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The Representative of the Verse (Part III): The Poet as Delinquent

Young Lisa Wells looking aghast at life-size George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush cut-outs.

Some of my favorite writing advice was given to Mary Karr by Tobias Wolff: “Take no care for your dignity.” It is in the spirit of that advice that I share the first non-school-assigned poem I wrote, which also happens to be my first published work.

The context: 5th grade, friendless, kiss-ass of the hand-in-the-air ooh-call-on-me variety, I returned home from school each afternoon, eager to sit on the couch next to my mother and watch that day’s taped episode of General Hospital while eating peanut butter from the jar. District Attorney of Port Charles, Scotty Baldwin, was about to be disbarred, and between that storyline, the ’92 election, and Mrs. Meyer’s unit on the branches of government I’d picked up some super vocab.

If I had a rebuttal
If they cared what I say
They wouldn’t be sitting in a congress room today
Disbarring a lawyer, that isn’t that bad
But disowning your public
That’s what makes me mad

In two years, I’d be stealing cigarettes from Safeway and pulling a weekly in-school-suspension stint, but for the moment I was a burgeoning poet legislator with public ambitions.

I’d read an announcement in the back of a magazine. The National Library of Poetry was holding a contest. I submitted my poem and, several weeks later, was thrilled when the letter arrived congratulating me on acceptance. The anthology in which my poem appeared would not be made available in bookstores or libraries, but I could purchase a copy direct for $54.

This was a bummer turn. We didn’t have 50 bucks to buy groceries or keep the lights on, let alone to spend on a book, and the simultaneous swelling of pride and humiliation at having been conned imprinted on me an ambivalence that colors my relationship with publishing to this day.

 

I don’t know which series or anthology the poem appeared in, if it did appear, but I assume a single copy must survive somewhere. A cursory search divulges no titles from the early ’90s, but I hope mine was as epic as those preserved from the aughts. A Flood of Contentment, for example, from the 2002 series, Letters from the Soul. Or A Roomful of Starlight from the 2001 series Under a Quicksilver Moon.

There is, of course, no way to get the story right—if my soap opera poem was indeed some kind of origin. I felt I had something to say about powerful men (that’s one way to tell it). I liked working the puzzle of rhyme (is another). I was a goody-goody first, then I was a juvenile delinquent—but if that’s true, how to square the unhinged episodes attributable to the goody-goody? Hurling my brush at the mirror when my hair would not behave, screaming at my beleaguered mother on that very same loveseat: Everyone hates me! I wish I were dead!

Surely these episodes are just as much a signal of what was to come. Maybe a taste for melodrama is the more honest origin?

 

At 35 years old, after many frustrating and expensive years of submission (and I mean this in every sense), my first book was published. I felt I’d been standing in the bus shelter, in all kinds of weather, watching it pass and pass. What fun they seemed to be having on the bus. Just look at all the beautiful strangers, crying, kissing, and laughing! Life was passing.

Finally, the day arrived. I had my ticket. It was my turn to board. But you know how the story ends. You get on the bus and discover there’s nowhere to sit. The other passengers smile ambivalently or look away. The guy behind you unleashes a string of uncovered tubercular coughs, then asks for your number. What to do but get off at the next stop? Free again to walk in the weather, where you’d always belonged: in the world!

 

Let us go then, you and I, to the Washington County Juvenile Court, where the poem is brought full circle.

I wore a blue-pleated skirt that came below my knee, and removed the piercings from my face. My mom tucked her shirt into her “dressy pants.”

Our discount lawyer was a regular at Buddies Sports Bar and Grill where my aunt tended bar. In the friendly glow of neon, in comparison to the other faces bobbing above their tumblers, he’d seemed as legit as they come. But by the cold light of day, stood up next to the District Attorney and Judge, I saw him for what he was: a slovenly drunk with an unconvincing comb over, and a look of fear in his eyes.

I recall now, the lawyer’s favorite book in all of literature had been a screed against the softening of the American character called PC Nation. This should have been a clue.

Before sentencing, my lawyer told the judge I was “a good girl” who coached younger children in “theater arts,” and that I volunteered handing out contraception at nightclubs to “help stop the AIDS crisis.”

Hearing those facts of my life listed aloud in that room, I understood for the first time why the world made so little sense to me. It was because I made no sense to it.

“Your honor,” said the prosecutor, his tone equivalent to an eye-roll. “If the defendant is such a good girl, why is she going around after curfew, under the influence, with a switchblade in her pocket?”

 

O if I’d had a rebuttal! If they cared what I say!

But I had no rebuttal. And when the judge asked, I didn’t have anything to say for myself. There’d been no miscarriage of justice. I’d knowingly broken the law, and would be made to pay for it, and after my chastening wore off, I’d knowingly break it again, without regret. I had no plan to stick anybody with my switchblade, but when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl in the habit of taking solitary midnight strolls downtown, you need some kind of claw to keep the predators at bay. I regretted the lawyer’s fee, the sick day my mother had to take (getting caught, in other words), but I didn’t regret living in the world.

What does this have to do with poetry? Maybe not much. But it has a lot to do with my predilections as a writer. Pleasure, drunkenness, perilous curiosity, the will do as one pleases as opposed to what might please another (call it poetic license)—writing has always felt to me like getting away with something.

Early on, I learned I had two choices: I could hide indoors and read, or I could bare my teeth and walk in the world.

I chose both. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Originally Published: February 18th, 2019

Lisa Wells is a poet and essayist from Portland, Oregon. She is the author of a poetry collection, The Fix (2018), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and a book of nonfiction forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2020. Her poems and essays can be found in Harper’s Magazine, GrantaThe Believern+1, the Iowa...