One Writer’s Big Inning
To begin at the beginning is the first sentence of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Although I could never begin to write as well as Dylan Thomas, I am certain that every writing life begins with reading. At age seven I got my picture in the local paper for reading the most books in the school district during the MS Read-a-thon, a benefit for multiple sclerosis. Another kid got pictured with me because he raised the most money for the cause. I hope he became the director of a successful nonprofit; I became a writer—pretty quickly, actually. In third grade I won $100 in a statewide essay contest. The essay was basically a review of a Cold War propaganda film about a Soviet defector named Simas Kudirka.
In the beginning was the word, as everyone knows. From a Calvinist perspective, God predestined that I would write poems; from an Armenian perspective God had foreknowledge of my poems but didn’t will me to write them. God only knows which of these views comes closer to the truth, the mind of God being mysterious and beautiful like poetry and like my wife.
An old joke: Q. Where is baseball mentioned in the Bible? A. Genesis 1:1—In the big inning. My mom likes to tell people that she was watching my dad umpire a baseball game when she went into labor and that he didn’t want to head to the hospital until the game was over. God only knows whether or not this is true. I think my writing was begat from my mom’s bitterness and my dad’s desire to be elsewhere. My parents’ divorce, when I was ten years old, was, for me, what Mark Jarman refers to as “my groundswell...where things began to happen and I knew it.”
My youth was no more than a dark, looming storm is the first line of a poem by Charles Baudelaire, and things happened in my childhood that never should have happened. I don’t like to go there. If I did, I guess I would write creative nonfiction. But this is an essay about my beginnings as a writer, and for a lot of us, I think it begins with “ouch!” and “why?” Does this fatally doom the writerly aspirations of those who had happy childhoods? I don’t think so. Or I don’t think there is such a creature. We’re all born into trouble, as sparks fly upward, as Eliphaz says to Job, which seems to be true, at least of everyone that I’ve taken the trouble to get to know. This is good news for writers! Nothing needs to be lost on us. Everything is material. Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days, wrote Flannery O’Connor.
I’ve written poetry for over a quarter of a century, but I just started writing songs a few years ago. In an effort to maintain what Shunryu Suzuki calls “Zen mind, beginner’s mind,” at the age of forty, I began learning to play bass guitar, electric guitar, and drums. Being an apprentice has helped me relate to my poetry writing students. It has also begun to affect my poems in ways that I don’t have room to address here. I’ll just close by saying that it has been beneficial, for me, to study a different, but related, art form. It has reminded me that I have a long way to go as a poet, that I’ll be a beginner until the day I die.