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It's a rare phenomenon that poets write only poems 

A Poetic Life

When I ran into my fourth grade elementary-school teacher in a grocery store when I was 9, the sight of her removing a box of cereal from the shelves stunned me. It never occurred to me that she had an existence away from her desk and blackboard. With the recent publication of my poetry book, "Uncommon Grammar Cloth," I'm getting similar responses. Many know me as the dance writer for Style — how is it I write poetry as well?

Writing about dance steers my attention to a specific end. I talk to choreographers about their work, watch dancers embody it on stage, and offer a written account of the encounter. Because the work is assigned, my topic is decided before I even turn on my computer. It's a matter or wrangling words to fit my observations.

My poetry, on the other hand, is self-assigned. No one tells me what to write about, nor is there is a deadline. I've been writing poetry (and fiction, too) since before writing about dance. In my own performances, I've often blended text with movement, one inciting and cajoling the other. The poems in "Uncommon Grammar Cloth" continue that trend; they are motivated by dance. Yet a reader will find little mention of dance. Instead, the words themselves dance, departing from usual grammatical forms to leap and twist on the page.

Writing in more than one genre is more common that some might think. Diane Ackerman, guest instructor at University of Richmond and author of more than 20 books, has also crossed into multiple forms. Best known for her nonfiction book, "A Natural History of the Senses," she has written several poetry books, children's books and plays. She spends much of her time observing the natural world, be it penguins, bats or her garden, then creating essays based on those observations. What's common to each, she explains, is "applying the same curiosities, skills and concerns."

Despite Ackerman's widespread reputation as a nonfiction writer, she started out in poetry. "I began as a poet and that continues to be the source of my creativity, regardless of whatever genre I'm working in," she says. About her ongoing devotion to poetry, she says, "I love being able to reduce things to the rigorous pungency of the epigram. I love being able to try to find one phrase that I can make up that captures some emotion or human experience that normally falls between words, between our everyday language." She refers to a process she calls "emotional spillover." Sometimes when she is assigned a nonfiction story, poems emerge from the experience that don't fit into the essay.

It's a rare phenomenon that poets write only poems. Writing poetry enriches the spirit, but not the wallet. By necessity, poets find added employment, be it in writing nonfiction, teaching or working in an altogether unrelated field. All experience, however, provides groundwork for creative expression. It's a matter of how the writer transforms those experiences, using them as a topic, a metaphor, or, on a more practical level, simply to pay the
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