Five months, three days, and 22 hours after I got into college, I realized that I had not written a single poem. There was one exception: a night when I wrote what it meant to be a young, young 18-year-old waiting for 19 and all of its independence to rocket me away from my parents. That night, words poured forth in a tirade. I remember one word I had used, a sweet word, corpuscle (which means minute particle) that I realize now should have been crepuscule (meaning twilight).
I left that poem in the back drawer of my desk. If writing is revision and commitment to growing a seed of thought, I no longer wrote. I could not count myself among the faithful, fervent creators who woke at 5 a.m. to tunnel into words, who sat down often enough to experience writer’s block.
Months after I got into college, my roommate learned that I was once a poet. Or, I once wrote poetry (there is a difference). I had also worked as a waitress the summer before college. I would have been the quintessential working-by-day, writing-through-twilight, hidden-in-plain-sight poet — except that the periods of working and creating did not overlap. Once I’d stopped writing poetry for contests (around Nov. 1, 2016), I stopped writing for good.
Contests. I remember scouring Google. My search bar lexicon: “Poetry” and “writing” were too general. “Competition” garnered few hits. “Contest” revealed a land-mine (though not all gold for the young inexperienced writer. In my gleeful greenness, the first contest I submitted to was a general contest by Boston Review — which is not a literary magazine — and it had an entry fee of $20). The word “contest” is fitting. It does not directly imply that one writer is pitted against another, though ostensibly one writer is pitted against the other. It establishes a legacy of past victors and it creates prestige (and thus readership) around writing of a particular kind.
I love games, and I welcomed this challenge too. How much could I imitate those who came before me? Their language became my language. I wrote about yellow girls and sweet baby Jesus and bodies and blooming and mouths and gashes, everything I could do to prostitute and magnify my “condition.” I could not write a metaphor of beauty unless I perverted it. I could not describe the flight of a dragonfly unless it withered, a process that I then had to link back to my own identity, or struggle, or personal angst.
The literary world grafted expectations onto me. Later, I learned that my predecessor-writers had articulated this phenomenon. Poet Jenny Zhang says that all the literary world wants to see from writers of color is trauma:
Surely there are amazing Chinese writers who don’t just identify as political dissidents just as there are many amazing white American writers who don’t identify, or rather, are not identified as one thing. Why are we so perversely interested in narratives of suffering when we read things by black and brown writers? Where are my carefree writers of color at? Seriously, where?
I’m right here, Jenny! I cried. Carefree poems stagnated in my mind. I always wanted to write like Billy Collins or Kay Ryan, but at 18 years of age and with a name like mine, I would be seen as an immature writer because I had not engaged with my “suffering” or contested heady questions of my identity as a colored person. The literary world wanted my pain. But I tired of brandishing the kind of pain it was looking for.
Poetry has been good to me in this: It is language, and perhaps one day I will speak. I do not know if time will reincarnate my voice into its own entity, or if one day my old age will legitimize my words and open up an unbridled spot for my voice. I only know that for now, I cannot write words I (or others) will find worthy.
Allison Huang is a first-year from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.