To A Few of My Mentors: Martin Lammon and Susan Atefat

Rarely do I write about what used to be my primary passion: poetry.  I write poetry. I sometimes review poetry books, but I do not write about poetry as such so much. Furthermore, I have never really written about the four or five writers who I worked with closely who truly influenced my writing–as a craft and philosophically.

The reason why this is so particularly interesting is that I have very little immediately in common with either Susan or Marty.  I spent hours debating with them on which poets to read, arguing about if I read too much philosophy, and if my poetry was too obscure. Before Susan and one of her two sons died in 2004 in a tragic car wreck on Jordan, I would spend hours on a chair in her office discussing my tendency to overuse “o” sounds in poems, the tendency I had for homeric adjectives, and my often deliberately jarring syntax.

Susan Atefat-Peckham, as I knew her, was the first professor I was truly close with, and Martin Lammon was the first that I truly butted up against productively.  Lammon found me–rightly I may add–testy and over-ambitious, pushing others hard and often over-committing myself to projects.  My poetry–at that time largely influenced by Nicanor Parra, Charles Olsen, and Erza Pound–was often at odds with Marty’s more deep image poetry influenced by Robert Bly and Donald Hall.   Much has been said about both them in the years since but both profoundly changed me.

When Susan died I had just been married for a half-year, before she had left to Jordan, I had met with her and her husband Joel to celebrate my own marriage. Two years later, a new professor, Allen Gee, at the MFA program I was in handed me a few of Susan’s books that were left in his office and were unclaimed by her family, and a checkbook that had fallen out my pocket into her chair. I watched the scrawl of Susan’s notes on the Merchant of Venice, and almost cried.  I started working out some poems about death in my twenties, about Rumi which Susan used to encourage me to read, and about trael.  I finished a collection, Sometimes, Grey Bodies, but sat on it until finally sending it to publishers for consideration last year.  It was far too personal: not just about Susan’s death, but a girlfriend’s still birth, the beginning and hints of the end of my first marriage, and times being briefly homeless as a late teen and watching man slowly die of AIDS in Atlanta.  It was a dark book, but it was brought about by an very kind person.

Alice Friman told me the poems got a bit overwhelming and traumatically-themed: “the end is a bloody mess” and it was, almost literally.  It suffered from my fear of writing about myself. I occulted my personality artistically, and let the words where about wrestling with the inability to express this trauma.  I hated and resented “therapy writing” and yet I was doing it without being aware.  When I sat down to start working on the book again, I opened a copy of Susan’s book and found her inscription to be: “Do not be afraid to live a life vulnerably, and you will have a life of poetry.”

It was from the first month we met when I was an undergraduate.  I started to revise Sometimes, Grey Bodies with that in mind. Letting the tension from my want to pull myself out of my poetry and my tension to express something in me that was deeply hurt. Not to heal it, or even to get attention for it, but to turn it into something else.   It took eight years of revisions for me to finally accept the book I wrote.

Marty’s influence was different: he introduced to many poets.  Through him I had college cafeteria lunches with Charles Simic and Christian Wiman, had conversations with Natasha Trethewey, exchanged a few words with Billy Collins, and met Andrei Codrescu pissing in a urinal in New Orleans.  I was in my early 20s, and in many ways, barely knew what these people who embarked on a writing life did. Marty was a man who found talent, and pressed it.  He pressed me to control my syntax, and to play against my love of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Michael Palmer, writing poems about Wittgenstein and sex, and to control my line.

When I had a major crisis in my family, Marty helped me out. He found the right reader of my thesis in the poet and pianist Oni Buchanan, and he put up with my fiscal problems as my health and marriage started turning in my late 20s. While I have spoken to professors from those years since I left the US, I have not had a chance to talk to Marty. To express my gratitude, and to tell him I am still in for the long haul despite years of ranting about obscure politics and being a teaching mercenary.  He has a book coming out–his first in a long time.  You should read it.

When writing this, I realize it has become hard for me to express what this did for me. Susan-Atefat pushed me into being self-honest, Marty into honing my craft. Without Marty, most of the people I was effected by would not have been in my life.  The third poet who taught probably affected me the most, but my thanks to Laura Newbern is its own essay.

Reading this I am struck by how un-lyrical I am writing about these two individuals, who probably shaped me way more than I did them. I suspect that they found me strange, demanding, but worth encouraging and cultivating. On days when I think I should quit teaching, or stop writing poems, which honestly, has popped in my head more than once: Marty and Susan not so quiet voices in my head.

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