I’ve spent the last few days leafing through old journals and high school literary magazines, rereading the hundreds of poems I wrote when I was fourteen and fifteen years old.
My chest feels tight and my cheeks are hot. So many of these poems are ... so bad.
So, so bad.
I feel incredibly grateful that a bully never grabbed my notebook and read this stuff aloud on the school bus. I feel incredibly grateful that the Internet didn’t exist back then and these poems aren’t immortalized digitally on some site under an account like “poemboi” that I can’t delete because I forgot the password three decades ago. I feel incredibly grateful that even now I have the good sense not to share with you or anyone else the vast majority of these poems.
But mostly ...
Mostly I feel incredibly grateful that I wrote these terrible poems, incredibly grateful to the poets and songwriters who inspired me, and incredibly grateful to my teachers, parents, and friends, who either encouraged or at least ignored all this manic, loopy writing.
Because I’m a professional writer who’s spent the last couple decades writing over 300 comic books, multiple screenplays, and a novel — thousands and thousands of pages of prose. And I see taking shape in these old poems all of the habits that allowed me to become who I am as a writer and a human being.
One of the hardest things for many writers and would-be writers is simply beginning the physical act of writing. But when I was a kid, poetry gave me permission to start writing instinctively, with almost nothing in my head. The stakes were low — how much trouble could I get myself into in a single page of writing? In my notebooks, I have dozens of poems that start with an image or emotion or just a string of intriguing or pleasing words, play with a theme for a bit, and then either tip into a punch line or fall apart. Here’s a fun example that’s actually mocking my own tendencies in this regard:
Listen to meI say listen dammitwould you kindly get thosefingersfrom your ears?(thankyousir)Now as I was saying ...... uh
I didn’t always know what I wanted to say. But I knew I wanted to say it! And that’s OK! I clearly wasn’t bothered by it as a kid. I was just having fun writing. And that’s a huge gift that poetry gave me, because writing is thinking and thinking is how we become ourselves. And because every time I wrote anything, I got a tiny bit better at it.
love of language
In a report for my ninth grade English class, I listed E.E. Cummings as my favorite poet. To this day, I find myself randomly remembering snippets of his poems — I’ll probably marvel at least five times a year for the rest of my life over “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees / and a blue true dream of sky.”
Hugely inspired by Cummings, my own high school poems are packed with funky punctuation and unusual phrasing. The “whitely” in “screaming candle burns whitely scorching smoke” almost certainly borrows from Cummings’s “greenly.” Poetry gave me permission to put words together in any way that felt true and sounded right — or even just sounded interesting.
I had a particular affection for eliminating spaces between words, as in “Made you feel / verygoodnice inside” and “They call me / strangeweirdtreeofnight.” That sensibility echoes through my work to this day as I write dialogue in comic books, looking for ways to convey the different pace and tone of how we express emotion through our spoken words. I have to imagine that poets like Cummings would have been right at home lettering comics. Comics letterers play with type and punctuation and sizes and fonts, separating dialogue into balloons and captions, spacing them across the page in specific ways to create specific rhythms and emotions in a reader’s mind and heart. If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.
The old cliché tells us that a good poem doesn’t waste a single word. I’m a little dubious — “waste” is a subjective term that too often can be used to praise Hemingway-esque terseness above all else.
Still, writing poetry as a teenager challenged me to explore a single idea in a concentrated way, building each element of the work toward a final effect. That’s essentially what I do every day as a professional writer, whether I’m working on my comics, my screenplays, my novels, or even this essay. But I wasn’t dropped onto the earth with the ability to develop a theme through dozens of pages. I had to learn the skill — and I’m still learning it, every single day. But poetry gave me some of my very first and most effective lessons in the art. Here’s one of the best examples of my own efforts from my old notebooks:
I see a keyin the back of that boy’s backStrange thing isit doesn’t unlock anything.
I read that now, and I chuckle at the knowing cynicism of fourteen-year-old me, but I also think: that’s ... pretty good! Set up, development, and twist! In just eighteen words! Thanks, poetry!
I remember being blown away as a teenager when I first read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Shakespeare himself making fun of romantic poetry? And then ending with a totally earnest, heartfelt, romantic couplet? That opened up so many doors for me. From a young age, I knew that jokes could be poetry, and vice versa, and that jokes and poems could be kind; that’s a great gift for any young person: a validation of our shock at the absurdity of the world and a deeply humane permission to laugh at ourselves.
But maybe the biggest gift poetry gave me as an adolescent was permission to embrace its most mocked and clichéd attribute — the earnest expression of deeply felt emotion. Boys and men are still so frequently mocked for emotional tenderness. But even growing up in Dallas, Texas, in the eighties, I learned that poetry was a safe place to express all of those confusing, painful, earnest emotions. Maybe I went to very special schools and had very special friends, but I can literally never remember being teased for my poems, even when the student literary magazine published a piece of mine that ended with “Set your soul unmasked / and let it sail you / toward yourself.”
I’m often asked in interviews how I’d describe my own work, and I usually say I like to combine fun genre hijinks with genuine emotional storytelling. That’s the sweet spot for Planet Hulk and Mech Cadet Yu and pretty much all my writing in between. And when I look back on what I was writing more than three decades ago, I see that same joy and heart starting to shine. Here’s one last example for you, maybe the best of my teenage poems, “One Cold Night Many Many Days Ago”:
I stepped back and forthAnd my shoes toed the hard cementwith tough rubberand my shining white tube sockswith red stripes stood out coldlytoughAnd my muscles rolled threateninglyUnder rough tough skinAnd my knuckles were hard and deadlyAnd my shirt hung loosely, readyAnd all over I was toughAnd I was so obviously toughI was so amazingly toughMan was I so tough —Atlas dropped the world crack on my foreheadand bang I was out like a light andred toughnessspread all over the concreteAnd the other tough guyssaidTough.
And there it all is. Love of language, concise examination of a theme, heartfelt exploration of a real struggle with social expectations of masculinity, and a payoff with self-deprecating humor that opens the door to new ways of thinking and being.
Maybe I could have gotten where I am and where I’m going without all the poems I’ve read and written over the years. But I know the journey’s been easier, deeper, and a heck of a lot more fun with them.
Greg Pak is a comic book writer best known for Planet Hulk (Marvel), Mech Cadet Yu (BOOM! Studios), and Action Comics (DC Comics). He also directed the feature film Robot Stories and wrote the children’s book The Princess Who Saved Herself (Pak Man Productions and 10 Print JoCo, Inc., 2015).