I started writing poetry when I was 12 years old. I didn’t really know how, only that I couldn’t sleep and needed to do something to empty my head of all the noise going on in there. I was perpetually on diets, and in 1962, my parents thought they’d found the miracle cure to my plumpness: speed. Of course, they didn’t know amphetamines were called “speed,” or that they might be dangerous and addictive; all they knew was that the Preludin pills my mother obtained for me kept me from eating, which was a good thing. I was only about 15-20 pounds heavier than most kids my age, but my mother, a petite woman, wanted her only daughter to be just as svelte. So I was forever trying to lose 20 pounds. The problem with not eating, was that I also wasn’t sleeping! No one made the connection that my insomnia was caused by the diet pills, and so to quiet the racing thoughts in my head, I started writing.
All I knew about poetry was what my mother had read me from her treasured collection called My Bookhouse. I had little notion of meter or imagery, and my first poem arrived as two pages of unevenly metered, rhymed poetry. It was called, “Boys.” This profound (for a 12-year-old) excerpt, has since, fifty years later, proved to still be heartbreakingly true:
Boys are cute
But are always mute.
When finally voicing their feelings,
They get the apple, we get the peelings.
As the years went on, I kept writing, still to empty the ever-present noise in my head, sometimes poems, sometimes journal entries. When I was 16 there was a contest in the Chicago Sun Times daily newspaper: Send in an essay on what it is like to be 16 in Chicago. I happened to have one ready, a whole rumination called “On Life,” and with it I included a poem.
Words are but a mortal’s tool
And I am but a mortal fool.
Were I gifted in my speech,
My mortal words would reach
The height of their immortal peak.
Had I but the words to speak.
The newspaper distilled my whole essay to a paragraph, but they did include my poem. My first publication! 1965.
Not one high school teacher ever handed me a literary journal. Not one of them even told me of the existence of such treasures, and here I lived in the very heart of poetry, where Poetry magazine was published! No one ever told me about a poetry reading, or a poetic community.
In 1975, I moved to Miami. I enrolled in a university so I could get my bachelor’s degree and a higher classification of Nuclear Technician, and because I could take an elective credit anywhere I wanted, I enrolled in a creative writing class at Dade Community College, where I finally met other poets. My entire life changed.