The First-Person Bio

I overthink most things. No, that’s not quite right. I overthink everything. Case in point: last month a poetry editor asked me to provide my bio for a poem he’d accepted. Bios are necessary for publishing, but I’m not a big fan. In the third person you still know the omniscient narrator is the very poet writing the bio. It’s corny, or stiff. Maybe it just feels cheesy having to write yourself in the third person (“Richard Fenwick became a poet at the tender age of three after reading Eliot’s The Wasteland.”). But as I said, bios are a requirement, and long ago I canned a 50-word explanation for external publication.

This time, however, the editor wanted a first-person bio, with a short explanation: why do you write poetry? And I floundered. I didn’t want to bloviate or be flip, and I wracked my mind to get to the truth. Frankly, the question felt a little frightening, so I put the bio on a back burner for over a month.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when we gathered at a cemetery to say goodbye to another Holocaust survivor friend. She was a dear woman from Ukraine, a living textbook on Russian literature and politics, a former teacher who carried herself with an omnipresent smile hiding any pain she may have had in her older years. When we’d celebrate various Russian holidays, she always stood last, propped up by her walker, to propose a toast to America. She’d remind the group of the conditions they’d left behind, and always finished with “Спасибо Америка, за все.” “Тhank you for everything America.”

The temperature Tuesday was in the mid-70s, the sky a light blue thanks to wisps of thin clouds that hid the deeper blue prevalent in the desert southwest. The treetops were full of wind, noisy. At some point, as the Rabbi spoke, I searched across the vast cemetery toward a newer section that had yet to be seeded with grass. Out there, in that empty field of distant graves, a tumbleweed slowly bounced across the section, skipping over certain graves and getting hung up on others, until the wind captured it again and pushed further west in a curious and constant motion. It kicked up small amounts of dust as it rolled, then disappeared past the east bank of a dry arroyo.

This image is, I think, a fair representation of why I write poetry: A tumbleweed, dry and prickly, being pushed by the wind through a cemetery during a Jewish service. This was a curiously strong metaphor that seemed to represent . . . something. For now, I’m not sure. I know that it somehow made my heart sink. And until I can capture the imagine and its emotion on paper, until I can incorporate the metaphor in some meaningful way, I won’t be able to remove its essence from my mind. Even now I can see it, traveling slowly and haphazardly, moving, as all things do, toward some form of conclusion. In this case, to its resting spot at the bottom of a shallow, dry river.

I hope the editor will understand this notion. More than that, I hope I can synthesize it into one or two sentences. It would be a bit embarrassing, after all, to have my bio rejected.

But perhaps I’m overthinking things again . . .

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