Sharing a post from my new MFA Poetry Workshop student, Danielle Johnson. Welcome to the program, Danielle! – Marty
Source: My First Poetry Workshop
Sharing a post from my new MFA Poetry Workshop student, Danielle Johnson. Welcome to the program, Danielle! – Marty
Source: My First Poetry Workshop
When I was 18 years-old, I began to lose my way, as many young men and women do, no matter what generation we belong to. What follows is a passage from an older draft of my Costa Rica essays, recalling who I was, and 15 years later, who I wanted to be. This short essay ends with a question, one that all of us ask when we’re in love: “How did you ever choose me?” The answer refers to Costa Rica, but really, it’s another question: “Tell me again… I love the way you tell that story.”
Readers, let me know if you’d like to hear that story, too.
When I turned eighteen, I left home for college, claimed my independence, and fell in love for the first time. I’d never even kissed a girl before, but I was a fast learner. Soon we were making wedding plans and dreaming up names for our children. That Christmas, I bought what the jeweler called a pre-engagement ring. My fiancée-in-waiting always closed her love letters with the infinity symbol—a horizontal figure eight—shorthand for her secret sign off: “Forever and always, for time and all eternity.”
Then, a year later, I started noticing a pretty blond girl in my history class.
In college, romance turned reckless for me. I was hardly alone. In the late seventies, the age of AIDS was years away, and back then I’d convinced myself that monogamy was a creation of the church, institutionalized in loveless marriages. Who could ever love just one person forever until death do you part?
Back then, I couldn’t.
In the years that followed, I started graduate school, got married, but I also continued to see other women. My wife knew about my infidelities. Our arrangement seemed perfectly logical. I loved writing poetry, dancing, drinking beers with friends and listening to blues in college town night clubs, pleasures my wife didn’t share. So some nights, I was on my own, and not often—but often enough—such solo evenings led to other pleasures.
And why not? All my life, I’d had Mick telling me to get what I need, Janis screaming don’t you turn your back on love and get it while you can. And if I couldn’t be with the one I loved, hell yes, I should love the one I was with. I’d sing that song all night long.
I remember talking with a friend, who knew about my open marriage. He and his wife had been married for ten years, and after much soul-searching, they’d finally agreed to have a child. Suspended between panic and desire, my friend was both terrified and fascinated.
“Marty,” he said, “you have what every married man in the world dreams about.”
“Is that what you want?” I looked my friend in the eye, waited to hear what he’d say.
“Well, no, but it’s every man’s fantasy, don’t you think?”
By then I was thirty-two years old, childless, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I remember feeling flattered by my friend’s opinion of my lucky life. But another part of me couldn’t dodge the question that had only recently begun to nag at me: If I’m living every man’s fantasy, why in the hell am I so unhappy?
Back in those days, I wrote long love letters to the women who touched my life, sent flowers to their offices or apartments, dedicated poems to them. What I wanted was passion, a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” how the 19th-century Romance poet William Wordsworth had famously described poetry. Of course, I’d ignored the rest of the poet’s advice, how poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Who had time for tranquility? I was on the move, and falling in love half a dozen times in twelve years.
Those days, I really thought I was in love. I meant every word in those letters I wrote. And those flowers I sent? I cherished each rose. I wanted those women to love me, to tell me that I was the man they’d waited for all their lives. Sometimes we’d talk about poetry, music, or nothing at all. We’d talk about the world in all its tragic glory.
I always told the truth about being married. I don’t know, maybe some women liked an honest man, even if he was married, while others liked a passionate man who came with no strings attached. Eventually, some were relieved that I drifted away, while others simply, and understandably, discarded me. As much as I’d professed passion, I wasn’t making any promises. Those days, I was living perpetually uncommitted, free to do as I pleased, and as I was learning, the price of that freedom was serial solitude.
When I reached my mid-thirties, got divorced—I know, you’re shocked—I realized that, despite all the logic, the love-the-one-you’re-with songs, what I wanted was damn close to what I’d believed in when I was eighteen years old. I wanted to love one woman, forever, and share the world with her. And I wanted her to love me as if I was the man she’d waited for all her life. For 15 years, I’d wasted my life.
And that’s when I met a woman named Libby.
Before we ever met, Libby had lived in Japan for two years, teaching English to school boys, bored housewives, and ambitious salarymen. When we met, she confided to me how she’d felt so at home in that faraway country. “I think I’m part Japanese,” she used to say.
Years later, in an old letter Libby had written when we first started dating, I found a forgotten gift of spring she’d sent:
…in the library today, I came across a book of Japanese Haiku written in the springtime—I flipped through and was immediately brought back to images of Japan—especially the cherry blossoms—so cherished and beautiful but very short-lived… Anyway, just wanted to share with you some gifts of spring.
Beside the English translations, Libby inscribed the Japanese kanji characters. Now, when I gaze again at her letter, I’m struck by her calligraphy, the bashful curves, the bold strokes. Libby once told me that, in Japan, humility and duality were essential virtues. How long had she labored to create those beautiful kanji characters for me?
Around that same time, I wrote a poem that I dedicated to her. But unlike poems I’d written to others, I surprised myself when I wrote lines that asked this simple question:
How did this happen,
that I am in love for the first time
with a woman, and not
the idea of a woman?
How did this happen? Surely part of me knew, even back then, but I’d only begun to tap the answer to a secret that had eluded me for 15 years.
On a hot summer day in 1995, Libby and I were sharing café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde. I remember we’d left our hotel early, walking in the French Quarter before most tourists were awake, before the heat of the day turned the air to steam, enjoying a quieter and breezier New Orleans. In six weeks, we’d be on a plane headed for Costa Rica.
I’ve looked through all my old notebooks, and I can’t find any entry about our New Orleans weekend. I do remember sipping mimosas at the Court of Two Sisters and sharing Bananas Foster for dessert at Brennan’s Restaurant. I remember holding hands and strolling along the Mississippi Riverwalk. I found nothing I’d written about our weekend in New Orleans, but I did find tucked away a note. I don’t remember now what “things” Libby refers to. All I have is what she wrote, and what I remember later about living in Costa Rica:
…these are just a few things to prepare for our journey ahead. In order to prepare, of course, you not only need to pack a suitcase or read a travel guide, but need to prepare your soul… I hope you can use these gifts to do just that and to feel with all your five senses the spirit of another land, another people, another way of living. Looking forward to opening my heart with yours to befriend the wonder awaiting us in the world of possibilities…
Now, if I could turn back time, perhaps I’d go back to that little table at the Café du Monde and ask Libby the simplest of questions: Why me? Hell, for all I know, maybe that’s just what I asked her that New Orleans weekend.
“What do you mean?” she might have said.
“How in the world did you ever fall in love with me?”
Near our table, a lonely blues man blows into his old saxophone. As always, Libby tries to turn the question around. Sometimes she used to say—and how sweet she was to say so— that I could have chosen any woman in the world, why her? I always played along, yet my answer was also serious, and always the same: Sure, I’d say, and I chose you.
But this time, I’d pose the question all of us eventually must ask our lovers and ourselves.
“How in the world,” I’d say, “did you ever choose me?”
I’m sure Libby would pause, think about what she might say next.
“Do you remember that night when you asked me to run away to Costa Rica?”
“Of course,” I’d say.
And perhaps that long ago night was when all our questions and answers really started. But sitting at our little table in the Café du Monde, Libby would have waited, reached out and held my hand. She would have encouraged me.
“Tell me again,” she’d say. “I love the way you tell that story.”
The following is a revised, abbreviated version of Martin Lammon’s original farewell essay “A Journal of Contemporary Culture,” published in Arts & Letters #29, the fall 2014 issue.
This year, I’m stepping down as editor of Arts & Letters, handing over the leadership of the journal to my colleague, Laura Newbern (who will be ably aided, of course, by other colleagues). After fifteen years since the journal first appeared, I’d like to offer readers a little history.
Spring 1997, I interviewed for a unique opportunity that I found advertised in Poets & Writers magazine. In my June interview for the Fuller E. Callaway Endowed Flannery O’Connor Chair in Creative Writing, I made three promises: To build an undergraduate minor in Creative Writing, while also offering a “Creative Thesis Option” for the department’s new M.A. in English degree; to establish a Visiting Writers Series featuring distinguished and new writers; and to develop a national literary journal publishing such writers. Otherwise, the job required that I teach and that I would continue to write, publish, and contribute significantly to the contemporary American literary landscape. At the time, Georgia College had just been given a new mission by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents: To serve as the state’s public liberal arts university.
I got the job, and I hope that I’ve lived up to those original promises (and maybe a little more), but that assessment’s best left for others. What I can offer is the story of what happened back then, and since then, and perhaps a glance at what’s to come.
In 1997, thirty-nine years old, I felt as if I’d been thrown into the deep end of the pool. That first year at Georgia College, I knew there was no real budget for what I’d promised. The endowed chair included a $2,500 discretionary budget, but that was all. In addition to teaching classes, writing and publishing, I knew I’d have to become a fund-raiser. Given the generous endowment of the Fuller E. Callway Foundation, which I considered a gift, I determined to implement two principles I’d learned when I was a boy. First, I’d put my money where my mouth was (I pledged $10,000 a year of my salary to kick-start the journal, a pledge that would grow in years to come); and second, I’d tithe, but instead of 10 cents a week in the offering plate, it was $1,000 a month over ten paychecks to a university Foundation account.
In my previous teaching position at Fairmont State in West Virginia, I’d also learned how to apply for state arts funding, and right away, even when all we had was vision and a budget plan, I applied for funding from the Georgia State Arts Council. Over the years, that funding would grow from $1,800 in 1999 to $5,000 a year. I’m sorry to say, but more recently, after the so-called “great recession,” that funding dwindled, and now is gone.
By the time we published the first issue of Arts & Letters (spring 1999, the end of my second year), I’d set aside $20,000 to support the journal, and we’d secured other funding through grants. But most important, we established the annual Arts & Letters prizes competition. A writer’s $15 submission fee was exactly the cost of a two-issue subscription, and all our spring contestants received the fall 1999 and spring 2000 issues, featuring our first $1,000 prize winners in fiction, poetry, and drama. Those spring 1999 revenues were deferred to the next fiscal year, establishing an accrual accounting plan for the journal that would ensure another principle I’d learned when I was a boy: Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched.
If numbers, budgets, and aphorisms seem boring, well, they are. So here’s the flip side of that coin: That first issue of Arts & Letters featured poetry by Michael Waters; fiction by Thomas E. Kennedy; essays by Dinty W. Moore and Ethelbert Miller; an interview with Ernest Gaines; and poetry translations by W.S. Merwin (Dante’s Purgatoria XIX), Carolyn Wright (Taslima Nasrin), Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta (Ghalib), and Virgil Suarez and Delia M. Poety (Juan Carlos Galeano). That first issue (and the first seven issues) also featured a distinguished artist on the cover and in an eight-page glossy insert (Maritza Dávila in issue #1).
To help establish the journal, I recruited an editorial advisory board of writers I trusted and respected, many of whom contributed work to the journal, visited the Georgia College campus, recommended the journal to other writers, served as final judges for the annual prizes competition, and in general, helped us get started. We no longer claim that editorial advisory board, but here I’d like to acknowledge and thank those writers, editors, and artists. I owe personal thanks to Maggie Anderson, Coleman Barks, Doris Betts, Robert Bly, Fred Chappell, Lee Gutkind, Maxine Kumin, Bret Lott, W.S. Merwin, E. Ethelbert Miller, Rudy Pozzatti, Shannon Ravenel, Virgil Suarez, Jack Troy, and later, Gail Galloway Adams and Dinty W. Moore.
But most of all I owe personal thanks to Donald Hall, since 1980 a mentor and friend, who early on recommended poet Laurie Lamon to us, a frequent contributor and Pushcart Prize winner at Arts & Letters. Don’s visit to our campus in 2004 was memorable. Here’s a photo I’ll always cherish.
In those days, my editorial goals included space for the “World Poetry Translation Series,” book-review essays and featured artwork, and the “Mentors Interview Series” (after that first interview with Ernest Gaines, future issues featured Bobbie Ann Mason, Jean Valentine, Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin, Jane Hirshfield, Lee Smith, John Guare, Janisse Ray, David Ignatow, Tina Howe, Bob Hicok, Charles Baxter, and others). Each issue, I wrote an introductory essay, trying to put the work we published into a contemporary context that was relevant to our own community, but also to a national, even global community. However, after the fall 2004 issue (Arts & Letters #12), in which I eulogized a new colleague and her son, who’d died tragically in a car accident, my introductions became less visionary and more perfunctory. After Susan Atefat-Peckham and Cyrus were killed in that accident, it was hard for me, moving forward.
But the journal survived. Those were the years after our MFA program started (2001-2002, and onward). Financially, our resources were redirected to building that program’s foundation. The effects were small at first, but the journal I’d envisioned in 1999, and that had endured for the first dozen issues or so, had to be scaled back. Slowly, the interviews, translations, book review-essays, and artwork features were diminished, or cut.
However (and here’s where that “boring” financial planning paid off), Arts & Letters never scaled back on our commitment to writers, to publishing their outstanding fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and drama, and to paying those writers. We never cut back on honoraria to regular contributors ($50 minimum, usually to poets; otherwise, $10 per published page). And we never cut back on our annual $1,000 prizes in fiction, poetry, or drama; in fact (thanks to a generous gift from Bahram and Fari Atefat), we expanded them to include, in our spring 2008 issue, the first $1,000 Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
In an essay I wrote for Poets & Writers (“One Editor’s Take on Clean Competition,” Sept/Oct 2005, available online at http://www.pw.org), I address two essential principles about literary contests: first, no contest fees should fund the promotion of the competition (the organization should already have a budget in place for such advertising and publicity); and second, contest prizes should be covered by funds not connected to contest submission fees. In the early years, my tithing set aside the funding to cover the $1,000 annual prizes; later, generous gifts large and small from others (but especially from MFA alumnus, Dr. Barry Darugar, and later, the Atefats) have helped to endow our prizes.
For fifteen years, our prizes ($56,000 as of 2014-2015) have been funded by such gifts and endowments. The university generously provides office space and infrastructure for the journal, but so far (with some exceptions), publicity, production, distribution, and contributors’ honoraria are funded primarily by journal revenues, thanks to our save-now-spend-later accounting plan.
I know, that’s not a very sexy vision for a literary journal. But I hope that I’m handing over the journal in good financial shape, and I hope that after 15 years, there’s a strong fiscal and literary foundation upon which others can build.
In 15 years, the writers we’ve featured include Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award winners; new writers (like poet Beth Ann Fennelly in issue #2, and fiction writer Adam McOmber in issue #23), whose first books were yet to be published; and other distinguished writers, such as George Singleton, Brenda Miller, and Gary Fincke (in issue #27, spring 2013). Our most recent issue (spring 2014, issue #28) features Jennifer Bowen Hicks, winner of the Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction for her compelling essay “Candling Delicious.”
Keep an eye on Hicks. I have a hunch she’s our next break-out, kick-starter contributor.
Finally, at the end of the Twentieth Century, when I imagined a journal of national prominence, I was thinking only of a semi-annual, glossy color cover, 8-page color insert, perfect-bound 192-page print journal. Translations would include original poems and facing-page, translated text. In 1997, I’d barely tapped into the new-fangled World Wide Web, and even E-mail was new to me when I moved into my office at Georgia College. By 1999, or maybe it was 2000, I realized we needed to have a website, and my amateur efforts just a decade or so ago were embarrassing. But at least we were plugged in, and ready for what was coming. You can see the impressive changes, and the new vision for Arts & Letters, at our revamped and amped-up web-site.
Whatever new vision for the journal awaits us (and I really don’t know what’s next; I’m excited just like you), I do hope one core value remains. The Fall 2010 issue (#22) was the last to include our subtitle on the cover: Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture. In 1999, when we published our first issue, I wanted to distinguish between popular culture that so dominated our media, and a contemporary culture that thrived not on television or the cinema (and that wasn’t measured by Nielsen ratings) but reached out, in print, and especially in a “living literature” to bring authors we’d published to our campus and community.
I hope that, as the journal moves forward, even if the subtitle has receded into the past, in the future that vision of a contemporary culture will prevail, because I do believe that our neighbors, our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and even (maybe especially) folks sequestered in universities, do actually long for stories, poems, essays, and other contemporary literature that will offer substance, satisfaction, and not just a way to kill time, or deconstruct a text.
I do believe in you, one reader at a time. I’ve met you in classes I’ve taught for 35 years, in workshops, readings, and conferences where half a dozen or 10,000 were gathered. I’ve met you in New Orleans and Chicago, Phoenix and Boston; I’ve met you in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, and Georgia, USA.
None of this matters without you. After all these years, it’s high time I said thank you.
Martin Lammon, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters
This essay is a modified version of Lammon’s editorial introduction to Arts & Letters #9, the spring 2003 issue. The closing references to living in a post-9-11 world, America on the brink of war in Iraq, and other observations seemed (unfortunately) still relevant fourteen years later:
I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”
(Martin Lammon’s note; July 21, 2017.)
When I was in college and graduate school about 25 years ago, writing teachers often looked you in the eye and talked about “finding your voice.” Back then, I spent my twenties trying to cultivate a voice, which I took to mean my style. I searched my poems for recurring words (night, fish, river, corn) and themes (family, farms, death). I tried writing long elegiac poems, then longer surreal poems, as if I were trying to choose between singing bass or baritone. I was acutely conscious of trying not to sound too much like James Wright, an Ohio poet (a tenor?) who so dominated the poetry stage of that time.
Now, I look back on those days and wonder who I was searching for. Over the past dozen years or so, instead of cultivating one voice I’ve tried to allow poems to become whatever they need to be. Some poems want to be longer, more narrative, less attentive to music and linebreak. Others want to be lyrical, their essence found more in the way words sound than in what stories they might tell. But if I’d been paying better attention when I was 25 years old, I might have noticed how James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” (“Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom”) differed significantly from his prose piece “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62”:
Ralph Neal was the scoutmaster. He was still a young man. He liked us.
I have no doubt that he knew perfectly well we were each of us masturbating unhappily in secret caves and shores.
The soul of patience, he waited while we smirked behind each other’s backs, mocking and parodying the Scout Law, trying to imitate the oratorical rotundities of Winston Churchill in a Southern Accent.
“Ay scout is trusswortha, loll, hailful, frenly, curtchuss, kand, abaydent, chairful, thrifta, dapraved, clane, and letcherass.”
Two voices, one man. These works were originally published in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), probably written about 15 years apart. Although a critical reader could find stylistic and thematic links to the same writer, only a dogmatist would insist that both works share one style or “voice”, let alone a style particular to James Wright. Each work is unique, but not because one can find a discrete “voiceprint,” as if identifying a writer’s style were a matter of scientific calibration.
As a writer, as an editor, and as a teacher of writing, I’ve come to realize that searching for one’s “voice” was really a matter of learning the difference between indulging one’s personal taste (however good) vs. cultivating good judgment. There’s a kind of poem (or story, or essay, or play) that I prefer to read, but if the only works I ever read (or wrote) were of one kind, my life would be impoverished and malnourished, as if all I ever ate were ham and cheese sandwiches, smoked almonds, and java chip ice cream. I certainly have a taste for all those foods! But obviously I’ve had to broaden my culinary choices and make judgments based on more than mere taste. I’ve even learned how much I like asparagus, grilled salmon, and yogurt—all those foods I wouldn’t go near when I was a boy.
There are limits to metaphor, of course, but one more will help illustrate what I mean. Perhaps the most clichéd description of the relationship between authors and their works (and this description applies to editors and their journals, too) is the comparison to a parent and child. This comparison also has everything to do with taste and little to do with good judgment. Parents will love their children to a fault, a point often overlooked in this common familial analogy yet observed all the time in younger writers who love their poems and stories too much. How often do teachers witness this phenomenon among their students, who, despite insightful suggestions for revision, cannot bear to change one line of their beautifully crafted and well-intentioned poetry. They have a rationale or an affection for every word, every line, every trope. (Older writers—and some are friends of mine—are just as prone to indulge their personal tastes.) Such poets are like mothers who have learned the very smell, taste, and texture of their adorable baby sons, who will love them even if they grow up to become serial killers. Such authors are like fathers who believe their sweet daughters are brilliant no matter how dull they might be. Such progenitors have imprinted themselves on their infant poems and stories and will never willingly relinquish them.
Enough of metaphor and analogy, which will take us only so far, because those doomed sons do deserve to be loved and those good daughters are brilliant. But poems and stories require a more disinterested judgment, and if writers and editors make choices based only on their good taste alone, then their work will surely suffer aesthetic consequences.
No matter how disinterested an individual may be, no writer or editor can make consistent good judgments alone. Personal taste will always insinuate itself. Editors I know tell me they read everything, judge everything, and select everything for the journals they edit, and I wonder if they truly can temper their judgment with humility. Writers and editors must be arbiters of writing, but such arbitrations can (and I think should) depend on a process by which the individual listens to the intelligent voices of others. That process holds true at both the writing workshop and the editorial table. Over the years, I depended on assistant and associate editors to read and advocate for works submitted. I have often deferred to the judgments of my colleagues who served as poetry, fiction, and drama editors. Although I may sometimes have disagreed with their choices, I abided by them.
I do not think that I eschew responsibility, to borrow language from the wonderful poem “Ethics” by Linda Pastan. In the poem, an ethics teacher asks the students a philosophical question: If a museum were on fire, which would you save, a “Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?” Pastan replies, “why not let the woman decide herself?” and is chastised for “eschew[ing] the burdens of responsibility.” The poem ends:
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
Passing judgment is about deciding whether something will happen or won’t happen, and ultimately, whether something lives or dies, another reason why the analogy to the parental relationship becomes horrible when applied to authors and their works, as if they faced a kind of “Sophie’s Choice.” If I write a poem that fails, then I should let the poem lapse into obscurity, or if personal taste overwhelms my better judgment, then other readers—editors or publishers or good friends—will surely help the poem find its inexorable dead end.
When we are children, we are intellectually isolated, egocentric. We pout when we don’t get our way. We believe that the group laughing in the corner is laughing at us. We have no idea what death is. Only a thoughtful, informed community of readers and writers (a community defined more by experience and maturity than one’s age) can ensure that mature, disinterested aesthetic judgments are possible. Individual writers and editors will ultimately make their own decisions, but no one should have to make such decisions alone.
I write about making poems, stories, plays, and essays, about editing a journal. Yet as I write, it is the first day of a new year, and as a country we stand at the brink of war. Since 9-11, our personal freedoms are more and more threatened by a “War on Terrorism” that reminds me of the “Cold War” at its worst, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
It is the year 2003. When I was a boy, I imagined I’d be visiting cities on the moon, that we’d have landed on Mars, and that, just maybe, we’d have discovered there was life beyond our world. Older now, I’d be content to imagine a society where we valued teachers more than athletes, movie stars, and pop singers. I’d be content to imagine a country where people in airports were not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”
I imagine that James Wright’s piece about Ralph Neal and his boy scouts is one that the poet must have agonized over, a work of lyrical prose that balanced precariously between indulging his personal tastes and exercising his better judgment. Which is to say, it is like all essential writing that perseveres before, like everything, it ultimately perishes. Perhaps what I like best about “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62” is how Wright imagines that their leader, Neal, loves them not because they were handsome and talented—they were “dreadful and utterly vulnerable little bastards,” like the one who grew up “doing life at the State Pen in Columbus,” or the man who drove “one of those milk trucks where the driver has to stand up all day and rattle his spine,” or Hub Snodgrass who spends “a good hour…trying to scrape the Laughlin steel dust out of his pale skin”—but instead loves them because…
he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy.
Finally, what I learn from reading Wright is how a deeper imagination transcends rhetoric, how good judgment supercedes mere good taste. I also learn that I cannot do this alone. I try to imagine all the Ralph Neals in my life, all the Hub Snodgrasses, and how what I do next depends on all of them.
Since 1980, I’ve devoted much of my life to teaching at colleges and universities in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Georgia. Lately, I mostly teach poetry workshops and seminars to juniors, seniors, and graduate students. But one of the greatest lessons I learned about teaching happened long ago in a seventh grade classroom.
It was 1989. I was working at a small college in Central Pennsylvania, driving thirty-five miles each day from my house in Altoona. I often veered away from the main route, instead following a country road that meandered along a river then rose up and crossed an Allegheny Mountain range. I’d have to gear down, slowed by switchbacks that looped around the mountainside. Few people lived up here. The woods were full of deer and wild turkey. Once, I saw a bear.
I’d recently met a woman who taught at a nearby Junior High School. The little town lay in the flat valley near the river road I followed on my morning drive. She confided to me that she dreaded teaching her poetry unit and asked me for help. “Sure,” I said, “I’d love to.” I didn’t tell her that I’d never tried teaching poetry to such young students. But I was up to the challenge. Besides, I wanted to impress this teacher and, perhaps, ease her anxiety about teaching poetry.
“Boys and girls,” the teacher announced, “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Lammon. He’s a poet. He’s here to teach you poetry.” Twenty-two children fidgeted in their standard issue wooden desks, the kind where the right armrest wraps around a student’s torso and makes a small, flat writing table. Left-handed, I hated those desks when I was a student, my elbow dangling in mid-air while I wrote.
It was 2:00. I had about one hour to teach the class about poetry. Some students whispered, others shuffled their feet, but mostly they were quiet. My first task, I figured, was to wake them up.
“What do you think of when you hear the word poetry,” I asked.
“Boring,” one boy said.
“Love,” said a girl in the front row.
A cluster of boys let loose a collective expression of distaste, as if the word yuck filled up at least half a dictionary’s page of derogatory explanations and synonyms.
“She’s right,” I said, reaching for the girl who said “love,” as if she were my lifeline that afternoon. “Lots of poems are about love, but you’d be surprised what else poets write about. Some poems are even about sports.” I had the boys’ attention then, so I pressed my luck. “Today, I’m going to teach you about poetry,” I said. I paused, then finished. “Later, you’re all going to write a poem.”
“No way.” A boy in the front row, sitting aslant in his desk chair, gave me a long look. I’m not kidding, the look meant. But I wasn’t kidding either.
I spent the next 40 minutes reading poems, talking about rhyme and meter, and explaining how poems didn’t always have to rhyme. We played some word games, conjuring up verbs that could mean “to walk,” such as stroll, hike, and stumble. We searched for rhyming words, and I explained what “near-rhyme” was, how moon and bone might make a more interesting combination of sounds than “love” and “dove.” The students played along, but I knew that I was talking more than I should.
“All right,” I said, “it’s time to write your own poems.”
The boys groaned. But at least a couple of the girls seemed eager.
I’d invented a poetry writing exercise to help the students get started. On the blackboard, I wrote: “Like a ___________ my heart beats fast when I…” Then I explained what I wanted them to do.
“In the blank, I want you to write down an animal. Any animal you want. A hawk, a lion, a zebra, even a mouse.” I scanned the room. Even the boys seemed a little more intrigued. “But you need to become the animal you choose. You need to imagine what would make your heart beat fast. Are you afraid? Excited? Where are you? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? Who—or what—is with you?”
I told them all to start writing. We had about 15 minutes left in the class, and I figured my work was done. The students could get started on their poems, mull them over, take them home and work on revisions. I thought I might be able to return later to see what my young poetry students had wrought.
Less than five minutes later, the boy who insisted he wouldn’t stoop so low as to write a poem raised his hand.”
“Can I read mine?” he asked.
He was polite, perhaps too polite. This cool boy surprised me—mostly, because he’d finished his poem so quickly, not so much because he’d actually written one.
“Sure, go ahead.” To my surprise, the boy actually stood up and faced the class. Then he began to read, a little too fast, but clear enough for everyone to hear.
“Like,” he read out loud, “a maggot, my heart beats fast when I eat out the eyeball of a dead deer. How sweet and soft the eyeball is, how I love to suck out the juice…”
And on he read. A few boys giggled. One girl squealed. In just 20 seconds, he finished and sat down. Grinning, he was obviously proud of grossing out his classmates. But the other boys and girls, not to mention the teacher, were motionless, no doubt waiting for me to scold this impudent kid who had no respect for poetry.
“Wow,” I said, and everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say. “Your poem is excellent. Full of vivid details and images. Good job!” The boy’s grin turned lopsided, as if he were still proud of himself, but for the wrong reason now. I’d praised him for actually writing a poem.
Another boy raised his hand.
“Can I read mine?” he asked. A little girl raised her hand, then another. In all, nine students stood up and formed a line, all of them waiting to read their poems out loud. The last boy in line, shorter than the others, was round-faced and plump in the waist. He wore thick-lensed glasses. He was the little boy in Lord of the Flies that the bigger, mean boys teased and called “Piggy.” But when his turn came, he read to the class, and as they had done after each classmate finished, all the students clapped their hands together, applauding this little boy’s poem.
The school bell rang, and the children began collecting their books and papers, preparing for the bus ride home. The teacher reminded them about their homework for tomorrow. Then, in less than a minute, the room was empty. Now that her students were gone, the teacher talked to me about the little boy who was last in line.
“Marty, that boy never volunteers for anything,” she said, “let alone stand up in front of everyone. How did you do that?”
She was asking for answers I didn’t really have. I was almost as surprised as she was, never expecting the students to finish so fast, then see so many of them want to read their poems out loud—to their classmates’ applause, no less. What these children had written was, of course, a little ragged and raw, but their sense of detail was more remarkable than I would have expected. Somehow, asked to write poems, the students had truly become the animals they claimed to be and discovered a language for what made that animal’s heart beat fast. Even a maggot’s heart.
Two years later, Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter?” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. His essay was savvy and insightful, full of dire observations about how poetry didn’t matter to important people such as doctors, lawyers, and presidents. “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” the essay begins. “No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.”
For Gioia, if books of poetry weren’t selling millions of copies, or if poets did not influence public life and opinion the way business and political leaders did, then poetry did not matter.
But I’d learned a different lesson, a lesson I’ve continued to learn not only teaching in colleges but also working with both children and adults in various kinds of workshops. In 2006, I joined other colleagues and students at Georgia College to establish a Creative Writing program for 7th Grade Students enrolled in the GC/Early College Junior/Senior High School. This blog post features a recent image of Early College students reading from their work, and their university student writer mentors.
I can’t remember how often I’ve asked students young and old to write the poem that begins, “Like an (animal) my heart beats fast when I….” But every time, I’ve learned how much poetry could matter, the way it mattered in 1989 to a shy boy who faced a class full of children who might laugh at him. Yet he did read that poem he’d made with his own hand, his own heart.
This is how poetry matters. Not because it changes the world, but because it changes one person at a time—both the solitary writer and the solitary reader—one poem at a time. Sometimes that solitary person is a 7th grade student and the student’s family; sometimes it’s a nationally prominent poet such as Miller Williams, asked to write an Inaugural poem by the President of the United States.
It’s a lesson I hope I never forget.
Libby wore her old green raincoat, the one that draped over her thighs, the hood pulled over her forehead. She held an umbrella above her backpack. I wore my fire engine red windbreaker and broad-brimmed grey hat. We must have looked like two pilgrim clowns.
It was the last Saturday morning in October, and the past week, every morning seemed to start with rain. We were walking in a thunderstorm through the muddy forest to Soda Pininini, where Lloyd Wright Daley had told us we could catch the bus for San José. “Be here ’round nine-thirty,” he’d said. “The bus stops ’bout then.” We sat at one of Lloyd’s tables, drinking café negro, trying to dry off before the bus appeared. We were headed to the city to watch game six of the World Series between Cleveland and Atlanta, our hometown baseball teams, a game I’d dreamed about all my life.
After living in Costa Rica for nearly two months, I hardly thought about life back home. Libby had recently phoned her mother, who talked about Hurricane Opal, the storm that devastated Florida and even knocked down trees and power lines in Atlanta. We found out that a jury had acquitted O. J. Simpson of murder charges. To me, the news seemed like legends. Living without a telephone, radio, television, or even a newspaper, without a car, without mail delivery, without any of the technology or services that organized and informed our lives in the United States, I’d lost track of the modern grid. Had I ever really sat mesmerized in front of a television, watching a Ford Bronco crawl along L.A. freeways followed by a dozen police cars?
And yet I wanted any scraps of news about my beloved baseball.
In October, baseball’s playoff season, I relied on Lloyd for the scores. He subscribed to La Nación, knew that I was rooting for Cleveland, and before I could ask, he’d give me “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” After my team had clinched the American League pennant, beating Seattle’s star fireball pitcher, at first Lloyd shook his head, turned his thumb down, but then he laughed and said he was teasing.
He couldn’t have known the heart he was toying with.
My team had never made the playoffs, not in my lifetime. But for the first time since 1954, as if the baseball gods had conspired against me, Cleveland reached the World Series. In Costa Rica, I’d followed my heart, taken the big chance with the woman I loved, yet I’d exiled myself just when my boys of summer had finally reached baseball’s Promised Land. I felt like Moses, looking down from the mountaintop at the faraway homeland he’d never set foot upon. I know that sounds silly, but if you’re a baseball fan, you’ll understand. Lucky for me, Libby could cheer for her own hometown, Atlanta.
Why in the world, you’re probably thinking, does this man’s love affair with baseball show up in the middle of his Costa Rican romance? Good question. I could tell you how the long season, featuring almost daily games from early April to late September, requires a serious commitment from players and fans alike, and how emotions range from anguish to joy.
I could delve into baseball’s mysterious design. The distance between each base on a four-cornered “diamond” is ninety feet (why not an even hundred?) yet even stranger, the distance between pitcher and batter (what divine insight or accident could have produced this number?) is exactly sixty-feet six-inches. The game is based on the magical numbers three (think of the Christian Holy Trinity) and four (the ancient base elements of earth, wind, fire, and water). Three “strikes” is an out; there are three outs per inning. Four “balls” is a walk, and the batter is awarded a “free pass” to first base. There are four bases, and the game’s journey starts and ends at “home plate.” Players hit the ball and run around the bases, always circling back home again. As generations of players have improved athletically—growing stronger, faster—their physical evolution has never required an adjustment to the game’s numerical design.
Yet baseball is also a game of infinite dimensions. There is no time clock, and there is no limit to how far the field’s right and left borders extend into the horizon. Others have memorably described baseball’s romantic infinities. In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, novelist W.P. Kinsella tells the story of two teams that magically continue to tie the score, extending a normal nine-inning game for weeks and months (tie games are merely “suspended” until later; there is no “sudden death” in baseball), as if one game could embody an entire summer’s season. And theoretically, a game of baseball could last forever, since no buzzer or horn ever announces that time has run out.
Or you might know another Kinsella story, made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams (and based on his novel Shoeless Joe), where a grown man, “Ray” Kinsella, throws away all common sense, listens to voices in his head, and plows under several acres of perfectly good Iowa farmland to build a baseball field. But he builds no “homerun fence.” Instead, the outfield grass ends at what seem to be infinite rows of corn, where famous (and dead) players from the past emerge to play the game they loved, and then, after each game, disappear again back into the corn.
In the movie, after one game, before he disappears between the tall stalks, baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson turns and asks Ray, “Is this heaven?”
Near the end of the story, Ray plays catch with his long-dead father, one of the lesser players resurrected from the cornfield. In college, the son resented his old man, wouldn’t even have a game of catch with him. Suddenly, Ray recognizes his father and realizes that he was the one those voices in his head had said would appear when they promised: If you build it, he will come.
I could tell you that, whenever I watch this movie, it makes me cry. I think about my own father, a high school and college all-star who for years was my baseball coach, a man I thought I’d outgrown when I was in college. Only in my thirties—a few years before I left for Costa Rica—had I begun to reconnect with my dad.
In Costa Rica, I told Libby all about my love of baseball. I can’t remember what she might have said, but what I remember for certain, even so many years later, is what she didn’t say. Never once did Libby ridicule me for wasting my time, or demand that I grow up, put away my childish distractions, stop dreaming, and live in the real world.
That was over 20 years ago. Cleveland lost to Atlanta in game six. I waited two more decades for Cleveland to climb back into the World Series (only to lose to the Chicago Cubs, who hadn’t won the series since 1908, so I guess if I’m a true blue baseball fan, I can’t be angry at lovable Cubs fans). But it’s July 12, 2017, Cleveland’s in first place, and I’m giving up my old baseball fan’s lament wait until next year. See you in October!