Because I want to. This is no small statement. On planet Earth in 2011 C.E., having leisure time and emotional and physical ease to do what I want, without regard for market potential, is an enormous privilege, and I'm enormously grateful for it. On most days at the desk, this desire to write is all I'm consciously aware of. Call it an impulse, then.
Why do I want to write? The floodgates open. Because it is never simple. Although no one we knew had artistic ambitions, I grew up in a family that revered literature. My mother's mother had been an English teacher; I devoured her annotated copies of British classics early on. My mother, a great reader with four little kids to wrangle, bought an hour or so of peace and quiet with a weekly trip to the public library. My aunt the librarian would take me to work with her on Saturdays, leaving me to wander, book-woozy. Sooner or later, most bookworms start to think, "I could do this...."
Now, I write in order to feel like a semidecent human being. It's not socially or ethically acceptable for an adult to spend large chunks of time imagining, thinking, daydreaming, and staring into space, but that is probably my default mode. Writing is a way of incorporating those chunks of time into a useful, purposeful, productive activity.
(Some might argue with the idea that writing poems is useful, purposeful, or productive, but they've been conned. The standard line that no one reads poetry is simply untrue. Also untrue is the line that only other poets read poetry. Even an obscure poet like me gets nice notes from people who have read and responded to my poems. Yes, these notes don't equal in quantity the fan letters Snooki gets, but then I don't need to worry about being arrested for public obnoxiousness. The mainstream isn't the only game around, and it has terrible, damaging shortcomings. Which brings me to: )
Why do I write poetry (and why should anyone read it)? Two words: privacy and complexity—both in scarce supply, both precious. When I am working on a poem and when I'm reading one, I'm acutely aware of myself as an individual being who thinks and feels, an intense mode of paying attention via (marvelous, delicious) words. It's an exquisite sensation, not encouraged in our other-directed culture. At the same time, I'm aware of opening a space for the whole unresolved world to come in, with its contradictions and chaos, not encouraged in our "give it to me in one sentence or less" culture.
I like mystery, so I'll come back to that impulse. The surface of "because" has only been scratched the tiniest bit. Why does anyone do anything? To have fun, to keep from being bored? The impulse tells me "whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." So I do.
Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Search Engine and of Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. Her new book, The Cold War, will be published in May by Sarabande Books.