Without poetry, I'm not a writer, pure and simple.
I was thirteen and had to do a school project, using magazine illustrations and photos to illustrate a collection pf poetry. At that point, apart from Casey at the Bat, my literary horizons ended at "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle."My older brother gave me steered me to Langston Hughes. Who knows why, but I read this poem:
The calm cool
face of the river
asked me for a kiss.
Boom. That's it, satori, I was done, finished, hooked on language and my life changed. I still get chills reading it. There should have been no way that me, a white kid in the middle of nowhere with zero literary background whose parents never read a book should ever, ever, ever have connected with the work of an urban black poet of a previous generation. But language and experience really are universal. I read more Hughes, then read about Hughes, then read who he read, and his contemporaries, then read who they read and their contemporaries, always pulling at the thread.
When I got into high school every week I took the five or six bucks I'd saved up from cleaning toilets, drove into Big City to a used bookstore and would spend the whole day there deciding what to buy. Out of high school I got a scholarship under one of the best poetry teachers in the country, and almost forty years later, although I write prose for money, without poetry I'd never bother. Back in the day I ran informal workshops, readings, and other public poetry events, like reading poetry outside Fenway Park, putting poetry before people who otherwise would never have bothered, sometimes reading to hundreds of people and sometimes reading to myself. Now part of me can't wait to get retired so I can spend more time with it.
But without that first poem...