The act of looking back can never be comprehensive and by nature is then selective. All the voices want a retrospective. It then remains that what is remembered—whether traumatic or loving, joyful or angry—are the ones that shout loudest. It’s like in a family where some siblings get more attention because they like the front of the stage while others prefer the shadows.
Writing poetry has always been a way for me to rediscover what I’ve forgotten and give it back its place in time. The more I write the more I remember and the more I remember the less numb I feel. Memories, no matter how difficult, return shape and color and context to the story we create by our journey.
It’s hard to draw a line and say once you crossed it your life changed. I believe I was always a poet. Even when I grew up thinking a baseball glove was an anatomical part inseparable from the rest of my body. I had wonderful teachers along the path of my childhood that instilled a love for the written and spoken word—starting with my grandmothers Ruth Haycraft and Dorothy Nestor. I was very sick as a child and they read to me constantly and later gave me free reign in their magical libraries. I am deeply indebted to both of them, the dears.
But since this is not a memoir or autobiography--meaning it will be of limited length and selection-- I’ve chosen moving to Brattleboro, Vermont as the starting point for looking. The crossroads where my childhood crept into adulthood. The beginning of the daily personal devotion I call poetry.
21 years old. Kay was 23. We met as inadvertent bridge partners in the student union at Shepherds College. That without speaking or having played together we could intuit blackwood from four club convention was the beginning of romance. We left school and drove from coast to coast in a black 1950 Chevy panel truck painted with day glow flowers and peace signs with a mattress in the back. I don’t think a single highway patrolman that saw us let us pass unhassled. We were just looking for an America we didn’t realize we were helping create along the way.
We ended up in Brattleboro Vermont working on a literary magazine called Year of Dog published by Kelly Lee & Georgia Gojmerac. It was handset on an old Chandler & Price letterpress on Nideggen mould-made paper. Kelly and Georgia did everything—including free-hand woodcuts for each poet rolled on the press with the pages. It was the first time my poetry was anthologized and it appeared along side some of my heroes—Robert Bly, Gail Dusenberry, Marvin Bell, Gregory Jerozal.
I slept on a pile of blankets on the second floor of the Gelly Brothers Printing Company in between four Chandler and Price Presses. These brothers were a cadaverous set of Anglicans who looked exactly like the image of the Smith brothers on the cough drop box. They were old time printers who already in 1970 were an anachronism.
The room smelled of fresh ink and burned coffee. To this day smells I associate with reckless love and dangerous personal archeology. It also smelled of Waffles—Kelly’s lovely little non descript brown dog with a nose like a seal.
Out the window, across the street, the Latchis Hotel lifted its locally quarried stones four stories. It was New Years Day, 1970, when I walked out of the hotel bar at 3:00 am and felt my hat brushed off by an elderly man in a ragged old bathrobe falling from a top story window. Followed almost immediately by his wife. Both dead on contact. I remember my friends pushing me forward, not understanding why I stopped. My inability to explain . I remember the trickle of blood from the two of them running out of their robes into the storm drain.
It snowed all that night and by morning the place where they landed was covered over and frozen the purest white.
Something happened in Vermont. With friends like John Huey and Greg Jerozal I entangled more deeply in the changes the 60s offered young poets. All nighters where the directive was not so much to get high but to share out loud the poems of the poets we’d grown to love—Levertov, Rexroth, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Rilke, Bishop, Stevens, Plath, Mandlestam—night after night--increasingly intoxicated not just on the camaraderie and wine but on the words—the beautiful music and rhythms of the words. Transplanting the heart of this across generations and re-animating it with our own discovered voices. Magic—friendship—grace—excess—danger—poetry.
During the time I lived in Vermont I went to the Bread Loaf Writers Workshop. Twice. The second time I was banned for life for a youthful imbroglio involving an abandoned hunter’s cabin, endless bottles of beer and the disciplined work of co-conspirators Cindy Williams and Ben Ciardi both of whom enjoyed immunity by virtue of their fathers’ teaching at the workshop.
It was at Bread Loaf it was suggested by my instructor, Miller Williams, that I send a manuscript to the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He liked my work enough to provide a letter of recommendation and evidently saw some sort of sparkle in the dirt that if properly polished just might turn into a worthy line or two—perhaps even a poem. A life.
Iowa City 1971—1975
My manuscript was accepted by Donald Justice. I still have the letter signed by him. I’m now a poet in more than my own imagination. Someone else sees me. I am—so happy—to be where I am. The memories have faded over the ensuing 45 years. But enough remain—oh yes—enough remains.
Iowa City in the early 70s was a live wire. That was the first thing I felt. It was a 60s hippie’s dream come true. It was as if young people took over a town in the middle of the corn belt and ultra liberalized it and stamped it with revolutionary ideas about art and politics and the importance of the offspring they produce.
Honky tonk poured out of bars like Gabe and Walkers and the Vine while poets held down the Sanctuary and more especially, Donnely’s, bless her forever. Owned by Harold Donnely, an old Orangeman from Dublin with his assistant, Charlie. Every morning before class they’d be polishing their County Cork walnut bar in white shirts and black ties and with little prompting tell stories of Dylan Thomas sitting in the same chair where I sat drinking a democrat and abusing my friends. History. Tradition. Revolution. Oh yeah—eight ball.
Four semesters at the Undergraduate Writers Workshop on the way to a B.F.A One with Marvin Bell, one with Donald Justice and two with Norman Dubie. I took summer workshops with John Berryman and William Stafford and audited graduate classes with Mark Strand. There was little distinction outside of class between student and teacher. Norman often slept in my guest room and more than once I woke up on Donald’s sofa after an all night poker game where he, as usual, walked off with the pot. It was an endless succession of poems and readings and prose and collaborations and alternative to alternatives. The Actualist poets papered one whole block of Clinton Street with spontaneous poems. John Jiler led a parade of raccoons tied together with red ribbons down Clinton Street. While the wind moaned diacritical remarks in the language of the overhanging lindens.
This is where it got real for me. Years of playing at being a poet but only when it suited me. Loving to say I am a poet but writing only when high or depressed. That changed in Iowa City. Forever. I began to write with discipline learned from Donald Justice, that great sad man, and Norman Dubie whose tremendous gifts are always at least one step ahead of his contemporaries. Stafford said write every day even if you have nothing to say. If you don’t you might as well do something else with your life because the only reason to write poetry is for the merciful abundance of self respect that comes from doing what you’re here to do.
I look back on those days and see how happy and tormented I was. Brilliant caring teachers. Gentle, crazy, spectacular friends. Deep commitments to one another and a conscious, careless way of living on the edge in cut off jeans. There was ugliness and beauty, way too much alcohol and drugs (maybe) and a flickering at the edge of sight that might have been death—coming to claim a few of us and letting most stagger on before catching up later.
Looking back can be an exercise in indulgence if one isn’t careful. It can be a cherry picked basket of pleasant memories that neglect to include the horrors that launched them. I don’t spend a lot of time looking back these days because my belief is that so much of who we are and what we did and didn’t do—our choices—some noble and some impoverished—are no longer distinct geographical presences but assimilated into this moment as it happens—this poem as it’s written.
The act of looking back for me then occurs mostly when I’m focused on the empty page—when I let the words run like green horses throwing off riders on the way to open range. I’m also knowing something like right now is the new yesterday and this awareness—absent earlier in my life—brings sweet and sacred attention to where the next foot falls.
From Bristol Bay & Other Poems
Red Hen Press 2009
New Years Day 2005
“…I believe in Iowa City each
Cold heart, each cold rustling stalk of corn
Left unharvested in the snow covered fields
Is warmed by a molten core of poems
Written by the dangerously young…
Music burbling under iced in creeks
Where coyotes cut their paws scratching
Holes in the ice to drink from the pool
Freezing slowly over the remaining fish…
I still believe in the power of poetry
To make a place where one wild thing survives…
The first birds of spring fly just beyond the
Falling snow, waiting to land when my country
Thaws, waiting to begin the excarnation
Of my tongue, leaving only the bones of
Joy and one vowel, all that is needed
To begin a song of gratitude…”