The other day, it occured to me I’ve been at this writing business a long time, at least in terms of how long I've even been alive. Even before it was a business, it was an obsession of sorts. When I was four or five, after my sister was born but before I started kindergarten, my aunt gave me a tote bag filled with multi-colored pens and notebooks, and I would spend hours “writing” drawing squiggly lines that resembled cursive as I understood it. I think I knew the alphabet by then, my dad having taught me by bribing me with candy to get it right. There was point on the first day of kindergarten where something clicked and I realized the alphabet above the chalkboard corresponded with the song I’d learned by heart for a pack of Rollos. By sixth grade, having read a million of them, I wanted to be a horror novelist, the next Stephen King. I must have started and abandoned dozens during the course of junior high and high school. I think my first poem was a classroom assignment for freshmen English, something about flamingos that impressed the teacher and my friends who couldn’t rhyme to save their lives. There were more, since this seemed to be something I was reasonably good at by high school standards. Kittens, beaches, adolescent crushes, poems penned in my blue lock diary. There were more, later, some of which I still have copies of. All awful as one would expect.
It wasn’t until around 1993, after I came back from North Carolina that I decided to make a go at some sort of literary career of sorts, though my idea of what that entailed was a little foggy, based on poor dead Sylvia’s journals and letters and what I knew about the Beats.. At 19, I carried around copies of Writers Digest from the library, and submitted to the places in the back, legit places that rejected me, vanity places that seemed to like my work until I wouldn’t buy the anthology. I think it would have been different had I any sort of clue about the poetry world beyond the backs of those magazines. I was studying literature at this point, but it was not really anything I could connect to what I was writing. And there was really no one to guide me along. I look at the Columbia undergrad poetry students and they seem far more sophisticated about poetry and po-biz than the poets I went to school with. Mind you this is all pre-internet. People were a lot more clueless about anything beyond their immediate experience. It might also be the fact that poets in general were in short supply in Rockford, let alone Rockford College, where we had one official poet, and a couple other lit faculty who occasionally indulged. Since there was a pretty clear division between lit students and writing students, I only managed to squeeze in one workshop with her, and saint that she was, she was equally supportive of all our bad poetry.
Over the course of the next summer, I wrote more and got a little better. My submissions to places like The Rockford Review and Byline, the few places I’d learned of along the way, still fell flat, but at least I as no longer trying to rhyme. At some point I finally heard of Poets and Writers, which helped me out a little in terms of where to submit. Still lots of writing, lots of rejection (outside of the college lit mag). I did manage honorable mention my last year in RC’s Academy of American Poets Prize, a little validation, maybe all I needed to keep going with it--past graduation, the beginning of grad school. There was a bad unstable period that lasted for almost a year where I wrote nothing when I was 23, but on the other side of that the poems started coming, and since I’d started actually reading poetry outside of English lit classes (Gluck, Dove, Boland, Strand), it was better, even almost competent. I think I finally started to figure the whole voice thing out (for the time being anyway). Finally got my first real acceptance, then another. Put together a pitiful excuse for a first book (because that’s what I understood poets did) and naively entered a contest in 1999. Finished my degree and moved back to Rockford and revised everything and started submitting again. I was still sort of clueless even at this point, but the internet helped—to be able to read other poets, samples of work, even procure guidelines. By 2001, I’d moved back to Chicago and was submitting and publishing like crazy in online journals. I think I actually started writing anything worth reading that summer-- that’s the earliest point of poems in the big book. The first chapbook has some stuff from as far back as 1999 in it, but not much and it’s not very good in hindsight.
What frightens me though is that, even at 19, writing awful crap, I thought I was a genius. That I’d be taking the world by storm with my gloomy, minimalist quasi-political rants, later with my bad rhyming verses, then later with my shoddy free-verse persona poems and ekphrastics. So I’m still a little uncertain even now, that what I think is good work, is just another case of me fooling myself. Granted, things wax and wane. When I first started my MFA there was a period where I threw out almost everything I was writing. It got better, then worse, then better. Maybe now I’m better at judging what’s crap among my own work.