Hello there! Welcome to BOOKMARKS, a new monthly series in which I ask writers to reflect on the moments where words, and what words can do, entered their lives, i.e. made a mark. From bedtime stories to high school classrooms, these are the times when your teachers, colleagues, and friends first had a glimpse of their future writing lives. I hope you delight in these memories as much as I do.
GS contributing editor (& GS poetry editor 2010-2014)
When I was a kid, my mother used to recite a story to us (I was one of five children)—it wasn’t written down anywhere—called “Big Bill and Little Bill.” What was amazing to me is that my mother knew this story “by heart.” I know now that she didn’t create the story herself, that it was passed down in some way by oral tradition through her family, but as a child, I thought this was my mother’s own story. We had few books in the house, so we heard “Big Bill and Little Bill” a lot and pretty much knew it by heart ourselves. It’s a very simple story, as you can imagine from that title, but it clearly made a mark on all of us, so much so that my sister transcribed the story and sent it to the rest of us a few years ago. It preserves a key part of the essence of my childhood and what stories can do when shared. Perhaps it’s a bit hokey, but I feel like back then I began to want to be able to tell stories that affected people like that story affected us all. It was a story told with love, which I think is the best motivation for the best stories.
I could write about all the poets who’ve influenced me as a beginning poet, from Lorine Niedecker to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to George Oppen, but I want to write about one book that made me want to be a writer. I grew up in New Jersey and we owned a Chinese restaurant on a strip mall (with a liquor store, a party supply store, a Sally Hansen, and a Burlington Coat Factory). The public library happened to be just a few streets away from restaurant. As it turns out, the library is the best free babysitter! My mother would drop me off there and I’d read for hours in the stacks. Finding books was a matter of convenience for my mother and a matter of necessary creativity for me. The first book that truly struck me as a kid was Matilda by Roald Dahl. I was pretty sure I was Matilda; I didn’t have many friends growing up and always felt comforted by books. And when I started writing, I felt empowered – as if I could make something happen. It sounds silly, but Matilda taught me how to transform indignance into voice. I was so silent when I was young, my teachers thought I couldn’t speak English (which is amazing, since I was reading books all the time). I remember sitting in ESL class and the teacher pointing to the door and saying, “DOOR!” and wanting to shoot lasers into her eyes. Matilda says, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog.” I’ve kept these words with me – in poetry, in the risk we take to make something happen. I want the whole hog.
PAUL LISICKY, The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press, forthcoming 2015):
I’m not sure whether I ever read more than a few pages of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I couldn’t even tell you its basic plot, though it does seem exactly my kind of thing, with a sickly child and animals and a boy in a hidden bedroom. For me, the story concentrated in a single image: a girl peering through a hole in the wall. I imagined the garden inside as chilly, but good, where God might have lived. I also thought it might be dangerous, in that you weren’t supposed to look at it for long.
I remember getting this small paperback, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from a McDonald’s that my mom would take me to sometimes for a treat when I was little. I was maybe seven and I remember thinking it was a dumb prize, you know, that it wasn’t a toy. And then I read the first few pages in the car after lunch and that might’ve been the first time I was ever really transported and swept off my feet by words, aside from the vinyl Disney record I had of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which was basically the audio from the animated movie. I’m still probably about equally torn between books, audio, and movies to this day, and do my best to get lost in all three.
When I was three, I got my library card, and the first book I took out was Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. This book was to color my world like no other, and I believe a lot of my poetry stems from reading it.
There were always stories growing up for me. Berenstain Bears, Curious George, Aesop’s Fables, stories from the Hebrew Bible. But the first works to affect me creatively was the work of my classmates, particularly the older students in my earliest writing workshops. It was important for me at fourteen to know that poetry was within my reach, that I could do it if I tried. They showed me how language can be a built thing and on the most basic level achieving something different from other artistic mediums. I think there was also a special kind of intimacy and vulnerability in that space. My first creative writing teacher, Christine Potter (who has since published two books of poems) really made this happen. I am eternally indebted to her.
I remember vividly that moment when words–a title–a metaphor in this example–followed a specific order and took on such a deep meaning that the world I lived in became a different and more exciting place because it seemed that it wasn’t at all the only world there was. My mother was a virtuoso reader and was never without a book and whatever she was reading was always at some point in her discovery left on the front table of our hallway in the apartment where we were living on 12th Street. This was during the sixties; I was 12 or 13. One day the book was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and seeing that title I thought, my god, what were those words doing on the cover of a book? The lyrical intensity of the idea made the words blur. I must have read, looked at, absorbed the title a hundred times–changing its meaning in my head from literal which made little sense to the illusion which made all the sense in the world. This secret knowledge gave me a sense of beauty and power and permission. I wanted to be able and do this very exact thing. I wanted to walk through the world and come up with other ways to describe how I was living and seeing. I wanted to turn living around. Metaphor. I didn’t know what it was called. But I distinctly remember what it could do. And from there, somehow, I found the houses of poetry.
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”