Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015, was a big day for me as my third book of poetry with Carnegie Mellon University Press, Domestic Garden, was officially released. All books are a big deal in the life of a writer, but I think third books are of particular relevance. That is, these books seem to pose particular questions. What can now be said, for example, of this poet’s place in the constellation of other poets of her generation? Does the poet exhibit growth? As the poet teeters on the edge of what might be considered a substantial career as a writer, where will he go from here? In the modest way that this is possible in the world of poetry, will this book be a success? Will this poet’s press continue to support her? Will the poet’s health and circumstances allow him to continue to write and grow? So many questions.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve had the same press for all three books of my poetry, and it happens to be one of the most notable presses for poetry in the U.S. By no means would anyone ever mistake me for a poetry star—you know the poets I mean—but I have been persistent and relentless in a way that goes back to my working class upbringing, maybe. I work very hard for my books. When I was an MFA student at VCU, way back in the mid to late eighties, no one there would have pegged me for one of the fortunate ones who would go on to publish books. I certainly couldn’t have blamed them. In fact, it took nearly 15 years more before I was able to produce a publishable volume. Lives Of Water appeared in 2003, several years after I had turned forty. Good fortune had a lot to do with it, as I had managed to land a job as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant, a gig that allowed me plenty of time to write, and plenty of inspiration, too!
I have also benefitted from great mentors every step of the way: Dan Masterson, John “Jack” Allman, Bill Heyen, Tony Piccione, Dave Smith, Greg Donovan, Michael Waters, Carol Frost, and Jim Harms in particular. I couldn’t have done it alone.
By the time you read this, I’ll have just returned from a string of readings up north that will take me to big towns like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, as well as small towns like California, PA, Indiana, PA, and Altoona, PA. In a few days I’ll fly to New Orleans to read there, then I’m off to Minnesota, and I’ll also do a handful of local readings throughout North Carolina in the weeks to come. This is probably my favorite part of the writer’s life: getting out on the road, giving readings, talking with students, teachers, and other community members, promoting poetry because I truly believe it is important and matters.
So, why am I telling you all of this? Like most writers. I have a big ego, but that’s only part of it. What I mean to let you all in on is the fact that no one gets what they want in writing without a great deal of luck and determination, without a fair bit of embarrassment and a few faux pas, without a lot of help, inspiration, and support from those who have come before. And one does not continue on in the life without creating a network of peers who also act as teachers, supporters, and models. I make it my business to do a lot of service by visiting schools, giving readings at community colleges and poorly financed colleges and universities at less than my asking fee, judging school and community poetry contests, and more. If you are one of the lucky ones and are not doing these things, you are a fraud.
A younger poet friend of mine was recently chastised by a fellow younger poet, one with just one book, for having asked if this poet would visit her class via Skype for free. Really? Really. This young assistant professor taught this poet’s book as a class text; in other words, she sold a good handful books for this poet, and books of poetry are hard to sell. Not only that, but this rather ungrateful poet had been given the great privilege of even having a first book of poetry to sell. Instead of taking a few unpaid minute to give a little back, this person chose to chastise my friend, a fine young poet with two well-received collections out there. It doesn’t cost much to be a good citizen in the poetry world, and it means so much to those who follow. Please be one and help others find the way.
One such great poetry citizen was the late, great Philip Levine. I remember being at a Levine reading in 1996 in Ohio. Phil had just learned that his former student and beloved friend, Larry Levis, had just died. But Phil took the stage. The reading went on. It went on because Phil knew that the folks in the audience needed what poetry could bring them, because poetry matters. It was a wonderful reading, the emotion adding another layer to the poems, the voice, the moment we all shared. As Phil said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press in 2011, “You do the work, and you don't whine. You do it for the sake of the work. . . . at a very early age I realized that poetry was what I was supposed to do."
Phil died a few days ago, on Valentine’s Day, 2015, of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. He was a gift to us all. This installment of A Poetry Congeries is dedicated to his memory.