My First Toastmaster’s Speech: Poetry Is Like A River

Recently, I joined a Toastmasters Club at work because the meetings are at lunchtime.  Today I have my first speech, The Ice Breaker.  I’ve included the text below.


Thank you, Madam Toastmaster.  Fellow members and guests,

25 years ago, I was an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii.  I was a history major and had spent enough time working in the State’s Attorney General’s office to know that my original plan of going to law school wasn’t going to work.  Instead, I met the poet Naomi Shihab Nye who was a visiting writer, and she inspired me to go in another direction.

Writing, and specifically poetry writing, is a funny career.  It never moves in a straight line.  Instead, it twists and turns like a river.  It can move fast or be nearly still.  Sometimes it will take you right over a cliff—a literal leap of faith.  You have to accept the adventure.  That flow has taken me to some places, like Japan where I spent three years, where I wanted to go and others like Spokane where I did my MFA, where I never expected to go.  The course of my life over this past quarter century was not what I had planned for myself.  And I had to learn to let go, not of my dreams, but of the shape of my dreams.  That’s easier said than done.

The point of being a poet is to write poetry.  The point of a poem is to be read.  The point of a read poem is to be collected with other read poems and to live as a book.  After graduation, the book was my primary focus—at least for the next year, because after that, I was on the move again. I went to Japan.  Then I moved here.  I began working at Harvard.  In Japan, I started aikido, which for the next ten years would be my primary avocation.  I dabbled in writing.  But the book haunted me.  It was the one thing I felt would legitimize me as a poet.  But I was distracted.  My life twisted and turned.  I changed jobs.  I dated.  I got fat.  I got thin.  I got my 3rd degree black belt.  I changed jobs again.  I got married and—jumping off that cliff—I had children.  Still, the book eluded me.

I published poems in magazines no one read.  The same with stories. And essays.  Creative writing publishing is a funny thing.  There is only so much you can control.  You can choose the journals you send to.  You can write a snappy, catchy cover letter.  You can write awesome material.  But that might not matter if an editor has a different opinion on artistry.  Or doesn’t like your subject.  Or has a crappy day.  Once the manuscript leaves your hands, it’s like a kid going off to college.  It’s got its own life to live.

It’s even more so with books.  And so for years, I was terrified of rejection, of acceptance, phantom fears.  I didn’t submit the book, which had been more-or-less finished for years.  I tinkered with it.  I fiddled with it.  But when my daughter was born, the book took on a new reason.  I wanted to try to get it accepted and published because it was an achievement I wanted my kids to see.  I wanted a picture of their father as the young man that they’ll never know.  The one I’ll have forgotten by the time they become adults.

The book was the last of my goals from my early 20’s.  My wife, who’s a folk singer, has a CD.  I should have my book.  And so I started to send it out.  Over and over and over again.  Gulf Coast is a lit mag down in Houston, and in a 3-part series, one of their editors wrote about getting a first book published.  She talked about her first book.  She was rejected over 70 times before she was accepted.  And she was shocked when she was.  This gave me hope, and this kept me going as I submitted to 60, 70, 80, 90, 101 places.  I was accepted after 78 rejections.  I too was shocked when it happened.

The average age, when I was in graduate school, for a first book was about 30.  My book was released last month, and I’m significantly older than that.  But this wasn’t a linear course for me.  I really did follow the river wherever it took me.  I allowed myself to be distracted.  That’s the funny thing about the river, about letting the river dictate your life rather than you trying to dictate its course—you end up learning a lot more about the world, about yourself, and are never where you expected to be.  I’m better for that.  And maybe that is that is the lesson this book really has to give to my children.

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