I never expected to write a novel in verse, and in fact it took me a while to admit (to others, to myself) that the stories in The Realm of Possibility were poems and not just “stories with linebreaks” (although they are that, as well). I had thought I’d put poetry behind me — it was the form I’d chosen for my adolescent emotionalism, and I believed that adolescent emotionalism was the enemy of Literature — a belief that is, as my teen self would have said, wrong on so many levels.
Every writer goes through a disowning stage. Sometimes it’s aimed at juvenilia. Sometimes it’s a more continuous process, aimed at, well, everything that the writer has ever written. For me it was aimed squarely at the poems I wrote in high school. But luckily, I disowned my disowning stage fairly quickly; I’ve found that it’s much better to embrace the (deeply) flawed writing of my past rather than try to make an orphan out of it. Why feel anything short of fondness for your younger writing self? My younger writing self might not have been particularly eloquent or particularly original, but he tried. And that trying, as much as anything else, led to everything that came after.
In high school and college, I had a ritual: When I considered a poem or a story finished, I would print it out (dot-matrix), punch three holes in it (hole-punch), and put it in special notebook (loose-leaf) I had to hold my writing. High school got one notebook (green), college got another (plaid). These notebooks have sat on my bookshelves for as long as I’ve had my own bookshelves, and no one would ever consider anything within them, short of a phrase or sentence or two, “publishable.” But they are definitely my origin story as a writer, built from the unfinished novels (three), the short stories (about two dozen), and poems (maybe two dozen as well).
Poetry fell from my writing life in college, and it was with a certain sense of fear and surprise that I took it up again. The idea to write The Realm of Possibility in verse can be directly attributed to two books I edited (Billy Merrell’s Talking in the Dark and Eireann Corrigan’s You Remind Me of You) and one I read and loved (Virginia Euwer Wolff’s True Believer). While I was writing Realm, I decided to go back into the notebooks to see if there were any poems from high school that I might be able to fit within it. In the end, of all the stanzas I’d written in high school, only two made it into the book.
At first this small ratio seems to be a vindication of Mr. Gordon, my high school teacher and lit-mag advisor, who could never praise me without cutting me down in the next sentence. First he told me my prose was remarkable for someone my age . . . which was why I should leave poetry behind. (I listened.) Then he told me my essays were so strong that I should put aside fiction. (I did not listen. In fact, I outright defied.) I made one or two attempts at writing poetry in college . . . but for the most part, I gave it up until Billy, Eireann, and Jinny brought me back.
At the start of my writing career, when I looked back at my poetry, I was ashamed. If writing is meant to be all about getting it right, my high school poetry was all about getting it wrong. Or, worse, thinking I was getting it right, but still getting it almost entirely wrong. I did not have the grace to allow myself the failed attempts. I did not understand that failed attempts still provide material for the foundation.
Anyone reading my high school poetry should be able to come up with a fairly quick diagnosis for what was up with me at the time: I was a kid who, for the most part, had everything going right in his life. Some best-friend drama, some unrequited crushes — that’s it. Because my family was happy and healthy, I overcompensated and tried to write about what I was seeing happen to the people around me. I was particularly fascinated with divorce, since that was the thing a few of my friends were grappling with, and I very much wanted to help.
The results are sincere. Very sincere. And also, by any empirical literary standard, remarkably bad.
When I open up the green notebook, this is the first thing I see. Probably because its title begins with an “a.”
Has he grown tired of her auburn hair?
Of her baby powder skin?
Of her sterling admiration?
When he’s out on the town with all the others
Does he stop and think of her?
The one he’s left behind.
Left behind with another of the abandoned
with paltry gifts that mean nothing to him
And everything to her
Does it make him remember (or bring a tear to his eye)
When he sees their favorite cartoon
Of hears their special song
As he steps farther and farther from the past
And she grows beyond his memory
Is he content with her nameless many replacements?
For they can never take her place in his neglectful heart
For she is the only one
Who can truly call him “Daddy”
Fifteen-year-old David was reading a lot of Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood. Fifteen-year-old David saw how the divorced fathers of his friends got to be weekend guests in their lives while the divorced mothers had to become two-parents-in-one. Fifteen-year-old David no doubt thought he had a very insightful double-meaning going on here. Fifteen-year-old David had no clue that “Daddy” could apply to something other than an actual parent. It would be very, very easy for me to disown fifteen-year-old David’s really bad poem. But the funny thing is: Nearly thirty years later, when fifteen-year-old David’s older self sat down to reread the poem, having forgotten completely about it, his older self actually thought it was a bad poem about adultery until that “favorite cartoon” line. So I can still muster a smile at my younger self for tricking me. Even if the word choice makes me wince.
My cathartic poems are not much better. If you wrote poetry at all in high school, you know the ones I mean: You’ve just been screwed over, hurt badly. You’re angry and sad and confused, so you reach for your pen . . . or your Apple IIE . . . and you let it all out. Some cathartic poems can be powerful — articulation in the form of an emotional release, a sudden transcendence of drama into something approaching understanding. My cathartic poems are not powerful.
Especially not the ones that rhyme.
It took me what seems like so long
To rise above the past
After having everything taken
When I had thought it would simply last
No more anger
No more fears
There has been too much self-hatred
There have been too many tears
Enjoy your plunder
Somewhere there must be more
Things can be rebuilt
Things can be like before
I can finally say “goodbye”
After the departure and the pain
You are forever gone
But I shall forever remain
If you knew that “fears” was going to end up rhyming with “tears” — well, you get exactly zero bonus points, because OF COURSE “fears” was going to rhyme with “tears” in this poem. But would I erase it from my collected works, or go back and tell myself to write it better? Nope. Because even though it’s bad, and even though I genuinely have no idea whatsoever what precipitated it, I know it’s not posing. The indignation here is real. I can appreciate that I had the feelings but didn’t know how to express them well. And I like that instead of wallowing, it’s a fuck you. Most of my cathartic poems from high school are like that. I just rewrite “I Will Survive” over and over, without understanding that it’s a rewrite, not an original.
I loved my metaphors when I wrote in high school — the shattering of glass and mirrors happened a lot more in my writing than it did in real life, because that’s how a lot of my emotions felt. There were no hairline cracks, only the state of being intact and the state of being shattered. Occasionally, I would use a single metaphor to fuel an entire poem, as in this one:
I am the captain of my shadow,
but even I can’t stop it from being stepped upon.
I twist and turn,
dodge and maneuver,
but the oblivious shoes and sneakers still fall —
I alter the shape, but not the darkness.
I look to the sun to take my shadow away,
to depart from the sky
so that my shadow can bleed into the ground.
But the sun just looks at me like a naked, glowing eye.
“I see you,” it says,
and its sight is like a possession.
To be honest, I have no memory of writing this poem, either. I don’t remember it at all, and wouldn’t have even been able to tell you it was mine if I hadn’t just found it in the green notebook. But some poems I do remember quite clearly, and to read them now is to remember the things that could hurt me the most in high school.
This one, for example, was written towards the end of one of my best friendships, with someone who was graduating to another friend group and not taking me along with him.
after the phone call
little clipped sentences can fall like daggers
silences of nonconversation can shatter painted mirrors
I try to grab a wave, to turn the flow by pulling it towards
me, so that the other waves are hit and made to change
direction. I do not even have to hold the first wave — I
will gladly lose some to gather the rest.
what is the past to you, anyway?
my feet dig into the sand, fighting the undertow of
superficiality, the current on my legs so strong that I fear
to move a toe.
why do I resist?
what brass ring do I reach for, when I know it’s already
my conversation with paper . . .
you will never see this.
you might not understand
you would understand and it really wouldn’t matter
do I have enough strength to take on the moon for the
control of the tide?
or are you its secret keeper
pulling me away
without intent to harm?
maybe I’m wrong.
but I don’t think I am.
If you had asked my teenage self where the strength of this poem resided, he would have probably answered that it was from the insight of the metaphors, the intermingling of the quotidian and the grandiose. Of course, what he wanted to tell his soon-to-be-ex-best-friend was: I would fight the tide for you. (Which would have been, for the record, the wrong thing to say to this soon-to-be-ex-best-friend, who had the misfortune of best-friending someone who thought in such terms — this friend thought that he’d be a better fit elsewhere, and it was only years later that I could concede that, yes, this was probably true.)
What I find interesting is that the power here — and the through-line to the writing that would follow — is not in the spaces where I’m attempting to be literary, but in the lines where I simply tell the truth. You would understand and it really wouldn’t matter. Maybe I’m wrong — but I don’t think I am. These are the lines that allow me to reach through time and understand exactly how I felt — because I still know how that feels. This was just the first time I put it in writing.
It says a lot about my high school life that there isn’t a single romantic love poem in my entire high school oeuvre. Perhaps I wrote some and handed them away on folded pieces of notebook paper, passed along in bio class, or in the halls after lunch. If any existed, they were all given away.
There are, however, two love poems in the green notebook, both testaments to friendship – in particular with Jen and Cary, my two senior-year best friends. These poems are the only two in the entire notebook I love, and perhaps it says a lot about where I would go as a writer that they both came out of moments of happiness.
This is my favorite:
j and c
the wind settles cold in the afternoon,
drifting like mist atop the ice;
the waves of the ocean crash in great white uprisings
making roar and hiss as they push and recede,
scattering seashells like a broken mosaic
strewn across the shore.
the ocean and sky, so blue and gray,
stretch across the whole of my sight as
natural attempts to enwrap me with wonder.
still, my eye is drawn to a private corner on the sand,
two green sweaters standing together so perfectly that
your embrace makes it all seem like background.
It’s possible I love this poem simply because I love the moment that inspired it, and over time the two have become one and the same to me — I would never have remembered the moment on the beach if I hadn’t written the poem about it, and I would have never written the poem about it if it hadn’t been something I wanted to keep hold of. As a reader, this is what I love the most about poetry – when it can refract a moment back to me and convey something larger, something important about the moment that might have been missed the first time.
The only poem from high school that made it into The Realm of Possibility was another that I only vaguely remembered. I don’t even know if its title is a misspelling or word play. (It’s probably a misspelling.)
The slide is offered to the darkness,
gold and jewels in the shape of a child.
‘She was a young girl in the tenth century’ —
nothing else is known.
How sad it must be for you
to be nothing more than a hollow statue,
to have your tomb stand eternal
and your story forever forgotten.
My high school poetry is the commemoration that gets to contain at least a little of the story. I am a long way past making fun of it. I make no claims for it being good — I just acknowledge that being good is not actually the point of high school poetry. It was the best it could be at the time. It worked toward getting better. It got better (most days). I was deeply intimidated by poetry when writing The Realm of Possibility. Writing poetry still intimidates me. But, like my high school self, I’m going to write it anyway. Because ultimately it’s not about what I will be able to show off. It’s about what I’ll find in the attempt.