On Calling Myself a Poet

by Corey Mesler

I wrote my first poem in 4th grade, a re-wording (read plagiarism) of “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” The teacher made over me. And I had a revelation; I thought, attention, yeah, that’s what I want. That hasn’t changed. In deadly earnest, I started keeping a journal my sophomore year in high school because it was part of our weekly assignment in English, taught by a young teacher who looked like Catherine Deneuve and talked like Sarah Palin. I have written consistently since then, indeed non-stop since then. Someday I hope to get it right.

I think the poets I first read in my early twenties, James Tate, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Dunn, C. K. Williams, really sparked me. I was heavily influenced by all of them and, except for Plath, they were all still alive and still putting out new books. It was an exhilarating time. Later, William Carlos Williams and John Berryman became heavy favorites and, finally, the discovery of Frank O’Hara’s singular work changed me for all time. I have probably re-read more of O’Hara’s work than any other poet. Now, for touchstones, all these comrades still spur me on, and I also find inspiration in poets like Issa, Basho, Rumi, Hafez. And I could read Yeats’ “The Second Coming” every morning for breakfast for the rest of my course of days.

Yet, here I am, over 40 years into my apprenticeship to poetry, having published a few full-length collections and a smattering of chapbooks, and I still find myself embarrassed to call myself a poet. I know there are writers out there who put “Poet” before or after their given names, as if it is a degree. Like Poet Philboyd Studge. Or Jim Crackcorn, Poet. I understand the impulse—it takes a dash of panache, perhaps a little rodomontade–but I could never call myself Poet Corey Mesler. There is a part of me, however, that wants a title, perhaps Grand Poobah, or Magnificent Pagan Beast, or Saint Corey Mesler. When I was a child I got called most often Little Girl or Sissy. Maybe I need a corrective to those bullies: Mr. Man Corey Mesler is a bit awkward but I could warm to it.

One of my poetry collections is called Before the Great Troubling. Many of its poems reflect an attempt to make peace with a past that was in some ways simpler and yet still troublesome. I think, perhaps, writers use their pasts so much because they feel they didn’t get it right the first time. Editing a poem about the past becomes emblematic of editing one’s past. It’s often true of my writing, at any rate. Of course I am fervently trying to edit my youth, which was equal amounts distressing and ecstatic. And, I guess, in reality, I am also trying to edit what I did yesterday, or the day before. I am often re-writing conversations I had with people in the past week. Inside my head there is a congregation of devils and imps and angels and kith and kin. It would be a great party but I don’t go to parties.

So, let me edit my past, which needs it. Let me borrow from my experience the necessary sap and seed to make a tree, Joyce Kilmer aside. But let me reserve the honorific ‘Poet’ for people like Yeats and Blake who dipped their fingers in God’s cooking grease. Just call me Corey. Or call me Ishmael. Or I can be your long lost pal and you can call me Al, which, coincidentally was my father’s name. And he never called himself Engineering Estimator Al Mesler.

Corey Mesler
Corey Mesler

Corey Mesler has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for many Pushcarts, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis.

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