This post is inspired by a new discovery. Eduardo Corral linked to this blog and I liked the discussion Ryan has there, so I am going to write a response of sorts. Now I know I have told this story before, but I believe in retelling some stories, and every time I tell this story, it changes a little which is a good thing.
One small piece of business:
My poem, "Ode to Neruda (Esperanza)" has been accepted for inclusion on the 99 Poems for the 99 Percent Blog. Go have a look here to see the other poems on the site. I will be certain to let you all know when my poem is up on the site.
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I started writing when I was about 15 or 16. I was trying to find something that was mine, and I really stumbled into poetry almost by accident. I was acting in drama class and trying out for plays, and I was debating in class and at debate meets across the state, but those things weren't really mine in the way I wanted something to be mine alone. I say I stumbled into poetry because there were exactly three books of poetry in my home, and those three books of poetry were more praised for the connection to family than for the poetry inside of them. I honestly cannot tell you why I found myself reading through those books. I was an unremarkable student, and to read on my own was part of my family culture, but poetry was not (and still is not) part of my family's reach when it comes to reading.
I grew up with my grandparents after the age of 7. Both my parents were living, but I was with my grandparents while my father had my older sister and his other kids with his second wife some 15 miles away. It may as well have been an entire continent because I had little to do with them, going months at a time or perhaps a half a year without seeing them. I think I was looking for something which could be mine because I was not confident I could ever count on anyone else for my happiness, and everything I tried up to that point still relied on somebody else or other, external conditions. Poetry could be just mine, and I could take it anywhere I was going to go.
That first book? The Complete works of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow. I have no idea where that book is now, but that was the one. For a teenager of the 1980's it was an odd choice, but we go to what we have, and I had his book. The book most likely belonged to my great-grandmother's sister, she being a teacher, and as I said before was in my grandparent's home for the familial connection. In the book was story after story, lyric poem after lyric poem, and of course the biggies: Tales of a Wayside Inn, Evangeline, and The Song of Hiawatha. Years later I would eventually buy my first book of poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Endless Life, but there is only ever on first book. What I remember most is that I was almost afraid of Longfellow. I would thumb through the pages and read pieces and snippets, too afraid to fully commit myself. I now believe I was afraid of people finding me reading the book, and so I reacted by only sneaking glimpses and sneaking the book away.
The strange truth is that in a family of readers (and my genetic ties to this family are uncertain at best) I am the only person who actually writes much more than family history. Oh, I am certain I have brothers and sisters and cousins (I have 12 brothers and sisters, and literally hundreds of cousins) who write stories and poems like a lot of kids do, but I am probably the only person who actively seeks out publication on a regular basis. My family has a tradition of writing family history. We share stories and we are constantly mining each other for memories and clues which will flesh out an accurate picture of who we are as a family (it is a very typical Mormon thing to do) but there are no others I can think of who write apart from these family histories and perhaps school and college assignments.
By the time I had decided I wanted poetry, I had also decided I was going to join the army. My standing as a student was dismal, and there was no way I could ever convince any school to let me attend with the gpa I had. Never mind the fact I had never taken the ACT. If I wanted to go to school, I would need to start off by going into the army. Being a poet in the army is not as difficult as it might sound. Most people in the army love to talk and tell stories. There is a real oral tradition in the military which is fully supportive of poetry, though I will admit many people in the army would not immediately make that connection. It was while I was in the army that I started to buy a lot of books and start writing poetry. Unfortunately, I was not reading as much poetry as I should. I remember mid-way through my appointment in Texas, I had purchased The Early Works of Ezra Pound and the Selected Neruda. I was reading them and I suppose if a poet was going to limit his or her self in reading, that poet could do a lot worse than those two. I remember pissing off an officer by talking about Ezra Pound, and impressing the mother of a girl I liked when I mentioned Pablo Neruda. Both good omens.
However, I was too busy writing the bad poetry of my youth to understand that if I was going to be serious in my life as a poet, the best thing I could have done was read for 120 years before attempting my first poem. I have been trying to catch up ever since. Yes, it was hubris. I was convinced I had this poetry thing down and my career at the top of the literary heap was waiting for me upon my release from the military. Oh, I would go to college and take off a semester every now and then in order to promote my latest book, but I just knew I was destined for greatness. That all stopped when I started to get hate mail from editors. My second mistake it seems, was to start submitting my poetry 10 years before I should have. Every time I tell this story I mention the hate mail I received. Every time I mention it, I get somebody asking me if I really did get hate mail, or if I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. Yes, I did in fact receive hate mail from editors. However, I will also say I received some encouragement from a couple editors who had the patience of angels, and thanks to them, I kept writing, kept getting better, and kept submitting knowing full well I would receive too many rejections to count before I ever had any success in being published.
That's how it went for some time. When I found myself in college, I submitted to the school's literary yearly and had two poems accepted. One was selected as the best submission received. I was in heaven. I was on my way now. Nothing could stop me. Well, nothing except the three years it took to receive my next acceptance, and the three years it took me to receive my next acceptance after that. By that time I had learned my lesson. This poetry thing was going to be an up hill struggle for the rest of my life, and I really think that's one of the best things about poetry for both the poet and the reader.
So why all of this reflection? Well, when I read Ryan's account, I was taken back by his language. I have no gift for his kind of language when I talk about my art. There is very little art in my art, and even though I tend to say these sorts of things in a perfunctory manner, it rises up from the same feelings, the same desire to share with the reader.
Next time I will talk about the process I went through to get my first chapbook and first full length book out into the world. After that, is anyone's guess.