When I first started writing, I was in the eighth grade and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was just putting pen to paper and letting things happen. It wasn’t even the equivalent of throwing shit at a wall to see what would stick.
It was garbage.
I was happy though. Like most writers, writing became an arena that gave my subconscious closure on all of those horrible feelings that were the results of the chemical reaction known as puberty.
In my Junior year of high school, I met Mr. Barker, a new teacher who taught American Lit.
He was also the man who was responsible for introducing me to “On the Road”. It’s clichéd. I know. But I read that book and I went “Holy fuck! This is great!!! I’ve been doing something close to this! Maybe I should take this a bit more seriously…”
After that introduction, I devoured everything that I could find that was even remotely related to the ‘Beats’. From my research, I concluded that a lot of what the ‘Beats’ were known for was stream of conscious poetry. I latched on to that.
What I was doing, what I was writing finally had a name and a face. It was poetry. I was writing poetry. I was, for a lack of a less sissy-fied word, a poet.
As a result of that epiphany, I wrote constantly. I thought that everything that spilled out of my dumb little head was gold and as a result, I very seldom edited anything.
Thankfully, I identified this line of thinking as complete and utter shit. I now edit with a Hemingway-like level of precision.
This “everything I write is completely awesome-balls” phase, lasted well up into my 20’s. Shortly after I turned 20, I entered a contest that had to do with Duke Ellington. The basic premise was that the community college I was attending (Cuyahoga Community College, renowned for their involvement in jazz and the jazz scene in Cleveland, etc.) decided to honor Duke Ellington that year. I don’t remember the specifics but you had to write something that involved Duke Ellington in some way. You could use a song of his, voice your opinion on the man, etc…
I decided to take the song title route. I chose Harlem Airshaft.
Essentially, I took the title and wrote something from the point of view of someone my age (at the time) who would inhabit an apartment in Harlem (aka, I wrote as a young black male. This is a bit paradoxical since you’re not going to find anyone “whiter” than me…)
At the time, I didn’t even really know who in the hell Duke Ellington was. I knew he had something to do with jazz but that’s as far as my interest went.
So I wrote the poem, fixed a few things, managed to throw in the word ‘sarcophagi’, and put it in the mailbox.
One day, I get a piece of mail from the school telling me that I had tied for third and was given an honorable mention. Additionally, my presence was requested to be at the opening ceremony that kicked off the Tri-C Jazz Fest.
I was agog.
Stupidly I accepted their invitation.
The night before the event, insomnia made me it’s bitch. I tried everything. Exercise, alcohol, masturbating, warm milk, masturbating… Nothing was working.
What made things worse was the fact that I had to work the morning before the event. After my shift, I ran home, changed, waited for the oddball collection of family members to show up, and then headed down to the festivities.
By the time that I had gotten to where I needed to be, I was a fucking zombie.
Nothing seemed real. It was all shrouded in that dull haze that drips over everything when you know you have gone too long without sleep.
I remember very vaguely getting to the auditorium and having to make idle chit-chat with the school staff person who was tasked with wrangling all of the people who had placed in the contest. I remember her asking me what I liked about “Duke”.
I had no choice but to issue a non sequitor.
“THAT RUG IS BROWN”, I said over my shoulder as I hurried to the bathroom to hide.
[For some reason, because of my involvement and placement in said contest, I was further invited to read my “poem” on CWRU 91.1, Case Western’s radio station. (This was another bizarre happening. Up until I sat down in front of the microphone, I had never read the poem out loud. Hindsight has shown me why the sound engineer looked so pained when he had me do four takes…)]
So they get us all together, tell us what’s going to happen, and when we get our awards. Then they tell us that Amiri Baraka will be giving the Keynote Speech.
It’s ok, I didn’t know who in the fuck he was either.
The entire time that he was up there, I didn’t listen to a damn thing that he said. The only thing that I knew was that he was pissed. About what? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I still don’t care.
The only thing that I could focus on during his ‘speech’ was the incredible amount of saliva that was flying out his mouth. It was astounding! Every so often he would say something that ‘sounded’ profound and a ropey string of saliva would take flight in emphasis.
After he was done, I got my award (which is now lost) and the I got the fuck out of there.
Here’s what I learned:
- I was full of shit when I was younger. I still am to some extent; I’m just a little more aware of it.
- Writing to write is good. Writing for purpose is better AS LONG AS you do your homework. I’m still a bit chagrined about the fact that I participated in a contest for no real reason.
- Just because you’re too lazy to turn your creation into something of worth doesn’t mean you get to call it poetry.
- I’m not now, nor have I ever been black. As a result, I do not write like I am someone I am not. I write like me.