This essay originally appeared on Medium.
Getting Money for My Poetry
It is without exaggeration that I say one of the coolest things I’ve ever done is be commissioned to write poetry. This has happened exactly one time and it was only recently — curiously enough for Red Bull.
I was brought onboard by extremely good design agency Hoodzpah, charged with art directing Lindsey Vonn-specific zine as a ridiculously dope retirement gift for the legendary skier, ultimately to be published in Red Bull’s June issue of The Red Bulletin. In need of a writer, they hit me up with my poem “The Heavy King” as reference material.
Writing with a commissioned objective in mind was different, but not wildly, given that I was brought onto the project for my style. However, until this year, my poetry has been entirely at my discretion — my subject matter, my choice of words, my final answer. Whatever I thought best communicated my thoughts, my emotions, and my experiences was ultimately the end goal. This time, I had to prioritize someone other than me in verse, work through editorial revisions like any other project, and ask myself questions I previously hadn’t about diction and syntax.
But I’ve long been a fan of Lindsey Vonn, given our similar age and my love for the Olympics, so it came relatively easy to contemplate her humble origins on Buck Hill, a ski slope in Minnesota I only knew as a SoCal kid because The Replacements screamed the destination as the entirety of their lyrics in their eponymous, otherwise instrumental track. Plus, Vonn has legit been hit with two dozen injuries over the years and remained unreal relentless. That itself is a spry enough reason to hype her jagged earth domination like whoa.
I don’t know when or if I’ll be commissioned to write a poem again, but Lindsey Vonn has shredded the gnar since we were both youths and it was an honor to pay tribute to her mesmerizing ability to carve up a mountain at lightning speed. She’s kicked ass forever, it’s been radical to watch her conquer, and obviously writing this poem is for sure the closest I’ll ever get to the Olympics.
“Legend of Vonn”
by Jake Kilroy
she burst into the world, a light with saint paul’s blessing,
the kid who unearthed euphoria at breakneck speed,
some avalanche stunner crashing less than 300 feet,
nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest mountain:
lindsey kildow, the lightning bolt that could grin.
the zig−zagger with a panting shadow —
the weaver, the cutter, the blaster too;
the shock wave that rattled the twin cities,
built with every grace offered by youth.
all caught the grin on the lift;
all noted the focus at the top;
all spotted that starry-eyed glint
on the bullet from buck hill.
the locals will tell you how the blonde blitz
carved up that hillside overlooking I-35;
while young drivers scared of joyriding in the snow
flew by buck hill, nowhere near the speed limit.
meanwhile, kildow — not yet vonn, the fable told and retold —
came at the world, beyond minnesota and the other 49,
from charging utah’s olympic mountain
before she could even register to vote
to taking her first podium on the italian slopes
before she could legally toast the triumph back home.
the legend grew and with it the legacy —
the second american woman to reign world champ
bringing a gold medallion back to her country
after digging it out of a vancouver downhill;
every eye in every country clocking the blur,
well before she came for the record books
tagging her name, page by page, volume by volume;
the written history of the monarch of the mountain.
pummeled eternal by the meanest side of mother nature,
her body covered in supernovas and evening shades,
the slalom slayer tore up every muscle, every record,
every excuse, to behold the world from the peak
and see what the valley looked like, if only for a moment;
twenty years of moving at the speed of sound,
twenty injuries (at least) that couldn’t take her,
twenty minutes (at least) from home to second home,
back where the mountaineer first tamed the wicked white —
all watch the bullet from buck hill;
all behold the lightning;
all hail the queen.
Giving Money for My Poetry
When I was a teenager with a driver’s license and a free school night, I’d sometimes cruise to Barnes & Noble to wander around and explore authors, genres, and topics I was unfamiliar with — and, like, any artsy-fartsy youth, I wondered when/if my work would show up in the joint.
Since then, I’ve seen my writing in magazines and newspapers several times over — articles, essays, and humor pieces mostly — and I figure the best angle on making a go of your preferred trade is to never lose track of your milestones; to here and there have a moment as surreal as it is aware, to catch yourself exhaling, “Well, that’s pretty cool.” In the decade since college, I’ve produced and worked on an absurd count of digital goods that’ve wound up in the contentsphere, but there’s still something about print for me. It’s definite. It’s final. It’ll last.
This isn’t my first published poem either. Still, this marks the first time my poetry has been in something I could buy somewhere and not just be sent a free copy in the mail. More importantly, this is the first time I’ve been paid to write poetry, a beloved medium of mine that has, until now, offered literally no commercial or professional value. Unlike other avenues of prose, I had more or less resigned to poetry remaining an entirely personal endeavor, as emotionally rewarding as it is financially fruitless. As recently as the day before, I would’ve assumed getting an email out of the blue asking me to write a poem in exchange for a paycheck was just an extremely targeted scam. So it of course struck me odd as I held the magazine with my poem in it, recalling how this balladry paid my rent last month.
Over the years, I’ve aimed to separate nostalgia and sentimentality from appreciation and gratitude, ultimately aiming for thumbs ups rather than wistful stares while maintaining that it’s important to recognize your path and how you got to where you did. I’ve always been a reflective dude — to some degree of fault, I’ve learned — but this year more than ever with a much better methodology. I realize not everything is celebratory and that can be a downright exhausting way to live; I’m just less appreciative of instant gratification and more appreciative of deeper satisfaction these days.
Given this year’s goal to do the many things I’ve always meant to, I suppose being paid for poetry has been loitering on my bucket list for quite sometime. To be sure, this wasn’t some deeply touching moment where I heard an orchestral swell as I recalled the tremors of my youth. My nerves just briefly curveballed a bit as I exhaled some faraway, “Huh.” I’ll probably do this again when/if I buy my own book.
Maybe the firsts mean more with age. Milestones likely seem inevitable in your 20s, and creativity comes with like you can’t get it out quick enough. After 30, you seem to more or less know the lifelong creatives around you, and it’s a lot less than it was the decade before.
To be a creative at any age, you have to hustle. To be a creative outside of your day job, especially after your 20s, you have to do a stranger kind of hustle that involves some foxtrot of time management.
None of that works its way into anything resembling a plan during your reign of teenagedom. It’s all or nothing. Either it’s there or it isn’t. Today, it was there. Today, I strolled into Barnes & Noble nearly 20 years after I roamed the wordy halls as a gangly teen writing my first poems of substance and bought a (sports) magazine with my poem in it and, well, that’s pretty cool.