Sean Hill: I Had a Voice

Recently I was emailed questions to respond to for an interview; I was told I could skip the ones that didn’t “resonate” with me. One of the questions I chose to skip was this one: How and when did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Please share a little bit about your journey to becoming a published poet.” This one question and follow-up request for an expounding narrative really resonated with me, but I skipped it in part because I was supposed to answer it in “approximately 2-5 sentences,” and it’s a big question that I don’t think I have a good and concise answer for yet. And maybe it was the assumption I read with the word “decide.” But I guess that’s my defensiveness again. I don’t know when I decided I wanted to be a writer; I just remember the want—the desire. No, this isn’t a concise story. 

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved words; he was quiet and reserved around groups of people—what the called shy. He read a lot, and in his reading he was always thrilled to find words he didn’t know because it meant he could look for them in the fat dictionary he kept close. Field guides to birds would share this space for him later in life. And this boy loved animals—all creatures great and small; he read about them, he watched nature shows about them on TV, and he searched for them in the yard and around the neighborhood. On family trips to the mall his parent knew they could always find him either at the pet store or the bookstore. When he was twelve he decided he would be a vet when he grew up. So he went to World Book Encyclopedia (this was in the days before the world wide web) to look up all of the nation’s schools of veterinary medicine and chose three he would apply to when the time came. He planned his life from that middle school moment through opening a mixed practice veterinary clinic. As a teenager he worked as a shepherd and a vet’s assistant to gain hands-on experience working with animal. He planned to practice veterinary medicine and write books like James Herriot. There was the small problem; though he loved language and read short stories and novels, this boy was a slow attentive writer not a gusher, and he didn’t understand scene building or how to set characters in motion or perhaps most importantly plot. His teenage attempts at writing short stories yielded disparate vignettes. It wasn’t until a dorm-mate in college, who wrote poems—sometimes in illuminated script on old pizza boxes—suggested he try to write a poem (in a way that sounded slightly like a challenge) that he even considered that mode of composition. A few poems, a feeling of success, and a desire to get better led him to his first creative writing class, and that led to exposure to and appreciation for more poets. Education deepened his engagement. And from there one thing led to another—way led on to way and away from that mixed practice veterinary clinic. It seems that perhaps, his daydreamy window gazing way of observing the world’s small details and his attention to language suited him more to poetry than to fiction writing. 

Please, dear reader, forgive my slip into third person. I’ll return to the first person to talk briefly about my journey to becoming a published poet. Perhaps obviously, this journey required a desire to be published and perseverance. I was a quiet kid, but in high school I had a voice because, as I remember it, one of my English teachers turned her class in to a practicum to revive and crank out the school newspaper. This was my first taste of publication. It was quite empowering for the reticent teen me to have an audience without having to stand up in front of people in the flesh and address them with my voice. So once I thought my poems were worth sharing I submitted them for publication. A huge part of submitting poems is educating oneself about the poetic landscape—reading journals and the acknowledgments pages of poetry collections to see which journals published which poems and then reading those journals. 

I, like most of us who do this, have received rejections; I have six or seven shoeboxes filled with the rejections letters or slips I’ve collected over the years. In an ideal world I would have an assistant who’d look over my shoulder take the poems that are ready to be submitted and send them out for me. But in this world I have to separate those two things—the work of writing poems and the work of sending poems out for publication. That way I don’t let the rejections crush what I enjoy about engaging my craft. 

Now I think I’ve answered the question. 

Sean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008). His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, Poetry, Tin House, and numerous other journals and anthologies. He’s currently a visiting professor in the creative writing program at UA-Fairbanks. More information can be found at 

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