I found it in a stack of books I hadn’t looked through in some time. There was enough dust on it to make me feel like an archaeologist.
The slim white volume of poetry showed signs of the years since it had been printed; smudges, smears, the yellowing that foretells the slow death of acid-bearing paper, the arced stains of coffee mugs.
“Voices International,” stated the title in simple black print. “Summer, 1971.”
I was 22, living in a strange town, poor, alienated, surrounded by in-laws who secretly believed I had been born on Jupiter; a backslid Methodist hippy among ardent Mississippi Delta Baptists.
By day I roasted at my job under the sun of the Deep South, knee deep in mud. Most nights I watched TV or read.
Sometimes, though, I wrote. Haltingly, shyly, the way kids write love notes in school. I wrote poems. It was not the sort of thing you talked about, there and then. Not with in-laws who thought George Wallace presaged the Second Coming and that the word “poet” meant more or less the same thing as some other, very ugly words.
Mostly, like the ones I had scratched out to Dylan songs in high school, the poems were very bad. A lot of them were written to or about my first wife, with whom I was very much in love, and whom I felt I had failed miserably.
I was right, but what do you do?
You write poems. Or I did. I still have a lot of them. I look at them every now and then with an odd mixture of emotions: Nostalgia; Disgust; Regret. I can’t even say now why I began to write them.
Mary thought my poems were wonderful, which proves, if it needed proving, that love triumphs over taste. I thought I knew better, but her faith was one bright spot in a very gray existence.
She talked me into sending some poems to a magazine. I didn’t want to, dreading rejection. Mary insisted. I painstakingly typed five more-or-less acceptable copies on my 1923 Underwood and mailed them to several publications.
A few months later, I received a nice letter from Clovita Rice, the editor, and several brilliantly white copies of their summer issue.
I didn’t believe it. There, on page 19, was one of my poems. The last few lines speak of Mary and I, preparing to: “drink warm coffee and stare down another day.”
For a moment I won’t even try to describe, the world paused, rebooted, in a fundamental way.
When it went on again, I was a writer.
If humans could remember far enough into their infancy, standing erect for the first time probably had a similar feeling, or maybe the first clearly spoken word.
It was that simple. I wasn’t a very good writer, but somewhere in my mind I had hung the shingle that proclaimed “writer” on some mental nail.
It would be eight years before I ever made a dime for writing. It was 14 years before I could say I earned my keep as a writer. None of that is important. A door had opened that never fully shut again.
I still have the old Underwood. I can’t say how long it has been since I used it, or wrote a poem. The latter bothers me a little. There is something fine, rebellious, fiery and romantically disreputable about being a poet.
I’m still a writer, but it’s a little like the difference between a Harley and a station wagon. Either one will get you there, but with different languages.
That’s what happens if you stare down enough days, I guess. Now and then, you have to blink.
Photo by Joanna Paterson
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