Aloha Readers! I’m pretty much a single parent this weekend, so I’m posting a few days earlier than I usually do just so that my focus can be better devoted to my wonderful daughter when I’m alone with her.
I grew up in two homes, both on the edge of Appalachia.
My parents’ home was pretty modest. They purchased it, back in the ’60s, for $12,000. My mother still lives there. Not bad for two teachers (my parents) who eloped with almost nothing when they were in their early 20s.
My mother taught English in high school for decades, and during one seven-year stretch, five of her students, including me, won national poetry awards.
My wonderful grandparents before they built their own home!
My other home was on a sometimes snowy hill surrounded by forests that belonged to my maternal grandparents. With the help of family and friends, they built it and raised six children there. It was always open for their 24 grandchildren. My uncle, the second son, still lives there with my aunt. Not bad for a teacher (my grandmother) and a gentleman (my grandfather) who ended his education in the eighth grade to help his parents raise him and his 15 younger siblings in the home he moved out of with my grandmother. Yes, it’s hard to imagine even for me, but nearly 20 people lived under one roof until they were old enough or decided to leave. My grandmother was extremely patient!
Both homes were modest, but also quirky in a good way, durable, and filled with books.
How lucky I was to have those two homes, less than two hours apart, even when growing up gay in the ’70s and ’80s on the edge of Appalachia was terrifying.
Books gave me a love of exploring the world. I interpreted my dreams, hopes, and explorations in an art form most natural to me: poetry.
I did pretty well, winning over a dozen national awards as a poet in high school. I was offered a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and be among the finest young writers in the country. Even with scholarships, though, my family would have had a tough time affording an exclusive high school while saving for college for my brother, sister, and me. It would not have been fair to my siblings nor to my parents.
I ended up tying for first place with a student from Interlochen for a national poetry contest for high school students. Not bad for a kid from a small town in a public school at the edge of Appalachia! Both of us were flown to Hollins University in Virginia for a literary weekend where I met Linda, with whom I had tied, and Lisel Mueller, a wonderful German-American poet who gave me a signed copy of one of her poetry collections, The Need to Hold Still, that won a National Book Award.
I was 17 years old.
I wanted to enroll at Sarah Lawrence College that only became coeducational in 1968. My mother, afraid I might meet and befriend many male students and instructors at Sarah Lawrence who could “persuade” me to be gay, convinced me to attend Syracuse University where I could try out for the tennis team and study under Tess Gallagher who accepted students after they submitted to her poems and a few paragraphs about the meaning of poetry in their lives.
Tess, who herself had studied under one of my idols, the German-American poet Theodore Roethke, accepted me as a student.
Although I was heckled as a suspected gay teenager at Syracuse to the point where I attempted suicide, I survived the attempt, joined the tennis team, and became a much better poet under the guidance of Tess and later Hayden Carruth. They introduced me and other young writers in their workshops to astonishing artists like the poet Jorie Graham and Annie Liebovitz.
I’ll get to the point quickly now: I did not attend Interlochen nor Sarah Lawrence, but I did meet and learn from some amazing poets while I was still a teenager. I still read the poems of Tess, Hayden, Jorie, Lisel, my all-time favorite, Theodore Roethke, and many others. They helped this kid from the edge of Appalachia become a decent poet who has been lucky to be published, had poems shown at exhibits in all different cities in the United States, and who teaches poetry to high school students in Hawaii and his eight-year-old daughter.
My mother and grandmother planted all kinds of seeds in me when I was young. My mother probably hoped I would ripen into a middle-aged straight poet, but at least I’m a middle-aged gay man who still reads and writes poetry!