During my junior year of college, my poetry professor gave us three collections to choose from and told us to write an essay about our selection for the end of the semester. It was a small class – maybe twenty of us on a full day – and most of our time was spent workshopping each other’s pieces. I was one of only two juniors in the class, and I felt intimidated by my classmates, not because they were better poets than me (I don’t remember how any of us ranked in that regard, though I’m sure many of them were), but because they seemed so comfortable with themselves and with each other. I, on the other hand, made sure to come to class early so I could get the seat that pressed into the back corner, slightly outside the circle of desks.
The only downside to that seat was that I couldn’t get out easily. Two other desks pressed in front of it, so at the end of class on the day we were to choose a book, I was the last one out. Tea was what was left. To be honest, I’d never heard of any of the books, so it didn’t matter much to me at that moment what I got.
As it turned out, Tea was a fortuitous accident. I fell in love with Powell’s slick, graphic style, and the preface to the book just slayed me. Below is an excerpt from that introduction (I had to resist typing out the whole thing). The underlining is my own, from my copy of the text:
While I was writing these poems, a well-known poet, who is also queer, cautioned me against ‘using AIDS as a metaphor for a consumptive relationship.’ I do not understand ‘metaphor.’ I have the sort of mind that lumps together odd events, that enjoys the simultaneity of experience. My parents divorced during the Watergate hearings. The backlash against disco coincided with the Reagan administration. I was hospitalized for a nearly fatal accident while my friend Andy was dying, the first of many I would lose to AIDS. If two objects occupy the same space, is one a metaphor for the other? If so, then life is the cause of death; love, the root of unhappiness.
Yet there is a way in which AIDS moves through the text, just as other forces, events, and characters move through it. Because I based these poems on my own experience, I had to uncover the subject that drove the writing; and so I had to walk down many corridors in order to find what was at the center. Along the way, I had to write about failed love, destitution, prostitution disease, homelessness, and a myriad other subjects in order to discover that the true hero of the poems is survival. This is how I came to put the elegies at the front of the book. I rise out of the ashes. To survive is an astonishing gift. The price of that gift is memory.
The reason I included the underlining I did when I was in school was because this book, with its gorgeous, puzzling, sensitive poetry, led me to take a huge risk in my own writing. It was not the first of such risks, but it was the first one to be received positively, and that was huge for me at the time. Actually, it’s still huge for me. As a writer, it’s exceptionally difficult to take chances, and when we do, they are often met with criticism; it is a rare and precious thing when we take a leap of faith and are rewarded for it.
In this case, instead of writing a ten page essay (which was the assignment), I wrote ten poems in the distinctive style of D.A. Powell, using only quotes from his own text. The book is full of my underlining and notes, made both as I was reading and as I was writing; as a result, every time I take it off the shelf, I am reminded of this experience. I’ve even kept a copy of the “essay” with the book, and whenever I reread his poems, I also look at my response.
At the moment I decided to hand in my essay in poetry, I wasn’t trying to be a pretentious jerk; in fact, I’d sort of given up on school for the first time in my life, and the only thing that kept me going to classes was the implicit promise I had made to my family when I chose to go to college. I had to try for their sake, but it was a struggle. This little project was the first one all year that really meant something to me. I felt like I was speaking in a foreign language, trying to sum up how deeply moved I was by Powell’s work. I didn’t need any words of my own to do that – he had already written them for me. All I had to do was massage them into new poems, and I could reflect back the power of his work.
When I reread both the book and the response last week, I noticed the roughness of my own work. I could see how flawed an idea it was, but I could also still see how much care was put into the response – how much I had loved writing it. It had been a lifeline, as much as Powell’s poetry had been for himself, and my professor saw it. He bent the rules for me, a kid who sat in the back and never spoke unless forced to do so. If he knew who I was, it was through process of elimination, because I never made an effort to engage him in conversation the way I had with teachers years before.
I did nothing out of the ordinary the whole semester except that paper, and when I got it back and saw that it was marked with the one and only A+ I ever received at university level, I remember shoving it under my other papers so that the other students, glancing around in that grade-comparing dance, wouldn’t see it and ask any questions. The grade didn’t matter as much as the message it sent did. It was my preservation – my reminder that under all the turmoil, I was understood. I could never thank Powell enough for giving me that when he wrote this book.
For more about Powell, head over here.