when I was in grad school
I had a poetry professor
who wasn’t much of a teacher
but was a lot of fun to drink with.
One evening after a night class
he pulled me aside and said
in a very serious way
“I may drink a whole bottle
of Jack Daniels
and fall down the stairs
but it doesn’t mean
I have to put it in a poem”
which may have been decent career advice
and suddenly made clear his own PG-rated poems.
I was writing autobiographical narratives
like most young poets
and my autobiography was pretty scruffy:
I lived an old apartment with a struggling Army vet
and an undergraduate alcoholic who stood
six feet tall and sometimes set his hair on fire
I was 3rd assistant manager at B. Dalton
which meant I had to steal dinner money
from the cash registers to have a proper meal
I read and believed Baudelaire when he said
“Be drunk…with wine, virtue, or poetry”
though I would have added dope and fucking
and long mornings staring at the ceiling
with vigor and great seriousness
and eating long slow breakfasts with bacon
and listening to Bo Diddley at midnight
and tongue kissing strangers in Dee’s Bar
I didn’t have insurance and wouldn’t for years
I was a recovering born-again Christian
who woke each morning with God
puking last night’s sins in his ear.
I subsisted on writing and reading
believing that somehow my poverty
might end up useful.
What my professor meant was: be fake.
He meant tell half-truths.
He could have been everyone I knew
at church and work, the people I’d hoped
to ditch by becoming a serious writer.
My professor put his arm on my shoulder.
The other students walked off, maybe
believing I was receiving extra praise.
What my professor meant was: bullshit.
He meant: the way to success
is inaccuracy and a spit-polished life.
I laughed at him, not in a mean way
but because I was stunned.
The language I most loved and wrote in
was barspeak, dive barspeak, and it may
have sounded garbled in a workshop
obsessed with politics but it told more truth
than anything I’d ever heard in a classroom
and I’d have quit writing before I spoke
in anything less than what I heard in the night.
Do I have to say my professor is more successful
than I am and will ever be?
This was more than 20 years ago
it’s still everything that’s wrong with literature
and the general fuckheadedness of the world—
no one telling the truth and claiming it’s the truth.
-- Dave Newman