Honored to Be Celebrating the Poetry and Life of My Mentor, poet Herbert Scott

Poet, Herbert Scott

I am heading to Kalamazoo on Thursday, June 10th from Chicago to read among other friends and Herbert Scott proteges and colleagues to honor this great late poet and man. I am truly honored to have been asked to contribute to this event and I am bittersweetly excited for it.

I wanted to take some time here on my now awfully-neglected poetry blog to reflect about some of my very fond memories and moments with the most supportive mentor I have ever had in my poetry career.

The memory that will be forever and ever entwined among the sinews of my heart was in the moment immediately following my MFA reading at Western Michigan University in 2002. In this moment,  I received a hug, an embrace from Herb that I can still feel now just thinking about it. I swear I can feel his tall form and long arms engulfing me with an amount of pride I have since never again truly experienced. Thinking of this memory now makes me warm, makes me cry, makes me smile. This embrace said so much: it exemplified his pride and his love for me. And this is the essence of Herb as a person, as a teacher, as his whole being. When he had me nice and close in this embrace, he whispered, “It’s all going to start for you now.”

Herb was always truly and completely looking out for me, guarding me like a father from the emotional turmoils he knew very much I was experiencing at an accelerating rate in those rough and tumble days. But while he was protecting me so fervently, he also showed me how to get some rough and tumble skin to go with my rough and tumble emotions and moods, facilitating me to protect myself as I grew. He was the mentor who told me that my poetry would change as I changed, that my poetry would be effected by everything. This lesson seems so simple, but was one that is so significant to me now and always will be. This seemingly simple lesson is exceedingly important for any artist, but especially for a gun-shy poet like myself.

I was a lost fawn when I first met Herb. I was alone in Kalamazoo, ready to leave to the security of something I knew again. But in my first graduate workshop, taught by Herb, I learned to stop running, to give myself a chance. If not for this first workshop with Herb, I wonder if I would have left Kalamazoo, thereby missing the many great friends I made in my years there, friends and colleagues that I still treasure and see as often as I can.

And so it all began … my three years at WMU being lit with his light. Herb telling me about poetry world gossip over burgers and beer at The Corner Bar, reading New Issues manuscripts and having poetry workshops over Full City Cafe cake at his home in Westnedge Hills, and lots of fun over more beer at the AWP Conference in Kansas City. Everything with Herb was undying and still is after his passing into some crisp, other-worldly hills to another dimension.

When I was packing to move to Chicago last summer, embarking on a another path in the Arts, I came across one of my early drafts of Small Murders with Herb’s lovely, compelling, helpful, and supportive comments. It was intensely affecting to see his handwriting again in the margins of poems, that scratchy black pen that seemed to be his preference, his writing like the nervous yet confident scratchings of a gifted artist whose mind and heart never stopped. It saddens me that Herb never got to see my book, Small Murders in print, but I am certain that wherever he was then and is now, he sees our work in the book, and that is why the pride from that MFA reading embrace remains, why that embrace still lingers with me, never ceasing, never leaving me.

Three days after Herb passed, I took a long walk. It was February in Kalamazoo and it was very cold, but it was also sunny and had a mildness that was truly odd for a Michigan winter. I ended up at The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and sat for over three hours in front of his favorite painting, Sleeping Woman by Richard Diebenkorn. There, I wrote a poem titled, “Going to See Her Three Days After,” and in sitting there writing a poem, I could feel Herb in the room, and those three hours proved truly and completely therapeutic for me. Here, he gave me another memory.

This is all bittersweet for me today. Thinking about him is always a wonderful moment for me, but I miss him so completely, but there is a bitterness of such a wonderful man having to leave us way too soon. I wasn’t ready for him to go, and neither was anyone else; the world was not ready for Herb Scott to leave.

I am nervous about losing it and crying in the middle of reading his poem next Thursday, but I am going to look at all of this for what it is: A complete celebration of a man who taught me the craft of poetry like no one else, but who also taught me about myself and the world lilting and tilting around us.

So today, in writing this, I toast Herb, and I prepare my heart so that I may be the best I can be for this absolutely important day among many other days of honoring Herb Scott.

Herbert Scott’s collection of poems, The Other Life, edited by David Dodd Lee, is available now from Carnegie Mellon University Press. This free, public reading will take place on Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 5:30 in the Meader Rare Book Room at WMU’s Waldo Library.

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