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Introduction

On the uses of teenage angst.

What you have here are poems, artwork, and essays, most by self-proclaimed angsty teens, and some by adults who were once angsty teens and still kind of feel like angsty teens. I wanted to hash out the fear so many of us have of writing and reading poetry, which is really a fear of seeming like an angsty teen. I wanted emotion and watercolor and tiny handwriting, void of any self-aware cringing or patronizing pity-smiling, but not commendable only by virtue of its sincerity. Below is an essay I wrote about all this when I was fourteen (I’m nineteen now) — it’s very hard not to edit it, but that would be sort of counter-intuitive to this whole thing.

When I was twelve, I discovered Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, and fell asleep to a Jack Kerouac box set while babysitting. I began carrying around a small maroon notebook at school, and it became one long poem comprised of streams of consciousness that ran through my mind during the school day. I recall a lot about freight trains, crumbling suburbia, daydreams that exceeded the realm of junior high into America’s greatest expressways, and how the truth is the truth and you can’t hide from it, man. (It was around this time that I also created a shrine to Dylan in my bedroom.) When given free writing time in Language Arts, I always went with poetry and was first to raise a hand when it came time to share. One unintentionally erotic freeform piece was written from the point of view of Dylan’s harmonica. Another was called “How to Lose Yourself.”

I’ve since torn up and thrown out both the school notebook and personal maroon one, and made a clean break from Dylan.

When I was thirteen, I discovered Sylvia Plath and Riot Grrrl, and fell asleep to Hole’s Live Through This every night for a summer. 
I began carrying around a tape recorder with LTT in it at school, and read Pretty on the Inside lyrics while sitting out in gym class. That summer I got an electric guitar and tried writing songs myself. One was about a misunderstood witch, one was about a man who kept eighteen dresses of his rape victims in his closet as souvenirs, one was about Snow White and beauty standards. (It was around this time that I also created a shrine to Courtney Love in my bedroom.) 
I didn’t go to camp or on a family vacation but felt like I was traveling far and wide into the depths of my own mind with the drone of the amp in our basement, where I scrawled sheet after sheet of feminist rage and graphic descriptions of scars.

I wrote “WTF? why was i so disturbed ...” on one song because 
I was sure someone would find it and wanted them to think I’d written it a long time ago and wasn’t actually that grotesque. By the time my freshman year rolled around, I shoved those loose papers in a drawer and headed off to high school.

In ninth grade my writing — for school, my blog, my zine, myself — became more frank but not more truthful. It was apathetic, self-deprecating in tone, always including disclaimers and apologies for sounding cheesy or pretentious. I got a C on the Spoken Word unit in English class for turning in ironic poems about how Buttercup from Powerpuff Girls was my childhood hero and how great cats are.

They might’ve made good surf pop lyrics, but I knew they were bad poems. I knew I had it in me to write good ones, but tried writing only one with more personal subject matter. Public speaking and performing have never been hard for me, but when I delivered this one “serious” poem to my class, I stopped myself before the last line to apologize for the lame ending, then to apologize for apologizing, then to laugh at myself.

I felt like a mother apologizing for a toddler who said something inappropriate but true. Or like someone taking back some honesty they’d drunkenly exposed the night before. I wanted to take away from the humanity in what I’d written by laughing at it. It wasn’t a matter of my classmates’ opinions but my fear of reading my poetry out loud, in case doing so would give validity to feelings I hadn’t acknowledged for a long time because it was just too much of a hassle. Writing poetry was at times therapeutic, but it also opened doors to places I didn’t want to go. ’Cause, well, the truth really is the truth and you can’t hide from it, man!

It’s embarrassing to think I spent so much time and emotion and thinking on writing that wasn’t quality or at all original. Bob Dylan probably legally owns FreightCenter and the rights to referencing their industry, and there has to be someone, somewhere, (many people, everywhere), who also rhymed “red” with “dead” as an 
adolescent.

But it’s more embarrassing that I got embarrassed! For as many 
clichés as I spewed, I meant every word. I had this fervent conviction that no one before me had felt this way or that way, and I shouldn’t have loosened my grip on that feeling upon learning that it also happens to be the most common conviction among all adolescents. 
I don’t think the way I wince at the thought of those old notebooks gives enough credit to the girl who poured so much into them. Is it fair to a younger version of myself to dismiss everything I was feeling because it didn’t make for “good art”? In a way, it was better art than whatever I do now, because I at least cared about it.

In any form of creativity, self expression, or art, you’re giving away a little part of yourself. You’re confessing and owning up to 
insecurities, desires, ideas embarrassingly ambitious, ideas embarrassingly normal. You’re owning up to being a real person. Who wants to be one of those? It must take a superhuman to admit to being human.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Poetry magazine

Related

  • Tavi Gevinson is a writer, actress, and founding editor-in-chief of Rookie. Tavi most recently wrote her second cover story for ELLE and starred on Broadway in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. Rookie Yearbook Four will be published by Penguin Random House this fall.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Introduction

On the uses of teenage angst.

Related

  • Tavi Gevinson is a writer, actress, and founding editor-in-chief of Rookie. Tavi most recently wrote her second cover story for ELLE and starred on Broadway in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. Rookie Yearbook Four will be published by Penguin Random House this fall.

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