Barbra Nightingale, “My Story (Or, How I Started Writing in an Effort to Sleep)”
I started writing poetry when I was 12 years old. I didn’t really know how to write poetry, only that I couldn’t sleep and needed to do something to empty my head of all the noise going on in there. I was perpetually being put on diets, and in 1962, my parents thought they’d found the miracle cure to my plumpness: speed. Of course, they didn’t know amphetamines were called “speed,” or that they might be dangerous and addictive; all they knew was that the Preludin pills the doctor gave my mother worked for me, kept me from eating, which was a good thing. I was only about 15-20 pounds heavier than most kids my age, but my mother, a petite woman, wanted her only daughter to be just as svelte. So I was forever trying to lose 20 pounds. The problem with not eating, was also that I wasn’t sleeping, either. No one made the connection that my insomnia was caused by the diet pills, and so to quiet the racing thoughts in my head, I started writing poetry.
All I knew about poetry was from what my mother had read me from her treasured collection called My Bookhouse. It consisted of 12 volumes of assorted pieces of literature, starting with nursery rhymes, and moving up through child development stages to fairy tales and mythology, to short classics in literature. I, too, came to treasure this collection, and still have all but one of the volumes. The originals had been lost to a flood in the basement, and while my mother painstakingly haunted thrift shops, it was her brother who finally found a collection mostly intact and gave it to my mother. All the poems appearing in this collection, and there were many, rhymed, so that’s what I did, too. I had little notion of meter or imagery, and my first poem arrived as two pages of unevenly metered, rhymed poetry. It was called, “Boys.” This profound (for a 12 year old) statement, has since, fifty years later, proved to still be heartbreakingly true:
Boys are cute
But are always mute.
When finally voicing their feelings,
They get the apple, we get the peelings.
My second poem was titled, “Girls” but it really was all about boys again, how girls spend so much time preparing themselves for boys. Again, all rhyme, no sense of rhythm.
As the years went on, I kept writing, but none of my teachers either knew or cared, and none ever pointed me in any direction or toward modern poetry. When I was 16 there was a contest in the Chicago Sun Times daily newspaper: Send in an essay on what it is like to be 16 in Chicago. I happened to have one ready, a whole rumination called “On Life,” and with it I included a poem.
Words are but a mortal’s tool
And I am but a mortal fool.
Were I gifted in my speech,
My mortal words would reach
The height of their immortal peak.
Had I but the words to speak.
That was the first poem I ever memorized, and the only one I remember in its entirety, to this day, some fifty years later. In fact, writing this now, I was rather surprised how easily I recalled it.
The Chicago Sun Times distilled my six page essay down to a single paragraph, and published it with the poem. That was my first publication credit. 1965. Around 1970 or 1971, another poem was published, this time in my mother’s condo newsletter. It was a poem about the building of the John Hancock Center, and all I recall from that one was how it looked “like an erector set robot,/arms reaching toward the sky.” I was referring to all the pilings and cranes, as Chicago’s then tallest building rose into existence. I didn’t know it would then be another 10 years before I ever had another poem published.
As I mentioned, no one ever fostered my penchant for writing poems. Not one high school teacher ever handed me a literary journal. Not one of them even told me of the existence of such treasures, and here I lived in the very heart of poetry, where Poetry magazine was published. No one ever told me about a poetry reading, or a poetic community. Poetry was something I did in my solitary hours, or at lunch in the library, rather than face the ridicule of friends who thought “poetry was weird.” In 1972 I moved to New Orleans, and again, no one told me about any poetic events. Not having gone off to college as I should have after high school, I fell by the poetic wayside, and wrote for myself. When I finally did go back to school there, it was to a recently converted technical college to a liberal arts community college, and the “arts” part was largely ephemera.
In 1975 I moved to Miami. I was working at Jackson/University of Miami in the cancer research lab (having become a lab tech in Chicago, and then a Nuclear Lab tech in New Orleans). I enrolled in a university so I could get my bachelor’s and a higher classification of Nuclear Technologist, and because I was allowed to take an elective credit anywhere I wanted, I also enrolled in a creative writing class at Dade Community College, where I finally met other poets, and my entire life changed. Barbara Holley. I will never forget her. She was president of the South Florida Poetry Institute, and she introduced me to a whole world of poets, journals, readings, and a new life. From then on, all my friends were poets. It was they who encouraged me to go back to school for my master’s in English, and to ultimately become a professor. I joined several workshop groups, wrote, read, subscribed to journals, went to poetry conferences. My first was in 1980, the National Federation of State Poetry Society’s, where I won an honorable mention in the Grand Prize category. I was elated! Eventually, many years later, I did manage to win that first prize, as well as my first major book contest. But prior to that, at my first conference, I met two women in one of those all night in-the-room poetry readings, with lots of wine and cigarettes, and they loved my work. In fact, they liked it so much they asked me to submit a collection to them, and thus, my first chapbook, Lovers Never Die, was published, in 1981. Barbara Holley published my second collection, Prelude to a Woman, in 1986, and since then, I have published six more chapbooks and two full length collections. I was entrenched in poetry, and was not going to let go.
It was this experience which led me to be a promoter of poetry and poetry readings in the South Florida area. I became president of the South Florida Poetry Institute, led for two two year terms, and even brought poetry to cable TV! I devised a poetry program, first having Storer cable come film our open poetry reading nights (they had to do free things for the community back then), and then later, for four years ran a program, where for 30 minutes, I would interview a local or a visiting poet and that would air on cable as well. It was called “Poetry and Conversation with Barbra Nightingale,” and ran from 1982-1986. Eventually, I ran out of locals, and Storer Cable merged into something else.
Eventually, The South Florida Poetry Institute merged with Poetry in a Pub, and then dissolved into another organization run by another good friend. And another friend and mentor, Hannah Kahn died, and her friends founded the Hannah Kahn Poetry Foundation, of which I have been twice and am currently the president, bringing poets in from all over the U.S. to read, mostly at the college where I have taught for 28 years now, but always open to the public, and always free. I sincerely hope, that with all of today’s media enhancements, there is never another poet who thinks he or she is alone out there, with no one to listen. We are all here. Waiting. Waiting for you. Speak up.
Barbra Nightingale has had over two hundred poems published in numerous poetry journals and anthologies. Two Voices, One Past
was a Runner Up in the 2010 Yellow Jacket Press Chapbook Award, and was published in September, 2010. Geometry of Dreams
(2009) is her latest full length collection of poetry,
from Word Tech Press. She has six other collections of poetry, and a yet unpublished memoir, Husbands and Other Strangers
. She’s a Senior English professor at Broward College, South campus, Hollywood, Florida where she won both the 2010 Professor of the Year award and the Sun Sentinel Endowed Teaching Chair (2010). To read more about Barbra click here