Writers on Writing #34: Tasha Cotter
Another Kind of Life
It’s only recently that I’ve started thinking about where my poetry comes from. My first chapbook of poetry was released this month and my first full-length collection of poems will be released in December with Gold Wake Press. I’ve been thinking more about my poetry and my trajectory as a poet more lately. It feels like I’m only just now coming up for air, looking around and asking how did I get here?
Those who know me know that I came from a tiny town in south central Kentucky—Smiths Grove. All through college I would tell people I was from Glasgow or Bowling Green—larger towns nearby that were better known. But the fact is I grew up in a county that had more cows than people, more pastures than anything else. It was picturesque and postcard beautiful in a lot of ways. But what I really wanted was to be away from there, living a life somewhere far away where people cared more about the arts and where I could talk to people about the books I was always holed up in my room reading. Growing up was a lonesome experience for me. The ability to recognize myself in the books I read is what initially drove me to the act of creation—I wanted to write the way some aspire to perform the ultimate magic trick.
Some people seem born knowing what they want to do. That was me. I grew up reading books, knowing that I would someday have to write them myself. I loved how I could be transported by them, and made aware of people, places, and experiences I hadn’t been aware of. I was mesmerized by the book covers, inspired by the story and held captive by the language. I searched far and wide for a mentor or someone who had blazed that path, but it wasn’t easy. In the area I grew up in, if you weren’t farming you were working in construction. My family did both of those things. My family raised tobacco and Angus cattle and we owned a construction business in town. I remember spending many afternoons after school on the construction lot, sitting on a pile of lumber with a notepad in hand, killing time until 4:30 when we’d head home.
I badly wanted to become a writer, but I knew that in order to learn more, I needed to go to college. And I wanted to go to college very badly. My parents tried to be open-minded and supportive, but it was a struggle trying to explain to my family why I wanted to go to college. Because no one in my family had been to college before, it was up to me to make the case that it was necessary. My family saw it as mysterious. They were suspicious of it. Most of my family had only farmed or worked in construction and their thinking was I didn’t go to college and it didn’t hold me back, so why do you need it? Not to mention the expense.
But the experience of trying to get my family to come round was made even more difficult in some ways because I wanted to be a writer. Back then I hadn’t really thought too deeply about what that life might look like, but I knew I wanted to learn more about how to write well. I also wanted more guidance on the sort of books I naturally gravitated toward—20th century American literature and 19th and 20th century French literature. I also liked philosophy. I remember feeling exhilarated when I read a book that spoke deeply to me. I would always be left with that fleeting feeling of what else do I need to read? What else is out there that makes me feel this way?
You could say that what I valued was a stark contrast to my surroundings. I admired the discipline and work-ethic of my family, but I knew I didn’t want any part of it. It was a hard thing to communicate to the people who had raised you. It was even harder because I didn’t personally know many people that had gone to college and was left to speculate on the possibility of transformation. I became friends with my teachers and confided in them and read the books they recommended. I read as much as I could about what college was like and the courses I could take.
It was in 2004 that I met the woman who came into my life like a gift in the air: Nikky Finney. I was taking her poetry workshop at the University of Kentucky. She was a southern girl, too. We’d talk during her office hours about our upbringing and the books we were reading. I asked her questions about my work and sought her advice on how to grow as a writer. I relayed her thoughts and wisdom to my own family, who always needed reassurance that college and my goals were not impossible or a colossal waste of time. It was easy to be angry about being misunderstood—and as a young girl I felt alienated a lot of times without really knowing why. Nikky stepped in and became a mentor to me, and like the best mentors she treated me like a colleague—an equal. It was her guidance and patience that led me away from my own insecurities and self-doubt and into the writer I still work to be: wildly honest and precise; always willing to take a different path, even if it’s unpopular, or rarely traveled.
Tasha Cotter is the author of That Bird Your Heart (Finishing Line Press), and Some Churches (Gold Wake Press, Winter 2013). Her work has appeared in journals such as Contrary Magazine, Country Dog Review, and Booth. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com.