Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Am What I Am

For the service I wrote about in my last post, I had to create two poems: the introductory "loving myself is some hard shit" poem and the "I'm superfantastic" poem. We also wanted the congregation to participate in some way, so I suggested an exercise I've done in poetry workshops and services before in which the participants fill out a short prompt on a slip of paper. The slips are then arranged to make one communal poem. This is an exercise that relies heavily on serendipity, and the resulting poem has been different and amazing every time I've done it.

We combined it with another exercise, one I do with my beginning composition classes. Toward the beginning of the quarter I assign them an "I am what I am" poem* as an in-class freewrite. They don't have time to finish them in class and I don't grade them, but I'm always surprised how many of them finish these poems on their own and then hand them in to me just so I can read them. For me, this exercise has solid pedagogical underpinnings: students get a chance in a short piece of writing to practice vivid description, example lists, and repetition. From their perspective, they just like writing about themselves. Who doesn't?

For the congregation's poem, we used the prompt "I am what I am....I am ____." Our minister, Amy, and I agreed we would both write an individual "I am what I am" poem to share during the service, and then I'd read the community poem toward the end. This is my "I am what I am...." poem.**

I am what I am…I am the red-headed bastard stepchild who belonged but never fit in…one of these things is not like the others…a fair-skinned, freckled summer child, I am the lightning rod who saw too much and challenged too often. I was too smart for my own good. I knew grownups told me one thing but did the other for their own good, but they hid the truth in their sock drawers and on the top shelves of kitchen cabinets, behind their acrid clouds of cigarette smoke and deep in their bottles of bourbon. I was relieved to find out Santa wasn’t real because finally someone told me the truth.

I am what I am…I am Iowa: corn, soybeans, hogs banging feeders, county fairs, the Hawkeyes, demolition derbies, and beer for breakfast. I am small town squares where the community band oompah oompahs at the ice cream social on Thursday nights when the stores stay open until 9:00 pm. Iowa, where we were so poor we didn’t even have accents, but someone will always stop to help if you break down on the side of the road. I couldn’t run away fast enough or slam the door hard enough behind me, but it’s still there inside this city girl. Iowa…Iowa, that’s where the tall corn grows, and that’s where I officiated at my lesbian cousin’s wedding two years ago. Yes, I married my cousin. I am what I am, and part of me will always be proud I was born and raised in Iowa.

I am what I am…I am a mother. I’ve baked a million cookies, cleaned up vomit in the middle of the night when I had the flu myself, sewed Halloween costumes, homeschooled for 12 years, driven a million miles in my minivan, given great advice, read a million books aloud, kissed boo boos, yelled sometimes, hugged more. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes my parents made, so I invented new ones. I wanted to be perfect, but now that my kids are grown, I’m not sure what perfect means. Although, if I could do it again, with everything I know now, I’d come close. Soon I will be a grandma and I will bake a million more cookies, kiss boos boos, never yell, give less advice, and hug like a grandma.

I am what I am…I am an A minor chord, black leather, late nights downtown in the city, dark, bitter chocolate, and cold white wine. I am the waning moon, a daughter of the Goddess; I am tarot cards and patchouli, long skirts and silver bracelets. I am standard poodles and wild alley cats. I am folk, blues, rock, and Rachmaninoff. I am contradictions.

I am what I am…I can wrap a harmony around any melody, dance the jitterbug, play several instruments and fake even more. I can grow vegetables, cook, write, teach, sew, knit, and kill and dress out a chicken or a fish. I even have a superpower that I can use for good or for evil, and yet I never think I’m enough. I always want more, please.

I am what I am…I was a little girl who was told she should be seen and not heard, but I don’t play by those rules any more. Now I am woman hear me roar*** and sing loudly, read my poems, tell dirty jokes and, yes, sit in silence. I am what I am and I will be seen and I will be heard and there is more to me than any one poem can hold.

* From Tom Romano's book Crafting Authentic Voice.
** Hey! I have an idea! You could try this exercise yourself and share your results in the comments here.
*** You have to sing this part really loud, even if you're a man.


  1. i don't think i can do one as good as yours. that is so vivid and real. i can see it all.

  2. I have no doubt you could do one that's just as good, even if it is different. MY kids write about all kinds of things in theirs. One thing I appreciate about this assignment is that it forces a unique response. They have a long way to go to find their voices. This poem exercise helps them see they've got one to find and develop.