Four Poets One Question : What was your first noteworthy encounter with poetry?

What was your first noteworthy encounter with poetry?

One of the most significant encounters I had with poetry came rather late in my experience. I’d been involved in writing poetry and sending submissions out to journals, newspapers, and anthologies for years, and had even participated in a few poetry competitions. I had a wide body of work published by the time I decided to test the waters in Cleveland and check out established reading/open mic events; I was determined to get over my shyness about reading aloud in public. Although I was confident of my work, I wasn’t so confident about reading for other people, about presenting my poems. One of the earliest events I attended, about six years ago, was a Deep Cleveland reading featuring performance poet Michael Salinger. I had no idea what I was about to see and hear. Michael Salinger had his poems memorized and was very animated and emotive, engaging the audience and making them a part of his poems’ experiences. He held eye contact with me, with others, never missing a line, and I was hooked. I simply had never realized it was possible to engage listeners in this fashion. I was determined to apply spoken word performance to my poems, and this encounter is largely responsible for the way I read aloud today.

I was pretty lucky growing up in that I went to public schools where my English teachers recognized my capacity for writing and tried in every way possible to nurture this desire and encourage me to pursue it. My mother was also very supportive, and took me to buy a used electric typewriter when I wanted one, because I wanted to be the next Stephen King. It’s for that reason that in middle school, I actually wrote a 150 page horror novel. It was terrible, sure, but hey, it was what I was certain I wanted to do when I grew up. In high school I drifted away from writing so much, because I was distracted by a sudden passionate love for music. It’s in my passion for music that I think my love of poetry first cultivated, because unlike some writers out there who seem to pass off song lyrics as tepid or simple rhyming attempts of cliched sentimentality, and not real poetry, for me, I was always drawn more to great lyrics in songs than anything else. I think if a songwriter tries to uncover some truth about the human condition in their lyrics, then no matter what the rhyme scheme of their words, they’re also writing poetry, because I think a poet’s first obligation is to be honest and strive to show a reader something about life in a way they never thought of it before. You can take many songs of Bob Dylan, Billy Corgan, Bruce Springsteen, and others, read their lyrics and still get something from them without the musical accompaniment. When I started getting into music, I started learning guitar, and naturally progressed into writing my own songs. I wanted to write great lyrics like the songwriters I admired, and so I strived to write lyrics that could also stand on their own as poetry. During this time, in school I was also studying the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson, and I started writing some poems of my own as well. I had a great English teacher that would sometimes let me read poems I wrote to the class before that day’s lesson, and I will never forget the reaction I got when I read a poem I had written called “Murder Suicide.” I was probably a bit of a troubled teen, and at this age I was already learning to use language as an outlet for pent up emotions. When I read that poem to the class, which was about me wanting to confront my biological father, at least two people were crying at the end of it, and one person got angry, saying I had glorified suicide, and I had to defend my position. It was then I understood that words are very powerful, and can deliver a hefty punch, garnering strong reactions from readers, and I knew that I was capable of causing those reactions much like I had felt them from others’ works that I had read. At that moment, I was in love with poetry, even though I wouldn’t decide to seriously pursue the craft for many years. I’ve written tons of songs and tons of poems since then, and I can only hope that I get some sort of emotional reaction from each of them from at least one person, even if it’s only me, and that I have made an honest effort to uncover some version of the truth. I know I am bound to have failed more than I’ve succeeded, but you have to be willing to fail as an artist in order to gain those small successes that make you feel like what you’re doing is worth a damn.

I found a tattered, red spiral notebook when I was 11. It was my mom’s. She copied poems in it that she found & loved when she was in high school. I read through it a handful of times & started to play with language on my own a bit. The next year though, there was a group of us girls who started to write poems in homeroom. We wrote of heartbreak, of course. Heartbreak at a 7th grade level & in ABCB format but heartbreak nonetheless. We printed them out on dot matrix printers, passed them between us & out to others. That’s when my love affair with poetry & publishing began.

My first noteworthy encounter with poetry was not an instantaneous one. I had no real eureka moment, so to speak. I was a poor student in high school and hated being forced to read literature (this never really changed). So much so, that I barely graduated high school. College wasn’t really an option at that point, so I joined the Navy. I loved to read, though. I only kind of half-stumbled into poetry through my love of music. Two bands really shaped my young mind: REM and The Smiths. Both singers (Michael Stipe and Morrissey, respectively) wrote their own songs in such wildly unique voices that I couldn’t stop listening to them. When I got my hands on the lyrics (or could piece them together through repeat/multiple listenings), I actually read them without the songs playing. I could still hear the songs, but I could read them for the words and for completely different reasons: Stipe’s oblique imagery was haunting and Morrissey’s self-deprecating emotional intensity was jarring. When we were underway on our West-Pac cruise, I swiped an engineering log and smuggled it around in my coveralls, under my t-shirt and tucked into the waistband of my drawers, so that when I was on watch in the engine room, I could write my own poetry. It was awful. Embarrassingly self-absorbed blathering and poor mimicry. I kept writing, though. And then it wasn’t mimicry any more. I could see my own voice. It was a baby bird with no feathers and was blind. It was bleating at the nearest warm thing and starving, but it was mine.

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