Thursday, November 11, 2021

Little things


The poet and translator Brooks Haxton taught briefly at the University of Maryland in the mid-1980s, en route to his long tenure at Syracuse. As a sophomore, I was a student in his Introduction to Creative Writing course. He assigned The Voice That Is Great Within Us anthology, which in 1985 already felt like a hippy, of-its-era relic to me, yet I ended up really digging it. For one assignment Haxton had us each choose a poem to memorize and recite to class; I selected Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away From Them" because I worshipped New York City and I loved the observant, alive, streetwise voice in the poem, still do. I can recite most of it to this day. Haxton, Mississippi-bred, was a demonstrative, somewhat odd presence in class, with his bulging bug-eyes and his manic, lopsided grin, the theatrical ways he read the poems and stories aloud. I remember that at least one woman in the class was turned off by his behavior, but her distaste was beyond my emotional ken at the time; I think she felt he was a little creepy, the way he'd talk frankly about sex, in his poems and in other work. I loved him and his angular, excited energy, and stoked a crush on him throughout the semester.

I wrote a bit about choosing that O'Hara poem a couple of years back, but I've been thinking more about Haxton lately as the semester, an overall difficult one, comes grinding to a close. What I most fondly recall was a single, small conversation I had with him on campus as we strolled the large green that sprawled at the foot of McKeldin Library. We were both heading to our respective classes, and I think we'd surprised each other on the way. I remember clumsily if earnestly raving to him about Jack Kerouac and The Beats, with whom I was still besotted, in particular Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose theory, which I perceived as a kind of holy writ. Haxton listened and smiled gently as I enthused, and I could sense then that his style in class was in fact a bit of a performance; here, with me, he was thoughtful, dialed-back. He agreed with me about Kerouac, but shared his skepticism of "first thought, best thought," and his feelings that revision, not spontaneity, was crucial in writing. I was crestfallen! And, naturally, I doubled-down and argued back. Revision wasn't sexy or punk rock; writing on speed at three in the morning was! Now, I know...then I was too young and cocky, my horizon only feet away, to understand, or to care. I smile when I think of how kind he was to listen to a kid on his way to class when he might've preferred to be alone, how kind he was to hear me out and to take the effort to gently steer me toward a more sophisticated way of thinking about writing, and art.

The little things. The conversation lasted maybe a minute, yet I've never forgotten it, and one teacher's patience with, and interest in, an upstart. I try and pay it forward.

Photo of Haxton by George Tatge

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