June 16, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Sixth Grader

One of the nice things about having stayed in the same area I grew up in (compounded by the power of Facebook) is that I've stayed in touch with old, old friends. Such as my friend Tricia, whose parents live across the street from my grandmother. Every time I went to see her in McLean, Virginia, I hoped I would get the chance to go to the Kuzmack's house and play with Tricia and her sister Steffie in a backyard that had a great big vegetable garden and a playhouse with hippie love beads hanging down in a curtain across its doorway. 

Tricia emailed me the other week to report that her parents, in cleaning out the attic, had run across some old things from Haycock elementary school. Among the papers that had been packed away? "Literature Delight, Volume #6." Our Paris Review. Within the day she'd sent photographs. A rather snazzy-looking compilation, I must say. Check out the brilliant blue of that cover! Check out the apple-dotted i's! I remember lunchtimes in the school library with books ready to be bound--punching the paper holes, lining up the slots, pulling the lever to clamp on the black plastic binding. Breathing in the hot plastic smell of the nearby laminating machine. 

And then...there were the poems. 

"The Storyteller" has to be a nod to L.M. Montgomery's The Story Girl, which is about a group of cousins growing up on Prince Edward Island. "Cecily" is an odd name for me to use--whereas I had Jessicas and Adams in my classes, I can't recall a single Cecily. But one of the children in Montgomery's book is named Cecily King. In Montgomery's book, the "Story Girl" Sarah Stanley is the same age as the other children. But I remember always thinking that she seemed preternaturally old in spirit, destined to stay alone with her stories while the others went on to marrying, having children, and moving away. So in the world of my poem, I projected a future of telling stories to the children of friends who were playmates. Oh my. Twenty years ago, and I was already drawn to this notion of a woman choosing to be "the storyteller" even if it set her apart from the pleasures of a normal life.   

Then there is this poem, which won the school's creative writing contest that year. (I also took third place...and I placed in the nonfiction category too, with a humor essay about having a little sister in the house. I was overzealous.)

OK, I was a somewhat melancholy kid. But I will own these poems, if only because in seeing them again after all these years I still have such fresh, sharp memories of their conception. In sixth grade, just as now, I was a girl with brown hair and brown eyes. I remember that being the first year I felt envy of the girls with exotic coloring--and the opening lines of "The New Me" gave me a chance to imagine that doppelganger, prettier Sandra. I'm not sure what it was that I thought would embittered and harden me down the road, but I do know that I was interested in the iterations of language: seeing how much I could advance the story with just tiny changes to the phrasing. And I knew I could get away with dropping down that last standalone line if, rhythmically, it completed the line before it. 

Thanks, Tricia, for this trip down memory lane. I suppose posting juvenilia for the world to see could be a bad idea. But often, when I answer the question of "how long have you been writing poetry?" with "since elementary school," I see a flicker of disbelief in people's eyes. Here you have it, folks. Proof! 


David said...


That second poem is very existential for a sixth grader! I've recently discovered your blog and enjoy visiting.


Denise K said...

I freaking love this post. I've written poetry since I was a child too! I want a copy of that lit mag y"all made.

destinyschild said...

i lvd ur work..mostly the second one..do mor..keep writing..