It all started with a phone call to my parents.
My father recently discovered a locally-run alumni website for the small-town high school that my family has attended for four generations. The site is a gold mine of local history because there’s a record of everybody who graduated from the school from 1908 to the present. Registered members can also report classmates’ deaths, which prompts the site administrators to post obituary information from newspaper archives, thus enabling alumni to read what their classmates and forebears did with their lives and by whom they were survived.
When I registered, one of the first things I did was submit obituary information for my friend Sean McCash, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 2001. While compiling what little information there is about him online, I took some notes on what I remembered about Sean and the things we did together, like singing in the school choir, playing in the band, and performing in plays together. Some of the Sean memories I treasure most occurred during the summer of 1995, when both of us attended Illinois Summer School for the Arts, at two-week residential arts program for high school students that was held at Illinois State University. I was quick to discover that it was unusual for two people from the same high school to attend, but Sean and I had chosen different concentrations and our hometown is in an economically distressed county, so I suppose we merited an exception.
Those weeks were transformative. Sean made an immediate splash with his dyed-green hair and wardrobe of long, floral skirts with combat boots. After I revealed a certain penchant for the playfully written word (e.g.. Ode to a Chocolate Doughnut), we fell in with the literary crowd led by a counselor named Erik, who sponsored an unofficial branch of the Dead Poet’s Society that met at night in the basement of Manchester Hall. It was a heady thing to experience art-making as we’d never done it before by day and then writing about it and sharing it as poetry by night. One of the highlights of the DPS was when the resident poet, David Hernández, attended one of our meetings and not only read one of his poems to us but also listened to ours. That night, I shared a poem called “The Drum” that had been inspired by the incredible rhythm and music of Hernández’s poetry, though of course it was as earnest and literal as you’d expect from a sixteen year-old.
At the end of the two weeks, David Hernández presented the whole camp with a poem that thrilled the DPS members because he described interactions with us as well as those he had with his writing students. Sean and I were both thrilled to have been mentioned by hair color and the work we’d presented at the DPS meeting David Hernández attended, so I knew I needed to revisit the poem, since it’s one of the places that Sean and I will always be together. Unsurprisingly, the poem wasn’t anywhere online, but in the process of searching, I found out that my Famous Poet (for that was his self-proclaimed title) died in February of this year at the age of 66. After listening to a number of his performances online, the desire to find his poem was even stronger. Sean and I were there. The Famous Poet was there. All hanging out and forever enriched by the experience.
Though the original documents I brought home from ISSA are either gone or buried somewhere in boxes at my parents’ house, I knew I still had the black-bound “Book of Stuff” I started keeping at ISSA, in which I collected poems by me, my friends, David Hernández, and other Famous Poets whose work touched me. Last night, I found it sitting on the bookshelf at home. I opened the imitation leather cover, smiled at some of my early efforts, and there it was:
A Thank You-Kid Poem For my Young Peers
Thank you for letting me
dig up on your creative soul
and if your old man cusses you out
don’t get too cold about it because
people die inside and don’t appreciate
the gems they sow at times
and gracias for the green-haired
attack on my rebel senses with
your warrior words that strike
hard rockin’ rhythm beat keep it going
man oh man it’s alive! and young!
and strong! thank you for the
flute dance and music my senses
I looked down and you took me
there and hey kid the silky blond
poem you read struck at midnight
lit up the dark side and your voice
took winged horses for a ride
thank you for the dark haired
moments of in between symmetry
like short pauses of your life
and the beautiful evolution
you will change this earth
there is no doubt about that
that you will paint
this one-horse town
of a world red
and hey kid
Thank you for keeping
fresh this old Poet
a veteran of foreign wars
that took place in the Minister
of the Interior’s house next
door to my heart
Thank you because you
blew me away and I can
rest easy now since the world ain’t going to be
bad at all with the likes
of you around…
thank you kid
I dig up on you
(The Famous Poet)
Godspeed, Sean, who found his creative voice with me in a town called Normal.
Godspeed, David, who showed us that those voices were important.
I dig up on you.
(The Not-Yet-Famous Writer)