FERRYING POETS AROUND OHIO: Creeley and Me in a Not Particularly Large Car

Now that I am on a roll of remembering poets, I decided to tackle my memories on Robert Creeley, but as I had had a partner for that journey, I called Columbus poet Jerry Roscoe, who had ridden along on the drive. 


("I Know a Man" by Robert Creeley)

"Jerry, I don't remember much," I said. "What do you remember?"

"Diane, you wrote about this for Cleveland Poetry Scenes," Jerry said. "I've just been rereading it." Lo and behold, Jerry is right, and I have pirated some of this memoir from that terrific anthology, with thanks to Larry Smith and Mary Weems, its editors.

When Robert Creeley was visiting writer at Cleveland State for several weeks one autumn, he told me that he wanted most to visit the Asphodel Bookshop in Burton, and as much as the bookshop itself, he wanted to talk to Jim Lowell, who still sold letterpress books and broadsides out of a garage that also housed his wife's hair salon. 

(If you don't know about Jim Lowell, you can find Mark Kuhar's wonderful "A tribute
to james r. lowell, 
1932 - 2004" Deep Cleveland.)

Creeley talked the whole ride out to Burton. Mostly he careened in speech on and on about people, all by first names, none of whom we knew. When we got to the bookstore, he went on in this vein, with Lowell nodding occasionally.  Jerry remembers that at one point, Lowell made fun of Diane Wakoski's work, and Creeley defended it. But otherwise, we were pretty lost as to whom was being discussed. At one point, Creeley mentioned, “Allen,” and Jerry, thinking we finally had an “in” said, “You mean Allen Ginsberg?”

“No,” Creeley answered. “Allen who helps me with plumbing.”

And so for the ride home, we didn't even try to ask questions. Jerry figured out that "Bill" was William Carlos Williams, but by then we just let him talk because he was "always talking." It was the last and the only time I was ever in a car with him.

***

He showed up in my C.S.U. office the next day, still talking-- and smoking. People smoked then on the 18th floor of C.S.U.! (And everywhere else.) He was frustrated about a manuscript about himself that a professor had asked him to proofread, filled with errors. “It even misspells Allen Ginsberg!” he said, showing me the error. We were both aghast.

Then he began about how much he disliked teaching creative writing, which he had been hired to do, in addition to sitting in on the C.S.U. monthly first Friday poetry workshop and giving an afternoon reading. He said he was trained as a literature teacher, for chrissakes, but he tended to get these gigs for teaching creative writing. Then a C.S.U. professor walked into the room, glared at me, glared at Creeley, and said, “Where have you been? The class began twenty minutes ago.” And he left with the poet in tow, casting one more look at me, who had unwittingly provided Creeley a 20- minute reprieve from the job.

Jerry and John Stickney bonded with Creeley about jazz and they had all planned to take him around the Cleveland jazz scene after the C.S.U. Poetry Forum, which was, after all, never a class. However, the excursion never materialized and Jerry thought it hadn't even registered with Creeley. Then a week, Creeley asked Marily Murray if Jerry were around. "So he seemed oblivious to us in the moment," Jerry comments today, "but he did remember." It was though Creeley was firing on eight cylinders, and we thought there were only six.

His afternoon reading was spectacular. As usual, he sat, a cigarette in his hand which combed through his hair and held the hank back with the hand to his cheek, his eye socket weeping, his voice steady as a metronome but musical too, not rhythm only. I remember that at one point, I was weeping, unconscious of what words had triggered my tears exactly, just filled with the emotion in the poems he intoned and the tension in the poems that filled the room.

***

I was not ferrying Creeley in 1994 when Joel Lipman and I read with him at the James Wright Festival in Martin's Ferry, Ohio. My most memorable moment of Creeley occurred the evening before the festival. The participating poets and the two festival organizers met for a casual dinner at a Chinese restaurant across the river in Wheeling. Creeley ended up next to my husband, and buttonholed him in conversation as he was wont to do, but this time, but once they were introduced, he realized he had in Paul a listener who understood him on postmodern literary theory. When Paul nodded, he knew exactly what Creeley was talking about, and it wasn't plumbing. Not only that, but Creeley learned that Paul's hometown was Fitchburg, MA, just down the road from his own hometown of Acton, about which he had many strong important memories.

But as we finished up the meal and headed off, he asked Paul about his work with a particularly liteary group. "Oh," Paul said, "No, no, that's another Paul Beauvais." "Oh good," Creeley said, "I like you better."

Creeley really seemed to enjoy the James Wright Festival, though he himself was a little more distanced personally from Wright than other poets had been. I think he especially enjoyed the incredible closeness and cameraderie and sense of home that pernmeated that festival. Bruce Jackson, once wrote:

One of Robert Creeley's favorite words was "company." He was always talking about being part of a company—a company of family, of poets, of artists, of this group here on this night around this table, eating and drinking and talking, always talking. When the company constricts so does your world, so do you. The first thing he said when we talked about Allen Ginsberg's death in 1997 was, "The company keeps getting smaller." Company, for Bob, was whom you thought in terms of, whom you talked with. --–Bruce Jackson, “On the Subject of Company” in Buffalo Report

***


From 2000 till his death in 2005, Creeley was active in a yearly event in his hometown library of Acton. Someone at the library told me that he was spurred on to involvement by his memory of the Wright event. At any rate, the Robert Creeley Foundation set up a yearly poet award. I was living in Massachusetts at the time of the first award after his death, which was made to Carolyn Forche in 2006. I had always wanted to hear her read, as her book The Country Between Us had catapulted me into my work in Central America. She read from The Angel of History with her signature passion, which reminded me of Creeley's quiet passion. It was such a wonderful evening, and it felt like Creeley's gift to me, to all of us. 

And the gift goes on. You can find all the Robert Creeley Award winners here , with the most recent poet listed being Mark Doty in 2018. In addition, the Helen Creeley Student Poetry Prize is given to two high school students to honor Robert Creeley's older sister Helen, a prize-winning poet while she was a high school and someone he recognized as mentoring him when he was young, yet another gift he has passed on.





FERRYING POETS AROUND OHIO: Moving an Audience for Seamus Heaney


Compared to the Milosz reading, my memory of the details during Seamus Heaney's visit to Cleveland State in March 1979 remain spotty. 

That is, Bob McDonough thinks it was March of 1979, and I am dependent on Bob for much of this memoir because while he ferried, I ran around checking on the spaces he was ferrying Heaney to. But whatever the date, we definitely remember the reading.

But as with Milosz, before the reading, there was dinner. And there wasn't time to get him to the Flats. He  was on one of those crushing tours of many readings in many cities in not many days in order, he told us, to earn money for his dream car. A BMW I thought. Bob remembers a Porsche. Details. 

So The Parthenon it would be. That cavernous place in the 1500 block of Euclid whose huge brown slabs of rotating gyro meat greeted you when you came in the door, whose moussaka was both flakey and heavy, and its prices really quite light. We reserved a big table, and Bob brought Heaney there from his hotel very soon after he arrived in town. He was wearing jeans, a blue work shirt, and a sports coat and would be wearing it to the reading because, he noted with chagrin, his suitcase hadn't arrived. Many photos from those days always show him in a suit and tie. The later ones, post-Nobel, have him in the casual dress of that night. Most of us had had a fair amount of retsina and roditis even by the time the saganaki arrived, and we were so used to having it, no one thought to warn Heaney, who suddenly saw flames shoot up and shouts, and he leaped in his seat. He laughed afterwards and pronounced the cheese quite good.

During the meal, some nervous presenters asked him how did he pronounce his name. (Today, you can hear it pronounced online by an American, a Brit, and an Irish woman here, but back then, better to wait and get it from the Irishman's mouth.) He said that his family had pronounced it "Hane-ee," but the nuns had insisted on "Hee-nee," and the latter seemed to have stuck. He had one more nun story before the evening was over, too.

I headed over a few minutes early to the room where the reading was to be held.

Alberta Turner, who had made the arrangements previously, was gone that semester. Heaney's PR person had taken care of the press releases but mostly got the word out through the local Irish-American media of radio and newsletters and churches. Anything to get beyond the newspapers, which seemed to eschew any mention of poetry. (Cy Dostal always said it due to their complicity in d a levy's death. Before my time, so I don't know, but you could not get a notice in about a poetry reading if Shakespeare had been giving it.) The previous spring, only 17 people had shown up to hear Adrienne Rich in an auditorium that seated 200 people. We had huddled in the front, and she had been gracious, saying how fortunate Cleveland was to have the Big Mama Troupe. And it was a weekday. Still.

The Heaney reading was on a Friday night, so there was that. No classes then, not English classes, so you couldn't herd students in. But several of us had taught some of Heaney's poems in our comp classes, and let me tell you, you give working class kids Heaney's poem, "Digging," to read, and they will want to show up to see this guy. I recognized a fair number of my students already in the room, which was-- uh oh, wait a minute-- the room was overflowing already. People lined up all around the perimeter and stuffing themselves in through the door. Early still. 

And then, the hysteria of the moment totally blocks my memory. Who was called and how, I can't recall, but I am pretty sure that Leonard Trawick, the person any of us would want in crisis to be there, was indeed there and found a big room, and then several campus security guards materialized, an announcement was made, and the whole audience got up and paraded-- and I mean, it was indeed a parade-- to a much bigger hall we could all fit into, all 200 or so.

Heaney was introduced by Cleveland State history professor Tom Campbell, whose two hour introductory lecture on Irish history that I once heard has stayed with me for life.  And then Heaney read, fully and generously. He read the title poem from his 1966 book, Death of a Naturalist. Bob has reminded me of the story Heaney told about it: Many years after its publication, he was invited to an Irish Catholic school where the children were to honor him by reciting the poem in chorus. He thought ahead to the last lines where the frogs of the poem "sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting." Were the nuns really going to let the children say the word "farting"? He couldn't imagine it, and yet, there it came, and all the children chanted, "Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads darting." He was still enjoying that teeny bit of bowdlerization. And much to my great pleasure, from that same book, he read "Digging," the poem of his I most often shared with classes, an anthem for a working class kid who hopes to write.

He also read from Field Work, which had just come out, and from it, he read "The Skunk," surely the only successful poem in English literature that lovingly compares a wife to a skunk. One of my favorite love poems. Or lust poems. Anyhow, a fav.

I don't remember the reception, but Bob does, and remembers that one of the dear horrid cantankerous poetasters who were always showing up at readings and workshops to demand attention and who the CSU Poetry Center usually welcomed graciously, pressed a poem on Heaney, who took it with a smile. 

Bob remembers the next morning that Heaney looked pretty tired, but smiled brightly when Bob picked him up to take him to the airport. As he dropped Heaney off to catch his flight, Heaney turned and said, "Well, I am off to simulate new life!" 

He went off and breathed life into the poetry of the English language, and I used to bump into him in Logan Airport 2000-2002, when he was teaching at Harvard and flying home to Dublin, and I was living between Boston and Findlay, Ohio and our flights left from the same tiny airport terminal. By then, he had won the Nobel Prize, and he didn't need to be reminded of the time he read in a work shirt because his luggage didn't show up. However, that's how I like to remember him,  jumping up as waiters shouted, "Opa!" and laughing over darting frogs. 



FERRYING POETS AROUND OHIO: On Getting Lost with Milosz

I just watched the Polish movie, Milosz (2014), (*See below how to view the film), a wonderful documentary on his life and writing from his earliest life to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 till his death in 2004. 


My mind was replaying its own documentary of the six hours I spent with Milosz in the late 1970s, before his Nobel, and the music swelled for the moments when I got the two of us lost in the Flats, driving around, trying to find the Polish restaurant Cleveland State English professor Dave Evett had reserved for dinner.

Oh lord, how did I get here, I wondered for the thousandth time of my life in Cleveland, where I had a tendency to get into more wonderful trouble than I have anywhere before or since. 

How I got Milosz in my car was how I got so many poets into my old Ford Granada-- I was hanging out in the Cleveland State English Department and Alberta Turner, head of the CSU Poetry Center was looking for someone with a car. There was often deep silence as she'd ask around: people would flee, be off to class, to pick up kids, and then she'd look at me, the recent grad student turned adjunct. I never felt up to the job, but I loved Alberta and I loved poetry. I couldn't say know though my stomach would knot up.

I especially loved Milosz's poetry. His poem, "Ars Poetica" has been on my desk ever since those days, with its lines all poets should keep in mind:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us   
how difficult it is to remain just one person,   
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,   
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

More recently, I have posted this quote beside it, hoping to chasten my 
current tendency to want publish more and more poems: "Before you print a poem, you should reflect on whether this verse could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with him[her]self and the world."

And interestingly enough, my freshman composition students liked his poems too, especially but not only the many first and second generation Poles in the class. Later that evening, when I walked into the huge auditorium, I was surprised how many of the 70 of them had shown up for an evening reading.

I have no memory of where exactly I picked Milosz up, or how I got him to my car. I can't imagine what he thought of it. The paint job was still good, bright red exterior with a red exterior, but I had gotten it secondhand, and the gear shift, heavy with the dials for the lights, kept falling out of its socket and dangling by the wires. And an acquaintance had glued a white plush unicorn to the middle of the dashboard, not something I really wanted nor anything that I related to, but perhaps the acquaintance saw me as a unicorn, or at least a very small unusual beast. (Fortunately, this was a year before someone keyed my driver's door with "Fuck you," which I didn't have the money to have repainted.) 

But off we went, into the Cleveland Flats. I have never ever in my life since then gone into the Flats alone without getting lost, once on foot at 10:00 p.m. when my car broke down. But that afternoon was the first time, so I didn't yet know what I was incapable of.

Neither of us spoke much. Milosz had a reputation of being restrained, and I was absolutely tongue-tied. I am sure I told him how much I liked "Ars Poetica" and every other poem of his I had read, but really, I was focusing on DRIVING, which I have always been good at as long as I give it every ounce of my nerves. 

At one point, he reached up and patted the unicorn on my dashboard and said, "Have you seen the new Walt Disney movie about the unicorn? It is surprising, wonderful." 

And then, we were in the Flats. And then we were lost. The directions I had weren't working. And then, as my car was stopped at a set of railroad tracks, marching toward us came a phalanx of factory workers, dressed in denim blues, each carrying the silver or black lunch boxes that my dad, a welder back home, had carried every work day of his life. I remembered what this was from the news all that week. I turned to Milosz and said, "Today, one of our largest and oldest steel factories is closing. This is the end of the last day of work for these men." 

We sat in silence watching and nodding as the men passed, some nodding but most with their heads down. For me, that was the hour when Ohio's industry began corroding, blending into the rust belt along the Great Lakes.

In the documentary, after Milosz wins the Nobel and returns to Poland, he stands side by side with that country's most famous worker and writer, Walesa, and the two are jokingly referred to as "Lech Milosz and Czeslaw Walesa," which they both laugh at-- are they really that interchangeable? 

Was Milosz feeling as heavy-hearted as I in that moment? Did he understand as Walesa would have? I doubt it, but I did see him brought to tears shortly thereafter. 

Because shortly thereafter, I got my bearings or St. Anthony found me, or something, and we made it to the restaurant, which clearly was honored to have this native son. Every waitress-- and there were several for the large table of mostly English Department faculty-- was dressed in very native costumes. We ordered, there were toasts, so much I don't remember, but I remember that when Milosz took the first bite of his dish, big tears welled in his eyes, and he said, "This is the best bigos I have had since I left Poland." 

Could that have been true? Could there have been no Polish restaurants in Berkeley? Bigos, by the way, is a very traditional hunter's stew. You can find recipes online. I didn't have it that night, but I have had it since at Stash, the Polish restaurant in Old Montreal, and it's a pretty good stew.

After the dinner, someone else drove Milosz back to the auditorium, and I joined some of my students who had clustered together for their first poetry reading. We all knew we were hearing an august, moving reading from a true poet. After the reading, I waited in line with everyone else to say good-bye, never even asking him to sign my copy of his book. I never have. When I think of the signatures of famous poets I have ferried about and never gotten an autograph from, I can't quite figure why, but I don't regret it. For now, the memories are as indelible as ink. Certainly those few hours with Milosz are.

The movie goes on with Milosz' life long after Cleveland and me to win the Nobel Prize, at which point he is filmed at UC Berkeley. He had received the news of the award and gone off to teach his class on Dostoevsky, then joined the faculty in a crowded informal meeting where he was awarded a second prize, a parking place! Those of us who have done time at UCBerkeley (and me only as a three-month long guest) know what an award that is. Milosz, in one of the few times he smiles in the film, lights up and says the parking place is the biggest award he has ever received and everyone laughs. Ruefully. 

The film also takes us to his trip back to Poland, through the very difficult illness and death of his first wife and the suicide of one of his sons, as well as the death of his second wife. Many Polish academics and friends and his second son speak honestly about the best and worst of him. All in subtitles, which is to say, filmed in Polish, which is to say, probably the best language to convey his story.

Afterward: I have remained a Milosz reader for life. In the early 2000, teaching an online course in contemporary poetry on the internet, one of my students chose Milosz for her final essay and report, because of her Polish roots. The night of her (online) presentation, she brought her grandmother to class via the phone. The grandmother, who had lived in Poland during the war, hadn't heard Milosz' work before, and the student played it for her, and for us, in Polish. The grandmother cried. We cried. It was one of the most moving class reports I have sat through. I wish more online teachers took advantage of the medium. 


(*Note: Kanopy is an on-demand streaming video platform for public libraries and universities that offers films and documentaries. In Northeast Ohio, we are very fortunate to have this service through the Cuyahoga County Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library systems. It is terrific and if you have a membership to one of those libraries and haven't checked on it yet, you should.)

Pandemic Poem a Day, Day Five

 

FAMILY REUNION AND THE PANDEMIC

 

December, before she died on Christmas Eve,

my cousin Nancy called Sally and me  

to promise the Kendig Reunion would still

happen on the Fourth of July as it has

for decades. Yes of course, of course. 

By the first of June, we were stricken

off course, two balls hit into a bog.

The promise and the plague. And us, sinking.

We took the penalty and put off play

till Labor Day. We no longer labor

with that metaphor, now plan to punt.

Pandemic Poem a Day, Day Four

 

CAREENING THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA

 

I’m SkypingFace-TimingWhat’s Apping.

Soon: Zoom, with twenty-four squares.

At a poetry reading of one hundred,

I page through screens to find friends.

The woman in Wales where it’s midnight,

parents in Ohio watching their daughter

in Wyoming present her work, Ted’s siblings

show up (same last name at the bottom). 

Then I sit in a meeting about our new platform

one we stand in front of.                    Zoom

is out,             zooms off.

I wave as though to a departing colleague.

Pandemic Poem a Day, Day 3

AND NOW THIS

 

Denver teachers called back

will be fired if they resist.

They hold a news conference,

make out their wills together.

Photos pop up online of Georgia schools,

already in session, teens swarming the halls,

kindergartners sitting close, no masks. Georgia.

The NFL announces that players who opt out

will receive $350,000 bonuses, but only

if they are high risk. If they are low risk,

they get $150,000. Ja’Wuan James opts out.

Pandemic Poem a Day, Day Two

WALKING DOWN THE STREET

I am stopped by a man who wants to know

if my hat is for Navy. “No, it’s my dad’s

Army Air Corps cap,” I say, hold it at arm’s length

so he sees the B-17. “Is he alive?” he asks.

“No, he died a year ago, age 93.”

The man seems stricken, embarrassed.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be,” I say. “He ‘lived to be a gray-haired

wonder.’” I don’t say “and not to have lived locked up

separated from his family, waving from windows,

while 2,000 died alone in ‘homes.’”

In echelon, we carry on. 


NOTE: If you are here for the poem and not for how my poetry sausage is ground, your work is done and you can skip this note. But for those interested, here is the background on my writing the poem. 

The title and first seven and a half lines happened just like this, at least in my memory. So did lines 8, 9, and 10. Maybe I should have stopped here, but I was thinking about my dad and how much he loved the songs he learned in the Army Air Corps (which is today's U.S. Air Force). He taught them all to us kids, and I may have been the only eight-year girl who  gleefully sang:

My gal's a corker,
She's a New Yorker,
I buy her everything
To keep her in style.
She wears silk underwear
I wear my G.I. pair,
Hey boys,
That's where my money goes.

That and the "Caissons Go Rolling Along," and our very favorite, now called "The U.S. Air Force Song." Why I looked it up today, I'll never know because I knew it by heart and sang it with my dad all the time. (Sometimes now I sing it to my dog while we walk, and I still end it with "Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps," instead of "Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force.")

But when I looked it up, I realized there is a fourth verse we never sang. I loved this couplet:

If you'd live to be a grey-haired wonder
Keep the nose out of the blue

and I thought Dad would like being called a "grey-haired wonder" at least as much as being called 93 years old, and I thought about the final line, in echelon, we carry on. Yes, Yes we do.