In April, 1998 my freshman year at Fremd High School was coming to a close. My Spanish teacher, Ms. Mungai, took our class to the auditorium for an event called Writers Week. I sat in the last row of the center section with two of my friends, Chris and Julie, lowly, unassuming freshmen, as 80-year-old Gwendolyn Brooks shared her words from the podium on stage. Those 50 minutes literally changed my life. At the end of her reading a teacher announced that Ms. Brooks would be available in the faculty study the following period(s) to sign books. Somehow the line to meet her kept shifting so that I kept ending up dead last. This caused me to miss two or three classes, but in my eyes it was totally worth it. I told her a friend of mine wanted her address, so she wrote it in the back of the book. I don't have many regrets in life, but one of them is never using the address to write her a letter. It's one of those things that was always on my "I'll get to it someday" list. I should have known better, even at the young age of 15, that people don't stay around forever. She died on December 3, 2000.
The day after I skipped a bunch of classes to meet her, I was summoned to my administrator's office. Busted. To be honest, I was quite terrified, as I had never really done anything before to warrant being sent to anyone of high authority. I was practically shaking as I faced my administrator, Dr. Scott (now the current principal of Fremd), and the truth came spilling out...as it usually does whenever I open my mouth. I'm not a very good liar. I told her that yes I skipped class but that I felt as though I learned more by getting the chance to meet Gwendolyn than I would have if I had gone to class and that the experience changed my life and it's ok if I'm in trouble I'm ready to accept my punishment. I sat wide-eyed, barely breathing, and handed over the book, Selected Poems, and said, "This is the only proof I have. I didn't just cut class to cut class. I did it for this." Dr. Scott looked at the autographed page and smiled, clearly sensing how nervous I was. She decided not to give me a detention. In fact, if I remember correctly, I think she even congratulated me on getting the signature.
From that point on I became a self-proclaimed Writers Week junkie, and for the remaining three years of high school I camped out in the auditorium during that week. Literally. I'm not joking. Senior year I don't think I attended a single class all week. As long as there were writers reading, I was there listening. It was like an addiction. I'd get my fix, maybe even overdose on words and language and watching writers share their work. The inspiration and motivation to write would last for just about a year, and just when I'd start to lose it, it'd be time for Writers Week again. Starting sophomore year I passionately involved myself in all aspects of the event. From setting up fundraisers at Barnes&Noble, to reading my own work as a featured student writer, to giving the introduction to some of the real writers (such as Jane Hamilton) before they took the stage.
Another poet, Marc Smith, stood out freshman year because he was loud and he walked up the auditorium banisters while shouting words, including the banned word: Fuck, which got an obvious rise out of both the bemused student body and the paranoid faculty. What stood out more than his use of "profanity" was the fact that he invented the poetry slam. It's funny now looking back on that day because I had no idea what a poetry slam even was until Marc Smith arrived on stage. After that year I made sure I participated in every poetry slam held at school, during and after. Don't get me wrong, it's not like they happened all the time, but enough so that I found it strange when talking to people who didn't go to Fremd and they'd have no idea what I was talking about. So anyway, Marc invented the slam. That's huge. And not only did he invent it, he invented it in our home city of Chicago at a place called The Green Mill.
Julie and I vowed that as soon as we turned 21 (as her birthday is 3 weeks before mine, both in November) the first thing we'd do as of-age patrons would be to go to this famed jazz club.
Tonight Julie and I reconnected after not seeing each other since high school graduation over five years ago. We finally set a date and finally went to this otherwise mythical venue. We parked several blocks away and walked in the Chicago cold to the flashing lights at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. "Here we go..." one of us said as we made our way inside. "I can't believe we're finally here." We wandered closer to the stage area, and Julie pointed out Marc Smith standing a few feet away. He then saw us and said, "Go sit at that table up in front! Then I can look at your pretty faces the whole time!"
Honestly, I'm not even a huge fan of the slam. Partly because I think a lot of times poets are judged on how they deliver their words (the more hand gestures or thrashing body movements or say-ing w-ord-ssss brok-en up soun-ding, the higher the score?) as opposed to what they're actually saying. And partly because judging poetry makes me uncomfortable. I mean I'll be the first to admit that I don't like something, but I will be the last to hold up a number between minus infinity and 10 to tell you that.
But even though "slamming" is not my thing, the fact that I was once again surrounded by people who love sharing words made my stomach churn. There's something to be said about the feeling you get when you feel overwhelmed by excited sparks and flying objects colliding somewhere inside you. Borderline nausea maybe? Because you know this is what you've been missing in your life, what you've been depriving yourself of because you're "too busy" or "too tired" (in this case, to write).
Although my concentrations in college were both photography and writing, I definitely veered more towards photography--at least from a professional/career standpoint--in the later years. I feel like I exhausted anything I had to say after September 11. It was like nothing needed to be written anymore because what else could I possibly say after writing pages upon pages about witnessing the worst attack on U.S. soil? What could I possibly write that hasn't been written, or say that hasn't been said?
There's a quote from one of my favorite books, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss:
Words often failed me
While others prayed
I only moved my lips
That's how I feel most of the time--tongue-tied. I've always been able to express myself better with written words as opposed to verbally. But even written words were beginning to fail me, so I threw myself full force into photography, and from then till now I've been expressing myself visually. But lately I've been missing the words. My intention was always to do both, to combine the mediums somehow, forming some form of equilibrium.
People who only knew me in high school, only knew my dedication to writing and becoming a writer. When I run into these people now, they always excitedly ask, "So are you still writing?" And I always squirm and sometimes blush because I feel like a failure. I know they expect me to say that I'm mid-novel or writing two poems a day. "Well," I say. "I actually haven't written anything in a long time..." "Oh really? I remember when your 9.11 journals were published in the newspaper..." What do I say to that? Yeah, and that's where I lost it? Instead I just smile politely and say that hopefully some day I'll start up again.
Julie and I approached Marc after the open mic/slam ended, and we told him how we've been talking about coming to the Green Mill for nine years and finally made it. He said he has good memories of Fremd but has since been banned from performing there because parents complained that he used the "f-word." It's nice that suburban parents think they have nothing better to worry about than their teenagers hearing words that they themselves use on a daily basis.... We told him we're planning to be regular Sunday night attendees. Even though we heard no good poetry and our waitress was rude, I now know where I can at least get my fix--because if I'm going to be addicted to something, words might be the healthiest poison.
(both photos are of marc smith and were taken tonight--12/3/06)