Today Liz is sharing her thoughts on Things I Have to Tell You.
I’ve been a writer and reader of poetry since middle school, but despite my enjoyment of it, I always find it a trickier medium to regularly engage with. I tend to only want to read one poem at a time for fear that they’ll bleed together in my mind and I won’t appreciate individual poems by themselves. Sometimes I’ll start a poetry anthology with the hope that I’ll read a poem each night before bed, but in reality, this lasts about two nights.
I was a regular library user as a teenager—I often went because I just loved picking out new books, and I’d usually peruse the new non-fiction for teens. Things I Have to Tell You stuck out to me one day because of its title and cover. I believe I was around fifteen years old when I first discovered it. Even at the time I knew I might grow bored with it and not read all of the pieces in the book. Instead I went home, opened the book, and didn’t stop until I’d read all 63 pages.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest that was largely populated by upper middle class white people, with some exceptions. My teenage self knew she was smart, bookish, loved to run, and wanted to attend a small liberal arts college with study abroad options. I attended a young writers program one summer because I wanted to. I had a lot of friends who had academic interests and were involved with local youth groups. In terms of appearance, I wasn’t a particularly confident person—I felt like my body was the wrong shape or I couldn’t get a flattering haircut, I looked weird in pictures, my glasses didn’t look the way I wanted them too. Most guys that caught my attention didn’t seem to know I existed, something I wasn’t terribly pleased about.
Picking up a book where young women wrote honestly about the things that were happening in their lives gave me a lot of new perspectives to think about. The topics of these poems varied—they were about feeling sexy, having such a bad hair day that a guy wouldn’t talk to you, drugs, society’s expectations. Each poem or writing varied in tone or style, yet I found one commonality in all of them—these weren’t things girls at my school were talking about. All of these subjects felt taboo. How was I supposed to say how sexy I did or didn’t feel when sexy wasn’t a word that came up often in conversation? How was I supposed to know how drugs felt, as someone who never tried them and didn’t want to? Although these topics felt off limits in daily conversation, I knew that these poems were about everyday experiences. They just weren’t my experiences.
Feminism is a word I thought about in high school, but wasn’t fully ready to explore. Society taught me a lot of messed up things, some of which young girls are still learning today. It taught me to worry about how fat I am and to judge my female peers for their choices. It made me ask myself questions like how the length of a girl’s skirt affected whether or not she was assaulted.
Things I Have to Tell You showed me that I wasn’t listening. I was too busy examining the choices of my peers to see what could be affecting their lives. It was hard for me to see why some girls felt ready for sex when I wasn’t, or how the adults that surround a young person shape him or her. I thought I was just reading great poetry. I didn’t realize that this book was touching my life for the better. I like to think I am not as judgmental today, and that I am a feminist, but I know there are moments when I still slip.
Although this anthology was published in 2001, I am still awed by the talent, writing, and emotion that fills it. Teen girls today still have so much to tell us about their lives, their schools, their parents, their hopes and dreams, and how society could be screwing them up. As adults, there will be one thing we can always do: listen.
Thank you to Liz for this great post.
If you want to see more of her writing, be sure to check out her blog: http://www.consumedbybooks.com