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.

Originally Published: August 22nd, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), a chronicle...

  1. August 23, 2007

    Last night. Wal-Mart.10:00pm. Me in a tight cluster with other last minute moms looking for folders (with pockets and brads), glue (in bottles and sticks), enough Kleenex to pad a sofa and crayons (16 in a box, two boxes). I’m sure I didn’t get everything because they were out of supply lists for my daughter’s school so I used another schools list and the store was out of half of that stuff anyway. I figure I’ve done my job. She’s alive and will be at school on Monday. Hell, she’ll even be happy because her grandma won her a new Tinkerbelle backpack in a raffle at a local pawn shop. Ain’t life grand?

  2. August 23, 2007
     kwame dawes

    Dear Patricia,
    Thank yu so much for the reassurance. No, not that poetry can save a life. Not that poetry has one's back. Not that if you feed them poetry, eventually they will grow to like it. No, not so much for those things, which are all good; but for reassuring me that at least one other seventh grade girl is trying to match binders with clothes! I no longer feel alone. Thanks.
    One love
    PS. Brilliant post.

  3. August 26, 2007
     Michael R Brown

    Kindred Spirits… I know a 12 year old who shares the same passion, the same excitement and the same blessing to be exposed to the poetic greats… here is her bio: Kyndall Brown is 12 years old and attends Hardy Middle School in Washington DC. She is a member of Girls and Boys with Hearts, a poetry group founded and directed by Ladi Di (the Love Poet). A first place prize winner of the 2005 Washington DC Poetry Fest Slam Championship, Kyndall has performed her poetry on various stages in the DC metropolitan area including the Pantene Totally You Tour at the Washington Convention Center, the DC Poetry Festival at the Carter Baron and the Langston Room at the Busboys and Poets Café. She has also performed at the HBO Theater in New York City (You were the guest MC for this event). Kyndall also had a cameo appearance in the Larry Neal Award winning dramatic play “Prison Poetry” by “Papi” Kymone Freeman at the Lincoln Theater in Washington DC. Kyndall is active in the community. She has performed at community rallies and festivals, including the October 2006 rally to reopen the Anacostia Public Library, the Black History Poetry Festival at Iverson Mall, in Hillcrest Heights, MD and the Black LUV Festival in Washington D.C. Her work has been published in the “Beltway Poetry Quarterly”, “ECHOES: Voices from Prince George's County Poets” and the soon to be released “Family Pictures: Poems and Photographs Celebrating Our Loved Ones”, which features poetry from such greats as E. Ethelbert Miller and Tony Medina. Kyndall has also been a featured poet on the 2KNation radio program (WPFW 89.3FM) in Washington DC. Kyndall Brown is also the proud author of a self published book of poems titled “I Ain’t Ascared of Nutin’… The Evolution of Me”.