[The following non-fiction piece was written October 2008 and tells the story of how I first came to write poetry.]
And it was at that age… Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
After basketball practice, one of my teammates had been coughing, and I remember standing there watching him, not thinking much of it as our sophomore coach made some final remarks.
After driving home through the cold winter night, my body felt terribly weak, and more than usual. I knew because I was on an off-week: I was on a two-month chemotherapy rotation, such that the first two weeks were daily pills with the rest of the rotation spent on a bi-weekly schedule of drug injections. I was in the middle of one of the two-weeks without pills—free, accept for the daily lozenges (to prevent mouth sores) and vitamins and CoQ10 pills (to minimize damage to my heart) my father had me taking. All of the treatment came with anti-nausea pills, but I never took them. It was my dad who had said to me one of the first times I vomited in the hospital, “It’s good to get as much of that out as you can,” and the doctor had agreed with him. After the first few injections, I even started refusing the intravenous kind and just let it happen. Vomiting was all that saved an already-ruined day: instead of spending the rest of it with my hands wrapped around my stomach and rolling on the couch, I could spend it barely-conscious on the couch, catching some television in my toxic stupor—and without that rest, there was no way I’d make it to school the next day, and I especially couldn’t have played basketball. I could also have a good meal, and taste it, if I got that rest the first 18 hours after a treatment.
But tonight, I could not stomach dinner. I felt hot and laid on the couch and went to bed early, around 10:00. As my father tucked me into bed, pulling the comforter up tight to my chin—I was shivering despite the swelter in my chest. He stuck a thermometer in my mouth.
“One-hundred and one point two,” he said to me, looking at the small machine in disgust, kneeled up to my bed. We both knew what that mark meant. A month or so ago when I first started my treatment, the doctors had to educate me about the chemotherapy and how it weighted heavily on my white blood cell count and how I therefore had to be especially careful about getting sick or catching an infection. They’d told us that if I ever had a temperature over 101 for over an hour’s time, I had to get myself to the hospitals at Iowa City immediately. It meant a mandatory three-day stay.
“I’ll come back and check in an hour,” he said, getting up to leave. He shut the door to my old room behind him and left the hall-way light on, which casted a thin sliver of yellow light in my direction. An hour later when he returned to take my temperature, after he’d looked at the little machine again, he said, “Well… we should probably go.”
“Okay,” I said, achingly removing the comforter and walking out of the cold room.
My fever had greatly subsided by the time I got to the hospital. The first nurse to take my temperature registered a 99.8 and it was under 99 by the end of the night. Unfortunately, there was no changing the protocol for a child with lymphoma, even though my sixteen-year-old body, already at my mature height and weight, seemed a different case from their usual patients, who were mostly much younger than me. Most of them were children. My father vehemently regretted having brought me down from Cedar Rapids to the hospital, and saw absolutely no reason for them to detain me for such a long time when I had plainly recovered and could be adequately tended to in the comfort of his house. He sat around with me for an hour or so, until I told him that he might as well go home, and he did.
I wasn’t sure what to make of my arrival at the hospital. Just hours ago I had been hardly aware of anything, each of my limbs numb and immovable; now I was in a strange, very large hospital room by myself, with three mandatory days off from school, and feeling fine. I wandered down the halls, attached to an IV and toting it around with me. The floors of the hall were a dark aqua green with small little burgundy buds interspersed. The curtains that surround the bed areas were closed for most of the other patients on the wing, though the TVs were buzzing, and I guessed they were all young children, probably sleeping, tired and confused from all that the medical institution was doing to them. I hoped they were doing it for them, and not in spite of them. Once the body was viewed as just relationships between organs, or series of tissues, or interacting biological structures, or a chemical quest for molecular equilibrium—once the body was just a body and not also the person inside, doctors could regard themselves as upper-echelon mechanics with no heed to humanity. They did not have to take in to account any of the psychological or emotional or spiritual concerns once these biological relationships had been established and correctly assessed; these were long-ago determined to be secondary, time-consuming problems and went unconsidered when the patient’s mortality was at stake. Tweak the right nozzle, add the right kinds and amounts of fluids, suspend certain parts in certain places, and pound until it shapes right and everything will continue on course indefinitely. You’ll never make the junkyard then—or so they acted. And the poor parents, they give up their children to this place as if the whole building were a sacred healing ground and the men in white coats were shamans wielding the power of some modern, scalpel-bearing, IV-stabbing, vitals-counting spirit of technociety. I guess I just wondered how many of these kids had no chance of surviving a normal life. How many of them were they keeping locked up in here, connected to pumps and machines and drips and leg-compressors and feeding tubes and artificial lungs, when they had no real chance at life? What were we doing to these children? Did the parents know what was happening?
I thought it would be beautiful if I could take just one of them out into the snow to let him touch it and see the moon once more before his organs failed under the fluorescence of the whole sterile thing. The white on the walls was fake. What about these kids who were going to die whether they were in the hospital or not? I hoped someone was asking them if they wanted to be here, because if not, they should be leaving. But, At least we tried everything, the parents will say sobbing. To the doctors, it will be a failure, and they’ll try to learn from it, wondering, How do we stop future children from dying? I could hardly comprehend the whole thing—why do we think we can stop every kid from dying? I wanted to hold all of their small little hands and lead them back to their neighborhoods. Maybe they could spend some time on the swing before they died. Maybe they could play basketball a few more times with their dads. It was winter: there was snow outside!
I got a Sprite from the refrigerator in the kitchen area at the end of the hall, and I warmed up a small cup of Chef Boyardee Ravioli in the microwave. I found myself back in my mechanical hospital bed with the back steeped up at a sixty degree angle, watching Sportscenter. After a while a woman came in my room with a crate of toys: small red tractors, many stuffed animals (including a large green dinosaur I found especially pleasing amidst the electronic Elmos), blocks (for letters and shapes and construction site equipment), puzzle toys and puzzles, wind-up cars, a rainbowed assortment of plastic rings, and balls of every sort. She told me that they had Scrabble and other games but said it might be hard for me to play them since I was all alone in this room. She seemed pretty confused as to why I was there (I’d told her all about my fever and the rules), and kept offering things to occupy my time there. She told me there was a play room with a pool table and a TV-VCR combo player but that the pool table was kid-sized and very small and that the only VHS tapes they had were kids movies. I kept telling her I would be fine, but she wasn’t having it. Finally she said, “Oh, I know—do you want a computer? I’m going to go get you a computer.”
She came back with the internet. I’m not sure where or how long I surfed, or how I ever landed on this specific site, but I was soon on a forum, the first one I’d ever seen, that was devoted to rapping—not discussing rap or hip-hop beats or talking about the latest artists or the old classics, but to rhyming and verse. I was enthralled by the complexity of it all, and the number of seemingly random (and probably ordinary) people who were dedicating time to such an activity. There were threads that contained solo works, some long, some with choruses, but all of them with rhyme, which I noticed was the only prerequisite. There were threads of ‘cyphers’ where people would just improvise small posts building on previously improvised small posts, or they would set a topic with certain linguistic rules: each line must be 8 words long or each stanza can only be four lines long; or they would set topical rules: write about love, write about your mother, diss your teacher, fuck the government, or just “Spit Your Best Sh!t in 10 Linez or More!” Set a limit and try seemed to be the practice. But most of the activity on the forum was dedicated to battling.
There was a thread titled “1v1” and “2v2” where a person could post a request to battle and anyone else could match up with them. Of course there were special areas where long-established teams would duel it out in a sort of on-going, virtual freestyle battle, but most of it was just stranger-on-stranger. In the thread, the battlers would decide rules on a contest, most commonly verse length parameters and time limits for postings. Once both people had posted their battle rap, it would be up to everyone else on the site to enter those pages and vote for who won the battle, but most people offered as much constructive criticism as possible. Some even gave number scales according to factors like: “punches” (number of attacks), “flow” (rhythm and line smoothness), “creativity” (uniqueness of the content or style), “structure” (rhyming schemes and stanzas), “multis” (multiple rhymes within one line, or strings of punches), and “personals” (can you hear this rapper’s voice?)—and of course an overall score. The winner of the battle was decided in this way.
I posted something the first night I was there. Within an hour, someone else on the site got a hold of me on AOL Instant Messenger to tell me how he felt about my post—that my approach to it was unique and the rhymes felt more mature than most of the others. He was a graduate student at Brown University, a black man studying to be a neurosurgeon who spent some of his free time writing raps and performing around Providence. Evidently, he’d been on the website for a few months and had a reputation as a fierce competitor; his online avatar was “IvIedic,” which was a play on the phrase “1v1.” We ended up winning our first 2v2 battle later in night, though I admit to having some trouble ragging on people I knew nothing about—but you had to use their avatar and information against them as best you could. If you got to drop your verse second, after reading your opponent’s, it was a double edged sword: you had more to work with, but more pressure was on, and you knew you’d be judged harder.
And it’s not as if I’d never heard worms rhymed that way—it had something to do with the permission to let them squirm, to say what I had to say. How else do you convey the slow wilting of a parent, or the toxicity of a train-wreck, or the isolation of the diseased? How else do you say anything, other than this way? Your way. That is what the site was about, at its most generative core: say it your way. Make it rhyme; let it pop and draw attention. It’s not what you say but how you say it. Practice. There’s a beat in your head. Look!—there’s every sort of pad, every sort of pen. Put it wherever it goes since you’re the only one that knows where it goes. Yeah, you’ll think, I’ve been here before. How many different ways can a sentence animate the soul’s moving through an unknowable landscape? Throw them all away; you’ll have them then, but you won’t use them. Careers fall through even if you never planned to have one. At least any one of us can take the lyric’s medicine when we need it. That will see us through. A lyric can see you through, I learned that evening, alone on a hospital bed, experimenting with rhyme.
That was the only time I had to stay at the hospital for one of those three-night stays. I spent the following weeks finding other battling websites, but stayed loyal to IvIedic and the other people I was meeting through him. It was less than 12 months later and the site had closed down: the oldies who had made it good stopped logging on: there were too many young kids who didn’t take it seriously. The “attacks” turned from creative and witty to played-out and downright offensive, which drove many away and drained the site of its passion. I’d detected this streak from the get-go, but had played along and took my own approach, as everyone did. With a dilution of characters there was a dilution of talent. In time, IvIedic got busy with school (presumably) and I got to spend my time at the top of the hierarchy of the site, until I too became a disgruntled user and logged off. I remember trying to visit the site again a few months after ceasing activity, but it was “Under Construction.” A short time later it was gone for good. But by then, I had long since been rhyming outside the umbrella of any rap website, having now taken up poetry for good.