Meeting the Author

As a teenager, I lived in an apartment in Queens,

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one of the so-called outer burroughs of New York.  It was a staid, middle class neighborhood of sixteen story apartment buildings and, on the older blocks, single family houses.  We lived in a complex of five buildings called Park City Estates.  It was neither a park nor an estate.  The buildings were arranged in a semi-circle, at the center of which sprouted a tall fountain lit by multi-colored lights. Inside our eighth floor apartment, in a corner of the living room, next to the terrace, stood a floor to ceiling bookcase.  There, proudly placed, were an assortment of books from The Book of the Month Club.  Carl Sandberg’s six volume biography of Lincoln, The Canterbury Tales with etchings, a book on Kennedy with a blue slipcase.  Part of the household’s cultural furniture, they were rarely touched.
    In the room I shared with my brother, I spent years poring through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, a book of English and American poetry, with pictures of the poets.  I loved those little pictures, which in some way seemed to bring the poets into our apartment.  I also tried my own hand at poetry.  Handwritten page after page, sometimes in green ink.  It was all a very private affair.
    When I went off to college in upstate New York, I met my first real poet.  He was a huge man.  Six foot two, weighing close to three hundred fifty pounds, he established presence.  His weight had power.  With the long reddish brown beard of a prophet, he could have stepped out of a page of the Bible.
    I took a class from him, and attended every one of his poetry readings.  Whether I understood his poems or not (and now I realize that I didn’t always), I was swept up in the deep river of his voice.  He seemed like an alchemist, full of depth.

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There was never a question that here, in this poet, was the real thing.  In him, I saw the writer fully and vitally in the public realm.  My secret life could come into the light. 
    But here is another part of being near, even occasionally talking to, my first author.  While I have still never met any writer as well read, particularly in arcane fields of knowledge, and while I have still never met any writer as prolific, I’ve also never met another writer quite so obscure.  This is hard to admit.  At the time, his rare and intricate intelligence intimidated me.  Did it perhaps also send me into a wilderness of complexity and nuance which it would take me years to find my way out of?  The inspiration was powerful, but was his model the most appropriate one for my own writing?  Coming from the desert of Queens did I sign on as his acolyte for too long?

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I suspect that most writers have met an author who wound up being crucial to their own sense of self.  My writer certainly did that. Through his work and the example of his life, he gave me permission to be a writer.  But he also now makes me wonder.  Just what sort of power does such a writer have over us?  Just what needs do they fill?And, now that we are mentors for younger writers, what can or should we provide for them?  Finally, how much of what we provide is up to us and how much will be determined, like it or not, by those younger writers, their own dreams and desires?

Posted on behalf of Mark Karlins

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Meeting the Author

  1. Sarah Ellis

    Yes, permission to be a writer. It really comes from ourselves but so often we don’t recognize that we’re ready and we seem to need someone else to turn on the ignition switch. For me it was also a poet. I went to a poetry reading by P.K. Page one fall afternoon when I was seventeen and newly at university. Something about the occasion, the beauty of the poet’s voice, her elegance, the quality of listening in the audience, made me think, “I could do this.” I never did become a poet or elegant but I know that something shifted in me that day.

  2. Julie Larios

    I suspect you’re right, Mark – we all have these Alchemists somewhere along the way, and I’m still under the influence of mine. Not sure that will ever change – though what I feel now is a lingering desire to meet his high standards (I still work like heck to make sure that if he were reading something I wrote, I would be proud of my choices) rather than a desire to write like him, which was the case while I was a student. Being too in awe of him sent me into the “wilderness of complexity” you mention, for years, and I often struggle to get back into a simpler, less baroque landscape of my own. It wasn’t his fault, actually, that I fell so far under his influence – it was just the right moment, right material, right process (which is what alchemy is all about, after all.) I certainly hope some of my own students are transformed during our time together, but “influence” is something to think about and be careful with as a teacher. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. timwynnejones

    Beautiful piece, Mark. My inspiration and mentor died only a couple of weeks ago. My relationship to him was complex and not entirely healthy. I came to realize that I wanted him to be an artist and writer and teacher and father and guide and life-style guru and moral compass and friend and father…did I mention father? We can, as young aspirants, expect too much from the ones who set us on the path. The man in question in my own life never assumed any of these roles other than teacher and, yes, friend, later on, although I was never quite comfortable in that role, more’s the pity. He did one other exceptional thing: he introduced me to my wife. Indeed, I believe he orchestrated our meeting. Talk about an influence!

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