Dog-ears in the wrong notebook
EVERY generation is defined by the fears they harbor and the dreams they keep alive.
For one reason or another, my generation’s dreams were shaped by poetry.
I grew up in the 90s: before youtube, before blogs and Facebook, before what we used to call the “World Wide Web”, otherwise known as the Internet. If you had something to say then, you didn’t have the luxury of a blog to have everyone read what you were thinking, or the convenience of Facebook to upload a status message so you could tell the world what you were feeling, what you were up to. If you saw something on the street, you might have a camera, yes, but it took time for pictures to develop. There was no instagram to take and share the sign of a vulcanizing shop you might have passed by on the way to the beach: “Jealous Neighbor.” We didn’t take pictures of food: we ate it.
So if you had something occupying your mind or brimming in your heart, and your closest friends lived in another island, you wrote a poem on a page. In the dead of night. Or at dawn. You went inside of the room of yourself.
And maybe you eventually slipped the poem into a letter that you sent to the post office (and wouldn’t take weeks to get to where they were meant to reach). Or you sent it to the local paper in the hopes that the editor would like it enough to print it, but even that would take days and weeks before you’d hear back—and could very well say: Thank You, but No.
So you kept what you wrote in your little notebook and soon forgot it. You wrote other poems, of other loves, and kept adding to the pages. Soon the one poem was now ten or twenty, but no one else knew. No one bothered asking. Until maybe one day, the poem you first wrote, the very first one, slipped out of your notebook and fell to the ground, or was mistaken for scratch paper while you were busy on the phone (the landline, yes) and you found the poem again, after months of not thinking about it and you read it again and thought: hmm... not too bad. Not too bad at all. And you began changing the first line, moving the fifth line further up the poem or further down.
The danger with touching what we’ve written is that we’re bound to see things we hadn’t seen before and before we know it, we are deep into the heart of the poem, again, and we realize that it’s not done yet, and the ghost of an end yawns like the edge of a cliff we pray we can build a bridge to traverse. Before we know it, we have lost sleep and it is morning.
All of this of course still happens these days: in coffee shops, in laptops, in Internet cafes, by the beach. The only difference, I suppose, is back then we lived with the mess of the torn pages of it. There was no delete button to erase the words on the page. No Facebook page to quickly paste the semblance of a poem and rest easy knowing 15 friends already liked what had just been written. Poetry was a secret that was kept.
Last week, I was in Boston, in a yearly conference for writers called the AWP, and I got to meet in person, in the flesh, some of the poets I had grown up reading: Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott. They looked much older than the author photographs at the back of their books, but I was fine with that. It’s been more then ten, 15 years, since I had first fallen in love with their poems, recited them over and over to myself, in the dark of my college dorm room. And while I was tempted to genuflect in front of these living legends of poetry, I kept myself from doing so. If they looked older, I was older too. I was no longer the teenager who wrote down his favorite poems at the back of his physics notebook. I, too, like the generation I was from, the generation I had always been part of, already become, knew deep in his heart that well, if I needed to read those poems again, I could always search for them online.
But it was wonderful, for even an hour, to be in the same room with them: with Jeanette Winterson, with Derek Walcott, with Charles Simic. Five, ten, 50 rows away, listening to them speak in the voice I had always imagined they had. In the flesh. On the page. It was great being reminded of things that takes days, sometimes years, to come full circle on the page, while we wait. For old time’s sake.