On Why Teen Poetry Should Come with a Self-Destruct Button

Growing up, to say I always wanted to be a writer is cliché but true. To say I was oblivious to the realities of writing is an understatement. I wanted to write novels like the ones I read: pen my own Nancy Drew or Scary Tales, but I never made it beyond a few pages. I also wanted write poetry, but I didn’t know anyone who actually read poetry. Growing up in a small Texas town in the 80s and 90s, I thought poetry had to be doom and gloom, love and heartbreak, an avalanche of despair and sadness. I grimace at the poems I wrote in high school back then, at the poems I wrote for my first “serious” boyfriend. I think I even added artwork and glitter, the words in Microsoft Word’s fake cursive centered down the page. I think I might have even framed those poems. The thought makes me shudder, and I hope he burned those pages in his fire pit next to the lake. Or at least shredded with each one with scissors. I’d settle for crumpled and trashed as long as the words got smothered with hot sauce and mustard or drenched in grape soda and dissolved in some other chemically altered liquids. But anyway. Even then before I knew what poetry really was, I knew it was a gift. I knew it was powerful. As birthday and Christmas presents, I would write poems to everyone I loved. At some unconscious level, I knew it helped build awareness and empathy, even if I didn’t have those words for it yet.

Poetry became real to me not through the classics, but through my contemporaries in a college workshop. I realized poetry could go beyond doom and gloom. And then, the amazing poet Bruce Bond introduced me Laura Kasischke’s poem “Women Kills Husband with Bowling Ball,” which was filled with such playful and violent leaps of language and logic that I was sunk. At 22, I finally started to understand the breadth (breath?) of poetry. I’ve always been inspired by fiction—Morrison’s Beloved, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Greene’s The End of the Affair, and Conrad’s Lord Jim all strengthened my resolve to throw myself into the possibilities of language (right now I’m reading Aimee Bender’s short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and highly recommend anything by Bender, Karen Russell, and Mary Gaitskill). But now I also had Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Auden in my arsenal. As well as Sheila Black, Brenda Shaughnessy, Anne Carson, Larry Levis, Reginald Shepard, Carl Phillips, and so many more.

But what I love most are contemporary poets writing for now. My go-to writers are the poets alive today, responding to the world we live in: Anne Champaign’s Every Good Girl is a Ghost, Torrin A. Greathouse’s Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, Andrea Gibson’s The Madness Vase, and Victoria Chang’s Obit. And as much as I cringe at my angsty, emo teen poetry, I was writing for my time, when the possibility of romance was high and the rejection was crushing. I was trying to describe, understand, and name emotions. I wish I had been more aware of worldly problems but finding someone to kiss (and then breakup with) seemed vitally important. It’s not the theme I object to, but the lack of poetry, especially contemporary, available. I only had Shakespeare, the Brontës, Emily Dickinson, Jewel, Shel Silverstein, and Robert Frost.

Of course, I still write about love and loss, but I have so many more possibilities today because I have access to contemporary poets, which is why when I teach introduction to creative writing classes, I teach living poets. My students love Danez Smith’s “alternate names for black boys” and “Jennifer Knox’s “Hot Ass Poem” because both expand definitions of what poetry can be. Of what poetry can do. If we start introducing teens to more contemporary poets not all high school poetry would need to come with a self-destruct button. Or, at least, the destruct button could be optional.