April’s Coming After March: Thoughts on Poetry, Nods to Death

Back in the 1990’s I was on friendly terms with the staff at the Academy of American Poets, back when April was made National Poetry Month. I recall brief conversations with Bill Wadsworth, then director, and his colleague, Matt Brogan, about the designation. Did they ask my opinion? Obliquely perhaps. At the time I wouldn’t have been honest anyway. A committee of my far-betters, I’m sure, had already made the decision to corral April for itself. I was probably pleased to be consulted at all; the Academy was helping to fund a reading series I coordinated in South Carolina, and I was very grateful for that help. Poets who appeared in that series included Mark Strand and William Matthews, both of whom have since died, Strand just a few months ago. Reynolds Price, featured, with Matthews, in the last year of the series, is also gone. I have keen memories of my lucky time with each of these men: carrying bottles of wine for Mark after he’d raided the cellar of the restaurant where we’d lunched; sitting in the wings on separate occasions as Bill Matthews leaned to take a rose from a woman in the audience and as Reynolds lifted himself from his wheelchair, both of them beaming in the waves of applause. None of these memories was made in April (and Reynolds was known for his fiction). The series ended as an outcome of my struggles with administration, my battles on behalf of the artists. There was trouble from the beginning. When Rita Dove, in town as our guest with her daughter and her husband, requested comp tickets for a chamber music concert, certain highly-placed festival staff grumbled. I was completely aware of how many free tickets floated around town; I’d been the recipient of some myself. The idea that Rita Dove, a featured artist in the festival, a Poet Laureate of the U.S. and an accomplished chamber musician, could not be given a few seats for an event other than her own was absurd. I ignored that scrawling on the wall and continued obsessing with the series for several more years. There was little money in it, of course. I got a small honorarium. But money is always the point. When scandal hit the festival (you should recognize that it’s Charleston’s Spoleto), the local newspaper tittered that the lit series’ budget was 25 K; it was never more that five thousand. I should have cultivated wealthy hostesses. I should have been more fabulous or wealthy myself to be so involved with supporting the arts, poetry in particular. I should have sought an M.F.A., had expectations of a middle-class professorial income, and not heeded the advice of my early heroes in the art that poetry should be in the world, not confined to academia. Ha! So April is well into its second decade as National Poetry Month. Back then, I was filled with joy to be well engaged with putting poetry into the world, but perhaps I should have said that the pedantry of classifying one month for this, the next for those people, is demeaning. It’s so American in a bad sense; it “means well,” but it stinks of money-making and ducks in a row. I came to poetry via European poets and the chaos of history and emotional life. Should I be jealous of Rita, because as a black woman and a poet she gets three consecutive months? Hélas! Someone once said, “A life dedicated to making poems is a life dedicated to finding a cure for a terrible disease.” I should know. I said it, and I’ve got it. March just barely, here’s to the poem, whenever it moves, delights, or invades you.

P.S. to whomever–My first-ever blogging, these remarks come in the wake of enjoying, over the past few days, multiple posts by Charles Simic, another hero of mine, on the website of The New York Review of Books. Reading his rants, praises, analyses, and memories, I felt I was having a series of chats with him, chats I was too shy to attempt many years ago when he was my teacher. It’s all been very nice, helping me to recover from a lingering flu and attendant mental weariness. And heck, if Charlie can blog, why, oh why, can’t I?

–Quitman Marshall