“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”: so begins the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”. But is it ever that obvious, the fork, the diverging paths that can take a life in one direction or another? In the yellow wood of my college days and the ones that followed shortly after, I arrived at fork after fork unknowingly, made decisions unwittingly that changed the course of my life. I had arrived at my freshman year at university thinking I was a poet, would study poetry and would scrape together a life as a poet. Within years, I would be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and then a global marketing executive. Then decades later, I became a poet, again. This time for real.
Between my poet 1.0 and 2.0 versions, I lived a wholly different existence to the one I had ever imagined as a teenager. By 26, I had already built and sold a successful marketing agency and married and divorced. I’d spend the next several decades building businesses, promoting products, services, people and ideas. I wrote business and marketing plans. I read Fortune and the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. But I would lose myself in novels on aeroplane flights and late at night. I found poetry in the places I visited as my career took me all over the world: a night sky pinholed with stars on a vineyard outside Heidelberg, the precision of a Finnish meeting, the slow spin of a heavily laden lazy Susan in Beijing, the vast sweep of plains and mountains spied from an aeroplane window, how each city rumbles awake in its own unique language.
I moved often over these decades. And every time, I’d pack up my poetry books thinking, yes, one day I’ll go back to poetry. But the decades leafed by. Occasionally, I’d pull down a collection to read. Or find myself in a bookstore, lingering in the poetry section. As my own children came along, I read poems to them as my mother had to my siblings and me. In the rare instance that I wrote a poem, it was as a gift to someone prompted by occasion or affection. The kind of poem that I didn’t consider to be a real poem. Not a poem by the standards I’d been taught to write when I was a student at Stanford.
No, I’d found myself on a different road. I see it now as a response to my own debt and work ethic, and the general herd instinct to go out and make money. Because poetry wasn’t a serious profession. As the poet Alex Dimitrov writes in his poem, “New York”:
“When my parents askedHow much money I’d makeAnd what I would do next,You know, after this poetry thing.”
So, I let the “poetry thing” become past tense, a glimmer in the rear-view mirror, a reflection of a trailing car’s headlights.
It never occurred to me to marry the two, to work and write. To do as so many poets I now know have done. To winnow out time, to rise before dawn like William Stafford, stay up late to write, as Philip Larkin did after a day’s work as a librarian, or to do as Wallace Stevens did, writing poems during the lunch break from his insurance job. I made work everything, and then I made work and family everything. I left no room for poetry. Except on my bookshelves where the volumes of verse gathered dust between moves. As Frost wrote:
“Oh, I kept the first for another day!Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.”
Over time, I began to think of myself not as someone who was once a young poet but as someone who, like so many, wrote poetry as a teenager. The distinction being one of naming and of claiming the act of writing as important to my identity. My sense of myself as having any poetic talent receding with time. Then, after nearly 40 years, after way had led on to way taking me far afield from poetry, the path back to it suddenly appeared.
This time the path was not forked, but rather a web of forest trails to wander. The trailhead began over a drink with a business colleague in Manhattan. My colleague confided in me that he reads poetry at night. Perhaps it was the drink that prompted me to admit that I had once written poetry. Back in my hotel room, I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the blare and rattle of New York City. I was alone and, for the first time, felt truly alone. The evening’s conversation festered. I slept poorly. The next day, I signed up for a poetry workshop.
That two-hour workshop at Hugo House in Seattle was rain on the dry earth of my creativity. By the spring of that year, 2016, I had written dozens of poems and joined a weekly workshop filled with tough, critical poets. I was starting to get published. It had been 40 years since I set the aspiration to be a poet aside. Now, at 58, I felt the pulse of poetry in my veins. Not as something to do as I eyed retirement, but as a next act, a second career.
Which meant a serious level of commitment and aspiration. I’d left my last big corporate role a few years before but was working as a consultant nearly full time. I needed to figure out my finances and determine how to restructure what I think of now as my “work work” to enable more time for poetry. Then I took the leap into learning, enrolling in classes and writing retreats. I had a chapbook manuscript taken by a small press and published in 2018. That fall, I volunteered to be a poetry reader for a literary magazine, The Adroit Journal, knowing it was edgy and young. Retreating slowly into a realm of words, I was writing, reading, reaching not back to my youth but forward to some new poetic being.
Over all those decades I’d always loved my work, but this was a new elevated, emotional connection. As someone who had been constantly surrounded by colleagues and run huge organisations, I found myself alone with my words. A product of scheduled time, my hours and days began to blur. At work at a desk in the kitchen with the swirl of family, I travel elsewhere, completely disappearing into the writing, editing, reading of my new life’s work.
When I need to re-engage in my consulting work, the switch is difficult. It feels as if another person takes over, a previous self who writes without the benefit of line breaks and music. I wonder whether my previous self — the executive — is just a facet of the overall self, that has always included the poetic? At an age when many become entrenched in identity, I have become a chameleon. My skin changing to code with the work at hand.
Shortly after my 60th birthday, I applied to three Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry programs on deadline, without deliberation. Shortly after being accepted at NYU, I learnt my first full-length collection was getting published. Just the boost I needed as I headed back into academia after 40 years. But the euphoria of publication didn’t last long.
On my first day of my MFA residency, I greeted a cohort of 22-year-olds. With their raised hands and erudite questions, I wondered what I’d done. I felt like someone’s frumpy, intellectually foggy mother. But there for the learning, I learnt, my poetic vocabulary stretching as I could sense new pathways recircuiting my brain. But I brought along my familiar way of working — adherence to structure, discipline and an achievement mindset. It reminded me of when I travelled for business over all those years. How I always had a bag partially packed, had a routine that I followed even as I flew off to a place and situation unknown.
In my early twenties, when I was building my first business, I often worked 90-hour weeks. During my thesis semester, I applied that same focus and commitment. And again, felt the exhilaration of creating something.
I wake up every day feeling a sense of urgency, knowing the real limits of time. Yet, I’ve erased the regret and grief of lost time that I faced in that New York City hotel room a few years ago. I realise that a life in motion is the sum of all the years lived. Everything I’ve encountered and accomplished has brought me to this point. Over five years later, I’m proving Frost wrong: “another day” did arrive and I did come back. But I’m also flying forward.
Heidi Seaborn’s new collection of poems, ‘An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe’ is published by Pank Books in June
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