A few months ago, a successful writer accidentally emailed me, mistaking me for poet and columnist David Biespiel.
I used to want to be a poet.
My first creative writing instructor was a poet. I was seventeen, very seventeen, and poetry invites adolescents to be playful and oh so serious with words, a hidden power. I would be a poet, too.
Two years later, a freshman creative writing major, I attended my first reading. Hundreds filled the auditorium! In Maine!* The poet, Major Jackson, started by reciting a poem by another writer—a cover! (I’ve since been planning to steal this move.)
My favorite poem of Jackson’s was “Mr. Pate’s Barbershop.” An excerpt:
I remember the old Coke machine, a water
fountain by the door, how I drank
the summer of ’88 over & over from a paper
cone cup & still could not quench my thirst,
for this was the year funeral homes boomed,
the year Mr. Pate swept his own shop
Between poems, Jackson talked about when he was a young writer, about penning liner notes for The Roots and driving Gwendolyn Brooks from Philadelphia to New York City, and Brooks paying him $500 to read a poem before her lecture that night.
After the reading, I bought his two books, which he signed “To Dave from Derry, NH.” We had talked about how Robert Frost owned a farm in my hometown. (I would have a similar conversation with a woman next to a bonfire that spring. I had a busted ankle and was wearing a walking boot. For some reason, she kissed me. Let’s give Frost 50% credit, Jackson 25%, and the rest to the walking boot. Thanks, guys.)
I moved from poetry to nonfiction a few years later, I needed pages of scene and reflection and had a big enough ego to want to do so about myself, but my writing is still defined by thinking like a poet. Image. Association. White space. Or if you were workshoping my essays: I write pretty sentences; I have trouble making a straightforward narrative.
Or consider my favorite book, The City of Women by Sherod Santos. I first read it at twenty-two, shortly after losing my passion for poetry. According to its cover, it’s “a sequence of poems and prose,” a hybrid.
*Tom Wolfe School of Exclamation Points.