The reading finished before 9:30. I left the bookstore and crossed the street. At the bus stop on the bench was a woman, whom I know, who bought a book off me but an hour before, whose house I’ve visited, and whose name I could not recall. Even now, thinking of that night last week, I still can’t pull it. I begrudgingly had to sign a chapbook over to her without writing her name and never policing my ego enough to just Ask.
I sat next to her, her with stark white hair, a swirling cloud bank beneath a small worn-leather cowboy hat.
You looking for the 18? She said. It should be here in five minutes. I said and sat down.
The bookstore glowed brightly directly across the street from us. Its light mirroring off the black asphalt as if it were slick with water.
I asked what she’d been doing. She mentioned attending a salon where people who practice sculpture gathered in an artists back yard to work. She said she liked going and hanging out with them for a few hours and painting.
I asked if she ever practiced sculpture and she said no, it wasn’t her thing. Painting was. Her family, she said, was full of sick people. So she had to spend a lot of time alone and quiet. And painting was something she could engage with fully.
I forgot that’s what fueled my early days of poetry. Taking care of my mom and grandfather and after they’d passed out for sleep, I’d lay on the floor of my bedroom if too bored for tv and write. No weed, no alcohol, no friends. Just paper and pens.
As we sat talking about making art, what we really seemed to be talking about was permission. The permission to practice and keep practicing. What I felt compelled to tell her was how interested I was in visual art, even as I’m bad at it. I told her I’d been recently spending time coloring and confessed how years ago I took a visual art class only to quietly drop it after struggling to paint my first assignment: gray scale.
No one said it wasn’t good. I said it. I looked across the room and promptly fired myself.
She shook her head gently even as I felt like taking my heart out of my chest and crushing it in my hands.
Sounds like you had a bad teacher, she said. You don’t need to do it right, you can’t. You just need to keep going.
As she told her story I saw a small girl, drawing, painting at a huge table lit by the morning while her mother, sister were collapsed by illnesses in other rooms. I had no sister and had to motivate myself.
You don’t need teachers to make art. She said. Teachers sometimes get in the way because you end up creating things to please them when you should be making art to please yourself.
I couldn’t even recall whether the art teacher I had was male or female. I just remember leaving that class as if I was on fire.
Like you, she said. Your poetry. Who taught you to do that?
I looked back over to the bookstore we’d just left, where I was one of four people reading before a woman celebrating her newly published book. I sat quietly, thinking for a long time. Unable to speak. Who taught me to write poetry?? No one… Thinking of it, I realized it was a process. A building of something one brick, one moment, one lesson at a time. Until finally, something was just: THERE.
I don’t know, I said finally. My parents bought me a typewriter when I was in the sixth grade. I taught myself how to type, I said. I would record sit-coms off tv on a audio cassette and type a transcript to see how things were written, I guess. I don’t remember what happened or what was said that made them buy me a typewriter at that age. I certainly wasn’t trying to write poetry back then. I didn’t know what that was. Or cared.
The people at the reading we’d just left, all were artists, mostly writers. I knew several of them and despite my low bank account, bought books from two of them. Were any of them taught to be artists? Who taught the youngest poet there, taller than all of us, his unique blues-rap vocal style? I hugged him and told him how beautiful his voice was and he hugged me tighter. He seemed to have to bend well over me as if he were about to pick me up off the ground. Who taught the woman whose book we were celebrating to write poetry? Would she say anything other than the relationships that fucked her over, indignant anger over things beyond her control, the years of tears she had to swallow? Who sat me down and taught me… anything?
The bus finally appeared, though it took my eyes a long time to know it was the right one. We got on and I sat with her. The bus smelled awful, like fresh corn chips or soiled wet feet. A woman dug into a huge plastic bag on her belly, holding it as if it were an infant.
Less than eight blocks, the bus stopped across the street from the artists apartment. I’d been there once, and spent the afternoon in her kitchen writing with her sister, while she sat on the back porch and painted. We said our goodbyes, warmly. I felt awful, old. A week later and I still couldn’t remember her name.