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.”
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.