I don’t know much about motorcycles, except that men seem to like them. My first year of college, I planned to be a writer. I was taking a creative writing class, and that detail about men was reason enough for me to write a motorcycle poem. In it, a man is waxing his bike, and a woman watches. I had little romantic experience at that point, but I already knew that the human need for love was going to drive me artistically. Now, I’ll get bored occasionally with the status quo—doing more of the same, in the same way. So instead of crafting here a well-behaved essay, with tight focus, I’ve mixed it up. Today’s piece winds between the search for love, the ways of teachers, and the methods and idiosyncrasies of poets. Are you scratching your head, thinking, “Those things go together?” Yes, they do—so follow along, and I’ll illustrate. I don’t know about you, but it’s reassuring to me to hear other people’s stories, to be reminded I’m not the only one walking some wobbly blacktop through life.
I walked up to the classroom door, my mouth dry from a mix of hope and dread. Behind that door, the Irish poet and future Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, would be teaching a poetry workshop. The day before, I’d gone to the organizational meeting for the class. There were many of us there, hoping to be admitted to the workshop—most were Harvard undergrads. A tormenting angel whispered on my shoulder, reminding me of the ways I didn’t belong. I worked on Harvard’s support staff, neither student nor faculty. I was from the Midwest, a “rural girl” whose dad was an underground miner and whose mother grew roses, glistening beside the sauna door. I liked to write about my father’s iron-stained work clothes, those glistening roses—had earned a BA, writing about them. At the organizational meeting, Heaney had explained that he could admit only twelve students. He said we should submit poems. He would place a drop box outside the classroom door, and he would read our poems and decide. He’d said, “I’ll have to be brutal.” I had submitted poems, and now the class list was posted on the forbidding door. I held my breath, narrowed my eyelids, and looked. My name was on it! He’d been brutal, and my name was there. Of course, that meant other names weren’t there.