At the close of AWP a few years ago, I took a bus ride to the airport with several writers and had the luck of sitting beside a poet I admire and with whom, over the years, I had formed some acquaintance. By that I mean, when we see each other, there’s an acknowledgement of sorts. And, for me, it’s a thing of detail that he can never remember or even pronounce my name.
On the bus ride, we engaged in the kind of trivial banter people have in elevators with one- or two-word answers. “How are you?” “Fine.” “Fine weather we’re having.” “Great weather.”
But somehow in that twenty-minute bus ride, we pushed past niceties. And, for a minute or so, talked honestly about work. He made the transition by asking about my studies.
“Where are you now?”
At the time, I was trying to take my PhD at the University of Kansas. So I said, “Kansas.”
“And, what are you working on now?”
“Oh, I don’t know! I have a manuscript that feels ready. But, I don’t know. When it comes to these things, I’m never sure. I felt good about it a year or so ago. And here I am still…”
“This is your second collection, right?”
“What’s it called again?”
“I’m not sure, I’m torn between Sailing for Ithaca and Leaving…”
He didn’t even let me finish. He burst into a long laugh. Teared. Wiped his face. Begged apologies. Tried containing himself. Swelled. And broke open laughing again.
Looking around the bus, I could see a young woman in glasses looking out the window and wearing headphones. Of the other two people from the conference in the bus, one—an older man—kept his gaze straight, but looked tired. Only the last person looked on in interest at the drama of the unfolding conversation.
By this time, my poet friend had contained himself, but was still smiling a knowing smile. The kind that says, been there done that. Or, if only you’d listen to me.
I tried guessing at what was so funny, and before I could ask, he said through more measured laughs, “Okay Odysseus. Okay Odysseus.”
Then, it occurred to me that he felt my reference to Ithaca was my attempt, as a young poet, to puff up my work and make myself sound important.
“I understand that the use of classical references, especially in a young writer’s work, is at best dangerous,” I said. “He risks being sophomoric by making noise…”
“Yes, you can’t do that, Odysseus.”
At this point, the bus pulled into his terminal, and he got down.
I thanked him for his suggestions, and I said I hoped he had a fine time at AWP. As the bus moved slowly from the curb, he yelled loud enough for me to hear, “Bye Odysseus! Bye Odysseus!”
By the time I got to my terminal and boarded my plane, I was deflated. And I couldn’t stop thinking that I should have kept my big mouth shut.
I nursed my wound for days. I watched bad television. And drank cheap wine.
My wife, used to my mood swings over poetry, let it play out.
In “Uncertain in the Wild Frontier,” I talked about my approach to poetry during my MFA years and the long road it took for me to arrive at unknowing as a chief mechanism of my imagination.
I look back on those years now and realize that one of the ways I displayed certainty was in classrooms, during workshops, where I would try my darndest not to laugh at poems that were abstract, inaccessible, or non-representational.
At the time, I felt those poems were the height of pretentiousness.
And, during classes or at the bar with friends, I wasn’t shy about making clear that the sooner the poets in question got their heads out of their high-falutin’ asses the sooner they could begin the true work of poetry.
I expressed this sentiment openly and often without regard for how the poets in question might feel, without asking what they were trying to do, who their influences were, with whom they were trying to have conversations, and how they were trying to have those conversations.
That was years ago!
I have since completed MFA and PhD programs. And, I am a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, where I teach both graduate students and undergrads.
And, as a teacher, I have come to realize that it is not my place to trample upon anyone’s poems, attempts at poetry, or choice of movement within it.
Moreover, it is my job to show students, who are impatient and overly sure of themselves, the necessary compassion I was shown, when I was a student and held strong beliefs on subjects of which I knew little, often confusing passion with knowledge on the issues.
Which brings me back to my second collection.
I knew after I had compiled Sailing for Ithaca that I would get it in some quarters. I knew some would grumble or dismiss the book—”Oh big shot he thinks he is, he is drawing from Homer!”
In the end, I had to decide if I was writing to please or writing to partake of a conversation larger than myself, in order to better understand myself. The decision was easy.
If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.