With thanks to Monkey Girl for inspiring this post.
Nana Pat and Papa James gave me Where the Sidewalk Ends for my 10th birthday, and from that day forward I knew I wanted to be a poet. I quickly memorized nearly the entire book and at the slightest provocation, I would recite any one of those poems to whomever was nearest. In fact, I'm sure I became a bit of a pest to those who didn't share my passion, and really, I didn't know anyone else who shared my passion. Eventually, though, I started writing my own little ditties-- of course my poems have had a few transformations over the last 30ish years, but here's one of my very first:
I'll get the coffee
You get the tea
I'll get the sugar
and you get me.
I'm reciting that from memory, so it may not be exactly accurate, but in any case I think it was obvious I had a bright writing future ahead of me.
Ok, maybe not so much.
But while Silverstein was inspiring my dreams of fame and glory by pen, he did something else for me, and I didn't even realize it until many, many years later: He kept me reading.
There were a few tween years when I felt I was too old and cool for picture books, and yet I was completely daunted by the idea of a chapter book. I had copies of The Black Stallion and Little House in the Big Woods floating around my bedroom, but I couldn't imagine how anyone could read a book with so many pages.
Silverstein was my bridge. He was also my connection to my Nana Pat-- the only other reader I knew-- after she died, and I guess my writing became that, too: a place to find her.
I can no longer recite "Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout" at a sneeze, but Silverstein is still inspiring me. Lately I've been frustrated about the great many rejection letters I've received. I've been peddling my poetry manuscript around for more years than I care to count, and it's "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" as Molly Fisk once wrote of her manuscript (which has since been published).
This whole publishing business can be crazy-making as I've always said that I write poems for myself first, and yet those rejection letters are eye stingers.
Then I watched a video of my friend Monkey Girl reciting Silverstein's "Invitation," and it reminded me of my Shel days, so I Googled around, and I found this Silverstein quote:
"I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery. That's great. But for them, not for me. I think that if you're creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it's received."
And then. . .
"People who say they create only for themselves and don't care if they are published... I hate to hear talk like that. If it's good, it's too good not to share. That's the way I feel about my work. So I'll keep on communicating, but only my way."
I'm going to carry that "if it's good, it's too good not to share" line around with me. It almost sounds like Silverstein was having the same write-for-self/ write-for-audience struggle that I have, and I love him for that. Chana Bloch, my poetry professor at Mills College, said that when we read to an audience we should imagine that we're giving them a gift, and maybe that's how I need to think about my submissions, too.
Also, I love that Silverstein was writing children's poetry and writing very adult-themed material (for Playboy, for example) at the same time. It gives me hope that I may be able to cross genres one day despite the fact that I've dropped the F-word in a poem or two-- Hey, I was speaking in character!