Here is a free verse style poem I wrote when I was sixteen years old. Here also is a photo of me, teenage Kathleen in my favorite forest green fedora hat.
At the bottom of this article you will also see a photo of the poem printed in the first literary journal ever created in my high school. I couldn’t believe there had never been a literary journal, so I created one! I called the journal Methinks. The cover illustration of the first edition portrayed a cartoon man with a large nose sitting on a stone with his chin on his fist—my version of Rodin’s The Thinker.
I made myself the Editor and I gave my friends the jobs of Secretary, Treasurer, and “Staff.” I figured those positions would look good on our resumes when we graduated and went off to college or began looking for jobs. I solicited poems from all my friends—many of us were the weird literary types, and this journal was a way for us to shine.
I was told by the principal’s office that I needed to supply money for the paper and the mimeograph ink. For those of you not in the know, the mimeograph is an ancient technology which rendered damp pages of copy laboriously turned by hand from a drum. The fresh pages needed to be handled carefully or the ink would smudge, a lavender variety of ink redolent of a chemical perfume known to school kids in the seventies. I promptly organized a bake sale on the town square which paid for two editions of ink and paper.
My favorite high school English teacher was Mr. Toth. As an adult, I’d searched in vain for him for many years, but back east Robert Toth is a common name—there were 40 Robert Toths in the phone book in Ohio alone, and I wasn’t sure he even lived there anymore. In more recent years I looked him up on the computer, but he wasn’t a person who put himself on Facebook or had a web page. His whereabouts remained a mystery to me.
Out of the blue, one day a few years ago Mr. Toth found me on the internet! He’d been cleaning out boxes and found some papers I’d given him as a teen. He decided to search me out. He googled Kathleen Dunbar and was lead to my music website. He knew he’d found me. He emailed me and we were soon speaking on the phone.
How strange to be asked to call him by his first name, Robert. He told me that when he was in bookstores, he’d look around to see if there was a poetry book by me—he was sure that I would become a famous poet! How very, very moving it was to hear how this man had held dear my gifts for all these years!
It was a delight to be speaking with him at last! I had always wanted to thank him for the worlds he’d opened up to me, and now I did. One was a world of literature. He knew enough about writing to help me on my path as a budding writer. Another was a world of human relationship in which a sane adult encouraged a creative young person, and importantly, as all great teachers do, in this process and without making a big deal about it (which my teen self wouldn’t have liked) he helped me to value my vision and myself. In our phone conversation I told him about the very toxic and dysfunctional home I gladly left every morning to lose myself in classes at high school. (High school was no picnic either, but it was better to be in the DMZ than the active combat zone). He was totally surprised to hear my home life had been difficult as I’d never told anyone that at the time.
Soon after our conversation I I received a thick envelope in the mail from Mr. Toth (I still can’t think of him as Robert) which contained the literary journal Methinks I’d created as well as some poems and reports. One of the poems I put in Methinks is the one below. The first person I’d showed the poem to, along with some other writing, was Mr. Toth, with a note that said, “I don’t know if you want to read these. They aren’t that interesting . . . but here they are.” He’d read this note aloud to me in our initial phone conversation, and chuckled. He told me when he read the poem all those years ago, that at first he found it hard to believe a sixteen year old in a small country town had written it. It crossed his mind that I’d stolen it from somewhere, but he knew me well and trusted that the work must be my own. He turned his astonishment into mentoring me as a writer. What I took from that mentoring was a belief and confidence in my own gifts, and a better ability to bear the difficulties at home and later to navigate the world of my adult life. Mr. Toth had believed in me. To be believed in is profound medicine, which continues to act as both vitalizing tonic and healing agent. Mr. Toth was one of those teachers whose support not only made life bearable, but worthwhile. There was a place, at last, for Kathleen.
I had begun at the age of three by making poems that rhymed. When I was fourteen I received a copy of Laurence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. That book set me upon the path of free verse. I still write poetry in free verse form, but I came full circle and returned to rhymes as my singer-songwriter self in the creation of my original songs: You can find my americana music at kathleendunbar.com and my ambient/world music in which I “create” a language at bluelilah.com
Many good hearted souls have helped me believe in my ability to write. This is the story of one of them. Thank you, Mr. Toth, for being part of a foundation of aliveness for me, for seeing my poetry as a doorway to a life of creation, and helping usher me through it.
Here, then, is young Kathleen’s poem.
Arrows of white light flung
from afar from the bow of the might orb,
darted between the tender, green
leaves, and fell, broken shafts, upon
the forest floor. So quickly did those
piercèd arrows fly that one could
not perceive their movement, but
saw only the brilliance of their
fiery flight, whence the earth,
steaming before their furious flame,
bore them in her dark side, a wounded
Roaming among those arrows,
I did not smell the rage of battle,
nor did I feel the sting of fiery arms.
The mist of combat was not choking,
but moist and wet, and soothed
the heat of battle that the barrage
of arrows brought.
I sat, and, amid this raging
battle, I slept.
© Kathleen Dunbar, age 16