Growing Up Poetry

I used to make one dollar per page typing my dad’s poems on our Macintosh LCIII computer. This was OK money for a twelve year old in 1995. It sure beat the paper route that got me the computer in the first place. Most of his poems were around fourteen lines anyway, which turned out to be decent money. There were the few poems that were three pages, more verse than poetry, and I would try (unsuccessfully) to increase my fee for those.

Sometimes I would come downstairs from my room after a long night of playing video games and I’d head to the kitchen for a sandwich and another Coke. It’d be 5 a.m., and my dad would be at the kitchen table either reading the poetry broadsheet 5AM or working on something of his own. I’d mumble a greeting — after hours shooting bad guys, I’m slightly unable to communicate, much in the same way as someone who has been alone in the forest for weeks. He, still unshaven and in his bathrobe, would look up from his coffee and reply — lost in his world of words, not images. It puzzled me that he would devote every morning to words.

When I was even younger, I still had an awareness of my dad as a poet. In second grade, Mrs. Loar assigned us to write a poem about spring. I was proud to be learning my dad’s craft, and smiling, I brought home my first completed poem. There wouldn’t be another for ten years, but that didn’t mean poetry wasn’t around me. In the fifth grade, right around the time I was typing my dad’s poems, he came to my school to give a poetry reading. Conscious of his audience, he shied away from complicated themes and found some poems to read that fifth graders could grab on to. Poetry, he explained, is a lot like song lyrics. Sometimes you don’t even know what the words are or what they mean, but they sound good. He read a poem about grapes, which enumerated the different types of grapes possible, including “pornographic grapes,” which sent a titter through the classroom. Some kids were bored and yawned but at least were thankful it wasn’t the usual grammar lesson. Others thought it was pretty cool. Not bad, I thought. Poetry can make you cool.

I began writing poetry in high school, and my dad was an easy target for an editor. But instead of the intense after-school coffee-shop discussions about diction and enjambment with my poet-friend Kyle, my dad would offer some approval, or maybe a suggestion of something for me to read. He’s always been a member of the you-have-to-find-your-own-way-young-Jedi school.

Then there are the stories, which as I grew older I began to appreciate more. He tells me of the time that my mother, he, and I (still within my mother’s womb) met Allen Ginsberg in New York City. Or of seeing Nobel Prize-laureate Joseph Brodsky at a poetry reading where only five people showed up. (“And that’s what fame gets you in poetry and in jazz,” he’d remark, proudly.) And he told me of them time that Kenneth Koch took care of me for a few hours when I was a couple years old. I met Kenneth Koch and reminded him of it a number of years later at a reading he did at the Frank O’Hara: In Memory of My Feelings exhibit in Columbus, Ohio at the Wexner Center for the Arts. He laughed and questioned my dad’s parenting skills for leaving me with “a crazy old poet.”

Maybe best of all are the shared poetry jokes. One of the best comes from The Simpsons. For me, like many of my generation, The Simpsons was a religion for families. Many a dinner quarrel were quelled by an errant Simpsons reference. So a Simpsons episode in which Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy guest stars — that’s a combination of everything that is good in the world. Pinsky, appointed by the president (more or less), is at his beck and call. In the episode, the president yells, “Pinsky! Where’s my poem?” Pinsky, walking by the Oval Office — as if the Poet Laureate hangs out around the Oval Office — hears his boss calling out and relates to the audience his effort to overcome writers’ block: “I was pulling stuff out of my ass!”

Here’s a poem I wrote a number of years back.

Poetry in the Park

When I was five
my father would tell me,
on the minivan rides to a now
unfunded poetry series
in a park of roses,
that poetry is like jazz:
in as much as being
famous means performing
for five people.

During the readings
I would get lost
in the acres of
well-maintained roses,
thick smells,
and the distant echoed voice of a poet —
his words

Sometimes, I would stay and listen
to the poet standing
at a miked podium
in front of a gazebo
at the edge of the park
bordering on a dark forest
where I once wandered off,
only to return with poison ivy.

I knew nothing about meanings,
but I liked the idea of poetry
because it meant
lying on the grass
under the summer sun
in a park of roses.

As a side note, Poetry in the Park, which used to be at the Whetstone Park of Roses (soon to be pictured above) in Columbus, Ohio, is back up and running in a new location, Goodale Park in the Short North. If you are around, you can check out my dad’s reading on June 7, 2008. It’s a great series and I’m glad it’s picked back up. It always coincides with the Gallery Hop in the Short North, as if you needed more reason to be around on first Saturdays in the summer.


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