What’s In a Name? Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Poetry

In a shorter form, this piece was originally written in an email, in October of 2014, to a poet friend who inquired about my name. Previously unpublished.

People have sometimes asked me about my name, especially my middle name Dylan. And yes, it’s my real name. How many people grow up with the middle name of Dylan, knowing that their parents named them after Dylan Thomas? I’m pretty certain this made me more aware of poetry than my siblings were. My son is named Thomas, but that’s completely happenstance, because my wife chose the name—she’s Japanese and knows practically nothing about Western poetry, much less Dylan Thomas. I’m British, and grew up in England, and with a last name of Welch, Wales has long been on our family’s mind, so for my parents to leap to the name of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is no great leap at all. The motive for naming me was, so I’m told, just because they liked the name, not out of any admiration for poetry. Nevertheless, it seems that the choice had a great impact on my life. Our family home in Watford, the city where I was born (at the Watford Maternity Hospital), was also named Innisfree, after the Yeats poem, which may well have been an additional poetic influence (the house was bulit around 1930 by my great grandmother).

        My mother and father were not into poetry, and I don’t recall my parents having even a single book of poetry (although perhaps they did). I have no memories of my dad fostering any poetry awareness in me, but I remember my mother gently helping me with scansion and making tighter rhymes when I wrote poems on homemade birthday cards as a kid. I don’t remember much poetry consciousness from my childhood, except that I wrote a fair bit (poetry and stories), which my parents supported, or at least my mother did. My father was an architect, and highly artistic, so he encouraged an appreciation for the arts in a more general way, especially photography (he gave me my first camera, an old Ziess of his that could do marvelous macro photos from an inch away), along with curiosity, and an appreciation for travel, culture, and history—if not poetry or writing specifically. We had a typical number of books in the house, but nothing extraordinary, or even much related to literature. My father read the newspaper every day (a habit I gained), but he seldom read books while I was growing up (he read a lot after he retired, though). My mother read regularly (mostly biographies and other “true” books, rather than fiction), and as kids my three siblings and I were frequently encouraged to read (including fiction), and we regularly visited the local library. Poetry was most likely not in the mix, but I don’t specifically remember. I do remember a lot of Hardy Boys library books from one or or two summers, and at home I know my dad had a lot of books about the incredible stories that emerged in Europe about World War II (Colditz, Dam Busters, so many more).

        I wrote a lot as a child, including many well-researched and in-depth stories, reports, and projects while in middle school (I still have some of them, such as one about crossing through the Panama Canal, for which I researched snippets of Spanish conversation, not to mention making the entire narrative description of crossing through the locks as authentic as possible). When I was 10 and again when I was 11, I wrote detailed journals of long family trips we took to Scandinavia and another trip to Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece (for a couple of months each time). These journals featured a number of incidental poems, but were mostly about places we visited (stave churches in Norway, Roman and Greek ruins in Italy and Greece, and everything else in between), complete with detailed maps, ticket stubs, brochures, postcards, and much else—and a count of how many hairpin bends we drove around and tunnels we drove through.

        I’d love to repeat these trips after all these years, which I could easily do using my old journals as guidebooks (wish I could get a hefty grant or a book advance to do that!). I also wrote probably another 20 journals about other long summer family trips across North America, and about my high school days in Canada (I became a Canadian citizen at age 17). These weren’t diaries, but journals that tried to “record for posterity” rather than just being my private thoughts. They were essays and narratives rather than jottings. They’re not well written (they’re all juvenilia), but they have their strengths, such as lots of detail, comprehensiveness, and storytelling. If nothing else, they are windows into my younger self. Poetry had no particular emphasis, but was just part of the writing package.

        Meanwhile, in Canada, somewhere around grade seven or eight, the school I was in (which included grades one to ten) had a school-wide poetry contest. I was a little embarrassed when they announced at a school assembly that I had won all three honourable mentions. And then they announced that I had won third prize too. And second prize. And shucks, also first prize. I swept the entire thing. I think the top poem was published in the school yearbook, something about my dreading a haircut. My parents were a bit mortified that I had swept the entire contest, but hey, it wasn’t my fault. I think I was about 12 or 13. It would seem to have been a sign of things to come. It’s only hitting me now that an episode like that was bound to be a validation or encouragement for me as a writer, although I honestly don’t remember thinking so at the time. For all I know, maybe no one else even entered.

        If I were to single out any strong writing memory from my high school days (where I stayed at a private school), it would be a time when I was smitten with a story idea and stayed in my dorm room for four hours on a Saturday night to write the story instead of going to a school social event. That was my first experience, at about age 15, of being in the writing zone, of being utterly consumed by wanting to write—and choosing to write something that wasn't a school assignment. I still have that story somewhere, which I remember was titled “And Life Went On,” such as it was.

        As a kid, my dad had me help him by typing up reports, using his IBM Selectric II typewriter (oh how I wanted one of my own, and plotted how I could raise $1,000 to get one). My dad was an architect and architecture professor, and the reports he needed help with got me into making publications, in a roundabout way (I worked on yearbooks and student newspapers through most of my school days and college, too, and even in grad school). One summer near the end of my college years, using that wonderful typewriter and the Prestige Elite typing ball (or “element,” as IBM called it), I started typing up all the poems I had written until I was about age 22 (in 1984, right about the time computers started coming out). I finished three volumes, all called “Chronology,” before I ran out of steam, and now seem to have lost most of what I never typed up. I also typed up a collection or two of short stories, and other things I had written as a teenager and young adult.

        College intervened on all this writing, or at least my record keeping of it, or it shifted my focus, but I did at least keep writing. I have a number of college papers from those years, but no stories (I wish I had kept all of the papers I wrote, especially for English classes, but seem to have lost a lot of them). But I do have poems. I took one class in which I had a project to produce a collection of poems. The result was a 165-page overdone tome called Ninety-Seven Poems. It included older poems, from “Chronology,” plus new pieces, including some concrete verse (I wrote tons of concrete poems in my college years). Again, most work is weak, but at least I was ambitious—and maybe a handful of pieces might still have some merit. I enjoyed my poetry classes, and contributed to a several college poetry publications (which I still have). It never dawned on me to read my poems in public, though—that never happened until after I’d finished grad school. It never dawned on me, either, to send my poems out for publication in journals other than school publications. Until the end of grad school, it never clicked that I could publish my poetry; instead, I was just writing for my teachers and classmates, or school publications, or for myself. The world of poetry journals was somehow completely hidden to me, or I was oblivious, but I’d catch up with it later.

        When I started college, I had no idea what to major in. A guidance counselor gave me a test to determine my interests and aptitudes, and suggested communications/media, which is what I majored in—and still enjoy (I still greatly benefit from classes I took on linguistics, persuasive speaking, radio broadcasting, communication models, journalism, and more). By my junior year I found that I enjoyed my English literature classes the most, and I gained an English minor (almost enough for a major), on top of the psychology and history minors or whatever else I ended up with. I then went to graduate school to get an MA in English (including time at the University of London studying Chaucer and Shakespeare), and really loved grad school classes, especially writing my thesis (all 250 single-spaced pages, about Anthony Burgess’s invented language in the novel A Clockwork Orange—a text I’d still like to publish at some point). I also gained experience in the classroom, teaching Freshman English for two years, as well as English as a Second Language. All this time I was often writing, including haiku, which I learned about in high school in 1976. I finally started publishing my poetry during grad school (I don’t count the student publications that I contributed to in middle school, high school, and college as serious publication). I had one haiku accepted from my very first submission to Modern Haiku in 1988, and also had longer poems published in other journals, the first probably being in Mosaic, published by the University of California Riverside, also around 1988.

        I started taking writing the most seriously right after grad school, in 1988 and 1989, mostly with haiku. I had joined the Haiku Society of America in late 1987, and got involved with the Haiku Poets of Northern California in 1989. I immediately took over publishing HPNC’s journal Woodnotes, and did all of HPNC’s early chapbooks, too. I started my press, Press Here, in 1989 also, and have published many dozens of books over the years. I have more recently been publishing books of translations from the Japanese, too. Around 1989 I also started writing essays and reviews about haiku, something that has really satisfied me over the years, and it seems that they’ve benefited many readers, too. My website, Graceguts.com, is filled with essays, reviews, and reports written from about 1990 onward, with a few older pieces. Yet the site includes probably only half of what I’ve written, some of it lost on old computers, or taking too much work to catch up to by typing in or scanning, or work that I pass over when choosing to post something else. The site is a labour of love. Perhaps it’s a monument to myself (that may be my only trace of Whitman), but I also hope it’s of benefit to others, along with my implementation of National Haiku Writing Month (and my NaHaiWriMo.com website), my involvement with the E. E. Cummings Society as a contributing editor to its journal Spring, founding the Tanka Society of America in 2000 and serving as its president for five years, making contributions to the Lewis Carroll Society, helping to run the American Haiku Archives, writing academic papers and presentations for the American Literature Association, the American Literary Translators Association, Haiku North America, and other organizations, plus my involvement with groups such as the Washington Poets Association and the Redmond Association of Spokenword, both of which I’ve been a board member for many years, and more recently Eastside Writes. I’ve given workshops and presentations frequently at various writing retreats and conferences, and at nature centers and libraries, and have taught poetry for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program as an adjunct faculty member. Since 2006, too, I’ve run SoulFood Poetry Night, a monthly reading series featuring two guest poets and an open-mic reading. And in 2004, 2005, and again in 2014 and since then, I have directed the Poets in the Park festival. These sorts of regular engagements with poetry, and connections with other writers, cannot help but improve my writing. And I’ve certainly learned by teaching.

        Right after graduate school is also when I started my career in publishing, doing technical writing, editing, and graphic design (I once designed a Christmas card for Hank Ketchum, the comic strip artist who did “Dennis the Menace,” and also designed several of those infernal “Do Not Remove” tags that appear on mattresses). Later I took on document management, website development, and event management—which helped greatly with running haiku events such as the Haiku North America conference and the Seabeck Haiku Getaway. I worked for many years in book publishing shortly after grad school (including working on the very first “For Dummies” book, DOS For Dummies—and yes, the “For” is intentionally capitalized), and also worked for Microsoft for many years, as well as Amazon, Boeing, and other companies, including work on Minecraft and several Xbox games.

        Did my journey begin with my name? I suspect that it did. This journey has all been to do with words, publishing, typography, design, and ultimately education and communication, with a dash of amusement and entertainment. My interest in poetry (not just haiku and tanka) has steadily grown, and I recently served my second term as poet laureate for the city of Redmond (a nicely paying gig). I have ideas for so many projects, including book manuscripts, and have written literally hundreds of essays and reviews that haven’t yet been published. So I feel like I’m looking more forward than backward. And now, whatever the future may bring, I can’t help but wonder: What if my parents had named me Ziggy?