An Alphabetics of the Soul

  • By Alyson Gold Weinberg
  • September 25, 2023

Finding my way back to my words.

An Alphabetics of the Soul

I was fiddling with a rip in my jeans. The owl-eyed professor, salt-and-pepper haired, stroked his beard, took up his pencil, and scrawled the names of MFA programs on a yellow pad.

It was my last semester studying as a University of Maryland creative-writing undergrad. The late poet Stanley Plumly was plotting my poetic future.

But the thing is, I said, I’m going into advertising.

His pencil landed with a soft thud.  

Advertising will kill your soul.

Decades later, having put way more than my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours into writing professionally, what sticks with me is not Plumly’s dramatic pronouncement but his empathic instinct to nurture and launch a fellow poet, an artistic secret handshake I failed to grasp at the time but held onto while I hawked — with the crispest of copy — frozen peas and one-hour photos. In a few years, this being Washington, DC, I moved into speechwriting. I wrote for Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics movement.

A kind of Cyrano de Bergerac, I put words in other people’s mouths to help combat the harm of social media on women and girls, advocate for disabled veterans, and entreat families to play outside for the health of the planet. I ghostwrote nonfiction books on marketing, conservation, and technical debt — and made them informative, engaging, and funny, capturing the authors’ distinct voices. And then, like a specter, when the work was published, I disappeared.

It’s been a very Washington, DC, writing career. But sharing my own voice? Submitting my personal work? Not so much.

I did keep writing poetry over the years while working, getting married, and raising our kids. I felt blessed to have access to excellent local workshops at the Writer’s Center, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown. When I needed concentrated writing time away from real life, I went to residencies like Bread Loaf. I continued to learn, study, and commune, writing through past, often painful experiences while guided by the wisdom of Sharon Olds to do what you are going to do and I will tell about it. Writing poetry helped lead me up what I call the “yearning curve.”

Then, I turned 50. Then, there was a worldwide pandemic, racial-justice reckonings, American Nazis, children in cages, and outlandish conspiracies. So, so much cruelty. Dante echoed in my head, Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say/What was this forest savage, rough, and stern. The entire world was a wilderness. I started to wonder what I could possibly have to lose in submitting my poetry.

In its most ancient incarnation, at its purest purpose, poetry is meant to be shared, spoken, sung, shouted. As poets, we get to save our own souls and play Beatrice to the world’s Dante, shining the light of heaven or hope for others.

I finally sent out my poems. I quickly got some published and won a few contests, including the local Inner Loop/District Fray contest, and it gave me confidence. I sent out some more, got rejected a lot, and got accepted a bit. Cut to September 2023, and Bellow & Hiss, my debut collection, is being published by Finishing Line Press, a finalist in their New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition. What’s old is new again.

I am indebted to the DC-area writing community, which continues to help me grow and evolve as a writer. I’m grateful to the Inner Loop, the Writer’s Center, the 1455 Society, and indie bookstores like East City Bookshop, Politics and Prose, and People’s Books, with their rich programming and frequent open mics.

How about you? How’s your artistic soul? Alive and kicking? Create art in the shape of language. Keep writing.

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter's House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]

Alyson Gold Weinberg is an award-winning poet, playwright, speechwriter, and ghostwriter. Her poetry has appeared in december, One Art, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among other outlets. She is a 2021 Jeff Marks Memorial Prize finalist, judged by Carl Phillips; a 2022 Harbor ReviewJewish Women’s Poetry Prize finalist; and the 2021 winner of the Inner Loop/District Fray Poetry Prize, judged by Jose Padua. When not writing, Alyson can be found binge-watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with her family.

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