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The Poet’s Education

That was the first time I knew that there must have been others out there, just like me, who were sad and lonely and just wanted some kind of beauty in their lives and maybe for a boy to love them.

By Jenny Boully

I don’t know if they were monarch butterflies or only butterflies that looked like monarch butterflies, but once a year, when they would descend upon my neighborhood in south San Antonio, I would sneak up on one sucking nectar from one of my family’s privet trees and wait for its wings to touch. I would then pluck it between my thumb and forefinger and run inside to my bedroom, where I would let it go, closing the door behind me. I thought they would stay alive forever.

The teachers never knew where to put me. In kindergarten, they put me with the green kids. Then, when they began to see something in me, they moved me to the blue kids. The blue kids had already gone oh-so-far in their studies, and to catch up, I began to fill in my worksheets; the teacher reprimanded me, and I got in trouble for not following directions. This was in kindergarten, when the families in my neighborhood were still mostly white, but not me; no one ever knew about me or what I was or how I fit in. They moved me around a lot back then.

In the children’s book Color My World by Wayne Carley, the lovely white cat, so fluffy and elegant, escapes its owner’s house to have a pre-nap adventure in a world punctuated by colors. It rolls itself upon a heap of green, delicate, fingerlike ferns. That was the world in which I wanted to live. I stole the book from my second-grade classroom.

If you paid fifty cents, you got to see the circus performers at school or maybe another troop of people doing something entertaining. My sister and I would save our change so we could attend the shows, and more often than not, we would have only enough saved for one of us to go. I remember this circus-themed show so distinctly because both my sister and I had enough money to go. This was at school, where we would sometimes, but rarely, also have the thirty-five cents it cost to eat breakfast. There were multicolored poodles in the show, and they actually did jump through hoops.

In third grade, Wayne needed to go to the bathroom really bad, but Mr. Anvil would not let him. So Wayne, the very withdrawn and shy and awkward new kid from Hawaii, peed in his pants, and he grew ever-so-much-more-withdrawn-and-shy-and-awkward. The class did not laugh at Wayne; we were all of us very scared for him. Mr. Anvil was overly strict. He would pound his fist on our foreheads if we forgot our homework, and he would ask if anyone was at home in our heads. I did not think any of us, in that classroom, could be home in our heads. We held our breaths. We cast glances. We wondered who would be next. I felt so bad for Wayne; he had asked to go to the bathroom. He must have been so embarrassed and in so much pain.

I wanted to be in the classroom that had a jar of marbles, with one marble given every day for good behavior and a prize attained when the jar was full, but I never had that teacher.

In fourth grade, Mrs. Morgan made me tutor girls in math who were not doing so well. Mostly, they couldn’t subtract. I took them to the back table where the ant farms were (ant farms that we made as a class) and tried to teach them simple arithmetic, which they could not understand. I myself did not do this so well. I tried to show them how I did it, by slowly counting out dots or fingers on my hand. I ended up helping them pass by doing all the problems myself and then asking them to add or subtract the number one from another number. Christina in particular was impossible. She kept pointing to Niger on the globe and laughing.

In second grade, I wrote a poem about autumn. It was the first poem I wrote. It had, although I did not know it at the time, a refrain. The refrain was “Fall is the season for all.” It was also the season for “going to the mall” and “playing football” and “when the leaves fall.”

In fifth grade, Mrs. Lazarus let one of us go outside during fifth period to get the weather report. It was always a wonderful day for the pupil who went out to get the weather report, as we were in a school with no windows. I would note the position of the sun, the cirrus clouds, the breeze if there was one.

I don’t know why all the girls wanted to kill me, but in middle school, they all suddenly very much wanted to kill me.

I loved a boy really deeply, and I wanted him to know me, that me inside of me. I listened to the Cure and paid attention to the lyrics, because I felt as if the lyrics were me or at least could save me, and I knew that I wanted to use words that way, to save me. I stayed up late on Sunday nights to watch MTV’s 120 Minutes and to listen to other words by other bands that might also save me.

Children oftentimes disappeared for weeks, and then they came back. Or else, they disappeared for years, and then they came back. Classmates were transient, and the houses emptied and filled and emptied and filled with new friends and new classmates. The boy across the street wore the same orange underwear every day; we knew because we could see the patch of orange showing through the hole in the butt of his jeans; he wore the same pair of jeans every day, and his parents fought often, and his father’s car was sandalwood colored and smoked from the hood, and I felt bad when I squirted juice from my juice bottle at his jeans when we were playing because I had forgotten that he wore the same jeans every day and would need to wear them again the next day. He disappeared after that year and never came back.

Josafina came back; she came back although I never did want her to come back because she was one of the girls who wanted to kill me. She wanted to kill me at school and outside of school. When she came back, she had a tattoo on her chest and had changed her name to Sophie. She wanted to kill me, but she would never kill anyone that I knew of. Her brother, however, did. Her brother killed another student at our school and dumped his body in a ditch one block from my house. The helicopters swarmed all morning.

When I was fifteen, I read a poem by Lucille Clifton called “[at last we killed the roaches],” and I thought about my house and all the houses in my neighborhood and all the roaches that maybe I too could kill so as to have a sense of accomplishment and reside in a beautiful world free of roaches.

Because they never did know where to put me, or because certain teachers did not want to deal with me, sometimes I was in regular and other times I was in advanced. In ninth grade, my English teacher did not let the regular students read the same book that his advanced class was reading, so instead, he made us read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and that was the first time I knew that there were others out there, there must have been others out there, just like me, who were sad and lonely and just wanted some kind of beauty in their lives and maybe for a boy to love them.

I was not in advanced English, however, and so I did not get the flyer from the San Antonio Public Library with the guidelines for their Young Pegasus Poetry Award. I saw it on my classmate’s desk in advanced biology. I asked him if I could see it, and he said, Why? Do you actually think you can win? No, I said, I just want to see it. I wrote down the address and sent in my poems. Later in the summer, I would find out that I did win, and the school would announce it over the intercom, and the school newspaper interviewed me about it, and that boy knew that he did not think I could win and that I had won.

I knew I wanted to write, so I joined journalism in high school. I hated all that late-night work on PageMaker and all that cutting and pasting over the light board. I hated all the phone calling and note taking and blah-blahs of the interviewees, the tedious work of winding film and the shaking of canisters and the smell of the darkroom like pee. Mr. Killough knew I wanted to write more than just news stories, so he let me write the personal column and the feature stories. He said I had to draw the reader in; he said I had to begin with explosions. He taught me how, through writing, I could make something exist that wasn’t in the world before.

In my literature book, I would read the poetry section over and over again, always stopping for a long time on Donald Justice’s “Poem to Be Read at 3 a.m.” I read the poetry section on my own because we were hardly ever assigned poems to read. I would think about who had the light on at 3 a.m. and how that poem was for them and how the poet and the person with the light on were probably both lonely and sad and I was lonely and sad and wanted to have a poem and give one too.

At fifteen, I took an introduction to literature class at the city university. My professor, Steven Kellman, made us read Heart of Darkness, The Dead, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, The Metamorphosis. He spoke about symbolism while I doodled flowers into my notebook. I remember him saying always, always saying, It’s as if he’s hitting the reader over the head; he’s taking a concrete slab and hitting the reader over the head. The next summer, I took his introduction to film class. We watched Jules and Jim, Citizen Kane, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Blue Angel, North by Northwest, The Bicycle Thieves. Those two summers, I felt as if I had left the light on at 3 a.m. and someone had also left it on for me.

When I found out that I could study creative writing in college, it became an obsession of mine to do just that.

I chose Hollins in Roanoke, Virginia. An alum came to interview me in San Antonio. She was interviewing lots of applicants, I think. I didn’t know what to wear. She was doing the interviews from an expensive hotel downtown. I didn’t know how I would get there. I think my interview went well, because two weeks later, I was invited to campus to compete for a full scholarship, even though I did not have the minimum SAT score to compete for that scholarship. My father put my plane ticket on his credit card. Not knowing better, I didn’t pack a dress or anything other than jeans. I prepared nothing. Somehow, I was given a full scholarship, and that’s where I went to study poetry. I went to a small all-girls liberal arts school in the South to study literature, physics, and philosophy, and to take a creative writing workshop each and every semester.

When I got to college, I had so much catching up to do. I hadn’t ever been taught how to think critically. In high school, our homework consisted of copying answers to questions right out of the book. I didn’t know how to come up with my own answers. But I was always a fast learner, and so I learned. I began to tutor the girls in astrophysics, but they could never get it. Brenda was useless; she kept pointing to Gemini and saying, Oh, look there’s Gemini; I’m a Gemini. But later, she taught me how to cheat on my astronomy lab reports by drawing in the bodies of things that I hadn’t even seen.

Freshman year, I took an introduction to creative writing class. My professor gave me a bad grade on my paper on Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” She said that it wasn’t a wedding poem or about picking up the pieces after a failed marriage and my whole thesis and explication had therefore failed. She said it was about a shipwreck. I said the shipwreck was a metaphor for a personal wreck. Several English degrees later, I can still only read that poem as a poem about a failed marriage. She circled words on my poems and told me that I could never use those words in a poem because they were abstract.

I was an English major, then I chose to double major in English and physics. Then I changed the physics to philosophy my junior year.

When I went home for winter break, I explained Plato’s cave allegory to my then-boyfriend. He said, That’s stupid. Why do you want to think about things like that? I knew then that I’d have to break up with him.

Also during my junior year, I took a course in the eighteenth-century novel, and I read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. That book would change how I thought about books. I had my own reading in class, which my professor would ask me to explicate. It happened mainly because I kept misreading fortifications as fornications, and partially because I have always had a very dirty mind.

The writer-in-residence during my MA year at Hollins was Brendan Galvin, and he looked us all in the eyes and said, You better be enough for yourself. For the rest of my life, I would puzzle over those words, wondering if I interpreted them right, finding that I interpret them differently during different times. At the time, I took comfort in them, but now, they terrify me.

I remember most vividly the lilacs that spring, the spring of my MA year at Hollins. I remember those lilacs more than the lilacs of any spring of my undergraduate years. I also remember most vividly the dogwoods and the dark cuts of midnight blue in the furrows of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the cows on the hills and valleys formed by those mountains. I remember my thesis advisor, Cathryn Hankla, trying to break me of the habit of always using the present perfect progressive tense in my poems, but I didn’t want anything to end. I didn’t want anything to be ending. I remembered everything so exceptionally well that spring because my heart was breaking, and I carried that heartbreak with me for a few more years until I didn’t know what else to do with it. It was then that I realized what I wanted more than someone to love were those lilacs, those dogwoods, those curls of wisteria, the fat bumblebees, the air and scenery of southwest Virginia, a place that Kathy Acker, when she was writer-in-residence my junior year, called heaven on earth.

In Thailand, the summer after I earned my MA, I watched dragonflies and butterflies and birds pair up and mate in the very air. I dipped orchids in holy water and folded myself at the feet of Buddha.

I waited tables while I applied and waited to hear back from MFA programs in poetry. One of my fellow waitresses interrogated me daily about my fake ma. She did research. She wanted to point me out as a fake. I carried drafts of things in my pockets. The cops I served burgers to asked me what good was learning anything if I couldn’t help people.

Although I got into my dream school, I didn’t accept the offer. I was still feeling sad and didn’t feel worthy of getting things that I wanted. So I said no and went to another school instead. There, at the University of Notre Dame, my professor made us study the modernist poets so thoroughly and scan their poems even. It was quite the opposite of what I would have had to do at my dream school. I was oftentimes quite angry. I was working on a book of footnotes, and my resistance to breaking the line was already making everyone quite uneasy.

I moved to New York to follow a boy from Notre Dame, a new boy, a new heart. I had only two hundred dollars, but I was in the city of my dreams. My roommate made dolls, and she made them talk to her and to each other, and she made me one and told me to keep it in my room. I’d come home some days to find them eating supper or watching tv. Once, there was an invasion of flies. Jenny, do you think something is rotting? She began searching behind the fridge and stove. On the counter was her Thanksgiving turkey from a week earlier, where it had sat since Thanksgiving.

I took a course in Dante; I took a course in Ancient Greek. I temped for Avon and Sotheby’s and a woman who funded her Village apartment and upstate home on million-dollar grants from a shady nonprofit she was running. I worked as the lowest rung on the ladder in publishing. I began work on my PhD at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

Doing my coursework, I tried to fill in gaps that I saw in my poetry education. I studied Victorian and metaphysical poetry. I took literature and arts of the 1850s, fin de siècle literature, and many courses with my dissertation advisor. I wrote a dissertation not on poetry but rather on the entrapment of girl children through enchantment, focusing on J. M. Barrie’s Wendy, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Henry Darger’s Girls.

I tell my students, at the end of the term, that they must have hobbies, because if they don’t have hobbies, then that means writing is their hobby, and it shouldn’t be that way; writing should be their life and not their hobby. I tell them to learn new things, different things, things that have nothing to do with writing. And not just learn them, but be good at them; master them; impress others with them. What I have learned about great writers: they were always obsessed with something, but they were very seldom obsessed with writing.


“The Poet’s Education” is used by permission from Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life (Coffee House Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Jenny Boully.