As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Rodney Gomez in response to a video of him reading his poem “Ship of Theseus” aloud. Rodney Gomez wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Rodney Gomez also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
I am so grateful for these letters. I am so grateful for these insights and for what they’ve taught me about my poem that I hadn’t considered. You have so many demands on your precious time and I’m happy that you found something worthwhile in this work. I am encouraged to keep writing with readers like you in mind.
Some of you wrote about how you were inspired by the fact that philosophy and poetry, two of the liberal arts, still had some relevance today. Our world is so enraptured by technology and business that we forget how useful things like a poem can be. Useful not in the same sense an app is useful, but poems can help us discover what is important in the world. I recall that old line from William Carlos Williams, that people “die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found” in poetry. I didn’t write “Ship of Theseus” with any pretense about its profundity, and I’m astonished that it generated so much beautiful discovery.
Many of you are busy confronting the demands of growing up and looking back at your childhood with a nostalgia that makes Proust seem like a shallow hack. You think maybe there’s something not quite right about your now. I wish I could lift the weight off your collective shoulders and give you a moment to breathe and reflect. One of the benefits of poetry is that it gives you precisely that kind of room. I want to urge you to find the nostalgia in the present, to enjoy and revel in the life you are now experiencing. Even as you wonder about who you now are, the future version of you will look back and find so much of value.
The task of confronting change is also paramount in many of your letters. As we live through a pandemic, many of you are grappling what you want to do with your lives. Daily living has changed so much. Your perspectives have evolved. The priorities you or your parents once assigned to certain things have shifted. When I was younger I wanted to be some kind of biologist. I found something new that continues to generate wonder for me. I hope that as you continue to grow up, attend college, travel, and do many interesting things you won’t lose the ability to be as introspective as you’ve shown in these letters. I hope you continue to read poetry and find value in it.
Rodney Gomez reads "Ship of Theseus" for Dear Poet 2021.
Dear Rodney Gomez,
My name is Sahasra, and I’m an eighth grader currently attending North Allegheny Cyber Academy in Pittsburgh, PA. I am writing to you in regards to your beautiful poem, “Ship of Theseus”. When I first chose this poem to read, I didn’t think it would have such an impact on my thoughts and how I view myself now. I was completely wrong about that! I now appreciate myself more and know that I should love myself in the present because I won’t always stay the same forever. Ever since I was little, I’ve always heard from my teachers, parents, and the morals of books to not take anything for granted, but I never really made sense of what they all meant until I read your poem. It was an amazing eye opener for me.
One thing I liked was the starting of this poem, specifically the first line. I felt that it really spoke to me and made me wonder right from the beginning. This line helped me genuinely realize how much I have evolved. How much my life and the people around me have changed since my childhood. Did you also feel the same while writing that line? Another line that I found spectacular was line 13, “I have been repurposed to live for someone else”. Wow! I have no words to describe how meaningful this line was to me. Do you know that feeling when you read or see something, and it’s just so magnificent that you sit in the same spot for an unlimited amount of time and rethink your goals for the future? That is exactly what happened to me after I read this line. I finally understand that I have a purpose in life, and I have many more spectacular things ahead of me. This line made me wonder if that ever happened to me or if I have ever met someone who changed me or made me want to live. Lastly, in lines 9 and 10, you talk about your hands and how they have also developed over time. This connection deepened my understanding of your poem, and I felt that it was a simple yet proficient way to keep the reader engaged. I could clearly tell the significance this line had just by your tone of voice and the way you worded it. There are so many more mesmerizing lines in this poem that I could talk about, but if I did, this letter would probably go on forever.
This poem reminded me of the time when I was cleaning my room last year, and I came upon this project that I did in 2nd grade, where I had to write a letter to my future self about my dreams and aspirations. In it, I talked all about how I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer and travel the world when I grew up. That I would not dedicate all my time to school, so I could focus on swimming. I was astonished when I read that letter because I have completely changed since then. My dream job is to be a doctor, my main priority, future wise, is school, and I don’t take swimming as seriously, unlike my past self. My goals and views on life have completely changed. When you were writing this poem, were there times when memories and/or instances such as mine came into your mind? Did you feel like your dreams and hopes have changed as well? One last question I have for you is, where and how did you get inspiration to write this breathtaking poem? Personally, I take days to come up with ideas on what to write about, and asking people that I trust for help has always been part of that process, so I was wondering if this was what you did or if the idea popped into your head immediately. Either way, this poem was still incredible.
I struggle greatly with change. This may be because I mainly focus on the negatives of it, but your poem helped me switch my attention to the positives. I loved reading your exquisite, admirable poem, and it was a pleasure writing this letter to you. Thank you so much Mr. Gomez for giving me and all the other students around the world a chance to share our opinions on it. I will never forget this poem, as well as the influence and power it will forever hold on my thoughts, and I look forward to reading more of your inspiring pieces.
Thank you for your generous reading of “Ship of Theseus”. And thank you for sharing some thoughts about how the perception of yourself has changed over time. When I wrote this poem I was thinking about how the speaker’s life, like yours, turned out to be much different than they had imagined, but was also something they cherished. I love the idea of thinking about alternate life paths. Not because I wish my life were any different, but because I like to remind myself how precious our lives our regardless of our choices.
The poem is semi-autobiographical and started when wondering about my daughter, who is the most precious thing in the world to me. Her mother and I never thought we’d have children and then one day, seemingly out of the blue, there she was. When she was using bottles I was in charge of washing them every night. One night I looked at how wrinkled and worn out my hands looked, but I was so proud of those fatherly hands. I began to wonder about what kinds of experiences my daughter would have growing up and the kinds of changes she would experience. Poems often arise like this—from quick observations, from paying attention to small events, and recognizing meaning in even the littlest things.
The reference to listening to Berlioz in the music library is from my real life habit (when I was in graduate school studying for a degree in philosophy) of taking afternoons or evenings to sit alone and listen to recordings at the library. At that time I thought I was going to be a philosophy professor. I thought I would spend my whole life thinking. In a way, I do spend a lot of my time thinking. But I’m not a philosopher. I do a lot of my thinking through poetry.
Good luck with your life and continue to dream. Dreaming helps me deal with change because I have something to always look forward to.
Dear Rodney Gomez:
I am Aden, a student from Bishop Kenny High School. My parents were divorced when I was in middle school and we had to move out, and I often think the day I moved out of my childhood home as the day I ceased to be a child. Ever since then I have found myself bouncing between friends over the years, vying for people’s attention, wanting to be liked. My desire for friendship with everyone meant that I had to alter my personality slightly for each person I talked to, and I soon began to feel fake. Now that I am in grade twelve, I feel as though I have found my true self; I no longer require attention from others like I did before, and my quest to appease people has ended, and yet looking back I cannot think of at what point I changed. I question myself: when did I change, or have I always been the same child that I was before my parents got divorced? I often feel as though I am not the person I used to be, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in bad, but maybe I am the same person I always was. My personal experiences with these questions are why I liked the overall idea of the poem “Ship of Theseus”, and I think it is an idea that may have crossed many other people’s minds as well. The people we were a few years ago, or even months ago, do not seem to be the same people today. It hits close to home as I have also mulled over the idea that, much like the Ship of Theseus, each new experience changes me slightly and I feel as though I am no longer the same person I was, for better or for worse. If I look back at my childhood self, happy and careless, can I really say that child is me? If one small experience changes my opinion on a topic, surely I am still the same person, so at what point have I become someone new? The poem addresses this ideas, and while there is no real answer, I feel comforted that I am not alone in my thoughts. The allusion to the classic paradox is a very clever way of conveying these ideas as well, using the ship in the museum as a metaphor for a seemingly ever changing personality. It helps pose the question of ‘at what point does someone change?’
I would love to know if a specific experience or revelation led to the creation of this poem and what that experience was, like an event that felt life changing like my parents’ divorce felt to me. You said, “Both, with loss as the same mother,” and I do wonder what losses have changed the mood in your eyes? I noted that you noticed your hands as rough when washing your daughter’s bottles, and so I question if the idea that you “have been repurposed to live for someone else” something that you would deem as negative or positive? I also wonder what the line “One or the other if conflict is psalm” means, as I have struggled to understand its meaning even as I read the poem multiple times. Thank you for the meaningful poem.
I appreciated your thoughtful response to “Ship of Theseus” and I hope that in spurring recollection about your parent’s divorce it didn’t cause too much pain. I am glad that it generated some reflection about how you have changed and what that change means about how you perceive yourself.
Those last lines were difficult to write. Closing a poem is often difficult and I spent quite a bit of time trying to find something that would function as a kind of reaction to the philosophical problem and to the poem itself. I am not sure I was very successful! Even now I want to go back and re-write those lines. The current me would not have written the poem in quite the same way as the past me.
One of the questions the poem introduces is to ask whether how you see yourself determines what your reality is. You mention that as a child you were a lot more carefree and you wonder whether you can say you are the same person. But there is no reason why you can’t simply designate, by the authority you have over yourself, to be the same person. You’re not entirely new—you’re the same person recollecting. If you weren’t you wouldn‘t be able to know the younger you at all. That observation is part of the line about loss as the same mother. It’s neither positive nor negative; change happens and its wondrous that we can appreciate it. As for the last line, I have only a vague idea about what it means. To be honest, I no longer fully remember what the old me meant by it. And that’s okay.
Thank you again and I wish you all the best,
Dear Rodney Gomez,
My name is Vivienne, and I’m a senior at Tunkhannock Area High School in Tunkhannock, PA. I’m writing this in my Poetry 2 class taught by Katie Wisnosky. I really enjoyed your poem “Ship of Theseus”, and I found it very relatable. The topics of identity and change are two that I have really struggled with growing up, and I admire your ability to put that struggle into words.
I turned eighteen last year, and I’m graduating in less than two months. When I was thirteen, I changed my personality pretty drastically because I didn’t like who I was at that point. Back then, I didn’t think anything of it other than I had become someone who was more likable and kinder. Of course, I still think that’s, overall, a good and necessary change. I was tired of putting up a wall to defend myself before a defense was ever necessary. However, I eventually became angry with my past self, the younger me that had just started middle school. I began to treat the person I was then and the person I am now like we were never the same at all. I wanted to be a Ship of Theseus, and if you had asked me “Is it still the same ship?” then, my answer would have been “I hope not.”
Your poem reminded me of my feelings towards my past self and how different they appear to be from your own. Where your transformation happened subconsciously, mine was purposeful and calculated. I really love the line “I have been repurposed to live for someone else.” I feel that our experiences, though very different, can be summed up by that sentence. Now that I’m older, I’m beginning to understand that I could not be who I am now if I had never been who I was then. My jaded younger self had to happen for me to grow into a more trusting and open person. For that reason, I think I miss the person I used to be sometimes, too.
Another part of the poem I really love is the very beginning: “The other day I realized I wasn’t me. The me I was when I was a cloud’s infinite possible shapes.” I think that’s a very beautiful way of describing the point where you are still discovering yourself. I also think I might still be in that stage, a cloud shifting forms with the wind. Still, although you have moved past that point, I was wondering how you feel about the person you’ve become. Do you regret anything that led you to who you are, or would you not change anything? Would you be willing to risk keeping an old part even if it meant you might not be the same ship you are now?
My favorite part of the poem was this: “In a nearby warehouse, the original ship parts are stored and re-pieced into a corpse. Which is the ship? Neither, knowing real things, like music, take no body.” Although your old self must eventually be left behind, the whole of who you used to be, your identity at any given time does not define your entire journey. You’re never made up of only original parts or only replacement parts. Real things, the realest things, don’t need a body or parts or something you can see. It was nice to be reminded of that.
I’m not sure if you originally intended for your poem to be at all comforting, but I think it helped me to move a bit further along on the path to loving my past, present, and future selves. Thank you for sharing your beautiful writing.
Your insightful letter asks several questions that I want to answer as honestly as I can. You ask whether I regret anything that led me to who I am today and whether I would change anything. The answer to this is simple: I don’t and I wouldn’t. The reason for this is also simple: everything that led up to this point also led up to my wife and my daughter. And, less importantly—to a relatively interesting life. I think that if I had made different decisions I would have gone elsewhere. That elsewhere might have been even more interesting, but I would not have what I have now, which is where my heart is.
Many years ago, for instance, I had the opportunity to become a lawyer. I attended a good law school whose graduates often go on to very lucrative careers. If I had followed through instead of leaving school, I might be a successful and wealthy attorney today. I would have very likely been in a good financial position with more power and influence. I dropped out because I learned to dislike the practice of law and I became very depressed by the fact that I would probably need to work for a corporation or some other big business. Looking back, maybe I could have been a public interest or civil rights lawyer of some kind. But I still wouldn’t have been happy. I made a clean break with that version of myself. Similarly, I think the poem’s speaker looks back on his previous life not with regret but to marvel at how things have changed.
You write that the poem is comforting, which is not something I had intended it to do, but the reaction is most welcome. The poems that have comforted me the most—I think of poems like “Meditation at Lagunitas” and “One Art”—have tended to be meditative and philosophical. I think that by tackling big topics, like identity and change, we make ourselves miniscule and our problems seem less threatening, even if not less important.
Thank you again for reading and for taking the time to write,
Dear Rodney Gomez,
My name is Yesim, and I’m a senior at Durfee High School in Fall River, MA. Your poem “Ship of Theseus” stood out to me as part of the Dear Poet Project because ever since I moved to Fall River I have noticed some changes in myself.
Growing up in a different country influences you to grow differently than how people grow in your country. It took me time to adapt myself in Massachusetts, moving from the Dominican Republic.
While I was in the process of adapting myself in Fall River I became more antisocial mostly because I didn’t really know how to speak English properly and my accent was stronger and it embarrassed me a little. Sometimes I felt like people would laugh at how the way I spoke so that made my social anxiety more severe.
Being here also takes me far from Dominican culture. I haven’t forgotten my culture, but it’s not the same as how it used to be before I moved. I used to see the carnival for independence day, it is the most vibrant celebration of my culture, also for christmas I used to go to the park with my family to see fireworks and eat Chimichurri sandwich, they would play bachata and merengue to dance and we could be there past midnight. The place I used to like to visit was the Ciudad Colonial, the oldest and historical neighborhood in the city of Santo Domingo. What I miss the most is the tropical scenery of my country. I am glad I know my roots because many kids when they move to the United States forget about their culture.
A key line that stood out to me was “The other day I realized I wasn’t me” because as we grow we have changed all of a sudden, we start seeing life in a different perspective. Sometimes we also go through struggles that shape us into who we are, also some life lessons help us to mature more and change. A question that I have is, what advice would you give to others who experience sudden changes in their lives or themselves?
Thank you for sharing your experiences. I applaud you for the way you have taken stock of your new situation and continue to hold your roots near to your heart. My advice for those who have experienced a sudden change is to do exactly as you have done: remember all the valuable and beautiful things they had in their former lives, but embrace the new as well. The new eventually becomes the old.
Although I don’t have an identical story to yours, I have a similar one. When I went off to college, it was the first time I had ever left Texas and the first time I had ever been on a plane. I was so anxious. But I forced myself to leave even though I could have remained close to home. I come from a small, mostly agricultural community, so moving to the east coast was a culture shock. Being a Chicano from a very poor family, I had to learn so many new things—from the simple, like how to use my ID card’s mag stripe to open doors, to the complex, like how to properly budget my scholarship money for food, books, and supplies. In many ways it was a painful experience, and I had no one to guide me through it, but I am happy I did it. The pain was worth it because I became more independent, savvy, and confident.
Not all life changes are this easy to navigate. Some are horrendously traumatic. But for the most part, struggles motivate us to mature. They strengthen us. You already know this. The poem doesn’t pretend to delve deeply into any of these issues, but I’m glad it helped you to think about them anyway.
Good luck and thank you for reading,