Lit Counts: We Share a Native Language

By Elizabeth Robinson

A long, long time ago, I lived in a very foreign country called Oklahoma. Everything about Oklahoma seemed strange and a little bit scary to me. I was young, and my students kept asking me if I was married, and then why I wasn’t. Tornadoes swirled across the flat landscape. One fall, a local prophet said that the second coming was nigh, and gave a date. My students, some of them very apologetic, told me that they wouldn’t be available for class that day, because they were going to be raptured.

Where were the poets? I asked myself. Where was someone who spoke my language? A student pointed out a portly guy who always wore overalls. “He’s a poet,” I was told, “And he’s always walking west.” It turns out that both things were true: the guy was a poet, and I never saw him walking any direction but west. Perhaps this is a feat possible only for poets. Still, he didn’t quite speak poetry as I knew it.

That is why my workshops at the University of Oklahoma became my refuge and my home.  When one young woman left a workshop because she was pregnant and her morning sickness became severe, the class wrote poems to her baby and turned them into a small, homemade anthology. One day, a young man wrote a poem in which he came out to the class. It was a dangerous thing to do in Oklahoma at that time. As a group, we walked him to his car after class, letting him know he was safe.

A few years later, I lived in Berkeley, and 9/11 struck. I remember going online in shock, watching the towers fall. I was part of a poets’ listserv at the time, and the one solace of the day was in how we united as a group, sharing word of where poets were and, long distance, helping stranded people to find a place to stay. We posted poems and notes. We were community. We were family. We shared a native language.


A week later, I crossed the Bay Bridge to teach a class in San Francisco. I was afraid my students wouldn’t come. There were rumors that attacks had been planned on all the major Bay Area bridges, on BART. Paranoia was rampant. But I made it to class, and so did all of my students. We agreed that we were jumpy and traumatized, but I could feel our collective pulse slow as we sat around the table and began writing. Making art—writing or painting or dancing—we agreed, is making meaning itself.

Now, in Colorado, I have found the Lighthouse. After a long day at work, it restores me to be with people who share this commitment to language and what it can do. In my workshops here, people have shared their most vulnerable and painful experiences, and their efforts have always been treated with attention and respect. They have also found ways to shape their joy and curiosity in language.

Writing, for me, has never really been a solitary activity. I always feel every word I write as peopled with many voices, with the questions and challenges and deepening commitments of many writers. I need the tautness of this community to keep me moving and alive as a writer. In that way, we poets really are, always, perpetually striding west, following the light across the horizon.

This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Lighthouse Instructor and Poetry Book Project mentor Elizabeth Robinson is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry. Her most recent books are Three Novels (Omnidawn), Counterpart (Ahsahta), and Blue Heron (Center for Literary Publishing).