At age 14, I wrote my first poem — an awful sequence of rhyming couplets that I originally began in a half-baked attempt to convince a schoolmate to leave the guy she was sleeping with and resume dating my bleak, virginal self. Aside from yielding a horrible poem, and aside from drawing no response at all from the former girlfriend whom I cherished, the writing and revision process, during the few days I labored over the ridiculous drafts, changed me permanently.
Even though the actual lines and sentences ended up being hogwash in each iteration, my commitment to sitting down with paper and pen for multiple sessions was a crucial contradiction to the types of behaviors in which society expected me to partake. The future plans most of my friends and I had — plans we had inherited from our factory city’s terse mantras/parameters — were to keep developing our jump-shots and our sprinting speed, to earn athletic scholarships to any college willing to sniff us, or to try and stay felony-free until we could slide from high school into pension-crowned jobs at the Jeep and Chrysler plants where many of our kin and community members toiled.
I composed and revised that paltry first poem in the Burger King two blocks from where I lived. Those days, half of the dining area bore signage proclaiming “SMOKING”. I ordered fries, took my tray to a window table, lit one of my Newport 100s, and commenced to poem making. The importance of the experience resided mainly in the surrounding, intricate details. The restaurant was not busy, and the people working a shift moved about their stations and assignments with an earned ease. It was winter; the evening’s final angles of sunlight came through the glass and gave a forthright grace to my menthol smoke. The long dispenser of fountain sodas whirred, sometimes rumbling while generating or resettling interior stocks of ice. A couple of times, I noticed other patrons looking at me with a slight disorientation that broke quickly into glancing elsewhere and giving me back my relative privacy. These strangers affirmed the new space, peace, and purpose into which I had wandered.
Right now, 24 years removed from that first poem, I’m typing all this into a laptop while I sit — again before a window — at a coffee shop in the core of a sizeable, mid-American city. This time around, there are three strangers nearest me. Two of them are handsome, well-cologned men no older than 35. Overhearing everything, I ascertain that they have met to hash out (with the aid of matching iPads I assume their workplace has provided) some intricate protocol of sales-driven communique they must soon unfold into emails and calls aimed at a sector of their clientele whom they designate as, “high risk, high reward.”
Conversely, the other person seated close is alone, likely in her 30s, and she’s reading a thick, hardcover book of prose that looks to be borrowed from the university library about 10 blocks from here. In my periphery, one of her hands slowly sweeps across the new page just after she turns it — a gesture that can conjure a brief wind shifting an elm bough among the edge of a public park.
The coworking men are now talking in raised tones, which carry competitiveness and perhaps a fearful bitterness. The woman reading has finished her iced coffee, and she has begun chewing each partially melted cube.
The writing life is stubbornness and luck, enough of each to make ourselves available for receiving the essential vibrations the world and its people tirelessly generate. For me, the production rate of good drafts is less engulfing than presenting myself consistently as a patient witness to whatever and whoever are in proximity. Even if the folks at this café begin to bore or sour me, I’m going to glance out onto the sidewalk — pedestrians in the midst of a modest, April day. Even if none of the passersby gives me a bit of transferable emotion, my attention will find a puddle near the curb that quivers every time another vehicle hurries toward someplace that must be worthy of perceiving.
Originally published in Qu literary magazine.
Marcus Jackson’s debut full-length collection of poems, entitled Neighborhood Register, was released in 2011, and his second book-length collection, Pardon My Heart, was published by TriQuarterly Books / Northwestern University Press in 2018. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, The New York Times and The Cincinnati Review, among many other publications. Marcus lives with his wife and daughter in Columbus, Ohio and teaches poetry in the Queens University of Charlotte’s low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program.