By George Ella Lyon
As your about-to-be poet laureate, I want to begin with a poem about beginning.
Something comes from nothing.
Something will come. Just listen.
Just wait. Sit by the portal of nothing.
You will hear the ringy sort of silence
that fills a well. Then quirks & quinks.
Then words. Two. Three. Maybe a whole
phrase. This you say over and over
to let the melody cast its spell. Then
you listen again, but now you listen
forward from those words. What
comes after this? That, these, those?
Probably not. Association is free
but more a playground than a poem.
Now. Play ground. The stage?
Dusty velvet maroon curtain. You
wait behind its pleated wall. Guitar
neck in your right hand, your best
friend’s hand in your left. You’re
fourteen, it’s 1963, and the audience
creaks the wooden seats of your
high school auditorium, eager
to see the football queen crowned
and get back to the house. But they
must sweat through entertainment
first, including you and Joanie, who
are debuting your folk act because
of “Lemon Tree” and “Blowin’ in
the Wind.” You are both trembling
like that wind-swept tree, breath
held till your names are called.
Then you step out into footlight’s
dazzle, all hope and high hearts.
Somewhere in the universe your
voices still travel, a disturbance
of air, your first song.
I chose this poem not only because it’s about a debut, but because it’s about how writing happens—or at least how it happens for me.
I remember when I volunteered in my high school library, one of the first things Mrs. Dale, our librarian, told me, was that “Nothing comes before something.” She was referring to a principle of book organizing, but I took it cosmically. (This is one way to spot a poet.) And it’s true, of course. It’s what they tell us about the origin of the uni-verse, the one poem we are all a part of.
When I began “Debut” I had no idea where it was going, no clue that I would wind up as my 14-year-old self, trembling behind the curtain of the Harlan High School auditorium. I was just listening, waiting until I could hear the silence. Then sitting with the silence until sounds started, then following those sounds into words. If this feels mysterious, it is. I can’t make it happen, like I can sit down and write a grocery list. I can only prepare for and invite it. The more faithfully I do that, along with reading and journal-keeping, the more likely it is that something will come.
I believe this listening is part of what I can offer as poet laureate, too: listening to what you write in workshops, to what you say after readings, to questions you ask and stories you share.
Evidently I have to speak first, though.