Portrait of the Artist as a (Very) Young Man

It’s 3:45 in the afternoon, and Travis Kaupp is picking at the eraser end of his No. 2 pencil, covering his white shirt — mandatory dress for the young poet and his fellow students — in shreds of dirty pink. Kaupp and his English teacher, Steve Abee, are seated in an otherwise empty Room 146, discussing their twice-weekly lunchtime writers group — started by Abee 10 years ago to create an artists’ community for his students — and the poem that won Kaupp first place in this year’s Thomas Starr King Middle School Poetry Slam. Temporarily titled “Oh Lord,” the poem is a first-person lament on life in public school’s seventh-grade society, filled with snarky commentary on the hypocrisy of schoolyard stereotypes, including his own, the ugliness of modern-day tween courtship and shallow ideals of love and conformity. Written in a burst of inspiration and mercurial methodology, with a borrowed pen on a paper menu at Charlie’s Coffee Shop at the Farmers Market, “Oh Lord” indicates a future for Kaupp as an artist. Yet Kaupp, who rejected the 10 other poems he wrote this year as “shallow, not as deep as they should be,” brushes off any mention of the title of “writer,” though the 13-year-old does admit that there was something different about this poem. “I started writing it, and I thought, ‘This is gonna be great.’ It wasn’t as shallow as the other ones.” Have you heard any comparisons to Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”? Do you know that poem? “Yeah . . .” Kaupp, who has a penchant for graphic novels and Dan Brown, adjusts his black-rimmed prescription Ray-Bans and corrects himself: “That was a different Howl, the werewolf movie.” How ’bout you, Mr. Abee, does it remind you of “Howl”? “It does have that cranky, world-gone-bananas [thing] . . . it’s a great piece.” Travis, what was your inspiration? “These people were pushing and shoving in the lunch line at school; I was really angry that day. Then, what really set it off was when I saw my little brother pretending to smoke with one of those little gum cigarettes. That made me really angry . . . It’s just so sad.” Mr. Abee, what did you think when you first heard it? “You don’t get a lot of middle-school pieces talking about the anger of middle school in such an articulate way, looking at the chaos you have to deal with. There’s a lot going on I didn’t see the first time I read it. The really great business with stereotypes. A lot of kids are self-referential, but [Travis] stepped out of the box.” What made you start writing, Travis? “Mostly hearing other people’s poems. I thought, ‘I could do this.’ And it’s a good way to get out my emotions.” Do you like listening to other writers? “Are you kidding me??? I love all of their poems. To be honest with you, I don’t even like it when people call me a poet. ’Cause I only produced one thing that’s good.” Will you talk about the “notion of love” you mention in your poem? “What I was saying was, well, maybe a boy is being shallow and just likes [a girl] for her looks. He doesn’t really love her. He just wants her as a possession, as opposed to someone who actually likes someone for who they are and wants them as a friend.” Is that what you meant: “my idea of love”? “ ‘My idea of love’ is what I mentioned before, about wanting someone as a friend.” Are you, as you say in your poem, a teacher’s pet? “It depends.” In your poem you tell someone to “screw off.” Have you ever taken a stand in the cafeteria? Have you ever told someone to go screw themselves? “No. I’m not that brave. I am very, very sarcastic. All the time.” Is that because you are so disgusted with so many things you see? “Part that, and part that I like to laugh at the jokes I make.” Have you ever had your heart broken? “Yes.” Can you tell me about it? “Sure. I was at orchestra at my old school, and I asked somebody out and they said no. But that wasn’t the end for them, they decided to also insult me, and her friend was cackling, so I’ve managed to stay away from love for a while now.” How would you describe Travis, Mr. Abee? “I would say I find him to be a very sensitive, compassionate, loving heart frustrated by the world. I think a broken heart is an indication of a full heart. The way he listens to other people’s work, it takes a heart to really listen to other people’s work.” Anything else inspired you lately, Travis? Have you seen anything beautiful? “For a poem like that one, it’s more inspiration when something negative happens, a bad event . . . or a string of bad events. You have a higher reaction to something that is bad than to something that is good. Like if a brick hits you on the head.”

Oh Lord

Oh Lord! Society is truly crumbling like the powder of the gum cigarette my little brother is “smoking.” The sight makes me sick. I went into a line a couple days ago. People were pushing and shoving. Kids were cursing and making racist remarks upon other races and religions. If you even mention the slightest racist remark on their race or religion they will chatter in a language you can’t understand and then they will make a hollow threats. 12 year olds are doing perverted things like pressing and groping the behind of a girl while he grins at his buddies and gives them the thumbs up. When she tells them to stop they tell her off in profanities. The profanities are so sick that I still have the bad flavor on my tongue from these words. It’s a horrific flavor. People holding hands saying “I love you” while the boy doesn’t give a crap about the girl. All they want is something beyond love . . . or my idea of it. Kids begin to beat up a boy that is to slow to defend himself. Another kid has the Nazi symbol all over him and he makes fun of Jews. He’s a Mexican with black hair and brown eyes. His ignorance must feel like bliss. I tell him to kiss himself and he gives me the same dumbfounded look you see on a dog when it has pissed on the floor. I see a kid talking about how people stereotype him, even though he acts like the stereotype. He created the stereotype. I think of my own stereotype. The boy who does everything right. The teacher’s pet. The nerd. Even teachers follow this stereotype of me. It makes me want to vomit. I see a kid who is moping about how he is lonely, even though he had turned down all the kids who wanted to be his friend. Across the room there is a Goth that says that she is a rebel, an outcast, a non-conformist. Then she walks over to her friends who are wearing the same clothes that she is wearing. I walk outside to see a girl passing out “Save the World! Stop littering” pamphlets. The wind blows the stack away and she makes no attempt to pick them up. A boy that is always wearing a cross makes a joke about Jesus. A thousand children bound to be the murderers, rapists and psychopaths of tomorrow.

—Travis Kaupp, 13

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