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I am a Bulgarian poet. This may not seem like a big revelation to you, but I just found out. I found out through reading poems in Bulgarian for an anthology of contemporary Bulgarian poetry that I am currently editing. I found out not by reading the really good poems, for all really good poetry has something universal in it that seems to transcend language and place. No, I realized I’m a Bulgarian poet by reading really bad poems in my native language.

Before you start laughing, let me tell you a story. I studied English for three years, immigrated, and lived in the United States for months before I found out that I speak English with a foreign accent. How did I find out? I heard myself on a recording and nearly dropped dead in the ESL classroom. Why did I not realize this earlier? Because we don’t hear our own voices, either in conversations or in poems.  I think even when we speak out loud we hear our own voice as if it were still internal. It’s only when we listen to it coming from the outside that we can recognize it, and potentially be embarrassed by it.

Anyone who has edited an anthology with an open call for submissions knows that you will go through thousands upon thousands of poems to arrive at a collection with several hundred works that you love.

“You don’t have to eat the whole apple to know it’s bad,” an editor once said to indicate that you don’t have to read an entire poem if you understand early on that you don’t want to publish it. I wholeheartedly agree, but . . .

This time I couldn’t do that. I found myself reading the bad poems from beginning to end. I was captivated by them, fascinated, and—oh, the horror—saw so much of my own work in them. 

And then I realized why I feel so little connection to poorly written poems by American authors. It’s because I’d never write like that (insert self-righteous scoff here). Instead, I have a closetful of drafts that read very much like this other kind of poor writing (insert mortified head-shake here).

Ah, but what does this new knowledge mean for the future of my own poetry? As the Dalai Lama said once when answering the question has studying with western scientists about consciousness changed your view of Buddha nature? “It’s too soon to tell.” But I daresay it will be important, because through my editing, I gained an unexpected awareness of my own writing, and in my experience, awareness changes attitudes, approaches, and in short, everything.

But let me tell you the rest of the story. That same night after I found out about my accent, I was riding in the car with my American-born husband, who noticed me sulking and asked what was wrong.

My chin quivered, and when I managed to find my voice, I confessed:

“I have the same accent like the Russian girl and the Bosnian boy.”

Stunned, my husband answered:

“Well, I’ll be damned.”  


Katerina Stoykova-Klemer’s first poetry book, the bilingual The Air around the Butterfly / Въздухът около пеперудата (Fakel Express, 2009), won the 2010 Pencho’s Oak award, given annually to recognize literary contribution to contemporary Bulgarian culture. She is the author of the chapbook The Most (Finishing Line Press, 2010) and Indivisible Number (Fakel Express, 2011, Bulgarian only). Katerina is the editor of the anthology Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems (Accents Publishing, 2011). Her poems have appeared in publications throughout the US and Europe, including The Louisville Review, Margie, Adirondack Review and others. Katerina's latest full-length poetry book, The Porcupine of Mind, was released in May 2012 by Broadstone Books. Katerina is the founder of poetry and prose groups in Lexington, Kentucky, that have been meeting since early 2007. She hosts Accents—a radio show for literature, art and culture on WRFL, 88.1 FM, Lexington. In January 2010, Katerina launched Accents Publishing—an independent press for brilliant voices.