Live Through This

Telling Tales in School

I was my high school’s pre–Taylor Swift answer to Taylor Swift.

Collage by Camille.

Collage by Camille.

Everyone has at least one Thing in high school. Some people are athletes, some people are math geniuses, some are great dancers, or they’re hilarious, or they play Magic: The Gathering in the stairwell every day at lunch. My thing was writing love poems about people I went to school with. I wrote lots of poems about my friends and—most of all—about myself, but a large percentage of my enormous poetic output was devoted to love.

Sometimes, when I was feeling especially bold, I would name the objects of my affection in the titles of the poems, so that no confusion was possible. Sometimes I would obscure their identities so that only 95 percent of my classmates could identify the person I was swooning about. I was my school’s pre–Taylor Swift answer to Taylor Swift. Did we make out after a school dance? Were you my friend’s cute older brother? Then you got a poem, and thanks to the Xeroxed copies distributed to fellow students in our school’s poetry class, the whole world knew it. My favorite poet was Frank O’Hara (still is), and his books were full of poems addressed to specific people: his friends and lovers, many of them mentioned by name. I wasn’t a weirdo; I was following a poetic tradition!

I should clarify that I wasn’t writing poems in hopes of snagging some dreamy high school boyfriend, that perfect mix of Lloyd Dobbler and Jake Ryan who would someday make me mixtapes and give me wet, tender kisses. 90 percent of my poems were dedicated and addressed to people who couldn’t have been less interested in me. The poems were about older boys who didn’t know my name, boys who saw me as a friend, boys who had previously broken my heart. I was an equal-opportunity scribe—I wrote poems for boys I barely knew and for boys I talked to on the phone every single day.

For my best friend, with whom I’d been in love for years:

If someone is standing on the sidewalk with their head stuck down the neck of their T-shirt, trying to light a cigarette without interruption from the wind, I see you there, with all the shining lights of New York City framing your hair like a halo. Halo? Does that imply an angel? No, then, not a halo, but a big golden ring. Golden ring, does that imply wedding band? No, then, not a ring, but an aura, brilliant and glowing.

I never handed the poems over directly, as a bolder human might have done. None of the subjects ever reciprocated, but it didn’t really matter. Instead of feeling shy or ashamed about my feelings, I was proud of myself. I was a real poet, that was the way I saw it—these boys were lucky to make it onto my notebook pages, lucky to be typed up and tightened and printed and shared.

Despite my otherwise careful behavior—no hard drugs, home before curfew, the virginity I carefully preserved until college—it didn’t bother me that my passions were so public. I had been raised to believe (and still do) that one’s artistic output is above rebuke. A poem was an entirely different beast compared with a love letter, though of course I wrote both. A poem was art.

Margaret Atwood once wrote: “the real question is / whether or not I will make you immortal.” That’s how it felt, that I had the power to turn these boys, boys who would get old and become less beautiful, into timeless, perfect beings. They could have girlfriends who would make them feel good for a moment, but I could make them stay gorgeous teenagers forever.

But let me assure you, in my prosaic dealings I was not always so confident. Writing poems about people was far easier than, oh, telling them I liked them. It’s much easier to be brave on paper. You have all the time in the world to make sure that each word is exactly right, that the space on the page is right, that you’ve chosen the right title and epigraph and broken the lines just so.

I don’t think I ever actually told a boy exactly how I felt about him in person. When faced with one of my objects of (potential) affection, I either went mute or acted in the way I thought I should: like I had the world completely figured out and couldn’t care less about some albeit-dreamy high school boy. I wasn’t afraid to be smart, but I was deeply afraid of being uncool, and in my demented brain, vulnerability was the mortal enemy of cool. It kills me to think of all the love I missed out on (not just romantic love, mind you) because I was too scared to open up and be real.

Who knows how Taylor Swift feels about the frenzied speculation over her love songs, whether she finds it amusing or irritating. Does she think it’s fun to imagine her listeners piecing together details cribbed from tabloid magazines and matching them up with her lyrics? Maybe. But I’m willing to bet that for Taylor, her songs are like my high school poems and have nothing to do with anyone else. They’re not about making a scene, or publicly shaming someone who has done her wrong. I would put money on the notion that Taylor writes these songs because she has no choice—they need to come out of her, just like my thousands of love poems needed to come out of me.

The most powerful thing any of us can do is to express ourselves without thinking of the response. Though I wasn’t always as bold in my real life, I was fully present on the page. If I wanted to write a line in French about the color of your eyes, I did. If I wanted to say that you looked like a saint, I did. It might not have won me boyfriends, but sometimes when I sent my poems out into the world they were published, and won prizes, and eventually even earned me some money.

When one such poem won a prize the summer after I graduated from high school, part of the deal was that they flew me home from college to do a reading at the biggest Barnes & Noble in the city. The object of the poem turned up, of course, and smiled a bashful smile when my parents took our picture.

He was a close friend, and he knew the poem was about him and had read the poem many times before (also, his name was in the title—subtlety was never my strong suit). We’d never talked about it, not the reality of it, because he had tacitly agreed to play by the rules of calling it art. It would have crossed a line for us to admit that my feelings were real.

But by the time I did the reading, I was desperately and poetically in love with someone else, writing reams on how that boy looked when he played the saxophone. And so the reading was no longer about my former (would-be) flame. It was about me, and about the poem. In the end, that’s what always lasts, those words on the page.

It never was the boys themselves, awkward and pimpled and beautiful and smelly and smart and odd. What mattered was how I had transformed them, and myself, by writing about them. Reading the poems now, I’m struck not by the memory of the boys ambling down the hallways of my high school (though I do remember the way they looked, and their faces will always remain the most beautiful to me, even these fifteen years later.) No, what I’m struck by is how clearly I can see myself in the poems, and how grateful I am to have this most precise record of how I felt. If I hadn’t written anything down, those long-lost feelings would be a messy blur, a giant mélange of hormones and teenage lustfulness. Since I am a poet, I can track my little heart as it becomes big, always increasing to make room for the next love, and the next. ♦


  • Amy Rose October 28th, 2013 7:27 PM

    Crying a lot.

    • Emma S. October 29th, 2013 4:22 PM

      Don’t make me write you a poem, ARS.

  • October 28th, 2013 7:53 PM

    this is just beautiful. I have also written poetry for people I have liked, but I never thought of it as me doing them a favor. It was more of therapy for me to get the thoughts down. How incredible to see it as me immortalizing them with words! It really is just capturing them in the best possible light. Such a great article, now one of my favorites on here. xo

  • thelilacparadox October 28th, 2013 8:00 PM

    Thank you. This is beautiful. And it’s your writing… so you must be beautiful too.

  • Ozma October 28th, 2013 8:34 PM

    This was really stellar!

  • Haleyhaley2w October 28th, 2013 8:36 PM

    love this. so so so much.

  • Helena K. October 28th, 2013 8:40 PM

    My life!!!! ” I either went mute or acted in the way I thought I should: like I had the world completely figured out and couldn’t care less about some albeit-dreamy high school boy.”

  • Kelsey October 28th, 2013 8:48 PM

    This is so beautiful. I’m perpetually writing poems about people I know, friends and boys I like and such. I never thought to distribute them at school, but I feel like no one would understand. It sort of makes me want to xerox them and just put them in random places at school, just so people DO read them…

  • mimsydeux October 28th, 2013 9:16 PM

    I absolutely loved this piece, Emma! What you describe at the end reminds me so much of Chris Kraus’ book ‘I Love Dick’, in which the object of her affections, Dick, is no more than a canvas for her art in her path to self-discovery.

  • Anielica October 28th, 2013 9:39 PM

    I wish I could be brave enough to share my writing this way – just leave bits of it around school for people to find.

    Also, I’m just curious – if I submitted a question to you asked it, how long should I expect to wait before seeing it replied to in an article?

    • Anaheed October 29th, 2013 12:08 AM

      There’s really no telling — some of them are never responded to; some get addressed right away. Unfortunately we get too many questions to respond to all of them.

  • Maki Unicorn October 28th, 2013 10:03 PM

    i think, the talent to create (whether it poems or drawings or stories or photographs) is one of the gratest things we can have. because that’s what empowers us, the ability to make things and people around us immortal.

  • ungrula October 28th, 2013 11:59 PM

    You remind me of me, especially in middle school (don’t hate me!!). I used to write songs and poems and put them on the internet (anonymously or under my name, some subtle, some creepily obvious). One time I put a song about a boy in his locker but he had a girlfriend so that was awkward. To this day, though, I still find it easier to write things than say them, although my friends might tell you I have “the biggest balls of anybody” when it comes to talking to boys (go figure!). And this quote might be one of the most accurate things I’ve ever read: “It’s much easier to be brave on paper. You have all the time in the world to make sure that each word is exactly right, that you’ve chosen the right title and epigraph and broken the lines just so.”
    Rock on!

  • flamboyantD October 29th, 2013 1:43 AM

    Reading this article has reminded me of why I love writing so much. I started keeping journals when I was in 8th grade and recently stopped as a sophomore in college. When I look over my old journals, I can remember falling in love, first kisses and listening to some of my favorite songs for the first time. Everything on paper can be so vivid and it’s like being able to live it over again.
    Thank you so much RookieMag for including articles like this about things that are so important and are so often overlooked. Articles like these remind me and assure me of the quality of your magazine.
    Keep up the amazing work!

  • Serena Head October 29th, 2013 9:02 AM

    This is great. You expressed it so well.

  • RatioRae October 29th, 2013 10:29 AM

    This is literally the story of my life.

  • greenie October 31st, 2013 4:59 PM

    i literally love this! thankyou so much

  • Lydia Jane November 2nd, 2013 8:01 PM

    This article is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I’ve been writing angsty feeling-and/or-boy-related poems for years, and though on occasion I’ve been really proud of what I’ve written, I rarely show anyone my poetry. Thank you for explaining so accurately how I feel and why I write — I hadn’t even realized it until I just read this :-) xo