Because I was emulating my big sister—who worked on her high school literary magazine—I started writing poems in 7th grade. No one made me do it. I enjoyed it. I did it on my own time. By the time 8th grade rolled around, I had a whole bunch of poems stockpiled. So when I saw an ad in Smithsonian or some such asking if I would like to become a published writer, I thought, hell, yeah! And sent the whole litter off to to the P.O. Box listed in the ad.
What I didn’t realize: it was a vanity press. Being a tween and all, I was broke and couldn’t afford the fee, but thanks to the the flattering letter they sent me—and the very tactful feedback of my aunt Sue, who read that really terrible manuscript and knew better than to tell a hypersensitive kid their poetry sucked—I just doubled down on the whole poetry thing.
Some of those poems were less terrible than others, and so I sent a few to the PTA Reflections contest in 8th grade. Partly it was out of laziness, because I already had them (and so wouldn’t have to do the homework), partly because I really, really chafed against having to write to a theme. And of course, the Reflections theme was always some variation on “What American means to me.” Even at 13, I found it impossible to stomach writing a rah-rah essay about America, because I didn’t feel rah-rah about this country’s politics at all. I did win Reflections in 6th grade, but only because I amended my essay (which was about a homeless guy who frequented our local grocery store and handed out dead leaves to poeple), with a conniving explanation of how I actually was writing to a patriotic theme, even though it didn’t look like it. I was more surprised than anyone when it actually won. Especially because it had the horrible title “The Leaf Man of Albertson’s.” My dad accused me of plagarizing the title of movie The Bird Man of Alcatraz, which I assured him I had never seen. (He didn’t believe me.)
So I submitted a poem about graffiti and one about….um, I don’t remember what the second one was about. I know they were both moony and mawkish, and the images were cliched. They didn’t even get an honorable mention, of course. I didn’t worry about it too much. I got out of some homework, and I got out of having to write something that turned my stomach.
Which is why I was shocked, even more shocked than when I got a certificate for the Leaf Man story, when one of the judges sent me a letter. She told me that I was disqualified for the reason I got disqualified pretty much every year in Reflections—I didn’t stick to the theme. But she told me to keep writing, that she would’ve picked my poems had it not been for the theme thing. And she sent me $20, too. This was SO MUCH BETTER than winning Reflections. I didn’t have the humiliating experience of parading in front of a school assembly to accept one of those stupid certificates. Ha ha, and I got money, too! Money my Mom did not realize I was holidng in my hand, so I was free to do whatever I wanted with it.
So what did I do? Did I put that $20 in my college fund like a sensible lass? Hell no. I called my best friend Chrissy, who lived up the street, and we went down to the ZCMI mall and bought $10 worth of saltwater taffy. Unfortunately I picked some very peppery peppermint taffy (someone obvioiusly went a little wild with the flavoring oil) and we had tears running down our faces before we made it four pieces into the bag.
With the other $10 I bought a copy of Crass’ The Feeding of the 5,000. Not because I had been eyeing it, or knew anything about it. Because the cool kids I looked up to at school all had Crass logos on their torn-up Levis jackets. For me, it turned out to be the sonic equivalent of that caustic peppermint taffy. At 13, I was still too much of a little kid—and a prudish little kid at that—to metabolize something like Crass. Chrissy and I ended up playing frisbee with the record out in front of my house (my mom didn’t enjoy listening to it either … Crass and Einsturzende Neubauten’s “Habler Mensch” both got banned from the turntable). But I kept the sleeve and read the liner notes. I saw that the drummer was a person named Penny Rimbaud. What an odd name, I thought. I couldn’t tell if it was a male Penny or a female Penny. I really liked the way that name sounded. It stuck in my head.
So a few months later, while standing in B. Dalton (I know, I know! Give me a break—I was 13 and living in Utah, OK?) I saw a blue spine with the word RIMBAUD on it. It was poetry, which I was still a little intimidated by, but I pulled the book off the shelf and opened it up to a random page. I read “The Poet on the Subject of Flowers.” Even though I was the same prudish little kid, I was completely blown away and impressed that they would let someone use the phrase “enema bag” in a poem, especially when describing a lily. Then I read “The Drunken Boat,” and that was it. I saved up my lunch money and bought the book. It had white scars on the spine because I pretty much read the whole damn thing while I was saving up to buy it.
It wasn’t long after that I had a dream I was an adult, filing out a tax form, with the word “poet,” written in the space where it asks for your occupation. I remember looking at it and thinking, “OK, I’m good with that. It could be worse!”
Now, I did listen to that Crass record a few times. As a wussy 13-year-old, the only song I ever really managed to take a liking to was “They’ve got a bomb.” I felt this sentiment deeply then, because the Cold War was still on. Even as a dumb kid, I realized that the white space in the middle of the song—right after the phrase “waiting for the flash”—was pure genius. Because when you have your whole life in front of you and you’re mortally afraid of being sizzled up by an atomic bomb, you feel that white space acutely, every day.
Now we’re back in the same idiotic place. I am so sad and sorry that song is so relevant again. And I have been thinking about all the 13- and 14-year-old-kids who have just started writing poems, who are now very afraid, thanks to the New New Cold War. I’m pissed on their behalf. I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for all of us. And I am finally tough enough to listen to Crass. In fact, I’ve found some solace in listening to Crass lately. (I haven’t tried ZCMI’s peppermint taffy a second time. Maybe I’d find it a bit more agreeable the second time ’round, too?). And I am rededicating my energies to finding a way to make art that empowers people, like that Crass record empowered me.
Even though a vanity press gave me the chutzpah to keep writing poetry (well, my aunt, actually, but an official-looking piece of letterhead never hurts), it was Penny Rimbaud who accidentally connected me to Arthur Rimbaud. And as I followed Arthur’s trail, I found Charles Baudelaire, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, H.D., Langston Hughes, Yeats, Mark Strand, May Swenson, and a thousand other psychopomps who changed the very structure of my brain. At 18, I bonded with a person who became a lifelong friend (another poet) because he saw five different translations of Rimbaud in my bookcase. For a long time, I’ve been really sad that I didn’t save the letter from the Reflections judge. I would like to write her a thank-you note, and tell her that hey! It worked—I still write. You got a return on your 20 bucks. I’ve also thought about making a pilgrimage to Dial House to say thank you to Crass for sealing my fate as one of those happily doomed souls who is hopelessly in love with poetry, the reading of it and the writing of it.
Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe the magic just worked the way it was supposed to work. Maybe all I need to do is stay true to that magic, to be loyal to it by continuing to read, and continuing to write.