Believe it or not, I’m still sorting through all that old poetry. Lots of memories, and yes, a few pieces I have no memory of ever writing. Recognize the handwriting, but nothing else. Many of the poems take me back and I can actually remember where I was sitting while composing them, know what I was feeling, and even why I chose the words I used. Others are a complete mystery as to what I was trying to express and now, I may never know. But most of them hold bits of my story that I felt were noteworthy at the time.
Some of you have heard the story of my first difficult creative writing poetry instructor. He held me up for a lot of hassling inside his classroom. But, I was determined to learn how to do this thing, despite his need for a scapegoat. And I did learn a great deal. How to tighten a poem until it ‘sprang’ from the page. Metaphor, especially extended metaphor, something I was apparently good at without a lot of trouble. The biggest lesson, however, came long after I left his classroom with the intention of never writing poetry again. I learned what I would never do to another human being when I became the teacher. Perhaps the most important lesson of all.
However, during that semester, I could most often be found with a pen in hand, bent over a notebook, writing poetry. And that was not just on campus, I carried my notebook with me at all times. As I have been rifling through all of those notebooks and old folders, I have come across most of those first attempts. But, there is a big hole in that pile of papers.
You see, during that same semester (about half way through), my father died from pancreatic cancer. He had always been my strongest emotional support. My marriage was shaky at best, I had filed for a separation, but had put that on hold when my husband went into rehab and joined AA. I figured that I needed to honor the over sixteen years already invested and at least give it a second chance.
Writing had become my means of getting through all of it. When my mother called to say that Dad had lost most of his motor nerve control, and she needed help, I immediately did several things. I called my best friend who promptly offered me a car to drive while I was gone (her hubby had a huge automotive service). Then I called all of my current teachers at school and told them why I would be gone and didn’t know for how long of a period. Then packed, including my notebooks and pens, and drove the 150 miles to help out.
I was elected to be my father’s main nurse, and had to learn how to give him insulin shots. A few years before, I had taken a course in Hospice training because I understood that this day would come and I wanted to be as prepared as I possibly could be. It goes without saying that nothing prepares you for that reality. My father passed away a few days later and I stayed to help through the funeral and with some of the legalities that Mom had to face. Two weeks later, I went back to school. My first class was creative writing poetry with my nemesis and I was carrying a notebook with about a dozen new poems in it.
We were to have a guest poet (another English professor) that morning. But, before introducing his guest, my instructor stood up and gave us a personal lecture about what happens when you lose someone close to you. He and all my fellow students knew exactly where I had been. He explained in great detail, that because we had the inner drive to write, such an experience would fuel our pens. Then he became adamant, telling us that because grief was an emotional thing, what we would write during that time would be nothing but sentimental tripe that no one would or should be expected to read. And God forbid that any of us would even consider turning in any such garbage for assignments in his classroom. He went on and on, and I shrank into my desk with every word, knowing this was all directed at me personally.
I stayed in my seat for only one, make that two reasons. I refused to let him know he had definitely scored a bull’s eye, and the young man (a particular friend) who sat in the desk in front of me. About half way through this uncalled for harangue, my young friend turned completely around, grabbed my clenched fists in both of his hands and clearly said, “Some people have a need to be assholes, know that this too shall pass.”
At the end of the semester, I decided on, and promised myself two things. I would never write poetry again, nor would I ever enter a small space with that man even if my life depended on it. The first promise was kept for a year, until I messed up a mid-term in one of my History classes (my major at the time), and my Professor insisted that I could make it up by writing a twenty page paper on a subject of my choice, but it had to include a poem about that subject. When told that I no longer wrote poetry, he simply said, “If you want a decent grade you will.” I did. And finally realized my life wasn’t life without poetry.
The second promise was tested about two years later when I finally decided that I had already accumulated over half the credits for a second major in English with a writing concentration. Problem being that the head of the English Department was none other than my nemesis, who was still harassing me from afar by physically describing me and telling his students that I was the poorest example of a student he had ever come across, because I couldn’t tolerate the slightest whiff of good healthy criticism. Several of them came and asked me if it was indeed my person he was talking about. Seeking guidance from an individual in authority, I was told that my only recourse was to submit a formal complaint. My entire academic career was riding in the balance. I said I needed time to think about it.
I got less than 24 hours. Somehow the whole thing was leaked out and my nemesis was visiting all of his colleagues on campus, telling them about an impudent middle-aged student who was talked into forging a harassment complaint against him. Within 45 minutes I received visits from no less than three individuals all carrying the same message. This was all clearly a mistake and all I had to do was go to his office and we’d talk it out civilly. The first visitor was the Assistant Dean of the campus, a woman I had worked for as a Teacher’s Assistant my first year in college. The second was the Dean of the History Department and the third was my current poetry writing instructor. I guess you could say the Big Guns.
I carefully explained to each of the three about the promise I had made to myself and my intention to keep it. Then gave them a few brief examples of what the man had done to me while in his classroom, especially the already mentioned episode after my father’s death. When asked if I was going to go through with the harassment complaint, I honestly said that I was still considering that whole possibility. I was and continued to do so without discussing it with anyone. I came to a conclusion which I didn’t speak about with anyone. I was now where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do with a Mentor I will always respect and admire. I declared English as my second Major and went on with my life knowing that to lodge the complaint would simply turn me into some awful form of my nemesis and keep me embroiled in the good-old boy system of the college hierarchy for who knew how long. I didn’t have or want to take the time for all of that.
There were at least two consequences from that episode. I couldn’t stand to look at the poems I had written about my father’s dying process, hid them away in a folder buried deep in the filing cabinet. At the end of that semester I was publicly awarded the highest honor awards given by the History and English Departments. I didn’t feel great about either of those things but life goes on and I was learning.
About fifteen years later, in a close knit writing group created while I was teaching, the group itself decided to have a bonfire and burn whatever writing we couldn’t find peace with, that simply embarrassed us, or could not find a permanent home after years of searching. While looking through my files, I found the folder with those death and grieving poems in it. I still couldn’t touch or read them without a very dark cloud surrounding me, so I tossed them into the bonfire and slowly walked away.
Which brings us to this current moment. As I have been sorting through my files, I have been aware that I didn’t have those pieces about my father’s death and what I absorbed at that time. That made me sad as I thought I might have used one or two of them in this current manuscript I am creating. At least in some revised or reworked format. But, yesterday, I found complete drafts of three of them mixed in with other pieces from different times and very different circumstances. There is a God and I do believe. I cried when I read a letter I sent to my father several months before his death. It included a poem I had written directly to him based in a song that made me think of him the first time I heard it and every time I heard or sang it afterward. My intention is to post it to Soul’s Music when I finish here.
I am still working on the manuscript but it may take a whole lot longer than I first thought. I’ve written a lot of poetry in over thirty years, but this sorting is worth every minute of the time I use up. And I thank God for that woman who was and is a poet, but who also became a pack rat in the process.