Freddy read poetry to me. Freddy is my grandfather, but his name wasn’t Freddy, it was James. He was too young to be called “grandpa,” so that’s what he chose instead, after some character off a TV show I can never remember the name of. I would sit on the dining room table, all knees and elbows, over his meticulously placed pile of notebooks, next to his can of O’Doul’s and his ashtray, and we’d read together. Shakespeare, Poe, Dickinson. My tongue between my teeth as I tried to copy my favorite passages.
Like my mom, he could recite poetry. Together, they’d perform Poe’s “The Raven” like they were on stage. Beginning with a hushed, “Once upon a midnight dreary…,”and building suspense until my mom would grab me, tickle me, and shout, “nevermore!”
But my own, personal relationship with poetry took off with Tupac’s The Rose that Grew From Concrete. I spent the summer of 16 with him in a library in Maryland, not far from where he studied at the Baltimore School for the Arts. It felt like I had stumbled upon some hidden treasure.
What a singular voice. A specific collection of thoughts rising from the streets of America. He talked about what he was interested in— self-discovery, the tragedy of Van Gogh’s career in art, the exploitation of Marilyn Monroe, the impact drugs and alcohol has on the American family, political issues, maintaining hope in the face of adversity. And he did it all with his own set of rules around content and grammar. He drew an eye instead of using “I.” He used “2” in lieu of two, to, or too. He built his own house when the spirit of his words couldn’t fit into the one they had built for him. He helped me learn how to build mine.
Still, I carried a lot of preconceived notions about poetry into adulthood. I thought I had to rhyme. I thought I had to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. I thought I had to do a lot of things. When I found Whitman, I found freedom in free verse. I didn’t have to stay within anyone’s rules for poetry. I didn’t have to seek poetry-worthy things to write about. I could just take a look around and write.
I still keep notebooks, like Freddy. His love for poetry sparked mine, and 25 years later I was able to write a poem about my paternal grandfather, Minor Golden. I never knew him; I was young when he died, but now he’s a part of the fabric of me through a language I can understand. Like I’ve said before, poetry is time travel, baby. It can take you anywhere you want to go, and you can heal on the road.
I am deeply honored to have “The Searcher” in this issue of Sky Island Journal. I know my grandpas would be proud.