At 17, She's Writing a Novel, Planning a Play : Young Poet Chooses Metaphors Over Money

Associated Press

The Manhattan apartment where Amy Martin grew up is a garden, its carpeting her "wall-to-wall playground," her father "the tallest evergreen."

A boyfriend's lies are "sugar-coated razor blades."

Numbness is "a Novocain suit that is always a size too small no matter how much I shrink to fit."

Amy Martin thinks in metaphors; she has as long as she can remember. If their meaning isn't always clear to her, she has plenty of time to sort them out.

She is, after all, only 17.

She's a good kid. A gifted kid. And according to market research on the Class of '86, known to advertisers largely as "puppies"-- pre-urban professionals with acquisitive life styles and bottom-line ambitions--not at all a typical kid.

A Less-Traveled Road

She is highly ambitious, but not in the way of the world; she has chosen a less-traveled road than the clogged highways that lead to law schools or MBAs.

What makes her prefer James Joyce to fashion magazines, classical music to New Wave, making metaphors to making money?

Why, with a novel in progress and plans for a theater production next spring, does she spend her precious spare time reading the classics, running a poetry club and studying piano?

What muse beckons a teen-age girl out of bed in the middle of the night to scribble verse in a dog-eared blue notebook?

Why does a bright young woman choose to worry not about being rich, but about starving? "When your talent lies in something as unstable as art, people beat it into you from Day One: You are going to starve."

Regardless, she says, she's going to be a poet.

Her teacher says she already is one.

"I always thought that you had eyes

That could charm a snake like me,

So I coiled inside the quiet basket

Happily trapped, submissive reptile.

Heard your scaly sounds outside

And thought they were my own."

Amy Martin, the only child of two teachers, is a senior at Stuyvesant High School, one of three public high schools for New York's academically gifted kids.

Between classes, Amy wedges herself into vestibules at school, an aging fortress on the edge of a tough neighborhood, to write-- never less than a page--in one of her ubiquitous notebooks: the two dark-blue ones, one her journal, the other filled with poetry; the light-blue one, for short stories and essays; the beige one, for analysis and criticism; and the tan one, for her novel.

"It's weird that I'm a Gemini," she says. "I'm not twins, I'm quadruplets. There's my diary, that's just me. There's my poetry, which is me at the hardest times. My prose is an exercise. And my novel, that's to give me a goal."

'Wild, Struggling Look'

She is 5-feet tall and compact, graceful but not athletic: "I'm the girl who, when they threw the ball at me, ducked. Or got hit by it."

In the bedroom they share, the half belonging to her divorced mother, Regina, is neat and orderly; Amy's is piled with stuffed animals, books and notebooks, and pictures of James Dean, who epitomizes "that great, wild, struggling look."

A perfect Saturday:

"I'd wake up late and watch cartoons. Then I'd play Mozart on the piano and practice my acting. I'd write awhile, and call my father. I'd get all dressed up and go to dinner with a friend, then do something fun, like go dancing. I'd come home early, put on my satin robe and sit and think for a half-hour.

"Then I'd write in my journal, play the piano again, and go to bed."

She thinks too many kids are too concerned with material things. "There's a real yuppie feeling among teen-agers today." Frown.

"I wish they could give themselves room to experiment, even if what they want to try isn't considered success in the conventional sense. It's a lot of work to find out what makes you happy. Some people just settle for the easiest thing, the money or the material things.

"I don't think anyone should settle. I've tried not to."

"The ears inside my head were closed to the noises

Of your soft belly side-winding through the dust,

The rush of cold blood underneath your diamond tile,

The whisper, whisper of your forked tongue.

I thought only of your love sounds

Hissed with practiced perfection."

"When she was born--this is going to sound crazy--but she looked older. She never really looked like a baby."

Regina Martin, just home from a rainy day of teaching English, sits at the dining room table. Amy flits about, momentarily lighting on the phone in the bedroom, the yellow cake in the kitchen, the mirror in the bathroom.

She wasn't the sort of toddler who wandered around getting into things, her mother says. She didn't wake up and cry. She woke up and told herself stories. "She was interior."

She also was hard to argue with.

"She would reason with you. She had a composure, a self-possession, that would make me forget the age of the person I was dealing with. I had to remember: She's the daughter. I'm the mother."

Regina Martin named her daughter after a character in "Little Women"--"the youngest daughter who got her way a lot," Amy says. "She was willful. I am, too."

Giggle.

"I always knew that you had eyes

That could charm a snake like me.

You brought me out; I writhed with joy,

Waiting to be free and charmed,

And you slithered round my feet.

I am not the serpent; I know by your whispering skin."

Her mother taught her to read at 4 and write at 5. This information is included in "About The Author," which Amy began adding to her books in second grade. She insisted on having all of her work bound into books.

The first books appeared when she was 4 and would dictate stories to her mother, about a seed that grew up to be a flower, about a dog that dreamed of owning a million cans of dog food.

"I think I wrote because it made me feel the most grown up. It was a constant struggle between the child in me and the adult."

At 6, she wrote "Who Am I?"

"Sometimes I wonder. Who am I? I wonder if I am a dream. I think I know who I am. Myself!"

Starred in Musicals

She seemed to know throughout grade school, writing in her journal, practicing the piano, and starring in musicals at her tiny Episcopal private school.

But years later, after her parents' divorce and the move to a new apartment and a new school, Amy wasn't sure for a time.

"At Stuyvesant, I was so shy," she says. "I had had the same friends since nursery school, and suddenly, I didn't know one single person.

"I had been so sheltered. There were no punk people at my old school. At Stuyvesant, the seniors looked about 25. There were kids with mohawks. I was terrified."

She Stopped Writing

One day, Amy came home with the back of her head shaved and one side of her hair bleached white, a look she completed with black makeup and rhinestone jewelry. Her hair looked, she says sternly, "like it had been caught in a helicopter propeller."

Amy also stopped writing. She credits her poetry teacher, Judith Kocela, with giving her the confidence to resume.

"I realized she was special when she read her first poem aloud," Kocela says. "She never wrote awkward, adolescent poetry. From the beginning, her images were powerful, honest and accurate."

Unlike most teen-age poets, Kocela says, Amy eagerly takes suggestions.

'Almost Without Ego'

"When I speak to her about her poetry, she's almost without ego about it," the teacher said. "She's so willing to be vulnerable to the world."

Such vulnerability is often lacking at Stuyvesant, known for math and science whiz kids, not poets. Last year, Kocela recalled, some students performed an original song for a school show.

"The lyrics were something like: 'You get the best grades to get to the Ivy Leagues to get to the job to be rich, rich, rich.' That was the chorus: 'Rich, rich, rich.' I remember telling the teacher beside me, 'I'm going to be sick, sick, sick."'

Melissa Clark, also 17, says Amy is different from her other friends in "the way she looks at life, her maturity, how she handles things. She was troubled by her talent for a time, it drew her away from the group. But then she realized there was nothing wrong with her. She just likes her time alone."

Melissa, who is planning to be a food writer, says Amy taught her "you don't have to be a poet to be artistic. You can be artistic at whatever you do if you look at the world with that in mind."

Amy doesn't know where her work comes from, only that her mind is flooded with ideas that propel her out of bed in the middle of the night to write, never less than a page, in her notebooks.

For that compulsion, she says, she is grateful.

That, it turns out, is her gift.

"...So I make emotions into strokes of colored oil,

Euphorious preludes and ivory nocturnes,

Two faces: comedy and tragedy

Which remind me of myself, inside,

And painstakingly scribbled images called poems,

All to express the art in me."

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