I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin for almost my entire life, hanging out, with few exceptions, with the same kinds who’d been in my kindergarten and preschool classes. When I was 13, my parents sold our house and started building a new one; during the twelve months it was going to take to complete, we moved to a small island in Lake Michigan, off the tip of the peninsula separating Green Bay from the Great Lake. My 8th grade class had just 11 students in it, most of them related to each other—cousins, cousins by marriage, or the kind of cousins who called each other’s parents “aunt” and “uncle” but weren’t actually related at all.
It was during that year I had my first earnest encounter with poetry. Through Wisconsin’s Artists-in-Education program, we spent part of our year enjoying residences with working artists. One, a visual artist specializing in collage and painting, encouraged us to work up frenzied diorama-like wooden panels that somehow said something about our lives. I struggled to do this. I glued things to my board. I drew stick people. I might have tried to draw a deer. This was not my strongsuit. I almost always nearly failed art class, though only partly through a lack of trying.
The other artist was a poet named David Steingass. He seemed enormously tall, with dark hair and a thick mustache. I think he had a mustache. He does in my memory, at least. He worked with us on short poems, and the advice he gave me on one of my pieces—“Don’t break lines with weak words like ‘and’ and ‘the;’ hold out for the strong words”—has always stuck with me.
My school was so small we had one teacher for almost every subject, and we sat in desks like elementary school kids, even though we also had lockers out in the hall by the high schoolers. One of our daily tasks was to write something—anything—in a journal our teacher was forcing us to keep in order to make us write something each day. Although I see the value now, back then I resented it, and probably as some kind of “I’m hipper than this” statement, I started using my notebook to play around with poems rather than straightforward introspective writing. They were deeply influenced by the schlock fiction I loved to read—Sue Grafton, Stephen King—and often featured a strangely furious presence called “IT” that was in pursuit of an ill-fated speaker. (I know, it’s so derivative—gimme a break; I was 13.)
It was after that year, when I was back in my old home town, attending the high school my brothers attended, that my English teacher pulled me aside after class and said I should keep writing poems. So I did. I wrote and I wrote, and I showed them to her, and she’d nod her head and say, “Awesome!” Or worse, she’d shake her head, hand it back to me, and say, “You can do better than that.” I always tried harder. I started to think of poetry as I thing I could do. I never thought of it as a life. It just kind of became a part of me. It suddenly became more than just a thing I could do.