The “Debut” of our new Poet Laureate

By George Ella Lyon

Dear Readers,

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.

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