Perhaps it was a pivotal moment when I was eight, attending school at Mark Keppel Elementary, a moment that gave me a hard shove towards adopting the written word as my major mode of self expression. I found myself singing in the glee club that would provide the musical part of the annual Christmas play. I liked to sing, and in my mind, I sounded pretty good. One morning during practice, the teacher assigned to lead and whip us into shape, stopped us in mid-song. She looked us over, as if she were trying to find a needle in a haystack. She went back to playing “We Three Kings” on the piano and we started over. But within a few seconds, she stopped us again, stood up, and pointed at me.
“Richard,” she said, “I want you to just move your lips. Don’t sing.”
Embarrassed and devastated, I did as I was told. The scar never went away, and I’ve never sung since, not even in the shower. But the impact of being told my singing voice was so bad, in front of my peers, made me abandon song in one form, and seek it out in another. The poems in my 3rd grade reader began to catch my interest. The rhymes and rhythms, basic as they were, planted the seed within, a fascination with language as music. I began to fall in love with the power of words and the sounds they made.
Maybe the crucial decision to write can be attributed to my first attempt at writing poetry while wrestling with things like which pimple cream worked best, as I stumbled my way through the hallowed halls of Hosler Jr. High. The poem was about a soldier’s life being snuffed out like a candle, and the ensuing darkness that followed. Heady and emotional stuff, for me. I was revising it in my biology class, while the teacher reviewed material I already had down for the upcoming test. My poem said what I wanted to say, but I was paying attention to stanzas, line breaks, and punctuation. My then minimal understanding of poetry was just enough to think that its form and appearance on the page somehow played a role in it being defined as a poem. While my attention was focused on what I was doing, I hardly noticed the girl sitting in the row in front of me, watching me, the look on her face asking “what are you doing?” She had freckles on her button nose, wore glasses over her bright blue eyes, and liked to wear a variety of colorful cashmere sweaters that gave just a hint of the round, mysterious curves developing underneath the soft, fuzzy fabric.
I handed the paper to her. She took it from my hand, turned around, and began reading. It was my first critique, and I felt my stomach tighten up as I waited for her to hand it back. When she did, it was an epiphany. She was looking at me like no other member of the opposite sex had ever looked at me until that moment. I’d seen the look in the movies, in the scene when you realize the plot was about to get mushy and (ugh) romantic. But this was for real. I felt something electric shooting up and down my spine as I realized I was on to something.
As the girls at my school transformed overnight from “scrawny” and “stupid” to “foxy” and “wow,” I often found myself wrestling with my lack of musical talent (couldn’t play drums or guitar) and athletic skills that would rise me above average. My early self-assessment with the ladies looked bleak, But then, Eureka! (All I’ll say about this is throughout the years I refined my ability to use my poetry as a way to get my foot in the door. Sometimes it turned out great, sometimes it didn’t. The rest is fodder for my memoir.)
I could go on about how my love affair with poetry blossomed while I was an undergrad in college, began to publish my work in small press journals, and even started editing/publishing a journal of my own. About the struggle of weathering a 15 year writer’s block that began in 1980, and my return to my writing in the 1990s as I tried to make sense of the horrors of emotional and physical abuse my siblings and I endured under the wrath of a mean and sadistic stepfather. Or about my transformation into a published poet, earning my MFA degree a few years ago, and the many friends and writers I’ve met along the way. And now, how my poetry is a voice balancing the beauty I try to find all around me, while simultaneously speaking out against social injustice, institutionalized racism, and the plight of the working class.
I guess it comes down to this: I didn’t choose writing, it chose me.
BIO: Richard Vargas was born and raised in So. California. He has published two collections of poetry: McLife, 2005, and American Jesus, 2007. He graduated from the University of New Mexico Creative Writing program with an MFA/Poetry, in 2010. His poetry has appeared in various literary journals, reviews, and anthologies. He was recipient of the 2011 Hispanic Writers Award / Taos Summer Writers Conference. He also was on the faculty of the 10th National Latino Writers Conference, May 2012. He just edited/published the 5th issue of The Más Tequila Review, a bi-annual poetry magazine featuring poetry from across the country. He currently resides in Albuquerque, NM, looking for a job.
Photo credit: Brandon Kennedy