When Did You Start Writing?

In March of 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown, I received from John Wisniewski the first two of the seven or eight questions that would comprise the interview he was going to do with me. John was the interview editor—his official title was Interrogator—for the online journal Literary Orphans, which went the way of the world before my interview could be published, whether because of the pandemic or some other reason, I don’t know. I was glad to have answered John’s questions, however, because they gave me a chance to reflect, in a way I had not done in a very long time, on myself, my work, and on the work I want my work to do in the world. Now that I’m able to devote time and energy to my writing that I would otherwise have been giving to my union, I find myself reflecting on John’s questions once again. He didn’t get a chance to publish my answers back in 2020. I think they are still worth sharing, and I’d like to share them with you. The first question John asked was: When did you begin writing?

The first poem I ever published appeared in my ninth grade yearbook, in 1977, when I was fifteen years old. It was called Alone.”

Alone, always alone,
Staring always staring,
Out of a window,
Never leaving it.
Watching children,
And remembering,
Yes, always remembering,
What it was like,
When you were young,
Alone, always alone.

I have no memory of writing this poem, though I remember well the feeling it contains, and it would not surprise me to learn that I wrote it in exactly the circumstances it describes: watching little children play outside, while I sat inside, staring out a window and feeling much, much older than I actually was. (Why I felt so old when I was so very young is a story for another time.) The other thing I remember about this poem is that it was one of several that I submitted to my friend Adrienne, who was one our yearbook’s literary editors, and that it was the only one she thought was even remotely yearbook-appropriate. The others, she said, were just too dark.

There is one earlier piece of information that I have about myself and writing, though it is not something I remember. Rather, it’s something that Sam, my father’s father, told me before he died. When I was five, I apparently asked Sam to get me a typewriter. He was a member of the International Typographical Union, and I am assuming my request must have had something to do with a connection my five-year-old imagination made between typesetting and typewriting. He did not honor my request. In fact, he said, I was a supercilious child” who knew well how to make him feel like a nobody. Why should he have given me anything that I wanted? I have no memory of asking Sam for a typewriter, and there’s obviously a longer story behind his confession that I was able at five-years-old to make him feel like a nobody, but the only reason I can imagine having wanted a typewriter in the first place was that I wanted to write something. What did I want to write at five years old? I have no idea.

The first poem I actually remember writing was a very long, self-indulgent diatribe addressed to the high-school girlfriend I was sure was the love of my life I thought I’d never be able to live without. She’d broken up with me a week or so earlier for reasons that would sound petty and shallow if I told them to you now without any context. Nonetheless, she broke my heart the way only a teenager’s heart can be broken. Writing the poem was a way not be paralyzed by the hurt and anger I was feeling; putting the poem into an envelope and mailing it to her was a way of making sure not only that she understood just how much pain I was in, but also that she felt some of that pain as her own.

I don’t remember who called whom after she received the poem, but after she told me how much it hurt her, she also told me that she hadn’t realized how deeply I’d been hurt, and she revealed the deeper, very painful truths about why she’d broken up with me. I was no less heartbroken that she did not want to be my girlfriend anymore, but it was a much less self-indulgent heartbreak, if that makes sense. That conversation, in fact, was my first lesson in the difference poetry can make in people’s lives, though I would not say I understood it this way at the time. A couple of days after we talked, I realized I had not kept a copy of the poem for myself. So—in a very early, very clumsy, and entirely inappropriate example of a writer’s sometimes necessary, self-serving chutzpah—I left a note in my ex-girlfriend’s locker asking if she’d give me the poem back so I could make a copy. I promised I would return the original to her when I was done. Not surprisingly, and with the appropriate level of indignation, she refused.

I kept writing after that, obviously, and if you’re interested in the larger story that what I’ve written here fits into, there’s a long, detailed post about it that you might like to read. As far as John’s original question goes, though, I think I’ve answered it. Next time, it’s on to question two: What poets or writers have influenced your work?

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