During the Spring Cleaning that I mentioned in another blog, I did not mention that I discovered something else: two manuscripts I wrote in my 20s, when I was aspiring to be a novelist. The first, “Streets of Rage,” is about the mean streets of Brooklyn, with the Marcy Projects, where I grew up, as one of the main characters. As I stated in a previous blog, I became politically conscious in 1968, at age 7, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That year, 1968, marks the death of the Civil Rights Era and the birth of the Black Power Movement. It also marks the modern “war on crime,” spearheaded by Richard Nixon, who was running for president. Nixon had declared that the Great Society was “lawless” and America needed some “law and order.” Nixon was specifically referring to the urban uprisings that sprang up across the country in the aftermath of the assassination of King. Additionally, with the war on crime, America set itself on its path of mass incarceration, which we would experience the full brunt of in the 1980s through the beginning of the 21st century. The second manuscript, “Return of the Prodigal,” deals with the back end of mass incarceration, that is, reentry. I sent to Holloway House and got some feedback. The publishers found the white woman KKK leader interesting and thought I should make her role more prominent. In any event, I relegated the manuscripts to a box, and forgot about them – well, not exactly forgot, but they were relegated to the corners of my mind – because I had moved on to other writing projects. I intuitively knew that trying my hand at novel writing was simply a way to sharpen my writing tools.
Over the next couple of years I wrote and published on crime and punishment in a number of magazines and papers, including the New York Times and Newsday. I wrote a number of one act plays and, of course, poetry. When I was doing a lot of writing on crime and punishment, I fancied myself an essayist. I would say I was an essayist at heart, someone who had tried his hand at novel writing and short stories.
I have won awards for nonfiction, playwriting, and of course poetry, and I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’m a poet at heart.
William Faulkner wrote, “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
I seemed to do the exact opposite, starting with novels. Even Shakespeare wrote his poetry for his literary credentials, to prove that he wasn’t a hack.