When I was 16, I was in an accident. My mother had given me the keys to the first brand-new car she’d ever bought—a two-toned, maroon and tan Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer—and she waved as I reversed down the driveway, watching me pause at a stop sign near the end of our street to push a cassette tape into the in-dash player, hands swarming away from the steering wheel in an attempt to locate the volume control.
When I was 16, I was in a band. Our name was Heatherwood—the same name of the street I was driving to that afternoon, the street where our drummer, Phil, lived with his cigarettes, his long hair, his empty basement that we furnished with macramé owls and other pieces of 70s kitsch paraphernalia that we bought at Goodwill one afternoon after we learned the word ambiance in our English class. There were amplifiers in Phil’s basement. Guitars. Small relief windows we covered with paper; a rust-colored pole that sent light electric pulses down through our All-Stars if we touched it while someone upstairs was watching the television. There was also a microphone hanging from the rafters, its dead-black cord snaking the length of the bare cement floor until it rose in a slow arc, connecting to the back of a battery-powered tape recorder.
When I was 16, I had a plan. I was sad and unattractive and I had trouble reading. I didn’t do well in school, couldn’t stand in a crowd without breathing in fits, and I was experiencing increased myopia but refused to wear glasses. The world was to me unfocused, unconcerned with misdirection, and I had to meet a doctor twice a month to talk about my sleeping problem. During one of those sessions, a receptionist asked me why I never smiled. When I got home that night, I told my mother before dinner that I wanted a guitar and I promised to be happy.
When I was 16, my friend Sean—the singer in our band—stole $110 that was hidden inside a lamp in his parents’ living room so he could buy The Velvet Underground’s boxed set, Peel Slowly and See. We listened to those songs after school. In my bedroom. While we drove around the streets of our Midwestern suburban sprawl-scape. We listened on the weekends while our friends played sports. We listened at work. In the parking lot outside the Quick-Trip on High Street just west of downtown. We listened while we walked the sidewalked blocks surrounding Heatherwood, dressed like idiots, some of us with sideburns drenched in mascara so they would finally look full. We listened to those songs and we felt unsettled, and we stood in a circle and screamed out light.
When I was 16, I learned to play three songs on the guitar: “Sweet Jane” and “Run Run Run” by The Velvet Underground, and a song by the band Cake from an album called Motorcade of Generosity. I practiced those songs whenever I could and wherever I shouldn’t. The first time I played them for my sister, she asked me who Jane was. The first time I played them on the floor of the Synagogue, the rabbi asked me if I was tall enough to take out his hearing aids without him having to bend over. The first time I played them in front of Phil—his left foot lightly throttling the pedal of his bass drum, his hands cracking rim shots as he fumbled for a beat—I got a menacing erection and buried myself for an hour upstairs in his bathroom with a hair-dryer.
When I was 16, I recorded my band playing The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” on grey Maxwell high-bias cassette tapes that I purchased with my mother at a membership warehouse store called PACE. In Phil’s basement, our amplifiers faced each other. The sound moved like weather, untuned and annoyingly significant. We repeated and repeated and repeated that song, the words a loose dialogue between our ignorant bodies and our spirited teenage angst: you know, children are the only ones who blush/ and life is just to die. Hours of this, recorded week after week, the song giving us something to say and those tapes proving we said it.
When I was 16, I wanted to be heard. The audience was small—a few friends in a basement—but at the time, it felt like a metropolis.
When I was 16, I was in an accident. I had a tape of my band and I was dressed like an idiot and I was in a new car and that car was my mother’s and I was driving my friends and we were going downtown and I had the stereo blaring and I wanted more volume and it was us in the speakers there in October and the traffic was restless and I saw a yellow light and I entered an intersection and pointed to a billboard and looked down for the equalizer but I couldn’t find it and when I looked up we were hit by a semi.
When I was 16, I stood outside a gas station and called my father collect from a payphone to tell him that I was alive but he needed to pick me up. My mother’s car was compacted, the windows shattered out and sparkling like the aftermath of a perverse and frightening party. When my father arrived, I watched him smoke a cigarette for the first time in my life. My friends wanted tacos but we were driven straight home. I went in my room, found another tape worn hard in my walkman and pressed play.
When I was 16, I wanted an outlet. I was anxious and naive and I fell asleep most nights giddy with a dark-hot irrational belief in possibility. Though it was always my first love, perhaps it’s no surprise that I stopped playing music. Band relationships became difficult to manage, I didn’t know how to find my way into the “industry,” and I never had much talent for writing a pop song. After high school and college I stopped gigging with bands in favor of spending more time alone in various apartments across the Midwest reading stories and poems and calling myself a writer. I was accepted to a masters program. I received a fellowship. I wrote a book, helped start a publishing company, became a professor, got a very stable job, became very single, panicked and wondered if it had all been a mistake. I stopped generating work I liked, and I stopped liking what I heard from others. The noise was too loud, so I went inside. I lived in that silence. I felt no release.
When I was 16, I was in an accident. Now, at 33, I try my best to avoid them. As a “professional” writer, I am depressively aware of the ways in which I am playing things safe. I am too concerned with how my writing is supposed to sound, and I think too much about who will actually read it. I spend large portions of my day devastated by contest results, worrying about which judges know which authors, preparing for rejection, and constantly reminding myself to get better at self promotion. I am thinking so frequently about jobs and popularity, am so paralyzed by the small but at times competitively toxic world associated with the art I’ve chosen to make such a large part of my life, that I rarely take the chance to simply drive head-on into the proverbial traffic of literature with the type of reckless energy I had when I was young. It seems now that I’m afraid of wreckage.
When I was 16, I knew that if I wanted to be heard I had to play the music—even if those willing to listen were just a small group of friends gathered in a basement. Though it certainly isn’t easy, for the last few years I’ve tried returning to this model. With my most recent manuscript—a collection of poems called Homewrecker—I forced myself to move away from such heavy consideration of what is currently trending in the world of contemporary poetry. My goal with this book was to write poems I wanted to read, and poems I was excited to share, and now some of these pieces will appear on this wonderful site. I am sincerely thankful to the editors of THERMOS (and to Andy Stallings specifically) for giving these new accidents a home. I am also thankful to you, reader, for taking a moment to listen to what music can be made in the crash.