1. Almost 20 years ago (my God, has it been that long?) I was sifting through a box of old papers that my mother had. We had a lot of boxes still sitting in a disused room, not from our most recent move, but from the move back from the UK when I was a toddler. I liked to look through them because I’d find all sorts of things: old pictures, books to read, that sort of thing. This time I found an envelope and in it were all sorts of notes on pieces of paper of various colors. I looked through them and found limericks and other short verse. When I took them to my mother she told me that my father had written them back when they were newlyweds. The verse was light, and the sentiments contained in them was evocative and sweet without being overpowering. Mom looked wistfully at the paper and then looked up at me silently. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking (which is nothing new), and for a moment wondered if she was mad at me for poking around. Then she smiled and said Dad had been more romantic then, but was just tricking her. She smiled some more, crinkled her nose at her own joke and went back to doing what she had been doing, keeping the papers next to her. I left the room and thought about my Dad. Jocular, sarcastic, gruff; these were all words I could associate with him, but romantic wasn’t one of those words. What else didn’t I know about Dad?
2. In the improbable cultural desert of Mesa, Arizona, I got into slam poetry. This wasn’t an overnight situation, a 24 hour fever of words and performance, but sort of like a slowly spreading cancer that went full blown before getting wrestled into submission. Graduate school was a time of words for me. I worked in a library and a bookstore before I started doing research full-time, spending most weeknights shuttling around fiction, shelving, re-shelving and surreptitiously perusing the back covers of books. It was one of the few pleasures of working there, in an affluent suburb of Phoenix, populated by former trophy wives, underachieving private school kids, and red faced sides of beef in bermuda shorts and polos. I’d always loved books and read somewhat compulsively, but time constraints and lack of opportunity had slowed down my appetite. Here I could graze, digesting synopses and occasionally borrowing a book to read on my break. I found myself writing more as well, behind the barricade of the Information Desk, jotting down story ideas, pithy phrases and snippets of verse on the scrap paper kept behind the desk for noting down which Oprah book was being requested by a customer. I started to write full fledged short stories, epic poems, notes – all on these 4 by 5 inch scraps of paper – and taking them home at night. I eventually bought a notebook and transcribed my work into it, editing as I went, throwing things out that were embarrassing in the bright light of day.
I don’t recall how I stumbled on the slam poetry scene, but it was an eye opener. It was poetry that wasn’t lame, or ancient, or rhyming. It was raw and funny, awkward like a diary entry, and seemed familiar to me. This was doable. So I started scrawling behind the counter at work (and also at work), and throwing it away, and rewriting, and some of it wasn’t half bad. It wasn’t half good either, but I tried to make up for it with performance (which works in slam, totally works). It was so much fun playing with words, trying to squeeze some humor out of childhood slights, adolescent loneliness, and stress. I got to put my wonder on paper. I learned a lot about myself.
3. I’m approaching middle age and words escape me a lot of the time. I like to joke that I’m old, but honestly I’m still on this side of 40, so what gives? I’m out of practice I guess. You fall out of the habit of writing and suddenly it’s just difficult, doubly so for poetry. I haven’t written a line for a long time, and don’t feel like I could get back there easily. But remission is deceptive, the disease sits dormant in your bones, in your cells. It’s not that far away, right?