I copy a quote into my journal, give it two stars, an exclamation point, and highlight it. The text shines like a beacon behind the yellow. I stare down at it, paralyzed, not wanting to believe what I’m reading. I feel rejected, inadequate, and discouraged.
I flip back two hundred pages to a simpler time, when I copied a quote by the famous wit, Oscar Wilde, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” I stare down at it with nostalgia, believing every word. How could I not?
I grew up with nine siblings, legions of cockroaches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, a psychic mother, and an alcoholic father. There was no shortage of characters on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx. Inspired by them, the only serious thing I did was write.
I was eight when my mother delivered the youngest of her eight children she conceived with my father. She brought the baby home from the hospital and we all gathered around her and pulled at the blankets. We wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl. Didn’t we know the babies’ name was Michael already? I forgot if we gave up or mom said, “Get away, he’s a boy,” but I do remember the compelling urge to write a story.
I found scraps of paper and a pen. I began writing a story about a boy wanting to be two inches taller. The protagonist, Bobby, was short (like me) and he ate a candy bar and grew six inches taller than his desired height of a normal ten-year-old. (I might have been inspired by Alice in Wonderland). I don’t remember how Bobby resolved his situation, but my muse descended and whispered to me through the night. I fell in love with writing.
My writing really took off when my mother invited ghosts into our apartment after a spirit claimed to be her stillborn daughter, Lisa, on an Ouija board. Spirits gained access to our world and got out of hand, told us evil things, possessed some of us, and made the apartment very cold. Mom broke the board in half and threw it in the trash. This is an incorrect way to discard it (it’s best to burn it) which caused spirits to follow her like baby chicks to a mother hen.
Mom needed to figure out what they wanted, so she created replicas of the Ouija board by drawing them on the back of the blank pages in holy Bibles, and used a soda top tab as a planchette (a heart shaped pointing device you place your fingers on that is then moved by the presence of spirits). Every afternoon when school got out and on most weekends, she pulled me into the bathroom to discover what the spirits had to say. The room was lit by candles and the musky smell of incense filled the air. We sat for hours that felt like days with our fingers on the soda tab top moving from letter to letter, yes to no, or number to number when mom asked a question.
Mom began “picking up things” ever since. Eventually doing away with the “talking boards” completely. She said she was psychic now and the spirits “came through” to her by symbols and images that she was able to comprehend. Spirits even woke her up in the middle of the night to search cemeteries for tombstones that had inscriptions on them that provided further information on who they were and how they died.
I wrote stories of astral corpses haunting the living and spirits trying to fulfill their missions to ascend the heights of purgatory to heaven in everlasting peace. I also started journal writing which helped me through my childhood squalor and allowed me to separate myself from being a victim. Especially when I was eleven and watched my father push himself up from the recliner, waddle out to his brown Suburban, and drive off retreating from fatherhood. Also, when I was six mom told us that we were now Jehovah’s Witnesses. We no longer celebrated holidays, birthdays, or were allowed to have friends who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was alienated, but writing allowed me to create worlds of characters that took the loneliness away.
I wrote on every piece of paper I could get my hands on and I confess, I took the bad boy route and stole from the corner bodega on Castle Hill Avenue.
I remember the first time, I was running out of McDonald’s napkins (which held up pretty well for writing back in the 80s). I couldn’t be without writing, so I went into the bodega to the back by household items and stuffed my shirt with notebooks. I purchased a piece of candy and walked out. I marveled at the notebooks when I got home, rubbing my fingers softy over the metal spiral spines and flipping through the empty pages, dreaming of all I would write.
When I finished a story or poem I neglected it and moved on to the next project. I deemed myself a writer and “Writers write, they don’t go back to their work,” I claimed. I was under the amateur assumption that my muse bestowed me immaculate writing skills, first draft, like God accords to women when they give birth to babies; perfect, without a thing to change. I was under this assumption when I published my first three books of poetry, Affixed to Heartbeat, In death, There Are Bones, No Fish, and A New Day, A New Life. I fashioned myself to the wizard, Merlin, waving my pen like a wand, producing masterpieces.
I flip back to the highlighted quote I wrote. Taken from their seminal book, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. I read it again, painstakingly taking in every word.
** “Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often you will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions……do not be afraid to experiment with your text!”
Am I one of the few expert writers who produce what I am after on the first try? To find out I pull my books of poetry from the book shelf and spread them out on my bedroom floor. I overlook them, then pick up Affixed to Heartbeat. I flip through it, “examining” the “completed work.” There seems to be “serious flaws,” not calling, but screaming for “transpositions.” I pick up In Death, There Are Bones, No Fish. I flip through it and have the same notions. A New Day, A New Life is no different. Now the books now lie on the bedroom floor, tattered from being roughed up in frustration and thrown down in anger. I feel rejected, inadequate, and discouraged again.
One of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time, Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” This formal feeling is the inception of Between Us and Imagination. Not my first rodeo, but undoubtedly my first bull ride. I jump on, grab the bull by the horns, and hold on with all my might.
I stay atop the bucking of the rewriting, revising every chance I get, like sitting with my mother when I was a kid discovering what the spirits had to say on the Ouija board. I am not afraid to experiment with my text. So much that I have not bothered referencing the revised poems from previous collections, as an essence of most of the work is here.
In the process of revising the previous work, I wrote new poems. Verse that I’ve devised from becoming aware of the positive ways of existence. I’ve begun meditating routinely, revisiting childhood (through journal writing) and letting go of identifying myself with my past. Between Us and Imagination reflects my contemplation and provides a cloudless understanding of the Buddhist saying, “Life is ironic. It takes sadness to know what happiness is. Noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence.”
I copy the quote into my journal, give it two stars, an exclamation point, and highlight it. The text shines like a beacon behind the yellow. I feel accepted, adequate, but most of all, I feel like my poems, revamped!
May these poems also provide you with a cloudless understanding of what happiness is, to appreciate silence, and value your presence.
Preface for Between Us And Imagination. A collection of new and selected poems.