Entries for the National Schools Poetry Award close in just over a month. Here, 2019 judge Chris Tse revisits the “surprisingly inspiring” poetry of his teenage years.
The story of how I fell into writing poetry is peak teenage life: I was angsty and my friends were doing it. I could’ve turned to stronger vices to deal with teenage boredom in Lower Hutt, but drugs scared me and my friends’ first party involving alcohol was such an unmitigated disaster it put me off drinking for some time. As my parents will attest, my particular brand of teenage rebellion was defying their wishes for me to study “sensible” subjects like accounting and calculus. You can probably guess what sort of teenager I was when poetry was my idea of sticking it to my mum and dad.
Before poetry, I’d been writing song lyrics for several years, but these were kept hidden away in notebooks and folders, fuel for my imaginary life as a pop star. My lyrical inspirations were Alanis Morissette, Jewel and Tori Amos, whose songs I considered to be the epitome of really deep thoughts and unflinching truths about the human condition. The sideways step into poetry wasn’t too much of a stretch from my singer-songwriter ambitions, only now I was willing to share my writing with my circle of friends. When people ask me when I started writing poetry, I pinpoint it to this period of my teenage life – circa 1999, documenting the highs and lows (mostly the lows) of being a misunderstood teenager.
I find it difficult to let go of the past. Not in the sense that I hold on to grudges, but in my reluctance to dispose of material items that hold any trace of nostalgic meaning. Whether it’s a t-shirt I bought on a particularly beloved holiday, or an unusable pen gifted to me by someone I’ve not spoken to in over 10 years, if I can attach any significance to it I’m going to keep it. If Marie Kondo had a 10-trip card scheme I’d burn through them so quickly (and have a small stack of half-finished cards in a drawer somewhere). You say hoarder, I say fastidious archivist with a masochistic streak. This is the reason why I still have in my possession a record of my early writing life handily packaged as a set of four clearfile binders, complete with imprint pages. These folders contain more than 295 poems written between 1999 and late 2001, representing my last two years at high school and first tentative steps towards being taken seriously as a writer at university.
The hallmarks of teen poetry are all there: themes of anger and isolation? Check. Recurring images of darkness? Check. Thinly veiled odes to my crushes? Check, check, check. Here’s a sample of titles that’ll give you an idea of the tone and direction of these early poems:
- Breathing is Optional
- Ripping Out My Tongue
- What the Rabbits Want You To Fear
- Learn to Die
- Dirty Raw Amen
And that’s just poems from the first volume. The other volumes contain even more cringe-inducing delights.
As teenagers desperate to grow up, yearning for the legitimacy of adulthood, we fill our poems and lyrics with images and themes that we think will lend an air of authenticity to them. Much like the short films my friends and I made around the same time, we found ourselves telling stories about gangsters, heists and serial killers, worlds far beyond our collective experience. It was all fantasy and play-making of course, inspired by what we saw on TV and in film, but it never occurred to us to tell our own stories. When it came to our poetry, we were for the most part telling our own stories, but we still felt the need to channel them through an adult lens, perhaps to explain just how big these feelings were, or to show that the problems we grappled with deserved to be taken seriously.
Because subtlety is often lost on teenagers, there’s a poem from my last year in high school titled “Teen Angst” that ends on these lines:
If you write more to explain yourself,
maybe you’ll find
some sort of utopia.
When I first re-read those lines to prepare for this essay, I scoffed heartily at this naïve attempt at meaningful insight. But then I remembered what sort of teenager I was – somewhat outgoing, desperate to please, sensitive to everything happening around me and deeply pained by an internal struggle that was beginning to consume me. Poetry was a lifeline, a way to talk about my life without having to say it out loud. “He would hide his shadow if it meant safety,” I wrote in a poem called “Autobiography 2”. “He is afraid to tell all/ in case he has nothing worth listening to.” I spent most of my teenage years in my own head, equal parts daydreaming and over-analysing, sometimes catastrophising my own future. After my initial eye-roll response, I recognised myself in these lines so deeply – this is still the reason I write. Twenty years later, I am still writing to explain myself.
Even though we were taught how to read and write about poetry in high school in that overly prescriptive analytical way that kills any potential joy one might develop for poetry, I didn’t have anyone who taught me how to write poetry. My friends and I never gave each other constructive feedback about our poetry – that wasn’t the point of why we did it. We got on with it, muddling around with words without restrictions. Unsurprisingly, I modelled my poetry on the singer-songwriters I mentioned earlier. My poems from this period were a mix of Alanis’ warts-and-all confessions, Jewel’s earnest philosophies and Tori’s abstract imagery. This musical inspiration might also explain why all the poems in those clearfile folders are arranged into sets and sequences, some with recurring themes, others alluding to things happening around me at school and at home. In some ways, these poems are the closest thing I have to a teenage diary.
Most people would’ve thrown out their teenage diaries and poetry by now, and even though there is a lot of really terrible writing contained within those folders, I can see my teenage self trying really hard to articulate, describe and validate the world around me at the time. These poems could do with some decent editing and workshopping, but realising the benefit of revision would come much later. I’m glad I’ve held on to these folders because they remind of my teenage friendships and how we often used those poems as a means to instigate conversations about things we were otherwise too scared to raise. These poems played such an important part of strengthening the bonds between us, and laid the foundation for my aspirations to be a writer.
Getting to attend university and choosing to study the subjects I both loved and excelled at was a privilege and luxury I’m forever grateful for. It’s there that my teenage creative outlet became a potential career path. I made it my goal to get into the IIML’s undergraduate poetry workshop and, later, the MA programme. Both were instrumental in my development as a writer. People can debate whether or not creative writing can be taught, but in my experience it gave me the discipline and insight to improve my craft, and fostered the critical thinking that had been missing when I first started writing poetry. It also gave me a community of writers to learn from and connect with. I’ve made some close friends from my time at the IIML and Victoria University, some of whom I still trust closely as confidants and sources of honest, constructive feedback.
I often think about why I chose to stick with poetry. It’s not like my friends and teachers heaped praise on my writing, nor was I specifically encouraged to pursue it because someone saw promise in me. It just felt right to me, which pretty much sums up my approach to writing poetry today – instinct and gut feel still plays a big part in knowing whether something I’ve written is “good” or finished. There are days when I struggle to write anything, and days when everything I write fills me with self-doubt. Revisiting my teenage poetry – and the sheer amount of it – has been surprisingly inspiring and has given me a bit of perspective about my writing now. It’s clear to me from the way I meticulously typed and printed each poem out and ordered them into sets and sequences that I was proud of what I was producing. It clearly meant something to me for me to invest so much of my energy in it, even if each poem was read by no more than a handful of friends. Poetry was a calm constant in my life back then, and I owe it to my teenage self to rediscover this calm. I may have moved on from this part of my past, but I know it’s still there waiting for me if I just reach out.