When I was 65, in 2002, I started thinking about retirement. Needless to say, I wasn’t ready, but I thought I might be in 2005, so I began offering that date as the one. In 2005 I thought, “well, maybe 2007, when I’m 70.” But I still wasn’t ready. I think the straw that finally weighted the “I want to retire” side of the pro/con list was beginning to experience a slight loss of hearing (girl’s high voices, conversation in a crowded restaurant, the sotto voce comments actors would deliver in intimate moments on screen). I decided to make 2011-2012 my last, my Consultantship year, ending with my 75th birthday in August of 2012. Thus, this past spring semester, 2011, has been my last semester of teaching classes.
To celebrate my retirement, a group of former students led by Tim Lane, largely members of my poetry groups, The Sapphos and The Alchemists, “serenaded” me last Wednesday, April 27th. Under my office window at Morrill Hall, they gathered, wearing rain boots and coats, for it had been a cool damp, and rainy April week, and each one read aloud one of my (mostly) “famous” poems.
Don Mowry, Ruth’s husband, had set up a speaker in my office – they knew I wouldn’t be able to hear even their shouting voices from up in my 2nd story window. With the amplification, I heard each poem as clearly as if we were in a recording studio.
During the day, Tim had sent me an email with a riddle in it: I am a beginning. I am the same as leave. I follow ‘get set.’ I rhyme with ‘snow.’ I am the opposite of ‘stop.’ What am I? I had to figure out the answer to it in order to set the reading in motion. The answer to the riddle was “Go,’ and at 6 p.m. Tim read the riddle into the mike and signaled for me to answer it. I shouted “Go” from my window, and the reading began. Tim held the mike for delicate little Angela Vasquez-Giroux, baseball expert, soft-ball player, journalist and mother of an angel-child, who opened the reading with the title poem from my new book, “The Diamond Dog.” Her nuanced but clear reading made me feel the malachite striations in the glacier. Opening the serenade with her meticulous rendition of my desire for strength and clarity set the tone for a unique event.
Tim handed the mike to Angela when she finished reading, so that she could hold it for the next reader in this al fresco theater. I saw the handing of the mike from poet to poet, each holding it for the other in these informal surroundings, then passing it on, as a kind of metphor for their lives, accomplishments, and association in the world of poetry.
Heather Abner, librarian with an Amélie-like spirit of discovery and magic in the world, stepped into the grassy and slightly muddy spot just below my window, which substituted for a podium and read “Apparitions Are Not Singular Occurrences,” as I leaned out of the window, wearing my red turtleneck under a black corduroy suit, leaning on a red scarf to cover the splintering window sill in my dusty office. The Red and the Black, I in the office of benediction. The sleek obelisk of a speaker piped their voices into my space. Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean framed and looking down from one wall, the young aviator-glasses & leather-jacketed Tom Cruise from Top Gun (script written by MSU film professor, Jim Cash) smiling at me from another.
Angela passed the mike to Heather, and M.J. Arredondo, newly divorced mother of three small children, wearing a jaunty sassy girl hat and, I am sure, still secretly hiding the Prince tattoo she got on her ankle to the horror of her parents in her senior year, stepped into the circle to read “The Butcher’s Apron,” oddly appropriate since she grew up working in her family’s small grocery store. M.J. then took the mike and held it for Boog Aldrich. Despite his avant garde/Jack Spicer-ish edge, and his somewhat ironic Colin Farrell grin, Boog’s voice was perfectly matched to the poem he chose, “Slicing Oranges For Jeremiah,” which he read with poignant rhetorical force. Microphone from M.J. to Boog, and he held it for Lia Greenwell, a new disciple and graduating senior this year, who was the 1st place winner of this year’s Jim Cash Poetry Award. She read “Call Me Ishmael,” then took the mike and held it for Ruth Mowry.
Ruth, who came late to poetry, as she was raising her family and working as a secretary at MSU, taking classes to finish her BA when she began studying with me, works for the English Department as our academic advisor. Though starting as a poet, she has evolved into a writer of what we might call Creative Non-fiction, reflecting on and chronicling her life daily on a very active blog. Everything she writes is imbued with the spirit of poetry, and even though she no longer meets with us regularly to discuss poetry at my table, she is still part of my posse. A wonderful cook, she appropriately chose to read “Ode To A Lebanese Crock of Olives,” each word crisply uttered and reaching out to me like an offering of savory olives. Ruth then took the mike from Lia, and she held it for beautiful, sensuous Courtney Chapin, now working in the College of Arts & Letters office, helping undergraduates with vocational choices. She read “Blue Monday,” surely more eloquently than I ever have, making us all hear its music. Courtney took the mike and held it out to the final reader Tim Lane, from Flint, father of two talented, soccer-playing teen-agers, and director of Scene Metro Space, who stepped into the reading circle. He chose “The Bowl of Gardenia,” a poem appropriately celebrating family and place, two subjects important to Tim.
(note: Tim has organized for next Thursday, May 12, at Scene Metro Space, an event where all the Sapphos, including Sarah Sword who will come to East Lansing from Minnesota, and Carrie Preston who will fly in from Boston, Kierstyn Lamour from Tennessee, and Troubadours, Geoffrey Bankowsky and Chris Mandenberg, respectively from New York and Chicago will gather and read their own poems in a tribute to me, honoring their long devotion to me and the world of poetry to which I introduced them. I think Korey Hurni, this year’s winner of the first Annie Balocating Prize for Poetry given by the residential arts college, will read one of Craig Cotter’s poems, as Craig lives in LA will not be here. He was a part of an ’80s group of my disciples dubbed “the goon squad” by Ron Padgett when he came to visit. After the reading, there will be a big party at Carrie’s mother’s house in Okemos.)
When the Serenade was over, the poets all climbed up to my office, where we reminisced, told funny stories, and then went across the street to Woody’s Oasis to eat, drink, and be merry.
If one must retire, this is the way to go out.