Behind The Poetry: Who I Was; Starting Davidson, Part II

Posted 2/23/2010 by smartblackboy in Labels: , , , , , , ,

Read Who I Was Starting Davidson here

When I was 18 and writing this poem - I was even cockier than I am today. I would imagine that I would die before 20, and people would discover my poetry, proclaim it genius, and I wanted to leave little clues that connected different poems - so that future students would have something to write about in their poetry analysis. So, this pre-amble very much references another poem - "This Is Not Light" that I had written when I was 16 at Stanford.

However, it sets the tone for everything that would come after in the poem - the love and hate relationship with the city, the idea that things aren't always what they seem, how you can get lost in reality, and how it is so hard to leave your past. Probably the most emotionally resonant line is "it hurts, to laugh and smile sometimes" - because there are just so many times in my life when I am expected to be happy, be awesome, be inspiring, be a leader - and I just feel like crying, but I just laugh and smile instead.

When I was growing up my mom would always take me to North Park. She has always been a woman who appreciated the finer things in life, and loved fashion - but also had a knack of getting the nicest things on sale, and developing a great repertoire with the various salespeople at these different stores. In fact, Neiman Marcus has always been one of her favorite stores and I was actually a model for their children's collection for a few years (I was drop dead gorgeous at 4) and would do run-way shows and everything.

But it was so true that North Park at that time (before the expansion) was a very preppy mall - everyone really did wear polo and khakis. So the first stanza of Dallas is really a memory of a specific day in my life. My best friend, Danny Garcia, was playing with his band at North Park (which felt like a really big deal at the time) and he was doing great, and there was some art opening at the MAC that night and I wanted to celebrate. So, it is really the introduction to this almost glamorous life and lifestyle that was combining the arts and people who had money and prestige in Dallas, that I had wandered into through education and talent.

So, we would wander from place to place, and there was this excitement that we were all going to be somebody special one day - because we had been told how great we were since forever. And we were constantly exposed to cool things - my good friend Matt Whitenack whose mother Nancy owns the leading contemporary art gallery in Dallas, Conduit Gallery, well she was one of the first residents when Southside first opened. I remember running around there with Matt, and they working on renovating the inside of it, and Matt was a hot shot young artist and so he had his own studio on the roof of the coolest loft space in Dallas at the time, with these beautiful views of the skyline, and just this sense of freedom, of having your own space, of being awesome and artsy, that was incomparable at 17.

So, there was definitely this sense that we were a bit more awesome than everyone else we knew, because we were all doing cool things, winning awards, and knew cool, beautiful, rich people, and I was definitely a part of all of that. Definitely believed entirely in this idea of sangfroid - that everything we did we should make it look effortless, that this was all just our birthright - however it wasn't, and I think that is where a lot of the sadness came from.

My good friends at the time were all sorts of screwed up. Behind this beautiful facade - I grew up thinking that it was normal to personally know at least one drug dealer (I knew several) and that it was just part of the high school experience. I did have friends who had tried to kill themselves. And in general we were just all incredibly reckless - this was a time period in my life when my normal driving speed was 100 mph - everytime I got into a car I would break a 100 if I got onto a freeway. There was a definitely an utter recklessness and disregard for rules - so I completely had Gwendolyn Brooks poem "We Real Cool" in mind, especially her ending of we die soon, because that is where we were all headed, and not surprisingly a year later one of us would get there, and it was only by the grace of God that the rest of us are still alive.

One of the big parts of my life during this time was driving - I lived far away from where all the action was, so I was constantly in a car. And it would often be when I was driving from Dallas to DeSoto where reality would set in about my true emotional state - the glitz and glimmer of the city would be behind me, and I was left with just a sadness.

I had this idea that I had already peaked at 16. That I would never be cooler, more alive, more intelligent, more vibrant, than I was at this age. I felt that I had already lived life and really DeSoto is almost my proof for why I felt that way. I had gone to Stanford to write and had met this beautiful girl named Courtney Hopen, and she was the first girl I really enjoyed kissing. And it was a miracle for me to go Stanford, my family didn't have the money, they had offered a partial scholarship for the program, I had raised some funds, but I was still short. A few days before the program started my Dad found this saving bonds they had put away for me when I was a kid, and they had all just matured and was the exact amount of money to the dollar that I needed to go there. Add to this I finally learn how to write poetry while I am there, and I meet all of these great young writers from across the country, I fall in love with the campus and the place, and riding bikes everywhere, and now there is this beautiful girl, who is sitting with me under a tree, and we are making out and reading poetry to each other, and it is a sunny day, and I hear the lyrics to Semi-charmed life
"When Im with you I feel like I could die/ And that would be all right, all right", and it is just the happiest moment I had had in my life.

So, I contrast this super happy moment with the grittier reality of Houston, TX - which for me was always where I felt most black growing up. My mother is from the inner city in Houston, and so that is where we would go when we visited (about 5 times a year) and my uncle owned these row houses in the roughest part of town - 5th Ward. So, you would have this prep school kid going to this totally different world, where people looked like me, but we had nothing in common, yet it helped expand my own experiences - and was exceedingly valuable, and perhaps most importantly at that time was something that my peers in Dallas didn't have.

I continued my case by citing some of the books I read that were really influential to me. There were some geniuses in my class, and they could beat the pants off of me in most subjects, but reading was one thing I felt I could compete with them on. I will never forget we had this Russian literature arms race, and I kicked it off by reading War and Peace. Then everyone else read War and Peace and started on Anna Karenina. Then I had to read that, and somewhere around there everyone read Crime and Punishment - but I started reading The Brothers Karamazov - it was a very competitive thing, but the point is at 16 I read some of the best novels ever written, had all of these great cultural experiences (chitlins), had won lots of awards, gotten standing ovations for my poetry, and was simply depressed by it all.

Because I was smart, I was able to pick up on patterns and have always been interested in human behavior and fancied myself a student of human nature. At this time, I would use my knowledge to manipulate other people and play games - especially with girls. And it all seemed so boring and pointless to me - I was just starting to have my first episodes with Bi-Polar back then, but I didn't understand any of that. I just knew it was weird to have all of these great things going on in my life and to still feel so crappy.

I continue my case for great life experience at 16 by listing these opposite things that I had done. I had this great experience in Houston where I stole a wheel chair with a friend of mine from a hospital, and it was the first real thing I had stolen, but I was also an Eagle Scout (which you wouldn't expect to steal things). The Door was this christian club in Deep Ellum and I had gone to concerts there but was very much in love with hip hop both commercial and underground. In fact, my mother hated the fact I would constantly listen to hip hop because of the profanity but I loved it. So, all of these contradictions that were and are my life, the entire poem, was really just a giant lead-in to the penultimate stanza.

I had struggled for a long time about how to write about trying to commit suicide. I didn't want to glorify it, because there is no glory in it. However, it felt dishonest not to mention it - because by nature it becomes one of the important parts of your life. Most importantly, I knew that no one knew or could really believe that I would have tried to kill myself. I was the kid who had it all. When I applied to college I was accepted to Stanford University, Washington University in St. Louis, Rice University, University of Texas, Plan II program, Davidson College, Austin College, University of South, Emory University, and even got a nomination to the Air Force Academy. I got scholarship offers from every school - clearly whatever you were supposed to do in high school, I had done it just as well as anyone in the country.

Yet, I had tried to kill myself. And it would take another few years before I could reconcile that, but the truth was I felt worthless, I felt like I had nothing to live for, I felt that I had done a lot, so I didn't feel all that bad about ending my own life. The most important part was that no one knew I was dealing with any of these emotions in high school, no one knew I was depressed, sometimes suicidal, it was nothing I could talk about with my parents. All everyone saw was the lakes calm surface, the very talented, accomplished, outgoing, and well-spoken young man.Yet I think it is a powerful (and perhaps familiar) story that the most talented can end up the most lonely, the most depressed, and the most hopeless.

However, I was not 16 when I wrote this poem, I was 18. And I wasn't dead. And the last stanza is really about why and where I was a couple years later, going to college. And there was this girl named Mariana, and she was my first love, and she talked me out of killing myself once, and I will always love her for that, because I might not be here if it wasn't for her. Although, the fact that she was so far away added to my general angst. But I have already written about her in much greater detail elsewhere.

The last thing I want to talk about is The Great Gatsby. When I first read this book it was like reading an autobiography. To this day I still often think about certain lines in the book. But there was/is this idea of some far off, marvelous thing, that I am so desperately trying to get to, but trying to get to it is much more important than actually getting there. So, it is important to me that the poem does end on a very hopeful and redemptive note - because ultimately I think that was my high school experience and life experience. I have had moments of intense sadness but I have also had great joy and triumphs and friendships and lovers and unfortunately my periods of normalcy and happiness will always be interrupted by times of sadness and depression, but I don't let it stop me. I am trying to become whomever I am supposed to be, reach my potential as soon as possible, and in truth, I haven't slowed down yet.

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