After reading Kwame's entry about his first poem, I decided to dive into that pool.


My first poem came out of me when I was fourteen years old. It was a weekend night, and I had been partying with some friends, and I came back home, and my mind/heart was still going. (A definition of a poet = one whose mind/heart goes when there’s no purpose for it to be going?) I sat on my bedroom floor in my family’s rowhouse in Center City, Philadelphia and scrawled out a rhyming poem, probably forty lines, entitled “The Rollercoaster of Life”.
It still doesn’t make sense that I would’ve picked up a pen and a notebook. I wasn’t a good student that year; I was having internal and external trouble. Poetry wasn’t something that my family discussed at the dinner table. My friends most certainly weren’t into poetry, unless breaking windows and smoking weed meant poetry. The only way I can explain it is that I had thoughts/feelings that couldn’t go anywhere else. (And when you’re a fourteen year-old boy in 1981, your options are severely limited.)
I kept writing throughout high school. I filled close to fifty spiral-bound notebooks, with poems, thoughts, hallucinatory scribbling (the LSD kind of hallucination, not the William Blake kind). My notebook was my psychic diary.
My first poetry reading was at my high school talent show in the spring of 1983. I was sixteen, in tenth grade, for the second time, at a new school, a kind of Laura Ashley high school out in the suburbs that my parents sent me to after I’d been kicked out of a Quaker school the year before.
In the early 80’s, poetry wasn’t visible like it is now. One of the benefits of emerging in that poetic void was that I didn’t have anyone telling me what a poet was supposed to do at a reading. I didn’t have any models; I was able to imagine it for myself. It made perfect sense that a poet should speak poems to an audience, should embody the words. Probably my primary model in that regard was David Bowie, specifically his concert movie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust—the way he meant every word he said. (One of the drawbacks of emerging in a poetic void was that I didn’t know how I could talk in a poem. I didn’t know what my choices were. I didn’t know how to speak; subsequently many of the poems I wrote rhymed, and ot in a particularly original manner).
For the school talent show, I constructed a 7-minute performance that began with me walking out on stage, wearing brown leather pants (my acid pants that made me feel like Jim Morrison) and a black, button-up, collarless shirt, and ankle-high, combat boots. On my skin, I had a layer of make-up, and long, sparkly earrings. I had meticulously pre-recorded an audiotape to perform over that was played over the three-hundred seat auditorium’s speakers. The performance fused together dance, mime, and poetry. I danced to the song Sex by Berlin, Fashion by Bowie, and I popped to the French version of an obscure rap song called Change The Beat. (I was really into rap music and taught myself to pop when I was 15). In between the dance bits, I spoke two poems from memory, from the lip of the stage. In my mind, they were the truest things I had over spoken. I recited them over two instrumental tracks from David Bowie’s Low, recorded at a very low decibel. I then marched off stage to Bowie’s Rock and Roll Suicide.

Originally Published: April 26th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. April 27, 2007
     Anne Williams

    In my high school, Bowie AND Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the rock-poets of choice for the theater misfits. Patti Smith's seminal album Horses was the druggies' choice.

  2. April 27, 2007
     Dara Gordon

    Sounds like a safe way to camp it up in high school!

  3. April 30, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    Wonderful. Wonderful ends that song.
    The Hood Company