Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Steve Orlen Taught Me


I was one of Steve's students at Warren Wilson MFA Program. It was my second semester, after my semester with Joan Aleshire, before my semester with Tony Hoagland. The genius of the program had something to do with that: I was "shaped" by a exactly who I needed at the time. When it was time to work with Steve, I was ready to fall apart, as Ellen Bryant Voigt had told a friend of mine when my friend was falling apart, I was doing right on time. During my semester with Steve, I went from working for an import/export company and being in a relationship to living alone in a very small cabin on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and teaching half-days at a basic education lab 30 minutes away in Port Angeles. (It was by the way, the most magnificent drive to work: past Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Forest, the Dungeness Spit, a herd of elk.) This was before I had email. The only person I called was my mother. And the only person I got letters from was Steve when he responded to the packets of poems and annotations I'd sent to him.

I wasn't doing any drugs, but I was very much experimenting with my mind. I felt that at the end of my 20s I ought to face what needs to be faced and write what needs to be written. Alone. In the Woods. My mind, I discovered, was a very tricky place. If I hadn't been teaching mostly people from the reservations and reading about their cultures and worldview, I might have just turned myself in at mental institution. Instead, I just stayed with it and, in order to maintain a sort of balance, I wrote Sonnets.

They were horrible sonnets. And Steven said so, except for one in which I placed Daphne in the modern-day world. The others were pure drama and rhapsody. Fortunately, my goal wasn't to write good poems during this time. I was learning rhythm, form and toying with that impossible paradox that constraint lends itself to freedom. This is the stuff Steve and I wrote about in our letters. The heavy heavy. But the way Steve wrote about the heavy heavy was so graceful, as though he were discussing a movie he liked. The mind was familiar territory to him, and he could follow me just about anywhere and enjoy the journey with a soft smile. The things that terrified me had already terrified him and he had come to terms with coming to terms with terror. He let me feel that the mind was something we can get used to. I remember one particularly searching letter in which he meditated on various "equalizers" in our lives, among them: death, and some of the letter were smeared. In the p.s. he explained he had "schnoodled" just as he was putting the letter together and apologized for the snot. Like this, the profound and the bodied co-dwelled in the six months we corresponded. I stopped with the sonnets after a bit and discovered I could write very long poems. I'd never explored that before, and I think it had everything to do with having Steve as a teacher and living with my solitude. I had space.

From the constraints of sonnet work I burst into the field of the long narrative poem, using the form to write my story, to find the poetry in the real things of my adolescence. I was deep-sea diving into my past and retrieving some stuff. It wasn't yet poetry, though. Strangely, when the faculty at the basic ed lab went to a conference at Western Washington University, I went for a walk and found an antique store which had a train set like the one my father had set up for us in the basement of our house in Canada. The smell of the smoke-making oil shot through me. I sat down next to it and wrote a poem. After, I wandered into a bookshop nextdoor and in the poetry section found a book by Steve, Permission to Speak. It was, it said on the back, his first book. In my next packet to Steve, I only sent the poem about the trainset and told him I'd found his book. He made some suggestions on the poem and wrote that he didn't think anyone had that book. He also spent more time writing about the poem I'd sent, drawing my attention to why it actually worked as a poem, why it was, in essence, the first successful thing I'd written, the thing that could stand alone in the world.

Steve knew, as I wish all teacher knew, that poetry is a process that take place only in a very small part on the page. He was my teacher at the very moment that I was becoming a poet, when I was letting go of so many parts of myself, the very way I had been shaped to think and perceive. Because he had already let go of these things and found a poet's path through the world, he was comfortable with my wild journey. I remember signing off a letter, "I'll go for a walk now to burn off some of this restlnessness. Maybe I'll get eaten by a panther." I thought it might have been too much. But he never judged, never restrained and, most importantly, he never, ever once pontificated or otherwise used my vulnerability to his advantage. He never crossed any of the invisible lines.

I consider myself among the luckiest of poets because I had the gift of working with Steve Orlen. I think of all his other students and know they also experienced his vastness, his ability to hold space for students without owning them, over-stepping or ever molding them in his likeness. He was an expansive man. And as much as one recalls Ben Jonson's words following Shakespeare's death, "a light has gone from the world," in seeing the words of Steve's colleagues and friends all over the Facebook world and how we, his students, are contacting each other, planning suppers in his memory, I don't think a light has gone from the world. I think it is just beginning to shine.

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