When We Were Very Young
Dec 22, 2010Eavesdropping on my parents during a visit to Pittsburgh this winter, I became certain that I'd been born into an environment where becoming a writer or language-invested artist of some type was inevitable. I wasn't eavesdropping deliberately; my parent's house, built around 1910, is a 3-story hardwood echo-chamber. With high ceilings and the doors left open, it was nearly impossible for me not to overhear them. Overheard, before dinner, Mom singing alone in the kitchen: "Stir-fried steak and tofu, stir-fried steak and tofu, stir-fried steak and tofu, lala, la, lala." Overheard, from the hallway, Dad speaking to the dog: "Hello, darling. Hello, darling, darling, darling." Overheard, 4 p.m. Saturday, parents sitting in their shared study: Mom: "Are you hallucinating?" Dad: "I have a beautiful brain." (laughter) The private, rhythmic, frequently absurd language of my parents must have stimulated my writer-brain. But growing up, my parents also read to me every single night. My father read the Dr. Dolittle series, my mother read The Little House on the Prairie series, and both of them read The Chronicles of Narnia and the books of Roald Dahl. Even earlier than the chapter books were the poems. When I was in pre-school and kindergarten, and maybe in early elementary school, our nightly readings careened through nursery rhymes: Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, and most frequently, a collection by A.A.Milne, a stained and dog-eared copy of When We Were Very Young. So many of my childhood memories partially entail wandering around the house reciting snippets of Milne poems like "The King's Breakfast" or "Rice Pudding." My parents ended up knowing stanzas or full poems of Milne's as well, and consequently delivered random verses as often as I did. Sometimes, if I began to recite a poem, one or the other would complete it. Earliest evidence of creative linguistic license: somewhere, there exists a videotape (yes, a videotape), a foreshadowing: I am two or three, sitting in the bucket swing that hung on our back porch, looking delighted. I recite the entirety of "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe," then begin again, purposefully scrambling the verses, smiling more widely each time I swing towards my mother. The Future-As-Poet train, by that point, was in full force. I'd be remiss to ignore the other signs : the fact that I can precisely envision where the collected works of E.E. Cummings sat in my father's study; the fact that my mother's first job, self-designed, was as a puppeteer for children's birthday parties; the fact that one of my father's habitual stories is about when, in the late 1950's while he was at MIT, a friend suggested off-handedly that they see a couple poets "named Ginsberg, and one named Ferlinghetti or something." I'd be remiss to not tell you that my father spouted Robert Frost - annoyingly, I thought as a child - without occasion, without introduction, in the car, in the yard, in passing, while opening or closing a door. Always, it was "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," a poem that one morning, I realized had been permanently planted in my brain. Now, when people ask about influences in my poetry, I immediately say "Frost." But perhaps, it seems, first, I should say, "My parents." There's more that I could tell you. I could say that it's strange to consider these primary influences while looking at the actual subjects of my work, I could say that I'd be horrified to read 75% of my poetry to my parents. But this isn't about what I'm writing, it's about how I came to it, how I fell in love with the music that lies beneath all language.