The first time I went to college I earned an English degree. And not one of those technical B.S. degrees, mind you, but a philosophically pure, doing-it-for-love-of-the-language-and-literature Bachelor of Arts degrees.
I had no idea about planning for the future. I had no idea what it took to get a job and earn a living. I was beginning to suffer from bipolar illness and was very depressed much of the time. And when I wasn’t, I still had extremely low self-esteem.
I began to feel like I was really doing something worthwhile when I started taking poetry workshops from Kathy Callaway and writing poetry. She was our writer-in-residence and she taught me that what I was doing with poetry was important to someone—if only to the small writing workshops and seminars she taught.
I thought she was the greatest person ever to teach at Mankato State University. And in the area of writing she easily could have been. I had such a huge, sloppy, dependent crush on her. I stopped by her house either on a Saturday or a late afternoon when she wasn’t teaching. I think I was hoping we’d sit and chat about poets she had met or she would give me some secret that would help me get a first book of poetry published by age 22. Of course, the fact that I couldn’t distinguish a crush from physical attraction made the situation even more potentially disastrous
Instead of any of these possibilities becoming real, I felt the wrath of a very private person who had her own problems to deal with. I wrote her a note of apology in which I promised not to treat her like a “fifth Beatle.” She apologized for going so far with her anger. However, she let me know in no uncertain terms that I was NOT to bother her outside of school hours.
My idea of intimacy was changed by Kathy Callaway. What she gave me was much more than her physical presence. For the first time I was introduced to contemporary writers who believed that the life “of the mind” was worth pursuing and cultivating.
Without fail, Kathy used her poetry as a window onto the possibilities that writing poems allowed, unafraid to reveal her own crowded biography in the process. Her beautiful but ill friend, Françoise, “shattering” the eggs of geese “like heresies.” In the poem, “Staple Supplies,” she visits a diner during winter, “…curing puerperal fever with a hangover. This is Duluth, so the man on my right is old, has a gutted face, is talking.” And the final lines of the poem broadcast some kind of quiet hope. And I think she’s telling us that although this is the hope she discovered for herself, we are capable of it if we’re willing to go through the journey:
“At the top I turn facing the lake and see
white straight out for miles, sundogs in all directions,
and out of the deep blue fissures in the bay
already the steam columns are rising. They’re
fixed sixty feet in the air, all day, all day,
towers of clarity, etchings with no ink
and I’m leaning, pressed whole on the empty air
printing and printing.”
To be able to say such things with a poem was as unsettling to me as finding out your first-grade teacher smoked in the break room. I thought that the idea of including yourself in the poem, or any art form, was to call attention to yourself in an attempt to create fame and generate income.
Instead, Kathy performed the more serious task of pleasing herself first while taking care to produce something that is neither intellectually nor emotionally sloppy.
And for her students, the children of Swedes and Germans who saw only work ahead for their descendants, Kathy invited poets like Gerald Stern and William Stafford to spend a day or two with us, teaching and reading their work. I wondered if she ever questioned her ability to turn at least a few of us into poets. Did she make her efforts in spite of her knowledge of our uncertain writing futures?
In the last poem of her book, Heart of the Garfish, Kathy talks about her mother—a special education teacher from the days when people used cruel words to describe the kids in such classrooms:
She’s in a cast-shot of the school’s
Peter Pan. An enraptured Captain Hook
looms over her; Wendy looks sly,
and the star in green rags
weeps with a loneliness he cannot put to words.
A giant, a mongoloid, an autistic in camouflage—
mother’s in the middle, holding hands
as if love and connection might be willed.
A stubborn look to her eye.
Never mind history, it says.
Here we all are.