It would be difficult for me to talk about my identity as a writer without acknowledging first my identity as a reader. What I learned to do early in life, as a survival mechanism of sorts, was to invent a self, or a composite of selves, as if my own life was formed out of a distant memory of who all the other versions of me had been throughout the history of my kind. I distinctly remember those early moments in which my creative identity emerged-- driving to the Angola Public Library on Saturday afternoons with my parents, where, upon arriving, my father would quietly leaf through the new issue of National Geographic in search of photos of naked women, while I retreated to that narrow shelf in the children's section, labeled "biographies." It was a place I would return to over and over again during those years, and a place from which eventually I would accrue the knowledge of the lives of an incongruous assortment of baseball players, politicians, inventors and scientists, mostly white and mostly male, with the rare exception of a Frederick Douglass or a Betsy Ross. Having decided at some early age that no one in my family or among my friends would serve as an appropriate role model, I removed myself to the realm of books to find out not only who I was to be, but perhaps more importantly, where I fit in.
The quest began for me at the age of ten, when I found a book titled simply "Abe Lincoln." I remember few particulars of that day, though I assume that it was a typical Buffalo winter, and that I confused it in my imagination with the winter of 1816 during which Lincoln's father made his way across the Ohio River during a blizzard that killed 2000 pioneers. For some time after reading that text, I went through a series of identity transformations, which began with my insistence that my mother buy me a coonskin cap, which she never did, even when I spied one at the Erie County Fair the next summer. Not to be stifled in my search for the frontier, I settled instead for a flannel shirt and a pair of cowboy boots, and began to spend many an afternoon crossing the corn field behind my childhood home, imagining that I, like Lincoln, did live in Indiana and that some day I would leave my humble life there to become a storekeeper, postmaster, surveyor, state assemblyperson, lawyer, and eventually the president of the United States.
There was seldom a moment in my otherwise ill-adjusted childhood during which I didn't think I was someone else. By the age of 15, it still seemed to me that no one would ever understand me as much as Abraham Lincoln. I had conversations with him in my head; I tried to read books about surveying; and I composed polite speeches which I hoped someday to deliver to my family before I left for the real world. And then something happened. One day, while wandering aimlessly in the Kmart department store on Route 5, I discovered an album by the Rolling Stones––a record which had arrived in my town at least a decade late. It may have been as much a shock to me as it was to my parents when I stopped thinking of myself as Abraham Lincoln and decided that I was Keith Richards. I gave up the flannel and started wearing ripped tee-shirts. I collected cigarette butts out of my father's ashtrays and began posing in front of the mirror with them dangling out of the corner of my mouth, and finally, after my parents got tired of me running around the house playing air guitar with a bent tennis racket, they bought me a used acoustic guitar at a garage sale. From that point on I would never be the same. Suddenly the idea of being the president seemed frivolous to me. I was going to be a rock and roll star. For a little over two years I persevered mostly unsuccessfully to master the fine art of the rock guitar riff, all along putting up with my younger brother's relentless heckling. And at the very moment that I was ready to acknowledge defeat, I discovered a new entity to model myself after––a person who was in my mind, the genetic cross-breed of Abraham Lincoln and Keith Richards. His name was Bob Dylan, and his three chord folk style guitar songs were those that any novice musician could at least imitate badly. I quickly retrieved my flannel shirts from the recesses of my closet, and again, spent afternoons crossing the corn field behind the house imagining that I was in Minnesota, and that some day I would rise up from my humble beginnings to play my guitar in a cafe in a place called the West Village, and that possibly someday I would even meet a poet named Allen Ginsberg. I spent months reading every available biography of Dylan, and, as a teenager, I even learned how to make use of those more sophisticated research tools––the bound periodicals, the microfiche machines, the photocopier, and the VCR. I began to compile an archive from with I could easily lift personality traits, noting any vague similarity between Dylan's childhood and mine, taking account of each theory of his psychological imbalances, following the important events in his life, and of course, committing to memory the chronology of events that had led to his fame. It was around this time that I began wearing a harmonica holder around my neck, even to the grocery store, and it was around this time that I began to write poems.
While there have been many occasions during my life when I have been asked to account for, explain, and even apologize for the various phases of my sometimes delusional, sometimes politically incorrect, and sometimes vulgar identity metamorphoses, I have always believed that it has been just such unruly behavior patterns that saved me from an otherwise dull life and possibly an untimely demise in the semi-rural, semi-suburban hell of my childhood. There are few aspects of my identity not formed out of that escape. What I learned from those early heroes was what I had intuited from childhood, that one's identity existed as one's invention, and that as a creative person, one's identification and explanation of the self might always be in flux, like the whole of the universe is in flux, existing as a place of multiple possibilities, dependent only upon one's attentions to the messages arriving from the outside.[1998 Symposium, The Poetry Project. This essay can be found online at http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/ezines/passages/passages6/jar.html.]