Posts Tagged ‘writing poems’

Its been years since I last went to a writer’s retreat. Squaw Valley came at just the right time offering me a healing I’d been long in need of. There’s a unique community offered by artists gathered together all struggling to write the next thing and to keep working. That creative energy feeds me like little else.

More than 70 people from all over the country gathered for a week in the mountains, specifically the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley, to write poems. I wrote, though much of my non-writing free time was spent in bed sneezing and blowing my nose so often I quickly filled a Trader Joe’s shopping bag with tissue. I nearly thought I’d come home early what with not being certain I could stand a whole week with a sinus infection. But turns out one of the poets amongst us was a doctor who generously wrote a prescription that helped me.

My head opened off and on several times, getting me through daily poetry workshops and allowing for a couple of nature hikes with Man of Great Knowledge, Will Richardson. The hikes I looked forward to (they weren’t extensive, but were quite rich in detail and information) if only to broaden my vocabulary, offer me different language with which to see the forested world beyond just saying “things” are “pretty”.

Most nights though, I barely slept. I struggled to breathe and sat up watching footage of hurricanes and tornados on late night Weather Channel specials. Being congested late night while watching a cruise ship pummeled by mountain sized ocean waves is a uniquely appropriate gift. One night while I was up, the area was rattled by an earthquake.

After I began getting some sleep, being so far up in the mountains, some 6000 ft. above sea level, my dreams became vivid and popped with color and strangeness. I saw my grandfather again, only in worker’s overalls and on crutches. I came up behind him in a supermarket and he turned to me and immediately took out a egg sized peppermint ball he’d been eating and tried to feed it to me like a bird. I refused; even in my dream it was kinda gross. But he was insistent and otherwise mute and I still politely refused and moved away from him over to frozen foods.

While still quite congested, one night I drifted into a dream where I stood beneath a bridge waist deep in water. Across from me, the city I saw was dark and the sky inflamed with war. I watched a huge explosive be dropped blocks away and the sky began filling with rolling, greasy black clouds. I knew the clouds were poisonous and I was alone. I also knew I couldn’t swim and was uncomfortable in water, but the only way to save myself was to plunge my face into it. As the black cloud raced towards me, I went under only to wake up gasping.

Later in the week, I realized all my dreams take place in the streets of an alternate Oakland, the city where I was born, that remained in permanent twilight. One long dream meandered from beneath a freeway overpass where I rode a bucket downhill in order to escape a group of young thugs. In that dream I seemed to run errands for the owner of a store of some kind, me racing from one part of town to another and back, from one Victorian house to a modest store front, from making deliveries and picking up packages. The dream starred friends I barely speak with any longer and was flavored by mild I’m Running Late panic. Rooms were populated with rare antiques and toys, live music played on platforms in the middle of intersections. I dreamed in color. My dream shot with Steadicam consciousness.

In spite of my annoying illness, the week was spectacular and I was surrounded by great people, strong artists and even by many of the poems that emerged. I failed to realize how special the week was until I’d come back to Oakland in time to do a reading at a local café. The audience was mostly of listless seniors. At one point, someone’s cane slapped the floor loud as a gun shot. Even that struggled to wake me. I found myself reading new work then looking up at the room and not knowing what to think of the faces staring back at me.

My friend arrived late in the reading and long after my set was over and since she was going to drive me home, I decided as a thank you to read her all the new poems that came out during my workshop week. Afterwards, since she’s an Aries, she went through her glove-compartment poetry and handed me one to read aloud back to her. Its exhausting listening to my own voice all night. How long had I been talking? I couldn’t pray hard enough for her to drive me home quickly just so I could finally shut my mouth.

raging-fire-from-charcoal-barbecue-grill
In two days time, there will be an office memorial for a coworker who died the weekend of my birthday.

I came back from my personal 3 day weekend and a secretary passed my desk, stopped and told me how over the weekend Linda had died suddenly. I’d worked with her about seven years and was surprised nearly to tears to hear that news. The story I’d gotten was how she was on the street (in the neighborhood of the office? during lunch?) talking on the phone and passed out. She spent the next day on life support and the day after she was gone.

I immediately thought a couple of things. First: how another co-worker of ours went to Emergency with her all of two months prior just after work one night and Second: how despite her being incredibly warm and chatty (ok, a motor-mouth) she NEVER talked about how ill she was, nor that she had cancer.

That I learned from the other coworker in question. A month ago, I went downstairs to visit him and Linda had sat across from him telling him a long, drawn out story. Her voice was light, animated, engaged. He kept mumbling Uh-huh, Yeah, I See, into his chest as if he were on punishment and continued to type while she talked and talked. I felt sorry for him.

And then, after hearing the news about her, I felt something different. I felt connected.

The other coworker told me that there were plans to have her cremated, but he also said her ashes were not going to be sent to back east where we all assumed she had family. Her ashes were going to be kept by a mutual coworker and friend. There was no family for her ashes to go to.

In that case, she and I were the same. Her hallway joke that I treat her like she was my mother, was but vaguely true. My heart recognized something in her I could never say aloud. I saw and understood her loneliness. I felt it in my own experience as much if not more than she did in hers.

This is probably why I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I found myself taking a break from the office and walking over to the library for my brief writing slash study session. Its a break I take on the regular, every other day if I can. And if just for an hour: to grab a book of poems and sit and read and try to work something out. On this particular day, I returned to the library for my session, but didn’t write anything. I felt like I was waiting for a call or text that never came.

After a few minutes sitting quietly, doing nothing, I got up as to leave But suddenly as when touching a doorknob gives an unexpected electric jolt, words occurred to me and I started writing. I balanced my notebook on the dusty window sill and expecting to write a sentence or two of notes, I instead wrote three pages. It was a mad scribble of words and ideas about death and loneliness and processing what I’d been told and I remembered about Linda and her predilection for telling spontaneously long stories.

I never expected to write a poem. But one immediately took shape and rattled me for its clarity, its specificity and demand to be born. I didn’t write it — rather, it wrote me. This sounds cloying and twee, but in truth it felt all but channeled. I came into the library with no intent or agenda and was just as happy to be out of the office communing with books. Then Suddenly…

And should Suddenly occur to you, will you be open for it?

I typed up the notes. Something began forming like an image though a slowly lifting fog. I thought of Linda, hyper friendly, eternal smile, and how often I was short with her to the point of appearing rude. Not always and not unfriendly, mind you. But once I realized she talked to people as if it were a condition that couldn’t be helped, and how warmly she accepted my lack of patience for her habit (I know you hate my stories, Cagney, but…) I sometimes playfully wouldn’t wait for her to finish talking. I stayed gleefully defiant to the social custom of patient listening.

While re-typing my notes for a poem inspired by her, I was also struck with a crazy idea.

Last July, I began writing a poem about BBQ ribs and how I bought an entire slab at the farmer’s market that I ultimately ate by myself. Here’s an excerpt from the original draft:

days of picnics, families having ended
A lineage of rhyming names remains having dissolved like sugar
Only the patrolling sun remains insistent to the point of hostility

There is you, the rottiserie truck and 30 dollars
rubbing in your pocket like fly legs–
You watch this man lay a rack of
blackened ribs on a running carpet
of aluminum sheeting then swaddle the whole thing
like a newborn. This youngster in a baseball cap and
apron blackened with sweet animal fat
handled the slab
ceremonially folding the crisp edges down sharp as an envelope

The poem had some cool lines, but I couldn’t get wholly engaged with it because… well, frankly it was irrelevant. All vegans, vegetarians had no entry point for it nor would they appreciate the language because, for them, its language wasted about meat and intended for meat eaters. I even dared opening the poem with the kinda humorous if off-putting lines:

Damn every vegetarian
and their anemic families
And their portable pulpit of entitlement

But all of us, myself as author included, were wrong. The poem was NOT about meat, but about loneliness. Its about my own isolation, which at first I couldn’t clearly see. It wasn’t about the purchase or even eating, but rather how in the poem, the purchase wasn’t shared. Couldn’t be shared. It wasn’t about greed, it was about a ‘need’ that the meat itself wasn’t going to fill.

So the poem sat idle for a while, until I found myself working through the poem for/about Linda. It occurred to me that I could take lines from the BBQ poem I fancied, and fold them whole into the Linda poem. The great irony being how Linda herself would NEVER participate in office lunches and gatherings, them being much too social (wink).

I allowed the narrative of her poem to run long and then… get off the subject, by having this other poem appear. It was weird, and perfect. The first poem about her was intentionally chatty. I thought of the security guard at the same library who’d always stop me to talk, then worked in conversational phrases people always say: …I’ll be short, I hate to cut you off, Let me tell you this one thing…

I wrote and re-wrote the poem a good four or five times over and was surprised how solid it felt, running a hefty three pages– too long for most open mics, but perfect for itself just the same.

Linda would sometimes side-eye me and say, You know, I was probably your mother in a former life. And for that reason, my mother cameos in the poem. The cameo is unflattering because its a memory of my mother perhaps a month before she passed away, and a memory I’ve referenced in another piece. But it also feels perfect. Because, like Linda apparently, I didn’t realize how important she was to me until she was gone.

I don’t know if I have it in me to share that poem at Linda’s memorial. Its pretty much sermon length. I’ll print it and keep it with me and hope the spirit… does with me what it usually does. Take over and drive me to a very unexpected but most appropriate place.

writingpoems
SPOILER: I don’t. They write me.

I woke up in time to catch CBS Sunday Morning and the moment it was over, I clicked off the television, already annoyed by the Sunday morning crew newscast, and started getting myself dressed and my stuff together.

Four notebooks, some print outs of articles and Other People’s Poetry I found the previous week at work, two pens, one pencil. Some books I didn’t open.

I’m a morning person, obviously. If I can get out of the house before 8:30 I feel like I’m accomplishing something and there’s hope. I like it early when the streets begin to aspirate gently. What people there are move slowly. By rights I should walk, but the arthritis in my knees and my unreliable feet make that downhill mile more daunting than I’d like. I don’t wait long for the bus. From there, its a two block walk past the children’s playground to my preferred café. The other name cafe’s you’d recognize, with better coffee and pastries, have tables that are much too small. In their large communal rooms, only a couple of tables are appropriate, both at the window and against the brick wall (one inside, one out). Those tables usually go first to students staring into their laptops or seniors leisurely combing over newspapers. I found one café with strong coffee and kinda miserable Costco pastries and huge tables with bay windows overlooking the lake that’s dreamlike for me. Its owned by an Ethiopian family. And part of my effort to get here early is for a prime window seat. Both tables were taken by the time I arrived, but I found a large table, centered against the wall, a couple of arms length away from the window where a woman sat talking on her phone with her laptop yawned open. On my other side, a younger Asian male finished a breakfast burrito and stirred the white pages on his desk.

I took out a yellow legal pad and a pencil and wrote three pages. Those were pages of therapy. Cleansing out whatever stray detritus floated in my head. Last nights dream, my insecurity, shame, wishes for what I’d rather be doing, what I did the day before and what I didn’t do. I wrote without stopping, as if sitting across a therapist and free associating. Until finally I ran out. I sipped coffee, I pinched off a chunk of muffin.

In one of my notebooks I made a bullet list: What goals did I want to accomplish, Right Now, while sitting here? I wrote three sentences. My intent was to write about Prince, via three specific experiences. Friday morning, I wrote a page of stray inconsequential notes and phrases. I gazed at them again, then took up the essay I’d found on line the previous week. Then read a poem. If writing my head clear with a pencil is one thing, this act of reading harmonizes my brain. Pointing my imagination to a goal, a direction.

Reading was a way to jump start the conversation in my head. Where and how do writers begin– how do they track their feelings on the subject, in this case Prince. How are they successful and how do they disappoint me? The poem I read started with a truly lovely idea and image, but it kinda devolved into sugary gibberish as it reached its end. The essay I read was better: strong, beautiful, admirable and personal. He’d write a far better version of whatever it is I’m sitting here hoping will emerge.

I reminded myself there were three memories I wanted to try to capture. I took up another notebook and free-wrote thru one memory at a time. I couldn’t stop. It was like automatic writing. I watched the images in my head and like a journalist made notes on what I was seeing, thinking, feeling. Because it was a poem, I pushed the boundaries of what I remembered and attempted to add things, images, elements that didn’t happen but could have. I wrote quickly, almost trembling in effort to write faster.

I stopped and looked up. A half dozen spandexed joggers had come in and sat down. A dude with a very runny nose sat next to me, also with a notebook so I quietly wished him luck. I took up my second memory and turned it over in my mind. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Then picked up a pen and ran with it; When I couldn’t remember something, I made it absurd. Surreal. Sometimes its not just what the Thing is, its what else it is. I wrote quickly, choreographing all manner of insane things into a memory which was more like a GIF file stored in my brain. Same with that third memory. Crazy write, I think is the phrase.

I left my laptop at home. On purpose. Hand writing is like sculpting. Creating directly from the heart. Because you’re writing by hand, you work slower and become more specific in your word choice — or crazy in your word choice once you realize you can’t stop and check a thesaurus for an alternative. To stop and check something is to stop, period. I only found myself stopping and looking up across the room from time to time as if I were listening to someone on the phone and they just put me on hold. It was swimming a few strokes and coming up for air. Right now, the goal isn’t to get anything right, its just to Write: to dump out of my mind every crumb of imagery that wants to come up while turning something specific over in my head.

Consequently, to initiate something on the computer– as I’m doing now– is creating something directly from ego. The effort is faster, which isn’t to say better, more muscular and from a seat of certainty, knowing. Ego. I can end this, scan it for errors, and publish it quickly. Instead of being the best it could be, it’ll just be Done. Last week I found a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.” I think handwriting leaves holes that allows for conversation to happen later once you re-approach the page. What I’m writing now, this blog, will be finished in a few paragraphs and never thought of again.

But yesterday… I left the café to go to a bakery for cookies. Then I returned home, put on Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely then a recording of Langston Hughes The Weary Blues. I cleaned up the kitchen, smoked half a joint, then typed up all the notes from earlier this morning. The typing showed me a lot of holes and clichés. How many different words can there be for heart? How many different ways can I say galaxy? Being high I made editing choices that were raw and interesting (and brief. High-James is not a great writer, but he’s a solid typist and edits well enough).

Those notes are marinating now. I finished and mailed them to myself for today, to print and go back over tonight when I leave work and to review ‘what happened’. I printed those pages blindly without looking, then slipped them into my notebook. To marinate your work seems most essential in writing– even more important than whether you type or hand-write. My brain is, even as I type this, very curious as to what happened in those notes. But forcing myself to wait while thinking other things, to let the words congeal on the page without me, allows me to approach my own work again, but with fresh eyes, a different face and new outlook. To read my own work as if I were a friend or critic of myself.

ME: Hey!! I wrote seven pages yesterday!
NEW ME: Are any of them worth reading?
ME: Hater!

The praise dancers of the Apostolic Faith Church.  Louis Byrd photographer

The praise dancers of the Apostolic Faith Church perform during the Family and Friends Day morning service.

If you use a Yoruba chant to open a public event, welcoming the ancestors to join and be welcome in the proceedings, how do you close the ceremony and tell the ancestors, spirits– thanks for coming! shows over now, yawl can go back to the far reaches of heaven or wherever… I ask because a woman got up to do the opening welcome. Since she announced herself as a teacher– she did it ‘properly’, in Yoruba. Emptied a plastic drinking glass over a tiny but erect houseplant then proudly returned to her seat, smiling. Then sometime later, perhaps an hour or so, to my left from where I sat in the back, what appeared to be a chestful of blue cigarette smoke moved up the aisle and quietly dissipated into the air. Thin lines of embroidered smoke moved stealthily like the tail end of a dress swinging then appearing to step into nothingness. The poetry reading went on. Certainly no one was smoking or even vaping in here. A former librarian sat across from me, attentive (and resembled Michelle Obama if Michelle was fair skinned and had long dookie braids) No one except me acted as if they saw anything and I’m not sure I really saw it. But, of course I did. I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Saturday was the 26th Annual African American Celebration Through Poetry held at the West Oakland Branch Library. In spite of its 26 year run, I’d all but forgotten about it until having dinner with a friend of mine who forwarded me the flyer and call for poets. I read at this event at least twice before. The last time, an uncountable number of years ago, I read a story– a retelling of the John Henry folktale, only done as if Lord Buckley would do it, through his semantics of the hip. I read it one time only and shelved it for being ‘weird’. I have nowhere near the stage confidence of Lord Buckley, even if he’s basically a car thief of African American slanguage.

This time though, I had some poems to represent under the Black Lives Matter campaign and wanted to be in that room and share them.

It was Super Bowl weekend. The sky was polished bright blue. I got to the library an hour early and crossed the street to hang out for a while at de Fremery Park. The park has a long and involved history with Oakland and the Black Panthers, but a history for me also. I thought of the times I came here as a kid; the hours spent on slides and swings, the sand I’ve eaten. The picnics here with family. My grandfather lived a few blocks sprint from here and another block further from him was where my first best friend, Anthony, once lived. Yet another two blocks from him was the beauty school where my mom once taught. All memories moving at lightspeed away from me, it seems. I crossed the park and settled amongst a half dozen pic-nic tables to write. Across from me a group of men, all white I quietly noted, played basketball. A man walked his children over to the playground. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the concrete skater’s bowl just below the park’s horizon. I opened my backpack, took out some paper and notebooks and worked for a half hour or so.

I slowly strolled back to the library, passing the recreation center which after all these years I’ve never been inside of. Its a huge Victorian mansion I’ve never had courage enough to enter. Today I had no time. I walked past and saw a few girls in black and purple dresses getting ready for something; all preening and posing in front of hand mirrors. I wanted to be nosy, but being alone I was obviously a dismissible pervert, so I kept my head down and crossed the street.

50 or 60 or so chairs had been set up in the multi-purpose room; its tiny kitchen open; a bowl of mixed fruit and a carafe of coffee was already set out. Reynaldo, a painter was attempting to hang some of his paintings but the temporary hooks wouldn’t adhere to their surface, and twice his paintings slid off the wall and thwacked the ground loudly. Another artist took over the back table with collaged post-cards and flyers, then littered the stage with graffiti’d umbrellas painted with key words, affirmations and historical figures. For a while I talked with a man I knew from years ago. We caught up briefly while his wife sat across from us doing some last minute work on her laptop. He told me since we’d last talked he’d gone to Brazil but while there picked up some nasty infection of some kind. What got him to go to Brazil? I asked. While he answered, his wife smirked to herself and shook her head, as dismissively as a judgmental mother. She puffed herself up slightly like a bird and announced over us both the name of the conference she attended and the talk she had to give. But she mostly kept her eyes on the screen and shook her head. Her eavesdropping suddenly taking what little energy there was out of our chat.

Reynaldo came over to where me and the man was standing. He had found a display solution for his paintings since he couldn’t hang them. For all intents and purposes, he looked like me, if I came from Jamaica. Heavy set in a hand painted t-shirt, a wiry beard tracing his jaw and a red black and green skull cap on his head.

What college did Malcolm X go to? He said. He didn’t. But people at every university in this country study Malcolm X.

I asked him all of nothing, but he stood next to me and started talking. What’s weird: he kinda directly answered a question I posed to the universe a month or so back.

You don’t go to school to study art, Reynaldo said with a vague distain. You learn how to make art by making art. You learn by doing it, You learn by making mistakes. People ask me where I went to school. Schools come to me! You don’t go to school to study to be an artist. You make art! No one tells me how to make these paintings…

I looked at the paintings he displayed: the one on the end will make you think of Picasso. This one reminiscent of Matisse. All raw and powerful and well crafted. I listened and remembered: I never studied poetry in high school. I discovered poets by going to the library and choosing books at random, some based on the title, others on a name I kinda remembered.

I learned to write poetry as on the job training, I finally told him.

All art is on the job training, he said. Then ended our conversation and went back to his art table.

And maybe that was the ENTIRE reason I wanted to come to this event.

Otherwise, it started a leisurely half hour late. The host arriving 10 minutes before the 1pm start time. It was scheduled to end at 4 and I left a quarter before the hour and they still had several readers and an open mic to get to.

And the show itself; a community poetry reading which felt more like church fellowship. A lot of seniors,– myself included, I guess– in the audience and performing. The woman dressed most elegant who gave a lot of shade to her husband earlier, did the opening ceremony in Yoruba, which was nice. She was dressed in a dark pink business casual suit, not some flowery West African wrap. I listened to her vowel heavy words and thought how both Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou fueled both poems I planned to read. I remembered my grandfather and the cadence he’d use for his sermons, a cadence I certainly appropriated in my delivery.

The woman finished and returned to her seat, swollen with pride. The, ahem, smoke I saw moving amongst the crowd, I wondered if it remained here or if it came attached to someone in the room? Nonetheless, it was like a sheer skirt whose piping you could barely see before it vanished.

The first reader was a young high school girl who read a poem on her phone, then placed the phone on the speaker next to the mic while a gospel song played, she then Praise Danced. A curious development to emerge in Christian churches since I’ve been away… She pantomimed the lyrics, her long arms and legs swooping as if she were attempting tai chi and got the holy ghost. The readers varied from a man pacing while doing a mini-lecture before reciting Claude McKay’s If We Must Die then two original and brief poems. A buttery smooth senior who recited perfectly measured couplets in the old-school Toast style. A legendary bay poet who performed in a super-powered wheel chair and apologized for needing to leave early and making people buy her book. She set up shop in the back of the room before leaving. Activist Leroy Moore demanded we include honoring disabled African Americans when we honor folks during Black History Month. (Mental note: Get his book, Avoid Amazon.)

I awaited a couple more poets of legend and note to perform, both of whom I knew, before I snuck out. I was happy to’ve been there and read. I felt like I gave a micro-sermon. People were attentive and present and loving. It felt like church fellowship, too. If there is a proper closing ceremony in the Yoruba tradition, I missed it. But I’m glad the spirit (Claude, was that you??) moved among us and was even happier it didn’t follow me out of the library.

But seriously– how to show spirits the final exit and who tells them Thank You and Good Night?

Library

Library


The reading finished before 9:30. I left the bookstore and crossed the street. At the bus stop on the bench was a woman, whom I know, who bought a book off me but an hour before, whose house I’ve visited, and whose name I could not recall. Even now, thinking of that night last week, I still can’t pull it. I begrudgingly had to sign a chapbook over to her without writing her name and never policing my ego enough to just Ask.

I sat next to her, her with stark white hair, a swirling cloud bank beneath a small worn-leather cowboy hat.

You looking for the 18? She said.
It should be here in five minutes. I said and sat down.

The bookstore glowed brightly directly across the street from us. Its light mirroring off the black asphalt as if it were slick with water.

I asked what she’d been doing. She mentioned attending a salon where people who practice sculpture gathered in an artists back yard to work. She said she liked going and hanging out with them for a few hours and painting.

I asked if she ever practiced sculpture and she said no, it wasn’t her thing. Painting was. Her family, she said, was full of sick people. So she had to spend a lot of time alone and quiet. And painting was something she could engage with fully.

I forgot that’s what fueled my early days of poetry. Taking care of my mom and grandfather and after they’d passed out for sleep, I’d lay on the floor of my bedroom if too bored for tv and write. No weed, no alcohol, no friends. Just paper and pens.

As we sat talking about making art, what we really seemed to be talking about was permission. The permission to practice and keep practicing. What I felt compelled to tell her was how interested I was in visual art, even as I’m bad at it. I told her I’d been recently spending time coloring and confessed how years ago I took a visual art class only to quietly drop it after struggling to paint my first assignment: gray scale.

No one said it wasn’t good. I said it. I looked across the room and promptly fired myself.

She shook her head gently even as I felt like taking my heart out of my chest and crushing it in my hands.

Sounds like you had a bad teacher, she said. You don’t need to do it right, you can’t. You just need to keep going.

As she told her story I saw a small girl, drawing, painting at a huge table lit by the morning while her mother, sister were collapsed by illnesses in other rooms. I had no sister and had to motivate myself.

You don’t need teachers to make art. She said. Teachers sometimes get in the way because you end up creating things to please them when you should be making art to please yourself.

I couldn’t even recall whether the art teacher I had was male or female. I just remember leaving that class as if I was on fire.

Like you, she said. Your poetry. Who taught you to do that?

I looked back over to the bookstore we’d just left, where I was one of four people reading before a woman celebrating her newly published book. I sat quietly, thinking for a long time. Unable to speak. Who taught me to write poetry?? No one… Thinking of it, I realized it was a process. A building of something one brick, one moment, one lesson at a time. Until finally, something was just: THERE.

I don’t know, I said finally. My parents bought me a typewriter when I was in the sixth grade. I taught myself how to type, I said. I would record sit-coms off tv on a audio cassette and type a transcript to see how things were written, I guess. I don’t remember what happened or what was said that made them buy me a typewriter at that age. I certainly wasn’t trying to write poetry back then. I didn’t know what that was. Or cared.

The people at the reading we’d just left, all were artists, mostly writers. I knew several of them and despite my low bank account, bought books from two of them. Were any of them taught to be artists? Who taught the youngest poet there, taller than all of us, his unique blues-rap vocal style? I hugged him and told him how beautiful his voice was and he hugged me tighter. He seemed to have to bend well over me as if he were about to pick me up off the ground. Who taught the woman whose book we were celebrating to write poetry? Would she say anything other than the relationships that fucked her over, indignant anger over things beyond her control, the years of tears she had to swallow? Who sat me down and taught me… anything?

The bus finally appeared, though it took my eyes a long time to know it was the right one. We got on and I sat with her. The bus smelled awful, like fresh corn chips or soiled wet feet. A woman dug into a huge plastic bag on her belly, holding it as if it were an infant.

Less than eight blocks, the bus stopped across the street from the artists apartment. I’d been there once, and spent the afternoon in her kitchen writing with her sister, while she sat on the back porch and painted. We said our goodbyes, warmly. I felt awful, old. A week later and I still couldn’t remember her name.