I’m a poet. In 7th grade, I had a student teacher who asked us to write a poem. I wrote a piece titled “Wedding Ring” about a man who had to pawn his ring to feed his family. (I guess I was always looking for the drama.) My student teacher, Miss Windsor, applauded the poem and I had my first moment of, “Hey, I wrote something and other people liked it.” I sent it to a vanity press, having no idea what a vanity press was, learned it would be published in a gigantic anthology, asked my mother to buy the anthology, saw my work in print on the page and POOF! I became a poet.
Years later, I have my M.F.A. in creative writing and I teach writing at a university. I have had an academic article published and I have a short memoir available on Amazon and yet, each time I submit my biographical statement to any press or literary magazine, I don’t really call myself a writer, but a poet. I tell myself this is because poetry is my specialty, but I wonder, if I were to be completely honest with myself, if I were to drink a bottle of wine and try to answer the question, “What kind of writer am I?” would I actually be able to do so?
To answer this question, one has to start with smaller questions and honest answers. It seems like it should be much simpler than it really is. What do you write? This should tell you what kind of writer you are, right? Theoretically. But it’s not quite so easy. One of the most creative parts of being a writer is being able to switch genres, to be multi-faceted, to be Langston Hughes. And the most important characteristic of a writer is being able to open one’s mind enough to invite the other genres in, the genres outside of the genre you started with at thirteen years old, the genres you dabble in but don’t really take seriously, the genres you were forced to learn in graduate school because your M.F.A. was in creative writing and not poetry writing because to not make all writers work in all genres would be to force a great injustice upon the world.
Alas, none of this answers the question of who we are as writers. When completing a study of M.F.A. writers’ relationships with writing, Jill Olthouse asked a group of writers “what they wanted to accomplish in their writing. The two primary goals were mastering the craft and discovery”(266). Typical writer answers, right? Vague and lofty but true to what we are taught, what most of us feel deep down inside when faced with the idea that we may have to define our art. We just want to discover the pieces, the poems, the stories, the articles that live inside of us and just haven’t introduced themselves to us yet. But when someone asks, “What do you write?” we can’t exactly tell them that we write what we discover. It might be true, but it comes across as uppity, snobbish even. We have to define ourselves on the creative landscape. It seems like it’s no longer enough to say, “I’m a writer.”
And forget being so wishy-washy about what you write if you want to build an audience for your work. Today’s world of social media and internet marketing actually requires that you separate genres to find people who care about what you write, instead of putting it out there and hoping to find readers who appreciate you as a writer and not just your poems or your articles or your books. I’m not sure Langston Hughes would have enjoyed writing in our digital world, where Stephanie Chandler, in her article, How to Handle Marketing When You Write for Multiple Genres, suggests that we must “master one genre first,” then “build both genres concurrently” and finally, “see if [our] genres converge.” And this is only for two genres! What if you want to write an academic article, finish the great American novel and write a collection of poetry? What audience to you market to then?
This is further complicated when you realize that it is not just the writer that can switch genres and muddy the waters of writer-identity, but the work itself. One genre can be revised into another genre with inspired or disastrous results. Making a flash fiction piece into a poem, a poem into a non-fiction short, an article into the prompt for a novel, a song into a literary translation – all of this is possible if we don’t marry our genres, take them to bed and tell ourselves we don’t believe in divorce. Lately, I’ve decided to step outside of my comfort zone – the zone of poetry, of stanzas and form, of words that may not point to anything important at all but sound like they do (because come on, all of us stick some beautiful nonsense into our poetry), of flow – and I’m not just writing in new genres from scratch; I’ve decided to transform poems into shorts. This changes the way I see the piece and all of a sudden, I don’t feel comfortable labeling myself as a poet in the biographical statements I send out to presses. The other day, I sent a children’s picture book manuscript out to an agent. It’s poetry, but it’s a children’s book. I created a chapbook of non-fiction shorts out of prose poems I reworked, reworded and re-envisioned. And the best part is that all of these little experiments might suck. Publication rejections may hail down on me, but I’m determined to be able to say, “I’m a writer,” and to not be identified by genre.
Every writer has a different way to describe his/her own identity as an artist. And one might argue that none of this even matters. After all, we are masters of what we choose to master, whether the genres “match” or not. But let’s keep this universal conversation among writers in mind the next time you say, “I’m a writer” and someone, some well-meaning person who doesn’t mean to piss us off asks, “What do you write?”
Chandler, Stephanie. “How to Handle Marketing When You Write for Multiple Genres.” Authority Publishing. 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
Olthouse, Jill M. “MFA Writers’ Relationships With Writing.” Journal Of Advanced Academics 24.4 (2013): 259-274. Education Research Complete. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
Sarah Ghoshal is a writer and professor. Her poetry has been published widely in journals such as Adanna Literary Journal, OVS Magazine, Shampoo Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Broad! Magazine, among others. She earned her MFA from Long Island University and currently teaches writing at Montclair State University. She has also published memoir and academic articles. Sarah is enjoying a renewal in her work currently and has work forthcoming in Stone Highway Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Winter Tangerine Review and an anthology inspired by Hurricane Sandy. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, her brand new baby, and their faithful dog, Comet, who flies through the air with the greatest of ease.
- The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: lithopaedion by Carrie Nassif - June 9, 2023
- Interview with Joy Ladin, Author of Impersonation - June 8, 2023
- The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: lithopaedion by Carrie Nassif - June 8, 2023
2 thoughts on ““Genre and Identity: I’m a Poet, Right?” by Sarah Ghoshal”
I really enjoyed reading this thought-provoking piece, Sarah! Usually I just refer to myself as a “writer” but don’t often just tell people that anyway because the word “writer” usually gets some weird looks outside of the literary community. I’ve been writing a lot more poetry lately but never thought to call myself a “poet.” I think there’s more to being a poet than writing poetry. Sadly, I think it’s a loaded word that comes with a lot of stereotypes like manic depression, loose black mu-mus, and social isolation. Maybe one day if someone refers to me as a “poet” I’ll feel more confident calling myself one, but it seems like a title that’s earned and bestowed by someone else. Thanks for sharing!
I promise that there are cultures where writers are respected, even revered, even if they are not best sellers. But ours is not one of them. People usually give me a knowing smile and verbally pat me on the head with a “If you feel you have to write, then you should do it.” Do they pat restaurateurs or entrepreneurs (most of them are not going to be successful either) on the head and reassure them that although they are almost certain to fail, they will have the satisfaction of having done what they needed to do? Now that I am having a book published, so they can be assured that I am really a writer, people gush. Why? It’s my work, my contribution to the world. I am admiring of my hairdresser and my handyman, both of whom are remarkably talented and artistic. Takes all kinds.
I started calling myself a “writer” about 15 years ago, when I was still a legal secretary, in places like my high school reunion fact sheet. You have to just be it and then you are it.