I never had one of those old typewriters, but I sure wanted one, with its cartridge and ribbon, and its ability to make mistakes that couldn’t easily be erased. Instead I learned to type on an old school version of the Apple computer where the letters were huge and shaped like computer bytes, or what I felt computer bytes would have looked like if they were letters. There wasn’t even a word processing program, just an ambiguous “notes” area that didn’t automatically move an entire word to the next line, chopping it into untidy sections that would have to be cleaned up later.
It was in this rudimentary way that I crafted my first piece of poetry when I was twelve years old. It was a treacly sort of writing endeavor, with sixteen lines of more prose than anything else, chopped up into sections that I thought resembled stanzas. Back then I was married to the rhyme, like a quasi Dr. Seuss in younger form. I often forced the form because of this self-imposed restriction, and it’s one of the first things I tell prospective poets. Don’t get so hung up on form that you lose content and meaning, because a poem is all about that content, that meaning, and a certain depth that can be lost when form takes over.
I had a simple 4x4x2 structure to each of my poems back then. Every poem I wrote for that first year was four stanzas long, with four lines per stanza, and lines two and four in each stanza rhymed. Those were really the only guidelines I set for myself. My dad wrote poetry, but in that vague sense that I knew he did but I rarely saw any of it, so it wasn’t like I had a real mentor. Instead, I made all the stumbles a young writer makes in the process of understanding a certain craft. That being said, I wouldn’t trade any of those missteps in for a quicker route to my own poetic voice. Each mistake was one brick in the path that got me here.
It’s funny, looking back, on all the ways I tried to stretch and grow as a poet during those first few years. I had definitive stages, not unlike Picasso’s phases, where for pockets of time every poem I wrote seemed to keep the same forms, to carry the same themes, and to stagger the rhyme schemes in the same exact ways. For what seemed like an eternity, but what was really just five to seven years, I was stuck in that pattern and my poetry suffered for it. In fact, I look back at some of the poems I wrote during those stages and I laugh at them. I wouldn’t share most of them with anyone now, but as any other art form, some of them did shine through like jewels among swine.
Now when I am in the mood to write in the poetic form I take out my Dell laptop, open up a blank Word document, and just let it flow, for better or for worse. But it usually takes a fluid shape while I’m writing it, and before I’m done I know where it’s heading and where I need to be before I’m finished with it, or before it’s finished with me, because a poem is an organic form. It lives and breathes on its own, and sometimes I honestly do feel like simply its translator, so that you the reader can understand what has come through me in the telling. It’s these poems that I feel closest to. They are my children, and I live and breathe them every single time I read one of them.
That’s why when I’m at a poetry slam, or a more traditional poetry reading, where I’m sharing some of my work, I never read a poem aloud more than once. There’s just something about reading it one time through for ears to hear and to process that exhausts me emotionally and physically. For these words are more than words. They are experiences, emotions, feelings, deep and filled with a soul that is both my own and not mine at the same time. It’s what I love most about poetry.
Sometimes I pretend I’m back in our old dining room in Southwest Philadelphia, with that green screen vivid in front of me, waiting for inspiration and getting clumsy baby steps instead. But those baby steps helped me get to where I am now. They helped to get me in touch with a side of me that may have indeed lain dormant for the rest of my life if I hadn’t opened up myself to it, way back then, on a computer that has long since died. I still have one of those floppy disks around here that I saved them on, but there is no program that will allow me to open it. Maybe that’s for the best. There are so many new poems to be written.