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A Career Called Poet

I have been writing poetry since I was about six years old, and made it through several years of Radcliffe thinking that there was a career called “poet,” in which I could make a living by writing poems. I’m not sure where I got that idea or how I sustained it, but perhaps it was because it was the sixties. I started at Radcliffe in fall 1966.


Some highlights I remember from those years: Borges and Robert Creeley’s visits and readings—the former so learned and beyond me, the latter so irreverent. Creeley started by saying he was thrilled to be reading at an institution that he’d been kicked out of! I remember at that time at Harvard, poetry ended with Robert Frost. I had to get some kind of special dispensation to write about the Black Mountain Poets after Creeley’s visit. Other highlights: Discovering Osip Mandelstam’s poems (then untranslated) in the Widener library stacks. The contrast between serving lunch at the Harvard Club and working as a waitress at the Blue Parrot. 


All this time, I was writing (and very occasionally submitting) poetry. A poem of mine, “Chameleons in Captivity,” appeared in the December 1967 issue of The Harvard Advocate, a publication that literally changed my life.


A Harvard alum in the creative writing graduate program at San Francisco State University brought the poem to class. He showed it to his friend, Larry Rafferty, who wrote me my first fan letter:


Dear Meryl (I hope this is your real name),


I happened to see the issue of The Advocate in which your poem, “Chameleons in Captivity,” appeared. It is an exceptionally fine poem & I am moved to know more about you & see more of your work. 

I was poetry editor of the literary magazine at U.C.L.A. I am now doing graduate work in Creative Writing at San Francisco State. 

Hopefully, we could establish some sort of contact between what I’m told are very different worlds (I suspect that may be nothing but the confusion of external forms). 

At any rate I’m including one of my poems so that you can decide whether or not you might find the relationship fruitful. 


Larry Rafferty


P.S. I think the footnote is superfluous. 


You can imagine what a thrill it was to receive a letter from an older poet in mythical California. Distances were longer then.


We began corresponding (actual letters back and forth!) and exchanging poems. We met in the summer of 1968 when he came through Cambridge on his way to Canada. Larry had decided to leave the country rather than serve in Vietnam. The best way to do this was through a network set up to support war resistors in Montreal. On his way, he stopped to meet me.


I remember that evening so clearly. School was over for the summer, and I was a living in an attic apartment in Cambridge, a third-floor walkup. I had a difficult job working with autistic children in the state hospital in Waltham. It had been an awful day, and was one of those hot, unbearably humid, breathless evenings. I had stripped down to underwear and was lying flat out on the bed, too tired to eat. The doorbell rang. I threw on a shapeless dress and headed down the three narrow flights. At the bottom was a stranger with a brush cut in a short-sleeved madras shirt. When I learned that this was Larry, I was so disappointed; he looked utterly square. But I didn’t have a choice. I invited him in. 


It didn’t take long to learn that despite having cleaned up his appearance to immigrate to Canada, he was anything but boring and conventional. We spent most of that night walking the cooling streets, and talking, talking, talking. He was much better read than I, could recite Pound by heart. He knew about a whole group of West Coast poets I had never heard of: Lew Welch, Jack Spicer, Weldon Kees. Listening to him was like an enchantment. That connection through poets and poetry had begun and remained a constant thread in the years that followed. 


Larry went to Montreal and secured a job teaching high-school English in Saskatchewan; a few weeks later I took the train to Montreal and hitchhiked across Canada with him. I left him in Regina and flew to Berkeley to visit my roommate who was starting grad school there. It was 1968. A lot was happening outside of school. I came back for the fall semester of my junior year, but Harvard had lost its luster. What was I doing in gray winter classrooms, when life was churning outside? At the end of Fall term I decided to take a leave of absence (which I’m still on) and joined Larry in Canada.


Both Larry and I wrote daily, and for the first years of our time together we had the dream of making a living through writing. Of course, while writing, we had a series of other jobs, along with four children. Until 1974 Larry was a Federal fugitive, and though we came back to the US after he got his Canadian citizenship, he was swept up in a routine traffic stop right before the amnesty and taken to the stockade at Fort Ord. We had two toddlers and a baby at that time, and it was a dark period. But with help from family—and a lawyer—we managed to secure Larry’s release after six weeks. It helped that the mood of the country had swung against the war.


Those years living outside the law shaped our lives. Neither of us held a corporate or academic job. With unstable work and a growing family, poetry was last on the list—and it was a long list. I was focused on learning to do “real” things: raise farm animals, solder a pipe, change spark plugs. Looking back, I think those years, when we were scrambling to make ends meet, hungry for authenticity and purpose, were the perfect way to spend our twenties and early thirties. Those were years when many of our peers were embroiled in protest, a loose but sustaining community. 


Not that there weren’t difficult times both between us and between us and the world. We moved 17 times in those first 10 years, and being broke is exhausting. I often thought of Albee’s line from Zoo Story, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way to come back a short distance correctly.”


During that time I had nothing like a poetry community, and most of the poems I came across didn’t interest me. Perhaps I wrote a poem or two a year through the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Larry shifted from writing to publishing, and started hit & run press in 1974, which focuses on poetry books and broadsides—a hobby, never a job. In 1979 we moved to the Bay Area, and I stumbled into work as a technical writer and trainer. By 1983, I’d started TechProse, and Larry and I worked in it together once it became a real business. 


In the mid-80s we discovered This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, an amazing book about the Nazi camps by Tadeusz Borowski—a concentration camp survivor who wrote poems while in Birkenau and Dachau. Larry found a volume of Borowski’s poems in Polish at the UC Library. They had never been translated into English. I could read enough Polish to tell they were intriguing. Larry and I worked together with a native Polish speaker, Tadeusz Pioro, to translate a selection of these poems. Tad recorded the poems in Polish so we could listen to the originals, and he gave us literal translations. Then each of the three of us would write a version. We came together once a week to draft a unified translation. After several years of this, Larry published the final drafts in a volume that remains the only English version of Borowski’s poems, with an introduction by Stanisław Barańczak.


When I complained to Tad that I hadn’t seen any contemporary poetry that moved me, he loaned me his copy of Sharon Olds’s The Gold Cell. I was blown away by the frank lyricism and specific detail of her writing. When I happened to see an ad in PoetryFlash that mentioned Sharon Olds was teaching a workshop, I applied and was accepted. As usual, I hadn’t read the fine print. I thought we were going to talk about poetry.


When I arrived that first Saturday and went down to dinner, I was met by the imposing, glamorous Galway Kinnell, who announced that we were each going to write a poem that evening, and turn it in by 7:30 in the morning to discuss at morning sessions the next day, and that we’d be doing this every day for a week. I was terrified.


But I found that all the poems that had been buried under the demands of work and children were still there. I wrote each day and managed to keep writing—not daily, but often—when I got home. This workshop became my poetry home. I returned a number of times as I wrote the poems that turned into my first book, Jade Suit, which Larry published in 2001.


I often think back to how upset my parents were when I dropped out of school to live with a bearded, unemployed, non-Jewish deserter from the US Army and decided to get pregnant. How I wish they had lived just a little longer to see how it all turned out. Any long relationship has its snags and rents, but I can’t think of anyone else I would have wanted to spend my life with. In my new book, Catwalk, there are a lot of love poems, the hardest to write without being sentimental or clichéd. Here is one I wrote in Galway’s last workshop at Community of Writers:


Gemstone

Years of drips in just one spot
scar the worn enamel of the sink
one drip at a time
until the powdered glass unfuses its mineral
bond, laying bare the iron underneath,
one black star of use.
So, after forty years your essence
reveals itself: familiar, flawed,
hardened by wear—the one I fell for
before I knew anything, glove
to my hand, derringer in my pocket,
sand in my oyster, four decades
polished to pearl.


Larry is always my first and often most critical reader. A few summers ago, I wrote a poem called "Zucchini Ode," about the way, if you are a new gardener, you inevitably plant too many and are overwhelmed by zucchini. They grow faster than you can imagine what to do with them, you can’t give them away, people start avoiding you, etc. It was shaped into two overflowing triangles. I thought it worked and brought it up to read to Larry.


When I was done, he looked despondent.


“What?” I asked.


“I thought you said ‘Bikini Ode.’ ” Oh. So I wrote this haiku for him:


How artfully it 
draws the eye to just those parts 
it’s meant to hide.


Only the haiku made it into Catwalk.


While I have not had the traditional path to a poetic life, or ever discovered that career called “poet,” poetry has been and remains a sustaining force for me and the central theme of my lifelong love affair with the man who wrote that first fan letter.