SUZANNE BYERLEY: A Memorial Service and a Remembrance

Coming home again in my 60s means coming home to a lot of funerals: funerals of relatives, of friends' parents...and of my friends themselves, many of whom I have written about. This weekend, I was privileged to memorialize the life and death of a friend who was a writer, in the company of a writers group I had to leave when I left in 1984. 

Suzanne Byerley, surely the youngest 75-year old I have ever known, died about a year ago in an early morning car crash, and this weekend, the members of the Cleveland "Butcher's Shop" writing group, of which Suzanne was a member, met on the hillside at Foxfield Preserve near the Wilmot Wilderness Center, to plant a tree and read poems to her and to each other and to ourselves. 

(Right, Foxwood guide Sarah Brink)
Bob Lawry was first at the Wilderness Center, meeting the other 9 of us as we waited for our guide, Sarah Brink: Rob Farmer and his wife Clare, Bob McDonough, Evelyn Mavromichalis, Genevieve Jencson, Keith Seher, and me, along with Toledoans Judith and Bill Crandall. When Sarah arrived, she led us in our cars. We passed the big red barn of an Amish family, whose son waved to Sarah and travelled up to the top of a hill at Foxfield, which was the first nature preserve cemetery in Ohio. Instead of a manicured lawn, the cemetery is in rolling hills of bleak, blond prairie grass, where bodies are buried without being embalmed or entombed in huge metal caskets. The mound at Suzanne's site had leveled under the weight of this heavy winter, but at its head stood the dogwood tree and big stones and a shell the family had left marked where the small marker will eventually stand. We paused to look out over the hills. Sarah took questions while her son played in the dirt, then she left us alone to our ceremony.

Bob Lawry started the reading with a poem by Suzanne titled, "Distance." He then read Mary Elizabeth Frye's 1932 poem, "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" and John Updike's "Perfection Wasted" with its opening line that sounds like we have just walked in on a conversation, "And another regrettable thing about death...."                      
Judith Crandell followed with a passage of T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" from The Four Quartets, ending with: "All manner of thing shall be well...and the fire and the rose are one" as she placed a red rose at the head of the grave. 
Keith Seher next told a story about Suzanne's bringing a four-leaf clover she had just found to a workshop but accidentally dropped it. Everyone looked and looked, till Suzanne stopped them, saying, "It's only a four-leaf clover; I'll find another." Keith had begun looking for one to replace it. (Here, I held my breath, hoping he was not going to tell us he found one on the day Suzanne died, but no, he is a better story-teller than that.) He couldn't find one. He looked up four-leaf clovers to find they surface about one in 1,000 clovers. He continued looking till his young son asked him what he was doing, and he explained. Now his son looks. They look together. They are still looking. He wanted to tell Suzanne that he and his son were now sharing the activity of four-leaf clover hunting because of her. He told us for her. And for us. And for him.
D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Bavarian Gentians" was read by Bob McDonough, and 
Bavarian Gentian
Rob Farmer, accompanied by his wife Clare, read two stanzas of a long poem by Cleveland poet Terry Provost, a poem read last month at the funeral for another Clevelander. Genevieve Jencson read Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day," which ends with the question for us all, "...what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?" I had planned to read Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Dirge without Music" but decided at the last minute to read Louise Bogan's "Epitaph for a Romantic Woman," as being more about Suzanne and less about my own grief. Evelyn Mavromichalis  ended the memorial by asking us all to send copies of the poems for the group to present to the family.
We stood on the hill for awhile. We took a photo of us all, for the record and for member Jane Richmond, who is away in Minnesota and asked for pictures.
(L to R:  Clare and Rob Farmer, Genevieve Jenscson, Bob McDonough, Diane
Kendig, Bob Lawry, Evelyn Mavromichalis, Keith Seher, Judith and Bill Crandell)
We drove back down the hill. Some had to get off to engagements back in Cleveland, while some of us stopped at the Amish farm stand, which was rich with homemade pies, jams, cookies, candies, and soap, then went back to the Wilderness Center to walk, to visit the plant sale and gift shop. Four of us stopped at the Zoar Canal Tavern for dinner and wine, and lingered long gossiping about poets and writers, talking about our families, eating big plates of lamb and fish and sausage and lingering longer for dessert, every one of us ordering bread pudding, which we ate all of.
I imagine Suzanne would have preferred to hang out shopping and buying a pie. If she had been able to hang out, I know she would have also ordered dessert. On the other hand, she might have had to get back to Andy and the grandchildren or to an evening workshop. But wherever we were that day, her distance was with us as we each headed to our cars, down the road, home again.


Remembering Suzanne

I first met Suzanne in the late 1970s through my friend Judith Crandell, who always referred to her as "my friend, Suzanne," as though "Friend" were her first name and "Suzanne" her surname, and in fact, that's what Suzanne seemed like, everyone's friend first, then teacher, mentor, model, mother, partner, whatever.

She is the only person I ever took a creative writing class from, and it was an amazing class of six people who met in her living room to learn about making fiction, a genre that up till that point remained a magical mystery to me. It still does, but once I took Suzanne's class, it was also a genre I could write and revise and teach, all a good thing because a few years later, I was hired to be the only creative writer at a small college which definitely expected me to teach fiction writing. The day that the two versions of Raymond Carver's "The Bath" (the second being, "A Small Good Thing") came out in some brand new journal or anthology, the class met, and Suzanne brought the two stories to the group. We read them, discussed the differences, the huge gigantic differences, applauded Carver for managing to expand it into a much better story, not knowing then what we know now, that the second was the original, edited down by Gordon Lish. (Even today, if you google the two, you will find a lot of people on Yahoo-- and yahoos elsewhere-- think that "The Bath" was the original.) At the time, the time of each didn't matter so much as the difference, what we learned of it about writing and revision and revising writing and revising one's life. When I taught my first creative writing class, those two stories became a key part of my course, ages before Janet Burroway could work them into her textbook, Writing Fiction.

Suzanne was always that innovative at exercises and assignments, whether she was teaching at a prestigious college and a famous summer workshop or at senior centers and her local branch library. In addition to being a terrific creative writing teacher, she was everyone's closest reader and most insightful editor.

In the early-1980s, I left Cleveland for western Ohio, and much later, for the Boston area, while Suzanne headed for California, and Judith was off to New York and then Washington D.C. And then one by one throughout the new millenium, first Suzanne, then I, then Judith all ended up back in Ohio. By then, Suzanne was in the Butcher Shop and coaxed me to attend.

The Butcher Shop  is a private poetry workshop, founded by the Case Western Reserve University poet Robert Wallace, who was long gone from the group when I joined in 1980. They have the looniest method of workshopping I have ever known. Everyone brings copies of a poem to be workshopped, with no name on it. Each participant takes one set of a poem, and then in silence for about 10 minutes, each participant prepares a critique of their randomly chosen poem, which s/he delivers, in turn, after passing out a copy to everyone. The idea, I believe, was that the anonymity gave everyone permission to be ruthless in their criticisms-- thus the name, "The Butcher Shop"-- but in the process of meeting each month, poets' styles and topics became pretty clear, and for example, by Peg Lolly's second Julianna poem (from her 1988 book, Julianna's Room), it was pretty clear whose poem was the one about the giantess. And though the method seemed misguided to me,  you couldn't have asked for a sharper group of critics: Alberta Turner, Dave Evett, Leonard Trawick, Bonnie Jacobson, Lolette Kuby, P K Saha, Bob McDonough. Suzanne was not yet in the group.

When I returned home in 2009, the only two of that group were McDonough and Saha, but there was Suzanne and other people I had known in my previous Cleveland life. Getting to the Butcher Shop was a hike from Canton, and I only managed it twice in two years, both times since it was at Suzanne's house, and she harassed me sweetly and mercilessly to come. One time after the butchering was done, she made Crepes Suzette for the whole group, serving one at a time as they came hot out of the pan.

Another time, she, Judith, and I met in Cleveland for a day of art museum-hopping, reading aloud, attending a reading by George Bilgere at CWRU, and then meeting up with McDonough and Lawry to eat in Little Italy. It was such a good day, so filled with poetry and old friends and coming home, like the good old days. She was so curious as we bombarded the cafĂ© counter guy at the Museum of Contemporary Art (where we ate) about how he liked his job selling salads and wine. (He loved it, had clearly seen harder times with harder people and got a kick out of her.) She was so present as we sat in the new atrium of the Cleveland Art Museum and drank tea and ate cookies and read our poems out loud to each other until we were almost late and ran into Guilford Hall just as the reading began. She was positively tickled with Bilgere's reading and ran up after to talk to him about his stint on A Prairie Home Companion. And then, of course, there was the marvelous Italian dinner. So we ate three times that day. Not counting breakfast. I will always associate Suzanne, as I do most of the poets in Cleveland, with great eating and great writing.

That was the last time I saw her. I am not resigned, I can say now, since I didn't get to read that line earlier, but if it had to be the last time, I am glad the last time I saw her was filled, like this one, with the company of other writers who loved her too, just as the memorial service was, and with good food and art and reading and running around in University Circle, or anywhere in Cleveland, that city we had in common.


You can find Suzanne Byerly's obituary here, and account of her Kingsville Library writing group's reading for her here


For the National Poetry Month project at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, I researched eight Forepoets, that is, Northeast Ohio poets who have died but whose poems and lives go on in our heads and hearts. That feature had to be cut, but I am posting the eight forepoets here on my blog.

DANIEL THOMPSON was very much on my mind for this Earth Day as I thought of his book titled, Even the Broken Letters of the Earth Spell Heart.

Northeast Ohio Forepoet Poet 

Daniel Thompson, 1935-2004


five facts you may not know about Thompson: 

·       A street named after Thompson is in downtown Cleveland (photo here at Wikipedia)
·       Junkstock, his poetry reading event held in a junkyard, was a summer high point for many poetry lovers
·       An inveterate activist, he campaigned against the use of Chief Wahoo through protest and poems. See one of his protests in this YouTube video  
·     His life and death were formally recognized in the U.S. House of Representatives. Read the tribute given by Dennis Kucinich on May 11th, 2004 here
·       He authored seven books of poetry, including the posthumous, The Big Book of Daniel edited by Maj Ragain and available at Bottom Dog

Finally, I have not a fact but a poem of mine about the last time I saw Daniel, spending two days with him. As a matter of fact, I took him to prison:



by Diane Kendig

For years, he wanted to go to prison with me. “Prison, Daniel,” I said, “is not jail,” where he had done some time. Given his tendency to pranks, I thought he’d be the last writer I’d ever take into prison. Then at the end, during what inmates would call my “short time,” I decided he was the last writer I wanted to take into prison. I called and he came and could have been a chaplain, so piously he submitted to the strict entry procedures. We made the half-mile walk to the cavernous shift room, and he read to a crowd of  eighty or so—though if you know him, you know he said, not read: he chanted and cooed, beginning with Those in power always want/ those in poverty to live on poetry…. The room got quieter and hotter, and Daniel’s voice got louder.
The guards began to gather in the back, first a gray shirt, then several, then several white shirts—“How can there be this many white shirts left this late?” I thought nervously, thought we'd be ousted for the passion he was raising in the place—until I noticed that the guards were applauding, that they loved Daniel’s hymn to the veterans in the marketplace: crew-toothed, blue, open flies, eyes of salt and humor surviving/Wars and rumors and they nodded to his complaint about justice as a railroad. One took exception to Daniel’s Dillinger poem and shouted, “But he did shoot the deputy.” This was the old Lima Correctional Facility, the L.C.I. and in Lima, they know their Dillinger.

I have to tell you, that I have never heard Daniel so loud and clear, despite his age and weariness, about 6 months before the first cancer diagnosis, all the reverberations off metal doors and concrete floors and walls. He gathered up everything he had on injustice and hurt, all those broken letters of the earth, love’s new light he still held out for, and man, he sang them off. In that hard room Daniel took us all into the purpose of his poetry, which as another Ohioan said, is the purpose of all poetry: to break our hearts. Some men wept.

Taking Daniel out of prison would have been harder, except he was tired and even he did not want to sleep there. I drove, he rode shot gun, his right arm along the open window as he chuckled and repeated, “but he did shoot the deputy” on the long ride home that exceptionally warm and starry autumn Friday night that Daniel took the prison.  


For National Poetry Month, I researched eight poets for the CCPL project, especially for their Northeast Ohio connections. Some of the research comes from 18 years of teaching "Ohio Writers" at The University of Findlay, to which I am grateful.

Titled "Five Things You May Not Know About....," the series got cut for a lack of space, but for a blogger, it's all grist for the mill. Today, I am featuring two of those poets, Hart Crane, whose birth and cenotaph are noted in Garretsville and who lived briefly in Cleveland, and Langston Hughes, who went to high school in Cleveland. Both poets were featured in the national series, Voices and Visions.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Five Things You May Not Know About

Langston Hughes

(Six, if you have never seen this baby picture)


*****Hughes came to Cleveland at age 14 and attended Central High School (later East Tech)

*****His Cleveland house was recently sold. View the interior at Busta-Pecks’ blog

*****Hughes left Cleveland at 18, writing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as he left. Hear him read it here

*****He maintained connections with Karamu House and Cleveland friends throughout his life

*****You can download the Voices and Visions video about Hughes, with interviews by his friends from the Karamu House.



For National Poetry Month, I researched eight poets for the CCPL project, especially for their Northeast Ohio connections. Some of the research comes from 18 years of teaching "Ohio Writers" at The University of Findlay, to which I am grateful.

Titled "Five Things You May Not Know, the series got cut for a lack of space, but for a blogger, it's all grist for the mill. Today, I am featuring two, Hart Crane, whose birth and cenotaph are noted in Garretsville and who lived briefly in Cleveland, and Langston Hughes, who went to high school in Cleveland. Both poets were featured in the national series, Voices and Visions.



Five Things You May Not Know About

Hart Crane·      

 *****Garrettsville, OH has an Ohio historical marker denoting his birthplace and also a memorial to Crane in its cemetery, described in this New Yorker article by Henri Cole. (Both of those links are worth checking out.) 

*****NE Ohio artist Gene Kangas' tribute to Crane is this sculpture on the Cuyahoga River

      *****The Academy of American Poets site has a good page on his life and works
*****The Annenberg Learner” features a clip from the Voices and Visions series on Crane 

      *****He lived briefly on East 115th Street, where this marker stands:

  Many thanks to Paul Beauvais who took this photo,
and with fond memories of poet Daniel Thompson,
who worked to get this spot commemorated.


National Poetry Month: On Pinsky and Audience

Donna Cummings  sat next to Paul and me at the Pinsky reading last night, and Cummings typifies for me what I hope National Poetry Month is about. She told me she just began writing poetry, and her teacher at CCC-Eastern told her about the Cuyahoga County Public Library website, "Read and Write, 30 Days of Poetry." She signed on for the site and won tickets for the evening event at the beautiful Ohio Theater of Cleveland's gorgeous and historic Playhouse Square. Good for CCPL for making those tickets available.

Donna Cummings
Pinsky gave his usual allusively rich, well-delivered, funny, personal, and very intelligent reading, beginning with some favorite hits people had mentioned during the day ("Samurai Song" and "Shirt," for example, most of which he recited from memory), then broke out some new work: "Creole," "The City," "Inprovisation on Yiddish," (... a poem, "basically written by my grandmother," he said) "Grief" (a wonderful poem you can find here), a long poem titled "At Pleasure Bay," and a poem from Dante's last canto. Then he handled the Q-A with the polite and brilliant aplomb I have associated with his presentations ever since I first heard him read in 1999. Every "A" of his Q and A's is backed up with perfect examples from literature, all quoted from memory.
There were a lot of excellent poets in the audience last night too-- Sarah Gridley (who introduced
Laura Weldon (l) with CCPL librarian
Laurie Kincer (r) and Tom Kincer (c)
Pinsky), Bob McDonough, Joan Nicholl, John (and Lou) Stickney, Robert Miltner, Bonnie Jacobson, Linda Goodman Robinar, John Burroughs, and Laura Weldon.

I'm of the Big-Tent school of poetry, which is why I love National Poetry Month so much. It's not that I think that all poems are great poems or that anyone who writes is a great poet. And like Pinsky I am more aligned with poetry well-read than poetry performance. However, I am all for poetry performance  (outloud, off the page...), and I do have two "performance poems." And I am for poetry on the page...and in audio and video, with music backup or not.  I don't worry so much about the trivializing of the art of poetry, as some critics of National Poetry Month do, and I don't worry about bad poetry destroying the world or the art as some poets and critics do. Though I don't like reading bad poetry all that much, I've learned from James Wright--just walk to the pasture and invite the insects to join you.

But what I am REALLY for is encouraging people to come into the tent and listen, to have their favorite poems and say why. To make videos and sound files and websites and blogs of poems as well as pages. All of which is to say, I am really for Pinsky and for Donna Cummings. She left before I got to ask her how she liked the reading. I hope she did. I hope she continues to write.

N E Ohio FOREPOETS: Alberta Turner

Inspired by Wompo (Women's Poetry Listserv), which has an occasional series called "Foremothers," I researched eight Northeast Ohio "Forepoets," some of whom I knew personally, some only legendarily. One was a surprise to me (Vachel Lindsay: he went to college here--who knew? The Hiram crew.)  In all cases, I tried to find out something new to surprise myself.

This first poet was very dear to me personally. We rode the Oberlin-Cleveland bus together one summer and stayed close ever after, so I found no surprises, but I hope I have one for you.

Alberta Turner (1919-2003)

Five facts you may not know about Turner:

·       While many famous poets were born in Ohio and left, Turner was born in New York, left to attend O.S.U., and stayed in Ohio the rest of her life

·       Long-time director of the ClevelandState Poetry Center, Turner conducted a very public poetry workshop that welcomed students, professors, street people, the novices and the published

·       Turner commuted to Cleveland from her home in Oberlin by bus for many years, writing and revising her poems during the ride

·       A poet, editor, critic, and textbook author, she also loved to make jewelry, and her favorite drink was an Old-Fashioned. Neat.

·       You can find out more about Turner here at Deep Cleveland, a wonderful Cleveland poetry repository coordinated by Nina Freelander Gibans .
This poem I wrote about Turner was published in my first book, A Tunnel of Flute Song (1980):
Feather for Alberta
"alias volat propriis"
They pronounce us together when they name
the ones who sing up here. I would sound
wilder except for the notes you lay.
Calling out territories, how you
terrorize the seventeenth-century wing
when you trill both Milton and Lowell.
Your thought flies straight as a crow
on a tangent. "That cat acted like a lamb
just to unnerve me." Sometimes I miss the take-off.
When you insist marriage takes a driver,
I am shedding my license into down
before your eyes warn, "Sorry. A Metaphor."
No one else leans over my desk
to have their nose stroked with my necklace
of grizzly chicken plumage. But you are
used to looking at things made of
shell and thread and feather
and knowing just what they are for.

ALL MONTH, CHECK OUT 30 DAYS READ/WRITE POETRY, a daily webpage I created and curated for the Cuyahoga Public Library for National Poetry Month 2014: