A letter from Kaitlyn G. (Salt Lake City, Utah):
April 16, 2013
Dear Ms. Derricotte,
My name is Kaitlyn G. I am fifteen years old and a sophomore at East High School. I'm not very familiar with your work, but I really enjoyed your poem "Cherry Blossoms." Your choice of words created a very beautiful and vivid image in my mind. You described the scene so perfectly; I could see every detail, I could hear the whisper of your breath and the gentle reply of the blossoms. I found the last line very moving; it gave me chills when I read it. Sometimes I need to remember that I have "an ancient beauty."
I hope to one day construct poems as beautiful as this. I have already written a few, but I always criticize them so harshly and become reluctant to let anyone read them. I am curious to know where you draw your inspiration from. Is it personal experiences, or have you just been blessed with the gift to write such beautiful poetry off the top of your head? Most if the poems I write are born from personal experiences, but I have written a few particularly dark poems based just off my imagination. Sometimes those can be more of a struggle for me. Perhaps that is because I have no direct experience with the situation, so I feel I can‘t properly convey the image.
Do you ever have to struggle to write? Are there ever times when it seems the inspiration simply won't come? On the other hand, are there ever situations that you feel you simply can't get the words out fast enough? I have many experiences like that. It's almost as if I have to be in the proper and very specific state of being to write a poem.
Thank you so very much for taking the time to read my letter. Should you ever be interested, I would love to send you some of what I have written; I would really value your feedback. Once again, thank you for taking time to read this.
Toi Derricotte responds:
Thank you so much for your letter. I'm glad my poem "Cherry Blossoms" reminded you that you have "an ancient beauty." I hope the line will come to you again sometimes when you forget about who you are, deep down. Often the poems I write, and other poets too, come from struggles and conflicts that the poets have, sometimes with others, and sometimes within themselves. Reading your letter, I think you have much in common with other poets. For example, you used a beautiful image in your letter: "I could hear the whisper of your breath and the gentle reply of the blossoms." The image seemed so natural, as if it came to you like breathing. Another thing I enjoyed is that you spoke plainly, truthfully, from your heart. Thank you for sharing things that are sometimes difficult for people to talk about, namely, that you "always criticize your poems so harshly and become reluctant to let anyone read them." Often people don't want to talk about difficult things. They hide these aspects. But some poets feel that sharing their true selves is a way of doing something important for others, that is, getting things out in the open. I don't know if you've ever had this experience reading a poem, but many people have told me that their favorite thing about poetry is that it makes them feel as if they are not alone.
You asked where my poems come from. All of my poems in some way come from personal experiences. I also believe that poems are gifts. However, you have to be open and give yourself time to write in order to receive them. Any kind of writing helps the process along—writing in your diary, essays you write for school—often, of course, just the act of sitting down to write a poem brings the gift your way.
I am sorry that you criticize your poems and are reluctant to share them, and yet I understand. Often, especially when a poem is new, I am very reluctant to show it. I'm afraid that criticism will confuse me about the value of the poem and take my pleasure in it away. Finding the right people to show your poems to takes time and patience. However, you have to take risks. Try showing your poems to a few trusted friends and see how it works. If you feel better and more inspired because of what they say, then let them represent the part of you that is loving and tender toward the poet in you. But if you feel they don't understand, they are probably not the right people to show your work to, especially as long as you feel a bit delicate about it. Just be patient and keep trying. Being a poet is a bit of a balancing act: you have to be both open and yet, at the same time, protect this valuable gift.
Meanwhile look for inspiration in the writing of other poets, in music, in nature, whatever makes you feel connected to others and to the world. There's room in poetry for every emotion and every thought.
St. Teresa said she wished she could write with both hands so as not to forget one thing while she was saying another. Another famous writer, Dorothy Parker said, I don't like writing but I enjoy having written. The degree of hardship is not necessarily a signal of the importance or lack of importance of the work. Neither is your feeling that the poem is either good or bad. Sometimes it takes years to know. The main thing is to write. Don't stop. You learn as you work.
I really enjoyed your letter. I hope you get something in my response to keep you going. Of course I'd be happy to read a few poems. I may not have time to respond to them, but if you send me three or four, I will be sure to put them in a special place on my desk and enjoy them one at a time, like little pieces of dark chocolate, which are also good for the heart.
Yours, in poetry,