Is Half a Poet Better than None?
At a speaking gig several years ago in my home city of Appleton, I was asked to come forward and share a truly challenging connection in my life: with my own self. Or rather, my two selves because I stood there—in front of 950 women and a few brave men—as two women. If you know me at all it’s as the poet, Cathryn Cofell. But it’s unlikely you know the other side of my coin, as Cathy Mutschler: former CEO, currently a senior consultant for a fast-growing marketing firm. For that speaking engagement, it was the flip-flop. Most of those women didn’t even know Cathryn Cofell existed, were baffled by my suddenly hyphenated name on the program. The event was a “coming out” party of sorts for the poet, Cathryn Cofell.
When I say “coming out,” I mean no disrespect to those of you who have come out about more controversial identity issues. You are strong women and men, and I admire you for your courage. Me? I have been a coward. I have cut myself in half and kept those two halves apart for most of my adult life, simply because my alter ego can’t help but write poetry.
In a journal whose readers are primarily poets, I’m sure that sounds utterly ridiculous. However, on the rare occasion when I have confessed to a business associate that I’m a poet, I usually get a look that’s a combination of fear and disbelief (you know, like I said I’d just climbed out of a UFO.) Then, the “smile and head nod” otherwise reserved for people who think they actually did climb out of a UFO. Finally, the obligatory ask if they can read some, which seems perfectly polite and what a struggling writer would want …but not me, because I know most non-poets are expecting the poetry of greeting cards or chickadees. Not the stuff Cathryn Cofell has written about: infertility, suicide, the dark heart of love, abnormally sized body parts. Issues that haunt, humor, anger, arouse—in hopes of evoking a connection, a spark of that same emotion. Poems that Cathy Mutschler’s customers or Girl Scout moms or bosses might find objectionable, off-putting, offensive.
As poets, we know the power of words. Forget atom bombs and machine guns; for me, a word is the most powerful weapon on earth. Sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never hurt you? Baloney! Think about how often you’ve been seriously injured by a twig or a mineral deposit. Then think about how many times you’ve been crying-in-your-pillow-or-martini-destroyed by the weight of words someone threw at you? This may be less blatantly obvious for men, but women know how verbal bullying works – how one word can start or end a war, a relationship, an innocent discussion about, say, health care – how one word can make you feel good or bad, skinny or fat, smart or stupid.
So, no way was Cathy Mutschler going to let Cathryn Cofell’s arsenal of poems jeopardize her business relationships or her family’s livelihood. And no way was Cathryn Cofell going to let her lack of an MFA, teaching credentials or 100% commitment to the craft add one more reason to the pile of reasons to be rejected. I was Moses, kept that Red Sea in me parted.
At first, it was easy. My two selves had nothing in common. One was driven, organized, a smooth-talker. The other creative, frenzied, a goofball. They didn’t like each other one bit; they gladly kept their distance. Business was business: Fox Valley. Poetry was poetry: everywhere else. Détente.
But then, they both started climbing their respective ladders. Started craving more time. Showing up in all the wrong places. Cathy would meet with a coworker and out would come poetry. Cathryn would go to a poetry event and volunteer to chair a government commission.
The more successful each got, the uglier each got. The poet started doing readings in downtown Appleton, typing resignation notices to quit the day job, to prove she could provide if she could write full-time. But that businesswoman made more money, was a better parent, was helping make her customers’ lives better. She was more polite and dressed better too. She had just about the whole world on her side.
Cathy Mutschler had Cathryn Cofell in a chokehold and was not letting go. Cathryn tried writing about sweeter things – like the joy of gardening. Sometimes it worked, but most times, it went like this. Title: “Introduction to Gardening.” First line: “I know dead when I see it.”
Then Cathryn tried to use one Cathy’s favorite weapons against her – The List. Cathryn made an attempt to list all the reasons why being a poet was important. That poem turned into this
Why I Will Fail as a Poet
I need lots of purses. I need to open those purses, pull out
matching wallets fat with bills and give those bills away
to store clerks, cute waiters, a colorist who helps me look
shiny and young. If I’m going to fail I will at least look
shiny and young, like I have plenty time to succeed.
I need to earn that keep. I am not a kept woman. I am more
than $125 on an IRS Form-990. I need fame. Applause
after every poem. I am no symphony. I am a Sex Pistol,
a Violent Femme; give me groupies, a mosh pit, more
than the same five bodies in the same café. I need love
(every day I fall in love, every day I lose my pen
to his body so full of trap doors). I need to find myself
in the Caribbean. To lie on a blue chaise on that white sand
and ooze cocoa butter, not writing, not reading, just listening
to the poetry of salsa, the slurp of margarita through a blue-
white straw. I need thighs the size of straws. Triceps that
don’t take flight when they reach for a book. I don’t need
another book of prize-winning poetry I don’t have time
to read. I need time to stop. To prove the stopped clock
of this 747 body wrong (so much of me on snooze control).
I need very much to wake, to remember my dreams
but do not. There are so many more hungry, more broken, more
full of dreams and need who need me to be useful, but there is
nothing useful about poetry except it’s the thing that makes me
want, that makes me breathe deep, that releases the dying breath
held deep, hands held like ashtrays to catch the flickering embers.
Because hands cupped this way can only hold so much.
-- Previously published in Free Verse, July 2007
Talk about a plan that backfired! But a good poem is a hard thing to control. And it was true. That one want, poetry, was nothing compared to all that need.
So the poet went into hiding. Cathy poured every ounce into the career, climbed until she became the CEO of a Girl Scout council. At first, it was a dream job, everything Cathy imagined it could be: her girls were thriving; her council was thriving, which meant that I was thriving. Right?
Not so much. On the outside, Cathy was challenging girls to become women of courage, confidence and character…but on the inside, I was anything but. The more I tried to be only Cathy, only business, the more off-kilter I felt. The more phony.
That poem did remind me of all the reasons why I wanted to be a success in business. But it also reminded me that a life without poetry isn’t much of a life. And ironically, Cathy began to realize that what separated her from the business-suited, brief-case bearing pack was that darn poet. She was the one with the confidence, the moxie, the non-traditional ideas. Although I loved the idea of the job, I didn’t love me anymore. So I resigned, climbed back down that corporate ladder a notch and began the slow convergence of two women into one.
I am fortunate to have found a new position that keeps my passion for business and community service fulfilled yet is supportive of the poet in me. I can miss occasional meetings for poetry and my coworkers once even encouraged me to bring a poem about cookies in lieu of the real deal for the holiday cookie exchange. For now, I might not be as successful a writer as others who dedicate more time to it, but I am grateful for every sassy or sweet piece that’s been published, and for that business-savvy that allows me to help strengthen the poetry organizations I adore.
I would be lying if I said the transformation was complete. I still worry that one of my business colleagues might be offended by a poem I wrote about kissing or menstruation . . . even though I suspect many of them can relate. And I still worry that you will consider me less of a poet because my career consumes an awful lot of my time. But, I am now willing to risk you not liking a piece of me, in exchange for me liking my whole self: one organized, creative, goofy, driven, opinionated woman deeply connected to her two passions.
What about you? Can you accept your whole self for who you are? Have you sacrificed a part of you for the wrong reasons? Has a piece of the real you gone missing? Find that piece/part/missing link before it’s too late. There are plenty of people out there waiting to reject our work; let’s not reject ourselves before we give them that chance. Even when you are full of fear, learn to speak out as your whole self, and make your whole voice count.
-- A Variation of this Essay Previously Appeared in Verse Wisconsin
Cathryn Cofell is the author of Sister Satellite and six chapbooks, most recently Split Personality with Karla Huston. You can also listen to her on Lip, a CD of her poems set to the music of Obvious Dog. Her work appears in such places as the New York Quarterly, North American Review, Oranges & Sardines, Prairie Schooner and Dirty Napkin and has garnered numerous awards including the Lehman Poetry Prize, the Wisconsin Academy Best Poem Award and multiple Pushcart nominations. She’s a tireless advocate for poetry, including work with former governor Tommy Thompson to establish the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. She has served on the board of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and has helped to launch and promote, among others, Verse Wisconsin, the Fox Cities Book Festival, the Foot of the Lake Poetry Collective, the WFOP Chapbook Prize and the Draw Poetry Series.