April 29, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Clear 20°C


Always come back to the muse — if you feel the calling.
By Kristine Crane
Published: 2017-04-23

pparently, the Genovese turned Roman poet Giorgio Caproni believed in reinventing himself every 10 years. I heard this at a translation conference in Rome last December. It was one of those congested academic conferences, and I was standing in the back, jet-lagged from my trans-Atlantic flight and waiting, as it were, for the punch line, the take-away message. When I heard this practical note, my ears perked up. I knew what I'd come for.

Last May, I turned 40. I spent my birthday, appropriately, in my hometown, redressing a longtime passion of mine: poetry. I was 11 years old when I discovered poetry. I was in sixth grade, newly transferred to public school from the Catholic Grade School, and terribly shy. From the back of the class, I wrote a poem called "Dreams Beyond the Sea," which my teacher loved and asked me to read aloud. I slowly shook my head no.

It was a searching poem, I dare say a spiritual one, invoking a spirit beyond the self. It was also sing-songy in a sixth-grade sort of way. It went something like this: "I wish to run, to run beyond the sea, not only for you, but also for me." And so on.

The poem is still in my parents' attic, my careful cursive handwriting fading into the yellowing paper with its barely visible blue lines. Nowadays the poem looks a little less careful, and more seasoned, natural. Which I suppose is a good starting point for writing poetry — once you've acquired some life experiences, some breadth.

After sixth grade, I put poetry aside for many years. I rediscovered it when I was 15, at a summer arts camp in Iowa City. Or rather, it rediscovered me, because with poetry it's always like that: it comes to you and not the other way around. "Your daughter has a gift," my poetry teacher told my mother, who immediately wanted to know what I should do to develop it.

"I think she knows," my teacher said, which at the time was an unsatisfactory answer to me, but years later, made sense. Apart from reading poems, he might have said, live life. Explore. Experience things. But always come back to the muse —maybe only if you can't not come back.

Marvin Bell: "Poetry can save you."

That same summer, I was on the cusp of discovering another kind of love: for journalism. I didn't like the writing so much as the fact of writing; the structure, the authoritative voice, the pizzazz of publication. And, as a shy person, interviewing was an excuse to talk to people, which I was surprisingly good at.

I stuck to journalism for many years, until it eventually stuck to me. Combining my personal hypochondria and my skill set, I became a health reporter back in the U.S. during my 30s.

I had begun to learn the journalism trade in Italy, though, during my 20s, the decade I've dubbed my Rome years, or My Roman Girlhood. From 19 to 31 — with the exception of a few years finishing up college in the United States — I fell wholeheartedly into Italy.

I fell in love with a lot of things Italian, and high on the list was the language. I loved that it was rhetorical and discursive. Speaking and thinking in Italian felt like an unedited version of myself, before I learned awkward structures like the journalistic pyramid. In Italian, I met language as if for the first time.

The sounds of the Italian language entered my soul, staying with me long after I left Italy. My emotional key is still in Italian. Something goes wrong, and I reach, not so much for American swear words, as Mamma Mia, and Madonna Santa.

During my Italian years, I wasn't consciously writing poems, but I have to think that I was storing up poetry, playing in a language that was not the one I'd been born into, yet curiously seemed to express the tension and harmony of everything that was in me.

During my last two years in Italy, I again met poetry — this time, head on. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as life itself shifted, so did my relationship to language. Words came to me —as drumbeats of sound, unrelenting and pure. As I wandered through Rome, the word acceptum thrummed through my mind like a mantra. I had never studied Latin, but I knew what the word meant, and why it was there. Life was teaching me acceptance.

At the time, I was also interning at the Wall Street Journal, and in the margins of my notebooks, I wrote whatever came, usually scraps of poems that I carefully covered up with my hand when my supervisor came over to check on me.

In no uncertain terms, I knew that poetry was coming back into my life. After my mother died, I turned to poetry again. I wrote heavy verse about grief that featured sunsets and stars, but their subject was always the same: me. They were iterations of self-love in the absence of the unconditional and irreplaceable source of love in a mother.

As Marvin Bell, the poet and once director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop has said, "Poetry can save you."

When last year, I received my acceptance letter for the Writers Workshop Summer program, I felt like I was in sixth grade all over again: at the back of the class, in my own private joy, validated for my way of looking at the world.

Having grown up in Iowa City, a city of poets, I knew the Writers Workshop to be the crown jewel of my hometown. The Dey House, where it's housed, is a non-descript older home over-looking the Iowa River, where, as they say, the magic happens.

The first day, I approached the Dey House as if it was the first day of school, with the same mix of shyness and openness to the world accompanying my hesitant steps.

Sitting at the round table in the center of the light-filled room, I was in my sacred space. I knew that I'd finally come home.

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