Two young American poets pitched an idea to a small Singapore press. Separated by an enormous distance, but joined by a common enthusiasm, poets and press have given birth to a striking new anthology. Poets on Growth: An Anthology of Poetry and Craft (Math Paper Press) collects reflections by 22 poets, American and Singaporean, on their poetic origins and journeys. As editors Peter LaBerg and Talin Tahajian puts it, “We wanted the whole story: where did poets we admire start, and how many times did they stop? Did they grow up with writing? What kept them writing, what keeps them writing, and what will keep them writing?” The essays are thoughtfully accompanied by poems from the respective authors.
SP is pleased to bring you the essay by American poet Timothy Liu, and one of his poems from the anthology. Liu’s essay is impressive for being so down-to-earth. This attitude, we learn from his essay, is a lesson learned from an important mentor.
My First Poetic Mentor Was A Welshman Named Leslie
by Timothy Liu
Leslie Norris was my first mentor. Fresh off of my mission, I came to BYU with a passion for poetry without actually having read much of it, only Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume Ariel and a handful of poems I’d encountered as a high-school senior— Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity” and ballads like “Sir Patrick Spence.” I’d heard that Professor Norris was the official Poet-in-Residence, a non-Mormon transplanted from Wales, so one morning, I stopped by his office with three poems and asked him what he thought. After thumbing through them, he said, “Actually, these are not very good. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve heard about you, and I believe you are a serious poet. That makes you one in ten thousand! Never forget that. Just remember that you are a poet whether you write good poems or bad poems.” I was crushed by his response, rode my bike home in tears. I returned the next day with a new sheaf of poems and asked, “What about these?” After a brief interval that seemed an eternity, he said: “Something has happened to you. These are much better!”
These initial meetings took place in the fall of 1986. In the three short years that followed, I took every course and workshop that Professor Norris taught, from the English Romantics to the Modernists to workshops of every level, even sitting in on his graduate workshop in my senior year. He was religious about his office hours, his open door the most welcome sight as I wandered the halls of the Jesse Knight Humanities Building. He talked to me about poets from a land I still have never visited, about Vernon Watkins, about Dylan Thomas’s famous red and blue notebooks that Thomas kept in his youth and that he mined for the rest of his life. Leslie spoke fondly of his wife Kitty. I remember the support he gave me when I was struggling to come out of the closet; he told me to get out of Utah, to do my graduate work elsewhere, somewhere I could just be free to love whomever I chose. On at least one occasion, Leslie threw me out of his class, felt that I was being too cavalier or pompous in my (dis)regard for the work of other poets. I’d show up at his office door prodigally repentant, full of tears and gratitude for his pardon. He kept things real between us.
At a certain point, Leslie said to me, “It’s time for you to work with some American poets. I have taught you everything that I know. I have reserved a spot for you in Richard Shelton’s workshop at Rattlesnake Mountain in the Tri-Cities. It’s about a ten hour drive from here, so get in your car and go.” It was there that I first met William Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye. I’ll never forget hearing Stafford read his poem “St. Matthew and All” or Nye reading her poems “The Yellow Glove” and “What Brings Us Out.” There are these moments of initiation into an art form, when the sublime is irrevocably seared into our consciousness. One suddenly feels a certain kind of possibility, a sense that one’s trajectory in life is about to take a turn. The feeling is incremental at first. You read a poem that stays in the mind. You write a poem that impresses others. But then there’s that great leap, Rilke’s injunction to “change your life,” a command that comes from within, not from without. Leslie was merely the midwife, but back then, I never knew how consequential his thoughtful care would turn out to be.
Several months later, I attended my first Writers at Work Conference, then held in Park City, Utah, and sat at the feet of Marvin Bell, Sandra McPherson, and Robely Wilson Jr. among others. I’ll never forget McPherson’s inscription in my paperback copy of her book Patron Happiness: “With belief in your work.” Who knows what these five words meant to her, or how often she might have inscribed them to others. What mattered was that her inscription gave me permission to think about my own future as a poet in a new way. Sometimes, vital support and encouragement comes from without, not within. It’s like we need to know that we can actually do this crazy (a)vocation called Poesy. I remember trying to cozy up to Robely Wilson Jr. (then the Editor of the North American Review), and when I asked “Robely” what publishing advice he had for young aspiring writers, he said, “That’s easy: never assume you have a relationship with someone when you don’t.” Ouch. So much for my initial forays into the art of the schmooze. At some point, I enrolled in a workshop taught by Tess Gallagher when she came through Salt Lake. The cult of Tess, Raymond Carver’s widow. And the shock of hearing her read a poem like “Cougar Meat.” The fetish of having her sign a clothbound copy of Amplitude: New and Selected Poems, the red- copper foil embossed on the cover blazing beneath the jacket.
All these pleasures I faithfully reported to Leslie, and upon graduation, he said to me: “I think you should go work with Philip Levine—he has something to teach you.” And so I headed off to New Harmony, Indiana, to work with Levine for a couple of weeks prior to entering grad school at the University of Houston. As it turns out, I didn’t win Mr. Levine’s approbation, rather his censure for being “a spoiled little yuppie out of California with nothing important to say.” Yet in a private conference over a ten- page manuscript, Levine did circle six lines and said to me, “If I had written these six lines, I would’ve called that a fucking day.” Working with Levine toughened my skin, my resolve: I would continue down this path with or without anyone else’s goddamn approval. The thing is this: Leslie Norris made me feel that I belonged to the world of contemporary American letters. He’d show me the latest galleys Peter Davison would send him from the Atlantic Monthly and say to me: “Tim, send your poems there too. Always send your work to the best magazines—you owe that to your work. Tell Peter that I told you to send him work.” Leslie gave me courage to go out into the real world and not content myself with being a big fish in a small provincial pond.
On my shelves is an inscribed copy of Leslie Norris’s Selected Poems (Poetry Wales Press, 1986). There’s a sentence in the opening poem “Autumn Elegy” that haunts me still. Leslie wrote a Keatsian “ode to autumn” every autumn, invited all of us to do the same. Here, he marvels at a landscape, knowing that his peers who’ve died in the war are no longer able to see it, thus magnifying its beauty and the poet’s own sense of duty: “Yet, if I stare / Unmoved at the flaunting, silent // Agony in the country before a resonant / Wind anneals it, I am not diminished, it is not / That I do not see well, do not exult, / But that I remember again what // Young men of my own time died / In the spring of their living and could not turn / To this.” During my sojourn at BYU, the AIDS crisis was just in its infancy, a new war whose likes had yet to be seen in this world, and this poem would hold for me a special unintended resonance.
The life Leslie Norris lived made his poems true. He was the kind of mentor who went the extra mile at every possible turn. And I know he did the same for countless of other fledgling poets. He taught me that poets do not exist in a vacuum but in constellations across space and time. Through him, I met so many other poets who helped me on my way. And it is through his great example that his spirit now ripples on out throughout his poetic legacy and through all of us who have answered the call.
by Timothy Liu
I drew his face on a sidewalk,
not with chalk but with
my mouth, my lips moist
against the hot cement
where girls had been playing
hopscotch all afternoon
until they were called in—
street lamps coming on,
shielding our neighborhood
from the stars. He taught me
names for constellations
easy to forget—secret
passwords left on my body
the hoses can’t flush away.
Reprinted by permissions of author, editors, and publisher, the essay “My First Poetic Mentor Was A Welshman Named Leslie” and the poem “Mentor” first appeared in Poets on Growth: An Anthology of Poetry and Craft, edited by Peter LaBerg and Talin Tahajian (Math Paper Press, 2015).
Timothy Liu was born in 1965 in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mainland China. He is the author of nine books of poems, including Don’t Go Back To Sleep, hot off the press from Saturnalia Books.Translated into ten languages, Liu’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Bomb, Paris Review, The Pushcart Prize, Virginia Quarterly Review and The Yale Review. His journals and papers are archived in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. Liu is a Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey and lives in Manhattan with his husband.