I remember the first poem I ever wrote. I was fourteen years old. It was (of course) a love poem. I’m certain that if I read it now, I’d think it was terrible. But when I gave it to my girlfriend at the time, she was incredulous.
“You wrote this?” she asked.
I could have just as easily been offended that she didn’t think me capable of writing poetry, but I wasn’t. On the contrary, I was honored by her incredulity. She’d been impressed, which, of course, had been my goal in the first place. I knew I’d done something of the utmost importance. I could sense that my life had changed. I’d crossed an invisible border into a new country, vast and mysterious, full of wonder and adventure of the truest kind.
The next poem I wrote wasn’t for anyone else. I wrote it for myself. And then I wrote another, and then another. I spent the next seven years filling notebooks and word documents with poems simply for the joy of writing them, the solitary need to express feelings and experiences that ranged from the insipid to the profound. Looking back, I see that this was the purest and most valuable time in my writing life, the period when I cut my teeth as a writer. In my case it lasted through my adolescence and my early 20’s, but for some writers it may last a lifetime and that’s just as valid, just as important. After all, not all poems are written to be read.
When I began publishing my work in small literary magazines, I was ecstatic. I kept writing and even put out a few chapbooks through small presses. As thrilling and exciting as this was, part of me also missed the pure, unrestrained sense of discovery that marked those early years, writing in solitude and learning from my own failures. Consuming books, writing late into the night, working hard although I didn’t know if my work would ever be read by another human being. Many of my early poems weren’t very good, to be sure. But they were pure. They were chaotic. I embraced their flaws. That made them special. They were written simply because I felt the need to write them.
It wasn’t just what I wrote in those early years, but also what I read. During that time I encountered all the poets that are now as essential to my life as food or sleep. Looking back now, I remember how exciting it was to discover them for the first time. It was like unearthing buried treasure. I think of the Comte de Lautreamont, who wrote “only at night, sitting at his piano, declaiming wildly while striking the keys.” I think of Antonin Artaud, the mad prophet, dribbling laudanum out of his toothless mouth, his bizarre poems stalking the page like a panther stalks its prey. I think of Wallace Stevens, working for an insurance company in Connecticut and writing by night, gulping poetry the way a shipwrecked man comes up for air between waves. I think of Gregory Corso, pining for his lost mother, reading Shelley at Clinton Correctional in a cell that once belonged to Lucky Luciano. I think of the Chilean “anti-poet,” Nicanor Parra. I think of Amiri Baraka and Lorenzo Thomas, key figures in the Black Arts Movement. I think of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and William Carlos Williams. I think of Adrienne Rich, her words clashing against the patriarchy like an armored phalanx. They each in their own way did their part to mend this broken world.
I continue to write and publish, my own work and the work of others in Defunkt Magazine, a literary magazine I co-edit with a dear friend and fellow writer. I do it all with the vestiges of those early days still crackling inside of me like a live wire. The excitement remains. The inspiration is still there. There are new poets to discover and new poems to write. Through poetry we can reduce the mythic to the mundane and elevate the ordinary to the sublime. We can understand ourselves, and each other, in a deeply necessary and fundamental way. The poet’s life, however we may choose to live it, is the highest calling a human being can accept.
Christopher Miguel Flakus is a poet and writer living in Houston, Texas. He is the co-editor-in-chief of Defunkt Magazine, a literary magazine focused on outsider writing and art. Christopher is the author of two chapbooks through Analog Submission Press and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Houston.