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Teenage Poetry Snobs
July 26, 2006 — 5:59 am

I met Justin 18 and a half years ago — way back in January, 1988. This particular post is actually supposed to be about someone else, but to do the thing justice I need to trudge through a lot of backstory, and Justin figures heavily. And really, I’m writing half of this entry just because I’d like to get it written, for my own benefit, before I forget it all. We’ll get to the other guy later. Much later. Feel free to, you know, not read any of this at all.

So, back in early ’88 I was a high school sophomore at Grant, the same school they used to film Mr. Holland’s Opus a few years later. I wanted to be a writer, in large part thanks to an extracurricular class I had taken the previous semester. I mentioned this class in passing here about three years ago:

In high school I became a teenage poetry snob while taking a couple of TAG writing classes, one that took place on Monday nights throughout the fall semester of my sophomore year, another (Writer to Writer) that lasted for a full week the following summer at Lewis and Clark College. Matthew Hattie Hein was in both classes, and his writing became a primary inspiration for my own.

All throughout my first year and a half at Grant, I had heard (during first-period announcements) about a school club called the Literary Lunch Bunch, which met once a week. Speaking as a nerd, this always sounded faintly intriguing, but it was held during the wrong lunch period during my freshman year. Our school had two lunches — I had one, the Lunch Bunch had the other. But this was sophomore year, and the lunch periods synched up. My social anxiety managed to keep me away from the club throughout the first semester, but in January ’88, fresh out of that first TAG writing class, I decided to take the plunge.

I don’t remember much about that first Literary Lunch Bunch meeting, but I remember Justin was there. I think people read stories and poems out loud to each other. I think Justin read his “Sharks in the Bathtub” micro-story, which I could pull out of a box and transcribe for you all right now if I felt like being slightly more nostalgic and/or cruel. I may have read something, too — undoubtedly crappy.

I stuck with the group for the rest of the semester, and helped produce the end-of-year literary magazine, Writers’ Bloc. This was the second year for the literary magazine, but the first year with that name (it had been called “Plato Shrimp” the year before). It’s still called Writers’ Bloc to this day. I taught myself Pagemaker (and the wonders of a GUI point-and-click graphical interface) while helping to create the literary magazine, and the magazine (and Lunch Bunch) adviser, Ms. Demien, was kind enough to list Justin and me as editors when the thing was finally published.

I hadn’t really made friends with Justin yet, although he invited me over to his house once. While I was there, I think he made me a variant of cinnamon toast that used a tortilla instead of bread — butter, cinnamon, sugar, tortilla, microwave. I remember it being tasty, but I’ve never had another one. He offered me a banana, too. I turned it down. It’s become something of a running joke over the years — Justin loves bananas, and while I like them I’m rarely in the mood for one. If we’re buying smoothies, say, Justin will always order something like banana-berry, whereas I think the admittedly fine taste of the banana dilutes the far superior taste of the berries. But that’s just me.

Anyway, after the literary magazine was published, we didn’t see each other again until our junior year started in September. I remember walking into Mr. Cromley’s global studies class (looks like Cromley is mentioned in this bizarre story about some late-’90s Grant students), looking around to decide where to sit, and spotting Justin in the back row. “Oh, look, it’s that guy,” I thought. “I’ll sit by him.” We were soon bonding over love of The Beatles. (I remember some standup comedian’s riff about how easily little kids make friends: “Your favorite color is red? Mine too! Let’s be best friends!” In retrospect, it was almost like that.) Imagine: John Lennon was released early the next month, and we pooled our meager resources to pay for two tickets and bus fare to the now-defunct Eastgate, the closest theater showing the movie. I think it was that trip that cemented the friendship. We became inseparable.

Our poetry snob pose was now in full sway. I recall taking a vague sort of offense to the idea that poetry required form, structure, or even real meaning — that such strictures could only serve to inhibit real artistic expression. I was only interested in beat-style free verse (Ferlinghetti circa A Coney Island of the Mind was my idol) and full-on dada insanity. We made fun of sing-songy rhyming poems our classmates churned out and congratulated ourselves on our own incomprehensible strings of compelling imagery.

Anyway, the night before my birthday in November ’88, I had Justin and a few other friends over to my house to spend the night. Sleepovers were the thing to do back then — staying up all night playing Risk and Solarquest, teaching ourselves Beatles songs out of Travers‘ big book of Beatles songs arranged for guitar, watching old episodes of Amazing Stories we’d taped off TV, and writing poems. Or lyrics. Or both. Justin and I wrote our first collaborative poem that night. We decided to pick a random object to get things started (the “Nicole Allen” pseudo-designer pink tie Justin was wearing, as it turned out — hey, it was the ’80s), then each wrote alternating lines, free-association-style, until we decided the thing was finished. I’ll spare posting the cringeworthy result here, but you can read it elsewhere online if you’re so inclined. We were both drug-free, mind. This was all self-conscious stylistic conceit. We almost titled it “Nicole Allen,” after the tie’s brand name, then decided to alter it slightly, somehow coming up with “Nikou Allen” instead.

The very next day, we decided to head downtown to Saturday Market. I picked up my first Journeyman hat, a maroon tam o’shanter I wore incessantly for the next couple of years, until somebody ripped it off my head in the mosh pit at a Primus show. After checking out all the arts & crafts & music, I decided to show Justin my favorite downtown indy music store, the now-defunct Rockport Records. Heading west away from the market, we saw a few people standing around a storefront, and heard a digital voice coming from the wall. As we got closer, we saw it was some sort of coin-operated fortune-teller, surrounded by bright, gaudy, crudely-collaged kitsch. Like Christmas tinsel and action figures and glitter and Barbie dolls and Elvis figurines, etc., etc., etc. The other people were leaving as we arrived, and it seemed like a laugh, so we dropped in a quarter to have our fortunes read.

Immediately, the computerized voice and screen started repeating: “TRUST IN JUSTIN. TRUST IN JUSTIN. TRUST IN JUSTIN.” I was stunned. Had somebody inside the building been eavesdropping as we walked up? Overheard us calling each other by name, perhaps? Then the machine introduced itself as “JUSTIN D. NIKOU-TIME” — at least, that’s what I saw onscreen for the moment. Justin’s first name, my middle initial (which I had only recently become obsessive about including as part of the byline for everything I wrote), and the first name of a poem we had written the night before. Now I was reeling. I knew we hadn’t mentioned the poem outside that building. It ran through its little multiple-choice fortune program, shunted some little tchotchke out of a tiny hole, and we went on our way. Now, I’ve always been essentially a skeptic. I was baffled, but was sure there had to be a trick. It seemed all the weirder that the computer had guessed something it couldn’t have possibly known, then revealed it so casually, just incorporating it into the name of the fortune-teller. It wasn’t until later that I realized it had called itself “JUSTIN D. NIKOV-TIME” — “Just in the nick of time” — and that it used this name every time, with every person who inserted a quarter. It was all a coincidence. So the next time something happens to you that seems so improbable that you begin to consider supernatural explanations, consider that it’s probably just a random coincidence. Or somebody deliberately toying with you (shows like Punk’d exist for a reason, after all). In any case, the site of that coin-op fortune-teller, The 24-Hour Church of Elvis, became a regular downtown stop. I used to take visitors to Portland there all the time for a free tour, and to buy T-shirts as gifts. That location was closed down, then relocated farther west, then closed down again. Even the old web site disappeared for a few years into shady-search-engine hell before its glorious online second coming.

On with the school year. I was also taking journalism and I was on the yearbook staff, so along with literary magazine production, I was pretty much in the journalism computer lab every free moment of the day. And I began skipping other classes to hang out there, too. We quickly turned the Writers’ Bloc lunchtime meetings (we ditched the “Lunch Bunch” name — maybe in a subconscious effort to purge rhyming) into essentially our own private club. A few other people came and went, but we were always there — and we were more or less running the show this time. I think it was early 1989 before Dylan Leeman dropped by. (Remember the “other guy” I mentioned earlier? Yeah.)

Justin and I were holding a Writers’ Bloc meeting by ourselves one day when a guy walked in with an odd sort of mullet and a kinda high-pitched, almost lispy voice, offering to read us some of his poetry. We said sure, but we didn’t take to Dylan right away. The first poems he read, as I recall, were all concrete meditations on beauty — cherry blossoms, the Japanese Garden (I still remember the phrase “clever bamboo contraptions” for some reason), stuff like that. At the time, even when I was writing about something in particular, it was all abstract and oblique imagery — hinting at the topic and its implications, never coming right out and writing about it. Dylan’s stuff didn’t fit in with my current stylistic hobby horse, and while I at first regarded his writing with as much skepticism as I held for his personal sense of no-flannel-or-funny-hat style, I admired it all the same. He was doing stuff I didn’t want to do, but it was coming out so well — the very model of the particular aesthetic choices he had made.

Reading back over that last paragraph, it seems almost indecent. Because although I can distinctly remember that Dylan seemed off-putting at first to me, it was short-lived. He quickly became a fixture at our meetings and a favorite “contemporary” student poet. This is probably my favorite of his poems, a simple poetic observation of the type he writes so well, about a military training experience in the early ’90s. By the end of that year, a few short months after we first met, I considered him a close friend. We built a pretty tight group of friends for Writers’ Bloc the following year, and Dylan also joined yearbook staff; I was the editor, Dylan one of the section editors. Dylan took over the yearbook as editor the year after I graduated. In fact, as I wrote one particular poem during my freshman year at BYU, which at the time I considered my crowning achievement, I composed it with Dylan’s voice in mind. I imagine him reciting it whenever I read it, to this day. In a way, it was my own stab at a Leemanesque poem.

After I got to know him, Dylan always struck me as one of the most honest and genuinely personable people I’ve ever known — the kinda guy who uses the phrase “he’s good people,” and means it. And he’s forthcoming in pointing out the good qualities he sees in others. Shall I share a couple of examples? I do believe I shall. Once in the summer of 1991, I was driving a bunch of my friends around town in my parents’ urban assault vehicle — cramming about a dozen people into one minivan, as we were wont to do. Justin was there, as was Travers, and Cleaver the Angry Chef. I think Jacob and Alek were probably back there too. Dylan had snagged shotgun, and as we drove he kept complimenting me on my driving. I’ve always considered myself a pretty good driver, with a particularly good sense of traffic patterns and how to navigate quickly through them, but this was the first time anybody had noticed it — or, at least, told me. He went on about it intermittently through the evening until after we picked up Robbie at his place just off Stark out toward the Gateway area, and I turned exactly the wrong way onto a busy one-way street. Although I quickly pulled off the road, this would have been the perfect time to start calling me a crappy driver — which is, in fact, what several passengers started to do. Dylan was quick to my defense, pointing out I was driving a van full of loud, insane, constant distractions through an unfamiliar neighborhood — and that one wrong turn under those circumstances didn’t invalidate anything he had already noticed and said about the specific qualities of my consummately wondrous driving technique. Good lookin’ out, yo.

Another time, toward the end of that same summer, a bunch of us had gathered at Laurelhurst Park for a party. Justin and I had kifed a huge bag of strawberry Jell-O brand gelatin powder from work, and made a slightly runny brew out of it in a giant metal bowl. Justin was leaving to join the the army soon, and I’d be gone a few months after that to begin two years of fun and sun in a land of unbearable humidity and giant cockroaches. Justin had just given me his pink Nicole Allen tie — yes, that tie (pink as it may be), as a memento. By that time it loomed fairly large in our interpersonal poetic mythology, or something, and I was surprised he gave it to me. I wore it to the party. I don’t remember exactly why I leaned over the bowl of Jell-O, but I soon found my face buried in it, thanks to a friendly neighborhood shove from my pal Dylan. Great prank, right? Sure, on any other day. But that tie — a memento of a shared creative history with my best friend — was now covered in strawberry Jell-O. And that shit doesn’t come out. I was livid. I quietly walked off to a nearby area of the park, where there was a bathroom and a drinking fountain, to clean off as much as I could — all the while stewing with bloody revenge. Well, not bloody, but I had decided Dylan’s face would be going into that Jell-O bowl, hard, at the very least. I was a man on a mission.

I walked back to the party, playing it cool until I walked up to Dylan, grabbed him by his ample nape hair and looked around for the bowl — which was nowhere to be seen. I started shouting: “Where’s the Jell-O?” Nobody talked. I led Dylan around the picnic table area, never loosening my grip, searching for the bowl, feeling ugly inside and certainly looking it. I don’t know exactly how long this lasted — only seconds, maybe — but I finally came to my senses and let go. Dylan wasn’t phased. I had more than upped the level of aggression, but he was apologizing to me. I relented. He complimented me on my choice of where to grab him — I had temporarily disabled him, and he was impressed. We were buddy-buddy again in no time. I’m not sure it’s possible for a grudge to last with a friend like Dylan.

Dylan is also one of the two friends, along with Justin, who I convinced to read Atlas Shrugged, after the book mowed down my vaguely formed teenage pinko political views. I wasn’t sure I entirely agreed with what I was reading, but I was suddenly questioning everything I thought I knew. I had to know what two of my closest leftist comrades-in-arms thought. Justin ended up converting with me to full-fledged libertarian radicalism. I know Dylan flirted with libertarianism for a while, but I don’t know how much of that stuck — it’s been a few years since we really talked politics — but I know he was digging Harry Browne back in 1996, at least. At any rate, it’s a testament to his character in my eyes. Far too many people will simply ignore arguments that don’t conform to their already-formed worldview, even without actually understanding them. It’s especially easy to do that with a widely maligned figure like Ayn Rand, but I’ve always known Dylan to be ready to learn and change based on new knowledge. Yeah, so this has become far too sappy. I’ll start to wrap it up.

I’m a pretty nostalgic person. For instance, like my pal Michael Malice, I’ve long had a policy of buying books that I remember reading during my childhood. I’ve spent years intermittently searching for some of these titles — not necessarily because they were hard to find, but because I couldn’t remember what they were called, only recalling a few characters and plot points. Not necessarily the easiest Googling material. But eventually I re-discovered stuff like McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm and The Witch Family. As much as I tend to relive my childhood through reacquired artifacts, however, I’m just as nostalgic about the last couple years of high school — thanks in no small part to Writers’ Bloc. It’s a time of my life I’d happily revisit if I ever realize my childhood dream of building a time machine out of discarded calculators, miscellaneous lengths of wire, and dead batteries.

Dylan, however, has taken Grant High School nostalgia to a far deeper level. He loved it there so much, he somehow managed to insinuate himself onto the teaching staff — first as a student teacher, then the “technology coordinator,” and, most recently, English & journalism teacher and sorta-assistant Writers Bloc adviser. He now runs the very rooms in which I spent most of my waking hours during my junior & senior years. It’s a crazily improbable story that includes being laid off and rehired, then told he wouldn’t be coming back for another year, then being kept on after all. I’d be liable to call it destiny if I believed in such things. He even ended up marrying the adorable band girl we all had a crush on at one time or another (hi, Julie!), and sired a couple of unbelievably cute rugrats with her. No doubt the term “adorable band girl” will rankle her, but hey — if the shoe fits . . .

But the thing that inspired this blog entry in the first place is a recent story he posted about his first classroom as a high school teacher. It’s at once a hopeful and melancholy tale, well worth reading and deserving of a wider audience. I thought I should tell you a little about Dylan before sending you over to that entry, but this tale grew in the telling. After you finish that entry, try a couple of his army stories, like the one about his harrowing days of Ft. Polk war games, or his recounting of an idealistic confrontation in basic training, which was the source of his army (and MySpace) nickname: commiehippieliberalpeacefag. His posting rate has been on the rise of late, and I couldn’t be happier. This is the kinda stuff I love to read.

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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