Steven Cordova

In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?

To be honest, there is an American hubris about my poetic identity. Here is a story to illustrate what I mean. I met my first poetry teacher, Rachel Hadas, in the early 1990s in a makeshift classroom at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a historic New York City AIDS organization still in existence today. One day, early on in our relationship, Rachel handed me a card. Printed on white cardstock, without any color or design, it was a remarkably straightforward affair. There, in one corner, was Rachel's phone number; and there, neatly centered, was Rachel's full name and below that—and this is remarkable part—the card simply read "Poet."

Poet! I remember slipping the card out of my back pocket for the next few weeks, showing it to anyone who would look at it, joking that in America you might as well hand someone a card that reads "Mystic" or "Mind Reader," "Healer" or "Miracle Worker." In fact, to this day, when people ask what it is "I do," I say that I'm a secretary in a nonprofit ("executive assistant" sounds so inflated) and only later, when I'm pressed, or when I really get to know a person, do I reveal my true calling. Mysterious and unorthodox as it may sound, I say, "I'm a poet."

In fact, during the height of the AIDS crisis, many people with AIDS turned to this or that mysterious, unorthodox processes on the slim chance that one of its practitioners might help. There was bio-feedback and there were herbs. There was acupuncture and, not least of all, there were psycho-babbling opportunists. Today, some of these practices are somewhat less mysterious and more widely accepted, just as poetry may be less mysterious because there are now such a multitude of MFA programs churning out such a multitude of poets who are also higher ed. teachers. Nevertheless, I'd still like to consider myself an American poet because, in the midst of a crisis, I turned to this highly mysterious process—this "poetry"—and because, even as I continue to work along side people who have to take themselves very seriously chasing money and courting public interest, I have had the hubris to sit back, smirking on the inside, quietly thinking, "I'm a poet." Someday I may even print a card.




Continue browsing Q & A: American Poetry