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Poetry, the Conqueror of Pimples and All Prepubescent Profundities!
Suddenly, the air is charged.
My 12-year-old is banging around the apartment, trying on first-day-at-school outfits, cooing at her image when the ensembles work and screaming like a banshee when they don’t. She has copied the official 7th-grade school supply list over two or three times, which I guess was somehow preferable to simply printing it out from the computer.
Armed with the list, we headed for Staples, and she trounced the aisles looking for a mirror (so she could see how she looked holding various folders) and gushing over her very first Texas Instruments fancy-pants, bell-and-whistles calculator. I have never seen anyone so excited about the beginning of school.
Poised on the edge of the emotional maelstrom known as middle school (hello pimples, gossip and–omigod–boys), she is dancing toward the chaos with both eyes open, singing even. (If you have not heard the entire score of “High School Musical 2” screeched by a tuneless preteen, you have not lived. And you will no longer want to.)
I can’t stop looking at her. Amazing. And I can’t help but think back to when I was 12, penning anguished little poems in my wire-bound notebook, thinking there wasn’t anyone but me writing, no one but me needing to write. I hadn’t read any poems in school (we’re talking about the Chicago public school system, where even math was an elective), and certainly didn’t know that there were people who made a living writing poetry, and that was an option available to me.
My granddaughter, however, is a different breed.
After all, it was she who burst into her classroom one morning screaming “Guess who I sat with last night? Lucille Clifton!” And yes, she was utterly disgusted by the class’ lack of comprehension and appreciation. And yes, the next day she lugged in four of Lucille’s poetry tomes and three of her children’s books, shaming the teacher, blessing her classmates with new knowledge.
And she’s hung with Tyehimba Jess, and she can quote Leadbelly and Stephen Dobyns and Elizabeth Alexanders and Billy Collins. She hangs with Kwame Dawes and has basked in the joy of Calabash. (That’s her in the pool, kicking off this entry.) And she’s judged poetry slams and read her own work in front of 300 people at the Kimo Theater in Albuquerque. She’s attended AWP, and read in the convention open mic at 11:30 at night. (This was three years ago. She was 9.) She considers Bar 13 in New York her “home turf.” She orders up Shirley Temples at the bar and treats every poet she knows–and she knows them all–like a rock star.
Words, and their possibilities, mesmerize her.
Just recently, at one of my MFA seminars, where was much gnashing of teeth by poets who felt guilty about spending so much time away from their families, their children in particular. They spoke as if their creative passion was entirely separate, some big mysterious secret, and that their kids were being raised in parallel, but never too near.
I’m here to testify about the rambunctious joy of raising a child in poetry, letting her romp in a circle of people who are hooked on everything words can do. At first, she’ll rebel, sulking in the back of readings glued to her Nintendo DS. But then she’ll start moving closer and closer to the front of the room, drawn by the inevitability of our addiction, by our impassioned readings, our rants and tears, the excitement in our voices. Suddenly she’s front row center, face upturned, eyes glowing, and you know she’s discovered a failproof way to move her life forward. Poetry.
So I am worried about the upcoming year, the challenges my granddaughter will face as a burgeoning adult? Not really. You see, she’s formidably equipped. She has all the tools she needs to process her world.
Mikaila Smith has seen the future and it is us.
And if anyone anywhere gives her trouble, her buddy Lucille’s got her back.