Browsing the aisles of the public library one afternoon, I came upon a book called Writer’s Market. I was thirteen. When I realized what it was, the sky opened, thunder rumbled, and the angels sang on high. Naturally, the librarians were pissed. The one who looked like Ernest Borgnine actually shushed me.
Forget novels, short stories, or magazine articles, according to this Bible of writers everywhere, someone might actually publish my poetry. People might read what I felt inside–emotions that had bubbled up from my heart, wiggled their way down my classic blue Bic Stic ballpoint, and landed squarely, if almost always awkwardly, in the center of my wide-ruled notebook paper. To me, this literary revelation was positively spiritual.
So I scribbled a handful of addresses and editor names on some scratch paper and, before long,
was at my best friend’s house, tapping keys on his mother’s manual typewriter, cranking out three poems about some girl I liked. I was dying to send them off, but it took me another week to figure out what the hell an SASE was. Eventually, however, I shoved the packet in the mail and, before you could say Rod McKuen, my three poems were winging their way to Modern Bride magazine. For a thirteen year old boy who lived in a neighborhood filthy with rednecks, I clearly possessed an uncommon sense of my own masculinity.
A few months later, Modern Bride sent me my very first rejection slip—a short missive saying in essence “Thanks, but no thanks.” But it didn’t matter. My poems had gone into the world and been not only read, but considered. By a real New York editor. I kept that slip for years.
About six years later, when I finally decided to take writing poetry seriously, I called the bookstore at the mall to see if they carried the 1988 edition of Poet’s Market. Now that I was out of college, I was ready to buy my own copy and start submitting in earnest, and I could finally stop copying addresses from the previous year’s edition in the library (remember that, at this point, Google was still about twelve years out).
While I was on hold with the bookstore, however, my sister brought in the mail. I grabbed the tell-tale submission envelope sticking out of the stack of bills and junk mail, and I tore into it. When I read the response, I almost had a coronary. A journal called Proof Rock had accepted a poem of mine called “My Ears.” The editor had already rejected it once but said in the earlier submission that she liked it, so I sent other poems off to her, cleverly re-including “My Ears” in the process. And this time she said yes; she liked my poem enough to print it in her journal. I wasn’t going to put Robert Frost out of business, but after months of submitting my work, I finally had my first poem accepted.
When the clerk came back on the line, I told her excitedly that I’d just had my first poem accepted that very moment. She probably thought I was insane. But when the contributor copy arrived and I flipped through it with shaking hands, I could have died a happy man. Proof Rock was a modest tome, with its cardstock cover and xeroxed pages, but to me it might as well have been The Rosetta Stone, The Dead Sea Scrolls, or Dianne Timoney’s home phone number.
They say you always remember your first time, and they’re right: The nervousness. The clumsiness.
The whirlwind of emotions. And at the very end, the all-consuming feeling of ecstasy.
I’m still talking about publishing, of course.
Not since the late sixties
when man was walking on the moon,
and students were being shot
and killed, have I seen my ears.
Used to be my hair was as long as
the gas lines and my hair was covered up–
just like Watergate.
Now my hairline is as high as
the nation’s hopes, receding like
the rate of inflation. Not since
the late sixties have I seen my ears
that now have a ringing in them:
something like freedom.
Your turn: Tell me about your first time or what you would like your first time to be like.