Kyle Graber: Reading Comes First

The LPR staff is pleased to welcome our new poetry reader and my friend, Kyle Graber. I met Kyle my sophomore year of college, and amidst many of our similar interests, we found that poetry provided us with a common bond.  Over the years, I’ve asked him to edit many of my poems, and here he shares his trials and errors of writing poetry in college. We look forward to his insight and input on the LPR team. Welcome, Kyle.

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To forgive, or merely to make sense of our younger selves from the perspective of our currently occupied selves, can be very hard work. When we stumble upon an impressive, but inept drawing from childhood, we laugh, maybe even get a little sentimental. But I challenge anyone to revisit a poem written at age eighteen, three years later, and try to find that kind of inability adorable. For most people, the experience will be disturbing and maybe a little embarrassing.

When I look back at the poems I wrote as an 18-year-old freshman, I’m acutely aware of how different a person and, invariably, a writer I was. For example, I used to write much more than I read, much more. Sometimes I’d even watch people recite their poems on Youtube and call that reading. I also took no issue with length — excepting the work of others –which might be indicative of a belief that everything and anything that I wrote was fundamentally pretty good. Naturally, I wasn’t big on revision, though one can name any number of admirable writers who’d claim not to be either. But what really matters is, from then to now, I didn’t possess anything you could call doubt.

It wasn’t until late in my freshman year that I was introduced to a little emotion called shame. Along with a friend, I attended my first poetry workshop — which, as it turned out, was a casual one, facilitated by a senior, Noah. As a kind of parody of fraternal initiation, Noah joked that “the new kid” would be the first person work- shopped in the group. (But then, how much of a joke could it have really been, seeing as I was, in fact, made to go first?) I read my poem and received a couple comments of timid praise. Then, it was Noah’s turn. He spoke disinterestedly and proceeded to all but instruct me to re-think my personality, publically, no less. There was even a point, toward the end, when my work actually got him reflecting on his younger self.

“Y’know, ha-ha, when I was a freshman, I remember, I thought I was really smart,” Noah said, not quite looking at me, “like, really smart, but then I kind of realized, actually, ha-ha, I didn’t know shit.” Here he gave his most expansive laugh of all. “Anyway, thanks for sharing your stuff, uh, Kyle?”

“Yeah, Kyle,” I said.

What’s funny is that, aside from being a senior, Noah didn’t even have any intimidating credentials. He was just a guy who was openly unappreciative of my work. But since I had a hot streak of confidence, I suppose it’s true that no one had yet challenged me so directly. This might explain why I took it as hard as I did, allowing doubt, for the first time in years, to seize the higher ground. I didn’t produce any writing for a long time.

When I tried to, it always came out as unbearably self-conscious. Every poem I wrote was about how I was struggling to write an unselfconscious poem. Although, amidst all the turbulence, I stumbled into a genuinely fulfilling relationship with books. It was a novelty, really, to read a book just for the purpose of enjoyment. I’d previously conceived of reading to be a type of necessary training for writing, but it was around this time that I understood reading as a pleasure unto itself. Memorable books from that time are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings, to name a couple. Both writers nurtured in me this kind of poetic value of focusing on the small things, even if, and especially when, what you really want to say is something big.

Looking back on what I’ve learned, it’s the reading- comes-first mentality that I’m most grateful for developing. When I ask myself now, What’s more important to me, writing or reading? the question is at least tougher than it used to be. To enjoy a book, without constantly having to worry about my own writing, instills a kind of modesty that ultimately works in my favor when the time finally comes to write.

If I have any advice for a young writer who’s about to enter their first workshop, it might be this: Prepare to be fractured. Or, even better, perhaps: Don’t prepare. Don’t prepare at all.

Bio: Kyle Graber was born and raised in New York City and is currently studying psychology and English at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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