About eight years ago I was fresh to California from New York City, pretty insomniac and drinking a lot, and generally just in really prime form to ride out a Mother F’ing Artist degree in the writing of poetry. That year, the program I was in thought it would be nice to have a guest professor teach our workshop for a few months. It was explained to me by another professor that this had to be a woman, since there were no women teaching poetry writing there at the time. I figured the real story was that neither of the usual guys wanted to teach more than the other and things had come to blows, so they came up with this “let’s get a woman in here” idea to even things out. Which might have been true or true-ish, or maybe I’m way off. Who knows. Anyway.
The female poet, who could write, came in there early in the quarter and asked us to recite stuff from memory. Some people could do it. We had to memorize stuff for a later time and recite it then. When that time came, we saw why: it was great. It was almost as great as when friends read beautiful things they’ve made, but better in a way, because everyone’s face was up and open and you could see the consciousness bouncing in and around the things they were saying… A lovely memory blooming here of an even-voiced friend speaking the final stanza of Jarrell’s 90 North into a room cut by planks of coppery late-afternoon light–
I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness–that the darkness flung me–
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
–the neat silence after her voice rising and crashing, the table quiet as a beach after the retreat of a great wave. I love that poem, with its strange story about the dangers of investment in the black seas and ice floes of childhood, of valorizing struggle for one tiny ego’s sake.
So that was nice. Other things happened, but they weren’t as important. Some of them were weird. The weirdest thing happened at the end of the term, when I went to this poet’s house to talk about some writing I’d turned in. That was when/where she’d said she wanted to meet, which made sense, since she was packing up to leave the next day. Still weird.
On that overcast Saturday I drove to the place, climbed an unsteady staircase to the second-story front door, and rang the bell. I’d been to office hours earlier in the term and gotten some pretty interesting and irrelevant stories about coast-to-coast love affairs and Italian romance and stuff. I rang a few times and no one answered, and I was almost back at my car when I heard the door open and the poet call out.
She apologized for not having my writing stuff there and said she’d write me from home with comments (still waiting). She proffered the following from her refrigerator, which she was cleaning out: peanut butter, jam, butter, fruit, and another kind of peanut butter with valencia peanuts. Then she handed me two bananas.
Throughout all of this, this person was wearing what I can describe only as a sort of obese man’s formal vest (and jeans)–unbuttoned. I had been trying not to look, but that was stupid, because there was somewhat of a discrepancy, or really two discrepancies, between, uh, container and contained. I stood there with the bananas, super confused. Like…was this an elaborate ploy, some kind of poetico-sexual entrapment? But the fruit was way too over the top for that. How could this person not notice… or feel…?
I still don’t know if it was my face or the momentum that called her attention to the situation, but something did. It ended as you probably think. I drove home and put the bananas in the fruit bowl and looked at them, feeling, for some reason, ashamed. It was real funny.
See, we had to have a woman poet.