I’ve been listening to Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast for about two and a half years now. If you don’t know it, it’s definitely worth checking out. The episodes are not just interesting. They are, at least for me, useful in a very practical way. For at least a few days after I listen to each episode, I find myself asking how I would answer Rachel’s questions. Since so many of those questions go right to the heart of what it means to be a poet, and since I don’t think anyone else is ever going to ask me those questions in a forum like Commonplace, I’ve decided to take one question from each episode, starting with Episode 1, Rachel’s interview with David Trinidad, and turn my answers into a series of blog posts. Question 1 is the first question Rachel asked Trinidad: How did you become a poet?
I think of the answer to this question in three parts: how I found my way into poetry, the moment—because it was a defining moment in my life—when I committed myself to being a poet, and the moment when I finally, fully, felt like I was a poet.
My first memory of falling in love with the music of words is listening to Burl Ives, whose records my mother would play on what I think we still called when I was that young a Victrola. I especially loved “I Know An Old Lady.”
The repetition, the rhyme, the way my mother would recite the poem without music and it still made me giggle with pleasure; and then, when I learned the words for myself, the way they felt in my mouth, the rhymes clicking into place in my boy’s body, how right that felt, and then the unexpected turn at the end to a completely different, harsher sound: “who swallowed a horse; she died of course.” I didn’t think of it this way at the time, obviously, but the fact that you could do such things with language, that you could make language do such things, was a source of endless fascination and real joy to me.
Another early memory I connect to my becoming a poet was how much I adored the book Harold and The Purple Crayon.
Harold didn’t just draw what he imagined. He used his purple crayon to create a world he wanted to enter. More to the point, he entered it, experienced it, understood that he was changed by that experience, and he brought that change home with him when his adventures were done. I remember lying in bed at night and imagining that I had my own purple crayon, though I don’t remember a single thing I drew with it.
I imagine I am not the only poet in whose personal story Dr. Suess looms large. I rediscovered my love for his books when my son was little and I had the chance to read them aloud for the first time in at least twenty-five years. My son’s favorites were Horton Hatches The Egg and Horton Hears A Who, which I read to him so many times that, for a while, I could recite entire pages by heart.
The Dr. Seuss book that I remember asking my mother to read to me over and over again was Yertle The Turtle. It’s tempting to connect some of the politics and values I have now to the morals of the tales Seuss told in that book—which are about greed (Yertle and his desire to rule all turtles), vanity (Gertrude McFuzz and her quest for the most beautiful feathers), and pride (two characters, a rabbit and a hear, have a ridiculous competition over who has the strongest sense of smell and hearing)—but I don’t remember caring much about the content of the stories at all. I just remember liking the way they sounded when my mother read them.
That, no doubt, why I loved Fox in Socks so much. The tongue twisters in that book made me laugh and laugh when I tried to say them, especially the nearly impossible ones at the end of the book about the Tweetle Beetles. That early pleasure, I believe, has everything to do with why I so enjoy writing rhyming poems today.
Next is a story I have from my father’s father. I don’t remember any of it, but when he told it to me, it resonated as part of the history of the development of my writer-self, which is why I’m including it here.
When I was little, I called him Grandpa Sam, but when I went to see him with my father at some point in the late 1990s, after having not seen him for almost twenty years, I was surprised to realize that I had only the most fragmented memories of him. I remembered seeing him as a teenager in the Manhattan apartment where my father and his third wife lived for almost thirty years and him asking me, when I told him I had a job as a waiter, whether I was good enough at French service to pick up a single pea with my spoons. I remembered going bowling with him and my father and watching professional bowling on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when my father took me and my brother to visit his parents in their apartment on the edge of Boro Park; I remembered how he and my father used to talk about the bets they would place on the horses; and I remembered one of those conversations in particular, when I was sitting on my father’s lap in his parents’ kitchen and one of them, I don’t remember which, either my father or my grandfather gave me a sip of his beer, which I think I spit out disgust.
Even now, that’s pretty much all I remember about Sam Newman, but when my father took me to see him in the nursing home where he lived—by this time I thought of him, simply, as Sam—I felt myself filling up with anger and resentment and fear, emotional memories I’d been carrying for a very long time, but the actual source of which I did not know.
When we arrived at the nursing home, the first thing Sam did when he saw me was hold his arms out wide, inviting me in for a hug. I did not move. “Okay,” he said, “then maybe you want to show me a magic trick?” He was referring to the fact that I had been as serious a student of sleight of hand as was possible for me when I was around 13 or so.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t done magic in years.”
We stood there awkwardly for a few minutes and then my father suggested we move downstairs to the lounge. Once we were seated, I asked Sam why, when I thought of him, the only emotions I felt were negative. I don’t know what kind of answer I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect the answer he gave me.
“When you were five,” he said, staring straight at me, “you asked me to get you a typewriter. Even then, at such a young age,” he went on, “you were a supercilious child,” that was the word he used, “and your mother—who had to be the one who told you to ask me in the first place—had already taught you how to make feel like I was nothing. You cried and cried when I said no.”
Sam looked out the lounge’s window onto the garden that was just outside. Then, looking up into the air over his head, he said, “Or maybe it was that other thing.” Then he turned to me. “I’ve been waiting a long time to say this,” he said. “Your mother was a whore.”
As you might imagine, I have a lot to say about what “that other thing” might have been, about why Sam called my mother a whore, and about what it meant that my five-year-old “superciliousness” could make Sam feel like he was nothing. What I’m focused on here, though—and it’s a shame that it will always be wrapped up in my mind with everything else Sam said that day—is that, at five years old, I wanted a typewriter, because I can only imagine that I wanted it to experiment with whatever I thought back then that a writer was.
I don’t think I was older than fifteen when I took Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems off the shelf in the public library across the street from where I lived. I took that book down, along with another book of poems the title and author of which I don’t recall. I opened the other book first, to somewhere in the middle, and what I saw absolutely captivated me. At the top of the page was a number; beneath the number were a few lines of text. I have no memory of what those lines said, but the layout alone commanded my attention in a visceral way that I still sometimes feel when I see a poem in numbered sections. I think it has something to do with the assertion of authority that is implicit in announcing to your reader, before they’ve even begun to read, that your subject is complex, and that you know it well enough to have done the work of breaking it down into its component sections. Not all sectioned poems live up to the promise implicit in that assertion, of course, but the intent that the form announces captivated me back then, and I continue to respect it nonetheless.
Then I opened Aiken’s book and, on the first page, read these lines:
Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,—
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
And there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted,
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful incantation … Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,—
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.
I don’t know how else to say this. The music in those lines swept me away. Then I read further:
We hear a sudden music, see a playing
Of ordered thoughts—and all again is silence.
The music, we suppose, (as in ourselves)
Goes on forever there, behind shut doors,—
As it continues after our departure,
So, we divine, it played before we came.
What do you know of me, or I of you?
Little enough … We set these doors ajar
Only for chosen moments of the music:
I don’t remember how I understood these lines at the time. I think it had something do with how thoroughly I saw myself in the notion that we don’t really know each other, and that we have to choose carefully how much of ourselves we let other people see. I had many, many secrets to keep back then. What I do remember is wanting, feeling like I needed, to learn how to make language sing the way Aiken did.
My first published poem appeared in 1977, in my ninth grade yearbook. (The Hebrew word on the cover is pronounced shalhevet—with an a like in father—and it means, as you might imagine, flame.) My friend Adrienne—whom I thought of back then as my best friend, but who is, sadly, my friend no longer—was one of the yearbook committee’s literary editors. I don’t remember how long I’d been writing poems, but I do remember that I shared them with her on a regular basis and that her responses were encouraging. I don’t remember how many poems I gave her when she asked me to submit some for the yearbook, but the one she and the other literary editor chose to include—while it may have been an accurate reflection of how I felt most of the time back then, despite the smiling face I tended to show the world—was, in hindsight, absolutely not a yearbook poem. Indeed, I remember quite clearly wondering why Adrienne chose to publish it. It’s the one at the bottom of the page, and it provides a stark contrast to the far more yearbook-appropriate poem submitted by my classmate Miriam:
The first poem I actually remember writing was a very long, self-indulgent diatribe addressed, when I was 17, to the girl whom I’d thought of as the only woman I would ever love. (I was, if nothing else, and as so many teenagers are of course, a truly sentimental romantic.) She’d broken up with me for reasons that, if I gave them now, without context, would seem petty and shallow. The whole story, though, is too long to write out here, so I will tell you simply that she broke my heart the way only a teenager’s heart can be broken, into pieces I was sure could never be made whole again. Writing a poem about it was the next natural step.
I remember sitting at my grandfather’s desk one Sunday when we were visiting—this would be my mother’s parents—and copying the poem neatly onto the pages of white loose leaf paper I put in the mail the next day. I don’t remember who called whom after she read the poem, but when she told me how much it hurt her, she also told me some deeper, very painful truths about herself that had to do with why she’d broken up with me. This was my first lesson in the ways that poetry can make a difference in how people relate to each other. I was no less heartbroken that she did not want to be my girlfriend anymore, but it was a much less self-indulgent heartbreak, if that makes sense.
After we talked, I realized not only that I had not kept a copy of the poem for myself, but that there were sections of it I wanted to have, parts that I thought “worked” really well—a thought that only occurred to me, of course, because I had begun to think of myself as a writer; and, with what I have long since come to think of as a writer’s (partly necessary) self-centered chutzpah, I called my ex-girlfriend a couple of days later and asked if she could send the poem back to me so I could copy out those sections of the poem. I promised I would send it back to her afterwards. Not surprisingly, and with the appropriate level of indignation, she refused. ÷÷÷÷
We graduated from the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, Adrienne and I, along with the rest of our class, in the 11th grade. Unlike many of my male classmates, however, I did not choose to go to Israel to spend my senior year learning Torah in a yeshiva there, nor did I enter what was called the HANC-Hofstra program, a course of study that would have had me learning Torah in the morning and attending college courses at Hofstra University in the afternoon. My family, my teachers, my friends were all very confused by this choice, though for different reasons. Family and friends could not imagine why I didn’t want to get a year’s head start on college, while my rebbes, who’d seen in me the possibility of a true baal t’shuvah—someone who would move from the life of a non-observant Jew into a life of committed orthodox observance—were deeply disappointed. They felt, and they turned out to be right, that they had lost me. Indeed, when they found out I would be attending Floral Park Memorial High School for 12th grade, you might have thought from their reaction that someone would be waiting at the school’s entrance to hand me back my foreskin.
My 12th grade English teacher was named Mr. Giglio, a devoutly Catholic man of whom I have three enduring memories. First, that the way he read Madame Bovary aloud to us was so boring that I would put my head down on my desk even though I was sitting right in front of him and that he never called me out for it. Second, that he embarrassed me in front of the entire class when we were studying Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” He asked the class if anyone knew what the last two lines of the poem referred to:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
I was the only student who raised his hand, and, in my memory anyway, Mr.Giglio was actually reluctant to call on me. When it was clear that no one else was going to offer an answer, he said, “Richard, what do you think?” The lines sounded, I told him, like a reference to the Israelites’ battle against the Amorites, when Joshua guaranteed his victory by telling the sun to stand still so that it would not get dark before the battle was over (Joshua 10:12-14). “Correct,” Mr. Giglio said. Then he addressed himself to the rest of the class. “We read that passage in church this past Sunday. How is it that this boy who does not go to church knew the answer and none of you did?”
My third memory of Mr. Giglio is when I asked if I could show him some of the poems I’d been writing. He said yes, of course and I gave him the notebook in which I’d been writing them. I can still see its cover, brown with a golden border, starting to fray at the corners. I only remember one of the poems, though, and I think it may have been the first one in the book. In rhymed couplets, of which I was quite proud, it imagined a dystopian, post-nuclear-holocaust future and ended by passing judgment on God—I was still a believer back then—for having let such a thing happen.
When Mr. Giglio handed the book back to me, he said, “I think you should stop writing poems and focus on writing critical essays. That’s what you’re good at.” When I asked him to explain what he didn’t like about my poems, he wouldn’t tell me—“I’ve said what I have to say” was as much as I got out of him—and that’s when I realized two things. First, his response had nothing to do with the quality of my writing; what I had written about offended his religious sensibilities. Second, for just that reason, I didn’t need to take his opinion seriously. I figured if my poems disturbed him deeply enough that he felt it necessary talk me out of writing them, then I must be doing something right.
Vindication arrived later that year in the form of Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer, a poetry anthology edited by Sal St. John Buttaci and Susan Linda Gerstle and published by New Worlds Unlimited. The anthology included two of my poems, one that was a wise-ass variation on the poem that Mr.Giglio hadn’t liked and one that was clearly me saying (if a little self-importantly) that I wanted to be a poet:
If I send you a poem
on butterfly wings,
ensnare it not
in your net of reason,
let it enter the flower of your soul
that you might live,
not merely survive.
If I send you a poem
on wings of song,
please, let it sing.
I was very proud of that publication, but I never felt the desire to tell Mr. Giglio. In fact, it actually made me happier not to tell him.
The first poetry workshop I ever took was with June Jordan at Stony Brook University, in my sophomore or junior year of college, I don’t remember which. I didn’t know who she was when I signed up for the class, though I began to have an inkling as the semester progressed, and I did not fully realize just how important a writer she was until later, when I had the chance to read her poetry and essays carefully and in depth. Nonetheless, studying with Professor Jordan—I was never able to call her by her first name—was a transformative experience that laid the foundation for the kind of writer I have become. Three memories in particular stand out for me.
The first assignment Professor Jordan gave us was to choose a nursery rhyme and write a poem that mirrored precisely, using all full rhymes and without deviating by even a syllable, the nursery rhyme’s rhyme scheme and scansion. I don’t remember which nursery rhyme I chose or the poem I wrote, except that it was the beginning of a narrative that would have taken many more stanzas to finish. What I do remember is laboring over each line, tapping my pen on the page as I counted syllables and beats, making lists of rhyming words, and how the rhymes I found ended up shaping what the poem was about. I also remember how much I liked that work, not just the challenge of solving the puzzle of the poems’s form, but also the process of discovery that inhered in finding that solution, how it opened up whole new areas of meaning that I could have used that poem to explore, if I’d chosen to do so.
I learned as much from that exercise about the value of precision in craft, and the respect that such precision deserves, as I did from any exercise I have been given in any workshop after that. It was my first experience of the poet’s version of what I did when I practiced scales on the piano: internalizing technique till it becomes second nature, making it possible to go much more deeply into the substance of your art than you would otherwise be able to go.
The second memory I have from Professor Jordan’s workshop has to do with a poem I published that year, my first after Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer and the first poem that, to me anyway, really began to sound like the poems I would eventually come to write. It appeared in a literary journal called Poem. Unfortunately, the typescript of the poem is long gone, as is the copy of the journal in which the poem appeared, left behind or accidentally thrown out during the years when, no matter where I was living, I had to store some part of my life in boxes because I was always moving back and forth between somewhere else and home.
The poem dealt with what I saw as the empty elitism, if not hypocrisy, in how the part of the Jewish community I was raised in insisted on commemorating the Holocaust. When I announced my good news at our next class meeting, Professor Jordan smiled and asked me to read the poem for the class (because of course I’d brought a copy with me). Then she offered me her congratulations, and we moved on. A couple of weeks later, though, she pulled me aside during the reception after an awards ceremony we were both attending. “I wouldn’t say this in front of the entire class,” she said, “but that’s an important poem you just had published.” I didn’t know what to say. She put her hand on my arm. “It’s an important piece of work. You need to keep writing.” Then she went back to the group of friends she’d been chatting with.
I stood there by myself for a few minutes, and then I left. I needed to be alone with the that enormousness Professor Jordan’s words had opened up in me. It is an expanse I am still exploring.
I was sexually violated by two different men during the course of my childhood, the first one when I was about twelve- or thirteen-years-old and the second one, over the course of a couple of years, from the time I was fifteen until I was seventeen. I started telling people about it when I was twenty, which is much earlier than most male survivors my age. I have written elsewhere about the role feminist theory and the women’s movement played in helping me find the vocabulary and the courage to tell my story so soon, but it never occurred to me that my experience as a survivor might be an appropriate subject for my poetry—and this is my third memory of Professor Jordan—until I heard her read Poem About My Rights at a Black History Month celebration.
It is hard to describe just how world-changing that poem was for me, the way it begins with a woman’s mundane desire to take a walk at night and ends up connecting why she doesn’t feel safe doing that not just to gender and racial politics, but also to how the workings of local, national, and international law and politics are just as racialized and gendered as her inability to feel safe walking alone at night. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t known poetry could take into itself that kind of subject matter. I’m not sure, for example, I have read a poem since that uses the word ejaculates in quite the same way. It was also the way the fact that her poem did those things in first place opened up in me a desire to find the language that would allow me to do the same thing with my experience. Hearing Professor Jordan read that poem, studying it afterwards, set the trajectory I have followed as a writer ever since—not just to produce politically engaged work, but to do so by engaging the politics of my own daily experience
The other teacher at Stony Brook from whom I learned how to think of myself as a poet was the artist Terrence Netter, who was at the time the director of Stony Brook’s Staller Fine Arts Center. Terry—once we became friendly, he insisted that I call him that—had been a Jesuit priest, and a rather prominent one, if I remember correctly, but he had left the order, with the pope’s reluctant permission, to be an artist and to get married. I met him as a student in the course on the philosophy of art that he taught every couple of semesters. We read Kant and Hegel—who was Terry’s favorite—and also Suzanne Langer’s Feeling and Form, which became my favorite.
I spent long hours in Terry’s office talking about art and what it meant live an artist’s life. He told me stories about Lee Krasner, whom he knew late in her life, and he took me once or twice up to his studio to show me the paintings he was working on. I remember thinking how gorgeous they were, how vivid and colorful, and I was surprised just now when I went to the website that lives in his memory—he died in 2018—how many of the paintings I recognized from that time. This one in particular, called “Struggle,” made an impression on me back then:
One of the themes Terry would weave through our conversations was the idea of the artist’s confrontation with the absolute, an idea he took from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which he told me I shuold read if I wanted to be a poet. So I read it. Then we talked about it in his office. I don’t remember anything specific about those conversations, except that I went after one of them to The Rainy Night House Café, which was in the basement of the student union, ordered a buttered bagel and a cup of tea, and went to the table in the back corner where I often sat to write in my journal.
I wrote for a long time about the place writing poetry had come to occupy in my life, but I remember realizing at some point that I was repeating myself, that I was circling around an idea that had not yet allowed words to give it form. I was maybe 22 years old at the time, nearly 40 years ago, but I can still feel the weight of the commitment that fell on me when I finally wrote out the words I am a poet. Not I want to be a poet or even I want to write poetry, but I am a poet. I sat there a little bit afraid of my own audacity—afraid, and also excited that I knew something about myself, had chosen something for myself, that no one else in my life had touched. More than choosing a major (English and Linguistics), more than figuring out that I probably wanted to be a teacher (which I have now been for thirty some odd years), the moment I wrote the words, I am a poet, was the first time I knew that I had consciously, willfully, decided entirely by myself and for myself what the course of my future life would be.
When I graduated from Stony Brook in 1984, creative writing programs within higher education were maybe just beginning to cohere into the MFA industry they are today. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, and I knew I wanted to study creative writing, and I had narrowed down my top two choices to Chicago University’s MFA and Syracuse University’s MA in Creative Writing.
I don’t remember how many schools I actually applied for, but when the acceptance came from Syracuse, I decided to go there because my girlfriend at the time was studying in their landscape architecture program. Our relationship had been long distance for a couple of years by then, and the lure of being together in the same place at the same time was just too strong. In the end, my girlfriend would decide to leave landscape architecture and return home to Poughkeepsie—though we would be together for another five years after that—and I would end up dropping out of Syracuse after my first year, but that year was a crucial one in my formation as a poet nonetheless.
There were five of us in that year’s class of poetry students. At twenty-two, I was—by between five and ten years, I think—the youngest. Two of my classmates, Lucia Perillo and Jane Mead went on to serious national reputations. Another, Christopher Kennedy now directs Syracuse’s MFA program, and he too has published a considerable and substantial body of work. (I am now reading Clues From The Animal KIngdom, which is a lovely book.) Our other classmate, Ken Victor, eventually settled permanently in Canada.
Our first semester workshop leader was Tess Gallagher, who, in our conference about halfway or two thirds through the semester threatened to have me kicked out of the program. It had been, she explained, at her insistence that I was even admitted in the first place. Everyone else on the committee thought I had not yet made up my mind whether I wanted to be a scholar or a poet, she said, but she argued that they should give me a chance. I was a young man unafraid to write about his feelings, about feeling as a man, in a way that most male writers did not. The problem she was having now, she went on, was that the work I’d been bringing to workshop since September was “bubble-gum poetry.” That was the exact phrase she used and she meant by it the sort of easy, sentimental verse you might find in a greeting card or, if you’re old enough to remember him, the poetry of Rod McKuen, whose name Tess might even have invoked.
I imagine Tess thought such brutal honesty was, in its way, a kindness, a put-up-or-shut-up method of making sure I did not waste my time (or the faculty’s) trying to be a poet I could never be, but I’m really not interested at this point in my life in rehashing what are by now the very familiar critiques of that particular pedagogy. What does strike me, as someone who has been teaching young creative writers now for thirty years, is how unreasonable it was for her to expect anything other than “bubble-gum” sentiment from a twenty-two-year-old boy—because from her perspective at twenty, if not thirty years my senior, how could I not have seemed like a boy to her? Indeed, perhaps she recognized this at some level, because instead of kicking me out of the program, she sent me off to read Robert Creeley. She thought I might learn something from him about how to manipulate syntax to get into my lines some of the tension she thought was so sorely lacking.
I haven’t read much Creeley since then, but I took Tess’ advice and read him deeply for about a month, experimenting in my own work with his way of playing the syntactic rhythm of and within a sentence against the rhythm of the line. When people comment now about how the long sentences in some of my poems nonetheless cohere syntactically and rhythmically across an often substantial number of lines, they are in fact noticing the results of the lesson I learned from tough-love reading assignment Tess had given me.
The leader of our second semester workshop was Philip Booth. In our conference towards the end of the fall semester, which was in part supposed to be a discussion about the thesis I would have to write in the spring and whom I might choose as an advisor, Professor Booth offered me a perspective on myself and my work at the time that I still remember almost word for word. “You can write,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. You know your way around the sentence and you know your away around the line. You are, however, very young and I just don’t see in the poems you’ve produced the central set of concerns around which you’d be able to build the thesis you’ll have to write next semester. You might consider taking some time off to live a little bit, a year at the very least, but also, don’t forget, you don’t need a degree to be a poet. You just need to write and read.”
You don’t need a degree to be a poet.
I don’t know that I ever consciously thought I did, but hearing Professor Booth say that affirmed a feeling I’d had since my conversation with Tess Gallagher the previous semester that something about the program at Syracuse was not a good fit for me. I went to my graduate advisor, a man named Steven Cohan, and I told him I was thinking of taking a year off to work on my writing so I would be better prepared to produce my thesis. I remember what he told me word for word as well. “If you want to go commune with your muse,” he sneered, “that’s your business. I thought you came to graduate school to study and to do some real work.”
I have always thought of the mid-1980s as years of the The Theory Wars, when the author was dead and those of us studying in creative writing programs were, along with our teachers, often characterized by critical theorists as no better than cogs reproducing the hegemonic structures of literary capitalism. As I remember it, this was the ideological position out of which Cohan’s tough-love approach grew, but it had precisely the opposite effect of what he intended. I decided, even before he finished speaking, that I would take to heart Professor Booth’s words about not needing a degree to be a poet and leave Syracuse University, which is what I did.
I don’t remember if I thought at the time that I might return to finish my degree, but, in retrospect, I am very glad that I did not. After I’d been out of the program for about a year, I wrote a poem, the first one ever, that dealt directly with my experience of sexual violence. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do that knowing I’d have to submit the piece to the scrutiny of the faculty and my fellow workshop members. Nonetheless, I sent a copy to Professor Booth. I wanted him to know both that his wisdom had not fallen on deaf ears and that I had found the central concern out of which my mature writing would grow.
He wrote back in a letter that, sadly, like so much else from that time of my life, is lost to me now. I do not remember what he said about the poem itself. What I do remember is him telling me I should feel good about the fact that, in writing the poem, I had taken action—that, if it did nothing else, the poem demonstrated I was no longer allowing the men who had violated me to define the meaning of what they did to me. It was precisely what I needed to hear. I knew then that I would keep writing. (The ghost of that poem survives, though I have no doubt I am the only one who can see it, in “The Taste of A Little Boy’s Trust” from The Silence Of Men).
Twenty years would pass between the time I received Professor Booth’s letter and the publication of the The Silence of Men, which was my first book. I’m glad it took that long. I spent most of the first of those two decades unsuccessfully working and reworking not just the poems I’d written or at least started to write while I was at Syracuse, but also new work that was entirely within the same vein. At some point, though, through my frustration, I realized I was holding on to some two or three hundred pages of writing because I was afraid that letting go of them meant letting go of who I was as a poet.
I still remember the day I removed the file folders containing all those pages from the drawer on the left side of my desk and emptied them into the garbage. Then I took the garbage out so I wouldn’t be tempted to retrieve what I’d just gotten rid of. When I returned to my desk, I deleted the Word files from which those pages had been printed out, all of them, and then I emptied the trash on my desktop computer as well. I felt lighter, freer. More than that, though, I felt open, ready to accept whatever came next, and it was by inhabiting that sense of readiness, in the way I began the very next day to write the poems that would become The Silence of Men, that I finally, fully, became a poet.