to read your work, you have to read theirs. A surprising number of people never seem to grasp this.

I think that answers almost all your questions. Thanks for all your kind words about my poetry, and I’m glad you were able to use it to spark your own writing.

Last night when I told a blogger friend about your postcards, she suggested I get a needle and some yarn, put them on a string and hang them from my front porch like Tibetan prayer flags. So I did. It was a breezy day, and if the Tibetans are right, I guess that means the spirit-forms of your words are drifting all around Central Pennsylvania by now. After a couple hours, I took the cards back inside for safe-keeping.

Best wishes in everything you do,

Dave Bonta

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