Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.
I thought myself a deep seventeen-year-old. Junior year of high school, 1997: I read and wrote and read and wrote, my hands covered in blue and black ink when I didn’t have paper. I was obsessed with Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Terry McMillan. I dissected Albert Camus in AP English with A+ precision, worked as the managing editor of the Spark, our high school newspaper, even moonlighted once with a piece in the local paper.
But, I really was a poet. I’ve kept my journals; they are filled with late-night scribbles, pencil-gray scratches across sepia-toned paper carved by candlelight and mostly about my boyfriend, my first love. Here is a sample: He holds my heart in the palm of his hand. Be careful not to crush it. My pride lay in the soul of his eyes. Be careful not to touch it.
Yes, my poetry was terrible.
That year, the movie Love Jones was everything. Larenz Tate played Darius, an aspiring writer, and Nia Long played Nina, an aspiring photographer. In the film, they fall for one another despite refusing to admit they are doing anything other than just “kickin’ it.” They have lots of weed-laced sex and ride vintage motorcycles through empty Chicago streets at dusk. The passion they have for one another — deep, bone-aching passion, obsessive, like an addiction, like a junkie jonesing for his next hit — is a metaphor for their artistic endeavors, and vice versa. My favorite line: “Romance is about the possibility of things.” Replace “romance” with “writing” and Darius Lovehall had reached into this author’s soul, even at seventeen.
Love Jones was about poetry, spoken word, smoke-filled clubs, Duke Ellington, and beautiful people. Darius, Nina and their friends are people I didn’t know in real life, but as artistic intellectuals, they were the most accurate representation of who I wanted to be. I saw my future, or what I wanted for my future, in that movie.
I bought the movie soundtrack on cassette and wore that sucker out in my mother’s 1993 black Nissan Sentra. A mixture of jazz, poetry, and R&B, the Love Jones soundtrack carries a central tone of cool. It provided a novice, like myself at the time, the simplest introduction to jazz with “Jelly, Jelly” performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, sung by Milt Grayson, and “In A Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. There are remixed hit singles like Maxwell’s “Sumthin’, Sumthin’,” the Mellosmoothe cut, and would-be classics like Dionne Farris’ “Hopeless.” Wyclef Jean, Jermaine Dupri and others curated that album so that it wasn’t merely a collection of songs that thematically went along with a movie; it is an extension of the movie itself. In that respect, it is the perfect movie soundtrack. For me, it was the perfect soundtrack for writing.
My favorite song off of the album was Lauryn Hill’s “The Sweetest Thing.” I listened to it every night on repeat, pen and paper poised next to a wild and open candle flame. My bedroom in my mother’s apartment was small, with thin beige walls. My mother, a mean and angry light sleeper, warned me every night before she went to bed that she “bet not hear nothing coming from my room” — she woke before the sun most mornings for her first job. Lying on my belly, the volume so low my ear touched the rigid speaker to hear, I wrote down the lyrics. I pressed “play” on my CD/cassette player, then “stop” at the end of a stanza . . . scribbled . . . then “play” again. I transcribed the lines over and over until they were branded on my brain, and I could repeat them without listening to the song at all. I still know the words — scrawled across the paper in light-blue ink, I see them when I close my eyes:
The sweetest thing I’ve ever known,
Was like the kiss on the collarbone…
In hindsight, “The Sweetest Thing” was merely a taste of Lauryn Hill’s genius, later evidenced by her 1998 classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The song is a series of descriptive snippets bound by the natural tension of young romance. It is a story about seventeen-year-old me, a stubborn Black girl in love, a stubborn Black girl in love who wanted to write, who wanted to be an artist, who had dreams beyond the four beige walls of her tiny bedroom and the blacktop outside her window, who was so obsessed with writing that she used her body as a canvas. And at the time, that girl was me.
The next year, I started as an English Language and Literature major at the University of Maryland in College Park. I’d transferred a few of my canned rhymes onto fluorescent pink and orange poster board and taped them to the cinderblock walls of my dorm room, so haughty in my talents I felt they needed to be displayed as real art.
On the first day of creative writing class, I sat directly across from the professor whose name I erased from my memory later. She was a stout Black woman with long graying dreadlocks and whose favorite color was purple. She wrote using purple-inked pens, she wore swathes of purple fabric — some days lilac, some days magenta, some days a royal violet. She searched the room of would-be wordsmiths with narrowed eyes and a look I interpreted as wisdom. She was a professional writer, one of the first Black intellectuals I’d ever met, the person I wanted to be when I grew up. And, I was scared of her.
She ran the class in a “workshop” format. We would all submit writing and then the following week the class would comment — saying what was working, what wasn’t working, and overall what they thought about the piece — and then she would provide comments and hand back our marked manuscripts. I submitted a large packet of unpolished, unedited poems.
I made it through my first workshop unscathed by my peers, who were nice yet utterly unhelpful. I watched my professor for clues, but didn’t understand everything she said in class. It wasn’t until I received my marked manuscript that I realized there was anything wrong with my work. After a line about writing poetry while high on pot, she wrote, “. . . doesn’t mean it’s any good.” I stared at the round wide lilac words, so pretty to look at although each roping cursive loop strangled my heart. The following class, I asked her what she’d meant. She said she meant what the comment said: “doesn’t mean it’s any good.” In subsequent classes, she continued to challenge me. She did not understand my use of dialect. My grammar was atrocious. I lacked theme and delicacy. My professor was having none of it: She criticized my work, and I wasn’t ready to handle it.
Love Jones‘ Darius Lovehall also concluded that “… when people who been together a long time say that the romance is gone, what they’re really saying is they’ve exhausted the possibility.” The “possibility,” for me, wasn’t just exhausted; it was dry and ashy and rotten, so much so that the thought of writing another line of poetry made me nauseated with shame. I took down and tore up my posters. I remained an English major because I still loved reading, but I replaced creative writing courses with legal and technical writing courses. I got a job with an insurance company and went to law school. I let all my romantic writing possibilities fade to black.
The Love Jones soundtrack is bookended by two poems that appear in the movie at pivotal moments. The first is recited by Darius and is called “Brotha to the Night (A Blues for Nina),” and it appears towards the beginning of the movie, when Darius is attempting to win Nina over. The poem is full of swag, dripping with male conceit. It’s sexy, an invitation to Nina, his audience at the open mic night (inconspicuously full of swooning women), the moviegoer, to the cassette listener in her mother’s ’93 Sentra, to all who watch and hear to partake in what the listener knows will be several minutes of elevation — sexual, lyrical, intellectual — and with the confidence of a real lover, he executes seduction. This is how I’d imagined my writing to be before life workshopped it.
The last track is a poem Nina recites towards the end of the movie: “Lyric: I Am Looking at Music.” An obviously nervous Nina stands on an empty stage to silence, no jazzy stand-up bass accompaniment. She has a large notebook in her hands and looks out tentatively into the audience for the one person she hopes to reach; the one reader or listener she believes will connect to her work. All she needs is one, but you get the sense that if no one connects, she will be all right. Her voice is soft. The poem itself is esoteric, filled with uncertainty and imagery sensitive to her photographer’s eye, her specific point of view. It is beautiful and slight, and somehow you know when she is done, that the possibilities are endless.
Many years later, while moving boxes, I found my old journals and stored them in my library. After passing the bar, I started reading for fun again — this was a flirtation, the start of a new romance. I read, of all things, The Hunger Games and other books meant for teens, yet I was in my late 20s. I’d never read young adult novels as a young adult; I was more into stealing my mother’s Waiting To Exhale than wondering if God knew Margaret. But, I questioned if I would’ve been more interested in teen books had there been any with characters like me at seventeen, a stubborn Black girl with goals that to some sounded like the stuff of fiction. So, I decided to write that story, the story for the young Black girl I used to be, and the young Black girls that would come after me.
One night, by the soft golden glow of my bedside lamp, I read through my journal from back when Love Jones was everything. And then again, I heard Lauryn Hill’s voice, the dark echoing production, the yearning, and I scratched the lines of “The Sweetest Thing” across several pages. I took the time to search the lyrics for the lessons I couldn’t truly absorb before, before I figured out the song wasn’t just a song, but a story set to music.
Good writing is based on real life and language. I should have learned from the emotional connections I’d made to the character in Ms. Hill’s narrative because of her use of imagery, not the strained rhyming and clichéd phrasing I used in my poetry. And no, I don’t write poetry anymore; one has to admit when she is terrible at something and move on. But I am still in love with writing — it is what I am doing when I am doing nothing else, it is what I think about constantly, what I dream about, what I long for — it is a deep obsessive kind of love, an addictive kind of love, a love jones. And, it is the sweetest thing I know.
Read more Formative Jukebox here.
(Image courtesy of Sony Music.)