The Gateway Drug: Poetry

Chapter two in a series on Book and Art Business 101 wherein I show how the solid logic of art business sold me on self-publishing. If you’re too busy for the whole series, download your copy of my Cheat Sheet for Book and Art Business 101. 


Let me tell you the way of things: I fell into this gig.

And by fall, I mean headlong-Humpty-Dumpty-cracked-then-put-together-again fell into this gig.

 

As a child and teenager, I scored rather… high… on my math and science scores and unforgivably low on writing. That might seem weird to you who know my current workload, but those who really know me understand why. Mark Neuenschwander, my photonovel co-conspirator and best friend, has often been known to shout “CONTEXT, LANCE!” in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. It’s a strategy my wife and many other close friends have now employed. See, I’m such an inductive leaper in my mind, such an experimenter, such a proponent of representing real numbers with Greek letters, that I often forget to show my work for the sake of whoever follows after me.

In college, I often received lower marks for writing philosophical abstracts and logical tractates as stories and poems — going either the long way around or never leading with the point of whatever deductive argument I was supposed to be making. I had to go to college to learn professional communication because I’m naturally bad at it in day-to-day conversation and correspondence.

Math, science, and performance made sense to me.

But writing?

I hated writing.

I purposefully answered questions wrong on portions of a certain standardized test I will not name here. Why would I do this? To spite a writing teacher. I was so arrogant about it that I would snub well-read girls in my class simply because they didn’t have “intuitive knowledge.” Really, they had a one-up on me: they knew that the only way to get smarter is to declare war upon your own ignorance.

After all, the number one qualification for President of the United States is reading comprehension. Consider that this election season. In fact, any job has three base requirements: reading comprehension, the capacity to think clear and rational thoughts, and the capacity to articulate what you’ve read and written and thought in clear verbal conversations with your peers.

It took me years to come around and realize I actually had a knack for this thing we do with words — writing is experimentation, logic, and performance, by gum. But I needed a gateway drug to learn that.

The Gateway Drug was offered to me by two very, very generous English teachers.

 

As a junior, I skipped over an Honors English teacher who had a bad reputation among some of my friends — it was an unfair thing to do, honestly, turns out she’s a sweet woman who was very kind to my siblings. But the Standard English teacher — Lisa Stephenson — taught my drama class, taught Integrated Studies for the Gifted, directed the school plays and through these roles had enabled me as a freshman to tour around the county performing Abbot and Costello’s Who’s On First with a very talented comedic actor in the class above me (the guy I wrote Poker in the Pokey with, ironically enough). Don’t get any romantic ideas by the word “tour” — we were performing in Rotary Clubs and Elks Lodges. I was no child star and no one in St. Louis or Chicago knew my name, but I learned a lot and Lisa’s inspiration mattered more than anything to me. Her teaching assistant, Mr. Keister, hammered us hard on that sketch for weeks — drilling us on our lines, having us watch tapes, man was it hard at the time: I don’t think any teacher before or since pushed me that hard and I love being pushed by someone smarter or better than me. Really, anyone that take the burden off of my shoulders for my own growth.

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Through our Who’s On First mini-tour, we skipped a lot of classes I hated with NO CONSEQUENCES. I’d had plenty of the other kind, thank you. Besides, we spent our lunches away from campus eating a ton of what I considered to be “fancy meals.” Really, these were meals normal middle class kids got from their parents at restaurants. I, by comparison, was rather poor at the time and so I reveled in my first steaks and the freedom of choosing how the chef cooked my meal.

Lisa, our producer, opened my eyes to a world of literature I had not seen. Literature could be fun. Literature could experiment and come up with new solutions to old problems just like chemistry. Literature could represent abstract concepts and themes through concrete equations like math. Literature could be performed. Perhaps above all, she had me memorize Robert Burn’s To A Mouse in the original dialect and had me perform it. To this day, I can recite most of it:

Wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie…

I should have known by my junior year that the “book” I used for each play counted as literature. That the Shakespeare plays I “hated” (and love now) were not books but plays intended to be acted. They still required an author, a tale-maker, a playwright.

The first time it clicked was in performing a poem, that poem To a Mouse and watching Lisa connect it in class with the Steinbeck book Of Mice and Men. Literary symbolism, experimentation, and performance collided in my mind and somehow I got it. That was a spark: the first time I started noticing the work, the first time the work lead me to consider the author, and the first time the author’s work became an apparatus by which to see the world as they had seen the world.

Novels and poems were telescopes for seeing other lands.

Well at the time the rule in Salem Community High School went that you couldn’t get back into any given honors track you’d abandoned, in my case the Honors English fast track, but I knew even then that bureaucracy is good for more than making frivolous rules. Bureaucracy’s quite good at neglecting to cite infractions upon the frivolous rules it enacts. After all, the number one contributor to offshore leaks is simply bureaucratic bloat in terms of overcomplicated rules coupled with an understaffed Internal Revenue Service. The same’s true of high school enrollment.

So I enrolled in Senior-level Honors English anyways.
And of course, I got back in.

 

All to skip a teacher who, at the time, I knew only through anti-English-tainted glasses. Again, not proud of it, but my job isn’t to make the mythology of Lancelot Schaubert. My job’s to tell you the truth. In spite of my subversion of the Honors English track, Mrs. Stephenson had already begun teaching me that the bad experience I’d had early on with a couple of English teachers wasn’t indicative of all English teachers. I felt both guilty about skipping the junior Honors English teacher and excited about enrolling with Don “The Legend” Price. I don’t have time to explain his nickname here, but if you ask me in the comments, I’ll tell you the story.

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(It’s a doozie.)

Mr. Price did many things to fan into flame this tiny spark in the long-dead forest of my literary mind. Interesting what can happen to a mind that has laid fallow (more on that in a second). He made me read books I would never touch, connected my love of medieval philosophy and (at the time) love of rudimentary war machines and Dungeons and Dragons with books like Beowulf and Canterbury and The Once and Future King, and showed me the point of poetry — my gateway drug. This last one collided with a newer, hidden obsession with the book The Notebook.

I read The Notebook before the movie came out and something clicked in me unrelated to the teen-meets-senior romance in the character of Noah. Noah’s this loner (had that on lockdown) who built himself his dream house with his own bare hands (my father was a carpenter), memorized Walt Whitman (whom I’d only just discovered), and wrote letters to his dying wife (like most unattractive high school boys stuck in this culture, I fantasized about my own future wife daily). I’d been reading in one of those purity culture books about how Eric Ludy wrote letters to his future wife as well, so I started writing poems to some girl in the future.

Those letters did come in handy later, but me being a relatively less-hopeless romantic these days is not the point.

The point is poetry. It intoxicated me.

Harry Potter had taken to the public school system by air and land and sea (on the backs of hippogriffs, mandrakes, and grindylows respectively)  and rendered it acceptable for boys to read in public, but many still thought writing and poetry effeminate interests. Had those boys known it worked on my mind like a gateway drug into some other culture, I think we may have gotten along a little better. Noah for the first time gave me an example of a manful character who wrote poetry. Ah. So not just a gateway drug into other worlds like that trippy Alice in Wonderland. A gateway drug into the craft of writing itself. A man like Noah who created both houses and language from the raw materia he found lying around him, who took old and broken things — scrap wood and English — and made them new. I began to write furiously, but only poems.

Of particular interest for our purposes is that Mr. Price insisted around this time that I submit a poem to the school paper Thoughtwell. I did and it was accepted, edited, and then printed. If you scroll down to the very bottom of my Published Works roll call, I have sitting right there:

  • “Hope’s Required” in Thoughtwell (poetry, 2005)

It’s not a particularly good poem, though it did show my knack for mimicry as well as call-and-response. I keep it on my Published Works page because someday, in my mind, there will be some student just like me who’s too cool to read and uncared for by much of the teaching staff who will see that someone from SCHS made it out of the insanity and onto the printed page. And letting them see Thoughtwell — or whatever replaced it — as the first step of their journey… well it’s easy to capture their imagination and help them value reading.

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Thinking back even further, the whole “I’m too cool to read” phase of my life was a rather small blip on the overall radar — my mother had read to me and encouraged me into Scholastic’s book fair on multiple occasions. As you’ll find out in the next chapter, my father and his peers told tons of stories. My grandmother in particular loved reading Golden Books and early readers to me. Which brings me to my point: from the limerick to the nursery rhyme ballad to the very hard, very iconic anapestic tetrameter of Suess to the lullaby, it seems that poetry is a gateway drug for all of us into language and the way it weaves new worlds of meaning. Our gateway drug — and the gateway drug of our future children — is poetry.

Mind you, all of the poetry books both Noah and I encountered in this time, all of the things I bought from book fair, all of the books grandma read to me came from large publishing houses.

I couldn’t conceive of any other option: poets like Noah and authors like Nicholas Sparks went through big publishing houses. 

I became immediately enchanted with the idea of seeing my name in print. That desire began to conflict with my desire to see more metaphor, more telescopes into other lands.

And, ultimately, started my journey off on one wrong foot and one right one. One going towards a gateway.

The other towards a drug…


Don’t have time for the whole series?

That’s okay, I made you a…

CHEAT SHEET TO BOOK BUSINESS

Here’s our outline for upcoming posts:

  1. Intro
  2. The Gateway Drug: Poetry
  3. Does Fiction Lie? — The Liar’s Club
  4. Where and How to Sell What You Write
  5. From Daydreams to Written Dreams
  6. Rejection Slips
  7. Any Money Makes a Professional Writer
  8. Quarterly Assignments
  9. Making Good Money… in a shadow career
  10. Kinfolk and Advocates or “How to Build a Platform”
  11. Draconian Contracts
  12. Author Earnings
  13. Succeeding for Others
  14. Blaze a Trail All Your Own

lancelot tobias mearcstapa schaubert monogram

cover image by Delphine Devos

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