If I say I started writing to find myself, then I’m only telling a half truth. Growing up, I had a clear identity. I knew who I was because of all the teachers, church members, and relatives who reminded me of who I was. I was Lindsey’s brother. And Shonda’s brother. And Tonya’s Brother. And Ethel’s boy. And Lindsey’s boy. I am the baby of my family. It’s fun to tell that to my young nieces and nephew and see them try to sort out how a grown man can still be a baby. But it wasn’t always a source of fun with me. Like the youngest member of many families, growing up, my existence was normally explained by a point of reference. When I was smart, I was smart just like my brother and sisters. When my dad got me job working at the hotel where he worked as a chef for his second job, the managers told me I laughed just like my dad. When I open my eyes, my wife tells me I have my mother’s eyes.
And like the youngest member of many families, I hated the constant comparison to my family members. Most of the comparisons were related to my brother because we were only four years apart. He cheered for the Giants during Super Bowl XXV, so I cheered for the Buffalo Bills. When we played Mortal Kombat, he liked Sub-Zero, so I played as Sub-Zero’s rival Scorpion. When he went to the gifted high school and began to talk about a future in science and math, I knew I didn’t want a future in science and math.
The only problem was that I was good at science and math. I was smart because I get to spend my childhood in a house filled with smart people. Even now, after my success as a writer and teacher, I still have no problem admitting that my smarts were nothing special in my household. My parents knew I was smart, too, so they decided I had to spend junior high and high school at gifted schools, too.
I walked through junior high school grumbling to myself about how I didn’t want to be there. The school was a world away from my neighborhood. I was one of the only black faces in every classroom, and on top of being awkward teenagers, most of the students were awkward teenagers who didn’t know what to do when an awkward black teenager sat next to them. Coming of age in that environment was invaluable. I learned how to make small talk with people I had very little to nothing in common with, and I started to learn how to define myself in a new crowd.
I made my share of friends. I tried to remember to smiled back at the pretty girls who smiled at me. I tried to make sure that I represented during basketball games in the gym and during games of Trivial Pursuit in Latin class. I have to admit that my Latin class trivial pursuit skills were far beyond my basketball skills. On the basketball court, I could jump and touch the rim with two hands, but I couldn’t dunk. I dunked on all of the opposing teams when I played Latin class Trivial Pursuit.
My junior high memories consist of a lot of Latin class, a lot of lonely moments in the lunchroom, and most importantly, my decision one day to not pay attention in my 8th grade history class.
I’m pretty sure it was an Alabama or American History class, and that was part of my motivation to take days off in class. I love the ancient stuff, but I start to drift and doze once Western history makes it to the 95 Theses and Jamestown and Papal Bulls. I was good at remembering dates and I was good at knowing how to connect the dots between those dates, so I could succeed in most history classes without bringing much of myself into the room. One day, while I was going through the motions of being a history student, I noticed a sign-up sheet for a creative writing elective class.
I never thought about being a writer before this point. Even today, I really don’t think about being a writer; writing still feels like a loved hobby more than a calling or quest or vocation. But I saw that sign-up sheet for the creative writing elective class, and I saw a way out for me.
As my 8th grade year progressed, my parents began to talk to me about high school and their expectations for my high school. In Alabama at the time, most junior high schools stopped and 9th grade, and most high schools started at 10th grade. My parents started to ask about how I would feel going to the same gifted high school my brother and oldest sister attended. I knew that, without another gifted school as an alternative, these questions were mostly acts of parental kindness. During conversations about school, my mother would always talk about how I needed to be challenged just like my sisters and brother needed to be challenged.
Just like my sisters and brother.
I didn’t know how to write, and I didn’t know if I would like writing, but I knew that I never heard my sisters or my brother talk about taking a creative writing class. Taking creative writing meant giving up my computer programming elective, and that might have been the hardest part of the decision. I was good enough junior high computer programming. I could write enough code to make a ball bounce around the screen as a screensaver. I could make blatant Jeopardy rip-off. My proudest computer moment came from a rudimentary battle arena game that I made that allowed players to pick their own weapons and armors. I was good enough at computer programming, but I never really loved it. And my brother liked computers, too. Leaving computer class was another way to leave him. Also, I knew that there was a gifted school in the city that focused on arts instead of strictly academics. Before I even thought about writing my first poems or short stories, I saw the creative writing class as a way to find myself, as a space where I wouldn’t have to fight through all the shadows my family casts.
The 9th grade creative class led me to the gifted high school for the arts. The gifted high school for the arts led me to minor in creative writing in college. The minor in creative writing led to a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. The Master of Fine Arts degree led me to the classroom and led me to my current relationship with words and the page.
Who are you?
Homer will always be my favorite author, and the question of identity lingers in both of his epic poems. The Greek and Trojan heroes often take time to introduce themselves and give their lineage before doing battle. One of my favorite scenes of The Iliad is the scene in book VI when Diomedes and Glaucus meet to do battle but instead end up exchanging gifts once they realize their grandfathers were friends. The question of identity also echoes in the cyclops Polyphemus’ cave in when Odysseus and his men are trapped there in The Odyssey. Odysseus uses his wit to claim his name is No Man, and when he manages to escape the cave by stabbing Polyphemus in the eye, Polyphemus’ claims that No Man is attacking him go unanswered by his cyclops brethren because if he is being attacked by “No Man,” then his attacker must be a god. Odysseus shows his identity not by his name, but by his actions. Odysseus only gives his true name after he believes that he and his men have safely escaped and made it back to their ships. However, Polyphemus uses Odysseus’ name to curse the hero’s journey back to Ithaca.
Odysseus is not his name; Odysseus is his actions. Odysseus is the Trojan Horse. Odysseus is the disguise he swears to sneak back into his home to reclaim his wife and kingdom. Odysseus is the nighttime raids with Diomedes to steal the Palladium and the horses of king Rhesus. The first name Odysseus gives to Polyphemus is truer than the second name he gives as he is sailing away because the first name shows Odysseus for what he truly is: a trickster, a con, a fraud.
Who are you?
As writers, we do not get to play the role of a Greek legend often, but this question is at least as hard for writers as it is for legendary heroes. Usually, after I introduce myself as a writer, the next question is “What do you write about?” “What do you write about?” is another way of asking “Who are you?” As writers, our work is part of our identity, and our identity, fair or not, is expected to be part of our work. When I get questions about what I write, I normally give a bloated answer about how I’m a lyric poet who focuses on narrative and tradition. I talk about how my love of origin stories drove me to writing. I get nods and raised eyebrows when I compare different versions of superheroes to different versions of gods and heroes in the Greco-Roman world. I get a few laughs when I talk about how many dead wrestlers and Trojan War epithets I can fit into one poem.
My answers usually satisfy the person asking. Many people are impressed by someone who writes poetry because many still people see poetry as poetry, an intimate whisper of longing/insight/unity with the earth, or “POETRY,” a mystical art that few can tap into and even fewer can understand. This aura around poetry exist despite the fact that there are more avenues than ever to become involved with poetry.
My most common dream is a dream where I can fly, and, honestly, I think some people would give me the same look that they give when I tell them that I am poet if I told them that I could fly. My choice to be a poet and my subject matter are usually enough to make people believe I’m somewhere between smart enough and smarter than I really am. But my answers aren’t completely honest. They aren’t honest at all, really.
Hidden behind the Trojan War metaphors and comic book allusions is a secret. I’m not that deep. I’m a two trick pony who’s manage to ride those two tricks to awards, publications, and some level of job security.
I remember the first two poems I ever wrote in my 9th grade creative writing class. My first poem, naturally, was a love poem about a girl I fell in love with because she was nice to me at the bus stop. My second poem was a poem about how I hated myself because I wasn’t living up to my potential in the same way that Aeneas wasn’t living up to his potential when he lingered in Carthage with Dido. Maybe I didn’t get the girl in 9th grade because she didn’t get my Aeneas references. Or my Gundam references. Or my NWO references. Or maybe I didn’t get the girl in 9th grade because she had good judgment.
Regardless, my first poem and my second poem established my poetic subject matter for the next 20 years. I only write poems about two things. I write poems about the things I love, and I write poems about hating myself.
Organizing my first book made me notice my subject matter habits and limitations. My first book started as my graduate school thesis. I finished graduate school a decade after that first creative writing class. In some ways, it’s a typical first book from a poet fresh out of a graduate creative writing program. It’s largely autobiographical. It has three sections. There are poems in the book that read more like class exercises than poems because there are poems in the book that started as class exercises. But there’s ambition in the book, too. I fought to fit all of my interests and obsessions in between the front and back cover of that book. I fought to fit pro wrestling, mythology, and my struggles with mental and emotional well being into a sixty page narrative. I fought with writing about my family and friends and the grudges I still hold for my family and friends. But, underneath all of that and the pressure to publish a book, the book is made up of two types of poems: love poems and self-hate poems.
My two types of poems are the two tritest poems. Helen of Troy told the world everything there is to know about love and hate. Radio Raheem told the world everything there is to know about love and hate. Saying that I write about love and hate could be an admission that I should not be writing at all. Saying that I write about love and hate could be an admission that I never learned much of anything during my 20 years as a writer. There’s the old writing maxim that says “Make it new.” Love is not new. Hate is not new. And I do not imagine that anything I have to say about love and hate is new.
However, when I talk to other writers about poetry and my attraction to poetry, I often mention that my attraction to poetry is not its ability to make things new, but its ability to make things uncomfortable, to move things away from their expected center, to dig underneath the visible and find the forgotten. I started writing poetry to find myself, and this fight for discovery makes me think of Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archaeologist who found the ruins of ancient Troy by retracing the steps of the old myths and legends. He was more of a fan of antiquity than a scholar, so he ruined plenty of priceless artifacts during his dig. Many experts say his dig might have ruined the remains of Homer’s Troy. But Schliemann found the city, and he found treasure even it was two centuries older than Priam’s treasure. For years, the history lover in me held a grudge against Schliemann for destroying what might have been the city of Priam and Hector and Paris. As a kid, I would daydream about visiting the site of Troy and kicking rocks that might have been the last remnant of the giant stone that Ajax threw at Hector in book XIV. But as I get older and write more, my grudge fades because I realize every excavation is an act of failure. When I reach inside of myself to find writing material, I never pull out exactly what I’m searching for. I still haven’t found the exact piece of me I was searching for when I sat down to write for the first time.
For me, this relates to my poetry because once I admitted to writing only two types of poems, the excavation had to begin. I had to discover why these subjects owned my poetry. I had to dig into the work and dig into myself. “Navel Gazing” is one of the dirtiest phrases in the world of creative writing criticism. It’s an accusation of studying oneself without noticing or caring or relating to the outside world. However, I think navel gazing can be productive, and this thought takes me back to Greek legends as well. There was a belief in many ancient Greek religions that the Omphalos (Greek for “navel”) at Delphi marked the center of the world. This belief amplified the belief that the oracle at Delphi held mystical powers and the ability to communicate with the gods. The Omphalos was the center, and power radiated from the center. Understanding of the world and the gods radiated from the center.
For me, investigating my center helped me figure out why I am the poet that I am and why I write about the subjects I choose to write about. For my poems about love, I am forced to question why I love the subjects of my poems. I am forced to question why I love professional wrestling when I know professional wrestling killed Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Andre the Giant, the British Bulldog, and so many other childhood heroes. I am forced to question why I love football when football is just another extension of a white supremacist and capitalist system profiting off of the destruction of bodies that are mostly black bodies and mostly poor bodies. I am forced to question why I love the women I love and why I write about the women I love when leaving those women out of my writing could have been the most loving thing to do. I am forced to question why I love Ancient European history and mythology when this history and mythology has been warped to demonize people who look like me. I am forced to realize that love is an act, and I am responsible for my actions. I am responsible for my writing.
For my poems about hating myself, I am forced to decide why I hate myself or parts of myself. And, of course, this excavation of myself is more important than any words I put on paper. But in reviewing my poetry, I discovered and I am still discovering that I do not hate myself in the same way that I hate the evils of the world. I don’t hate myself in the same way that I hate rapists, racists, and liars. I hate myself in the same way that I hate watching bad basketball. Basketball is my favorite sport to watch. At its best, basketball is one of the best combinations of skill and strategy ever created. At its worst, it is beyond maddening. I hate watching bad basketball because I know how good basketball can be. I hate myself because I have always had a need to be better than I am at any moment.
This admission is not a revelation for me. This is not the place in this essay where I realize the error of my ways and promise to transform myself into something more complex. I might dream about flying a lot, but I gave up my dreams of being a butterfly or a phoenix a long time ago. Even though I started writing out of a need to become my own person and, there’s no room for a grand metamorphosis in my poetry. Like many other artists, I have had periods where I swore that I would “break out of my shell” or “think outside of the box” and develop a new voice and touch on new subjects. Those attempts always started with good intentions and always ended with bad work. And, most of the time, the work was bad and dishonest.
These misguided attempts at transformation never produced good poetry, but the attempts did produce a good lesson. They taught me that there is no need for transformation. Coming to terms with who I am does not mean that I have to change who I am. I can’t change that I am Lindsey’s brother, Shonda’s brother, and Tonya’s brother. I can’t change that I am Ethel and Lindsey’s son. Luckily, I’ve come to terms with being the baby of my family. And I’ve also come to terms with who I am as a poet. Coming to terms with who I am as a poet means that I have greater responsibility to my work. I cannot blame my inspirations on a muse or some other divine inspiration. My poetry is mine. I know who I am, and I have to accept the joy, struggle, doubt, anxiety, pride, love, and hate that comes with that knowledge.
Jason McCall holds an MFA from the University of Miami. His collections include Two-Face God; Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize); Silver; I Can Explain; and Mother, Less Child (co-winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). He and P.J. Williams are the editors of It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop. He is an Alabama native, and he teaches at the University of North Alabama.