But I am. I am. (Thoughts on Influence)
“I wanted to feel exalted so I picked up / Dr. Zhivago again.—Jim Harrison, “Letters to Yesenin” (Selected & New Poems: 1961-1981)
I was reminded of this line yesterday, when my friend Brit quoted it to me in conversation. We’d been talking about how certain poems mark you, influencing the shape and tone of your life.
After I hung up the phone, I went to my bookshelf and brought down the volume in which the line appears, rereading all the other parts I’d underlined and committed to memory, back when I studied the collection as a high school writer in Michael Delp‘s “Tradition and Individual Talent” class at Interlochen Arts Academy. That was almost a quarter century ago, and it’s clear to me now that I was given a set of guidelines, a sort of handbook for living, because those poems entered my blood at a time when I needed them. Many have accompanied me ever since.
It’s a lovely and strange feeling to find in the margins of dog-eared paperback, the early stirrings of a personal philosophy; to recognize how this has shaped my writing and teaching and how I live, in fairly profound ways.
As one of my earliest teachers, Delp reinforced the value of the work itself, paying attention, and cultivating a connection to the natural world. He would be the first to say that credentials and professional accolades don’t a poet make. Instead, he reminded us, his young poetry students, “How vain it is to sit down to write if you’ve not stood up to live.” (Thoreau) When I left his classroom back in 1992, I took that advice to heart, and it’s rarely been far from my thoughts during all the years since.
A good poetry class can be a course in how to live (or in life-saving, as the case may be) and most of what Delp said to us carried secret and not-so-secret warnings about how not to waste the gift we’d been given. In Under the Influence of Water: Poems, Essays, Stories (Wayne State University Press), there’s a prose poem,”Second Warning,” in which he writes: “The river is like medicine. The idea of the river packs in close to your life and stays with you as a form of protection. You will always be aware of its presence.”
This June, Delp and I will be back at Interlochen Center for the Arts as colleagues; he’ll teach the poetry track at the 11th annual Interlochen Writers Retreat, while I’ll offer private manuscript consultations for poets. I encourage you to seize the opportunity to work with him, or with both of us, if you can. It’s no average poetry class, and you’ll find that you leave with much more than poems.
When Delp retired from teaching full time in Interlochen’s Creative Writing program a couple of years ago, I found myself reflecting on what it had meant for me to work under his influence when I was so young. I found my notes this morning. Here’s what I wrote:
I felt a kinship with his irreverence and sought the intensity and conviction he embodied. Delp expected us to work hard, had no tolerance for indolence or self-pity, and pointed us toward essential texts (not the Western Canon, but instead, the ones he loves) and pierced the myths. There were incantations, talismans, and the spiritual music of Bob Dylan often filled our classroom. I remember holy fires on the beach, laughter, and realizing what a beginner I was, though I had a profound thirst, a drive, and this powered me through doubt, self-consciousness, and unrelenting uncertainty. Gradually, we learned what it would take to earn passage into the life in art that so many of us longed for.
Delp often shouted at me in the hallway outside class “Hey Spaulding, Pay Attention!” Like the Zen master who admonishes the lazy meditator, those words were the thwack on the back of the neck with a bamboo stick when my mind was elsewhere, my gaze unfocused. I wanted to shout back “But I am. I am, Delp!” Maybe I did shout back. In any case, those words were written in me so that I would not forget them and because of this, I wake up everyday determined to live and write so that I can still claim that “I am. I am paying attention.”
At 18, I wanted to sit in a row-boat on Green Lake until my heart spoke something true. I wanted my hands to know the sensitivity of the fisherman, the way I imagined he must lift the shimmering trout from rivers, not killing them, but seeing these swimming creatures in their full fishness. Marveling, then putting them back where they belong.
I was part-wolf, a girl-poet being born into an often inhospitable world, where illegibility or strangeness will meet with misunderstanding, even hostility. I wanted to write about what I saw, and how I felt about it, what I thought it meant. I needed pathfinders to teach me the devotions necessary to do what I wanted to do, and survive, poet’s soul, and all.
And maybe such a human, with such hands as can hold a trout, not harming it, before letting it back into the wild, could also teach me how to kill—out of hunger, or respect, or to comprehend what’s difficult in our world. I began to hone a useful lethalness. I found my resolve as a young writer, and practiced striking deliberately, with all I had. I also learned to be the quarry. To lie down, be still, give in. I began to learn what it takes to speak truthfully, to stand up and live, and later, to write as best I could.
Years after I left his workshop, I asked Delp if he was still teaching the same books that I had read, back in the day. Didn’t he ever get bored and want to read something else? I thought a few more women poets, and more poets of color would be good, but he stuck to those Harrison poems, the ones that gave me a line that has been an essential mantra ever since: “We don’t get back those days we don’t caress, don’t make love.” And there was Nick Bozanic’s The Long Drive Home, in which one begins to understand how if we’re lucky, we too might fall and fall and always fall “into the unfathomable well of the world.”
Here was the Church of Sensual Inundation. The Church of Rivers. The Church of Surviving on Stew in the Pinacate Desert.The Church of Walkabouts, and the Church of Wildness.A place that preached the spiritual benefits of resistance, reminding us each day that “We are each/ the only world/ we are going to get.”
All those poems taught me to reach toward the questions worth asking. They’ve not made my life easier, but they’ve saved me from forms of meaninglessness and servitude and boredom that are almost always toxic. They also taught me this: “the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it/ into the body first, like small / wild plums.” (Mary Oliver) We all take things in during our education—ideas, instructions, warnings. If we’re lucky, and I was, they’ll give life, perhaps even help us feel exalted from time to time.