Daniel Nathan Terry
Something that is too seldom the subject of articles, posts, blogs, Facebook threads: the generosity of writers, one to the another.
I have been not only witness to this generosity but also blessed by it. Never more so than in this past year. On November 29th of 2012, I received a message from a poet I had never met, but had greatly admired since I saw him read at AWP when I was in undergrad. Jake Adam York, someone I aspired to be more like on the page, wrote this note to me, a poet he did not know:
Just wanted you to know that I think WAXWINGS is a true work of beauty. I’ve just written a review for North Carolina Literary Review that says so. Congratulations. And thank you for writing this.
I cried—not because someone who was better known than I had praised me. Not because I care deeply about my book and how others interact with it (though I do). I cried because a great poet (I have no hesitation in calling him this) who had moved me, so many times, with his poetry had been moved by mine. And more than that—I cried because, until this letter, I had started to believe some of the talk I had been hearing about fiercely competitive writers who cared more about their words than about good words. With one note, Jake Adam York had proved them, proved me, wrong. I guess he gave me back my faith.
Too soon after my faith returned, too soon for everyone, too soon for the good of this planet, Jake Adam York left this life. I will not claim the grief a friend would feel, but I grieved for him and for those he loved. And, selfishly, I grieved for myself. I grieved that whatever poem he last finished was now his last and, therefore, would be my last to read by him. I grieved that I would never be able to shake his hand and tell him how much his words had given me, that he had taught me, in one generous letter, how I should treat my brothers and sisters in the word.
Later, when I caught my breath, I looked back over the year, and I realized I had been the beneficiary of so many other generous brothers and sisters I had never even met before. Poets who included me in readings, who asked for poems, who allowed me to teach their students, who offered advice and held my hand, who had the strength to reject my weaker words and accept my better ones. Poets that gave of themselves in ways they did not have to give, but chose to give. I would write a list here, but it would be longer than any blog should be, and I have a feeling it would embarrass the most selfless among them.
I will say this: the list of these generous writers is longer than any list of grievances and wrongdoings I’ve seen light up (or rather, darken) the internet and college hallways of late.
At a reading after hearing of Jake Adam York’s (I wish I could call him Jake as his note suggested) passing, I read his poem “Radiotherapy.” I could hear people catch their breath when I spoke the last lines:
In the distance someone’s asking
why it won’t stop hurting,
and the church is working like a round,
everyone trying to start
but all anyone can say
is what they’ve said before,
old stories, old prayers
all that’s breaking through.
And then I read a few of my own poems, as I had been asked to do and as I wanted to do. But then I closed with a poem by Malena Morling, “A Story,” with its shattering line “Everyone has a story, / like a string of invisible Christmas lights / wound into the heart.” I would have also read, but forgot my copy on my desk at home, a poem of joy by an emerging, young poet in UNCW’s MFA Program, John Mortara. His poem is called “just for today you are amazing,” and when I read it, I believe I am, and I know you and I are:
on an adventure. i am awesome and you are awesome by association and i am only awesome for today so we better make use of it. your girl/boyfriend agrees and asks if you might manifest some gasoline. why would i want to do that? you say. at that very instant a glimmer forms in your left eye brighter than a thousand supernovas. you tilt your now-glowing head towards the endlessly dismal pine barrens that border the highway. let’s make use of it.
Now I read at least one poem by another poet whenever and wherever I can and to anyone who will listen. It’s a small generosity in a world of great generosities, but it’s a start.