Saturday, February 12, 2011

A New Mind: Not a Review of Rane Arroyo’s White as Silver

This is not a review of White as Silver (Cervena Barva Press, 2010), Rane Arroyo’s first posthumously published book of poems. It can’t be. I haven’t finished reading it yet. Plus, I fear (probably justifiably) my inability to do justice to his work. More so, though, having read through the first section and a half of White as Silver, I find myself, as always when I read Rane’s work, unable to separate myself from the poems from the man.

So, this is not a review; it is a reminiscence.

I first met Rane when I was an undergraduate at The University of Toledo. It was my last year, 2002-2003, and I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I was applying for the MA in English program at UT because I didn’t want to work at fast food restaurants anymore, but I didn’t know what to do with my BA in English. I knew I wanted to write, and I kind of knew what I wanted to write about, but I didn’t know how to write it. And I knew my portfolio, such as it was, was nowhere near where it needed to be in order to get into an MFA in Creative Writing program. So, I figured the MA would buy me two more years to figure myself and my future out.

I was pretty nervous stepping into my first class with Rane. I knew of him, but hadn’t met him. I knew he had published a number of books and I knew he was a powerful person at UT. And I had had a slightly bad experience a year or so earlier that haunted me as I thought about Rane’s class.

A year or so before this, I had taken a Literary Theory class with a professor I’d heard a lot about, much praise, who was a Native American. He liked me and I liked him but I remember him saying to me one day that I could never get it because I came from a well-off family, because I was white, because I was male and because I was straight. I had privilege upon privilege upon privilege. He treated me fairly but that conversation stuck with me (still does, to be honest).

And I knew enough about Rane to know he was a Hispanic, gay, working class poet. Add to this that I had him for two of my four classes that semester, back to back, and that I knew he was powerful enough to have a significant impact on whether or not I would get accepted into the MA program, well … I started to sweat. But I had heard, from friends, that the word “inclusive” was probably the most important word in Rane’s vocabulary. Thankfully, it was.

Rane took me in immediately. At an early one-on-one conference, as he found ways to get me to talk about myself (something I hate to do, despite my career as a near-confessional poet), I never had that “you’ll never get it” vibe from him. The opposite, actually. Rane listened and laughed and talked back, telling about his life. I talked about being twelve, working odd jobs at my grandparent’s business. He talked about struggles with poverty and, of course, the day his parents bought him a typewriter they couldn’t afford. It was the first of many conversations where our two separate worlds came together in a way I had never experienced.

Ask any of his students and they’ll tell you the same thing. It took minutes for Rane to rank as your favorite professor. It took barely days before he became a mentor. It never took more than a week before he became a fast and solid friend.

The epigraph for White as Silver comes from William Carlos Williams’ “To Daphne and Virginia”: “A new world/ is only a new mind.” Reading that was when I starting going back in my mind to all my memories of Rane, something I’ve found it very hard to do. Because Rane was a new mind. This is evident from his incredible body of published work, from the poems to the short fiction to the plays. But he also believed so strongly in new minds, in nurturing them, in guiding them. He took his students and -- he didn’t give us new minds; he helped us find our new minds. And this made him a new kind of creative writing teacher (one of my many favorite Rane-isms: “I don’t care about the poem. I care about the poet.”). Rane didn’t just touch the lives of the people he came into contact with. He shifted their axis. I know he did mine.

I thought I was a fiction writer (and looking back, I find it hard to believe I was so blind). Rane didn’t care one way or the other. He thought I was talented. He thought I had something to say. He just wanted to help me say it. So we talked and we worked and we wrote. The two classes I was in during that first year with him were a poetry workshop, so obviously I was writing poems there, and the program’s Capstone course (basically, a class where the writers put together a portfolio of the best work they’ve done during their undergraduate years to show that they, indeed, deserved the degree), early during which I never settled on a genre. But in meeting after meeting, Rane showed me the difference between fiction and narrative poetry. He showed me what I was doing well in both and what I was doing very (very) poorly in both. And he taught me to love poetry in a way I hadn’t loved poetry in years. And so, I became a poet.

He helped me figure out what I was writing about. He forced me to go back to my childhood, even though he knew I had no interest in writing about it (though he didn’t understand why), so I could know the ways my childhood impacted my view of the world and of my subjects.

He never let me settle. When I wrote something well, he said, “Good. Can you do it again?” When I wrote something poorly, he told me so and he told me why it wasn’t working, and … more than once, he told the entire class that I had failed and how I had failed (he once said he was going to send me a doctor’s bill because he felt confident one of these days he’d throw my poems across the room in frustration and they’d give Glenn, his partner, a serious enough paper cut that they’d have to go to the emergency room). But he also told me he did this because he trusted that I could handle it, because he knew it would make me stronger, because he knew it would make me better. And he was right on all three accounts (though it took me some time to believe his trust in me). And every time, when I got home, there was an email from Rane, telling me how much he respected me, how much he believed in me, how much he cared about me (As he often told me, “Failure is a figment of our imagination”).

Rane was there for me every step of the way on my journey to figuring out how I would write my vision of the world and in my journey of figuring out my vision of myself. Yes, he was a teacher. Yes, he was a mentor. But neither of that really mattered because he was a friend. He was, as I’ve often said, my poetic father.

I know I am not alone in this feeling. So many of my friends have been through the same with Rane and more. That was his way. Still, I feel more than honored. I feel blessed.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today. I’ve been thinking about the number of emails I have from him where he sent me drafts of his poems -- sometimes as inspiration, sometimes as responses, sometimes because it was just the easiest way for us to communicate (my favorite poem of Rane’s is still the unpublished “Tony Tone Ton Tongue,” a poem he wrote and then sent me after he thought I had had a particularly bad workshop experience -- again, sitting in my inbox by the time I got home from class).

I’ve been thinking about our experiences together. When he picked me to be his research assistant. When he selected me to organize a writer’s workshop/reading with him and how he trusted me to hold down the fort for the week leading up to the event while he was attending AWP. I’ve been thinking about the classes he taught that I took. I’ve been thinking about the classes he taught that he had me take over for a day or two (there’s that trust I still don’t understand).

And I’ve been thinking about how our relationship changed after I graduated. We went from face to face conferences, meetings, lunches to an exclusively email relationship. My wife and I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which required an email relationship. But even after we moved back to Toledo, Rane and I, despite many attempts, never seemed to get together for coffee/tea. But the relationship didn’t change. And he was still there for me every step of the way.

I remember him coaching me through some tough times in the UP. I remember when Toledo starting calling to me and I was torn between my home and my degree, the future with both uncertain, and Rane writing, “Do what’s best for you -- for your family.” And, his final piece of advice on the matter, “If you feel an ache, run for the ark.” I remember my favorite typo of his, when he meant to write, “We should get together soon” but instead wrote, “We should get together son.” I remember when, out of the blue, he sent me an email with a poem he’d just written, a love poem to my beloved Kurt Cobain. The email just said, “Wrote this and thought of you.” I remember long emails about Glenn, about anniversaries, about gardening -- which made me remember when I was still at UT and we had long conversations where he talked about Glenn and anniversaries and gardening -- how the dark Scorpio part of his eyes softened a bit every time Glenn came up -- how he managed to translate that softening even in email. I remember a lot of emails about cats, which we both love (Buddha’s with fur, old friend!). I remember his complete and unwavering support when I decided to stop adjunct teaching and become a full-time exterminator (his words: “The job is too hard for humans, but you’ll get material for your work.”)

There was, of course, the professional work he did for me: writing brilliant letters of recommendation; coaching me on the best way to get out of my contract with Northern Michigan University when I decided to return home; and, of course, how proud he was when I finally finished a draft of my first book, ten years in the making, and how when I asked him to look at the draft to see if it was any good he said, “I’m terrible at not honoring a friend. I lack that talent. Send that book.”

The last time I saw Rane was on April 18, 2008, when he gave the (brilliant) introduction at Sharon Olds’ UT reading. After the reading, I found him and he hugged me. But he couldn’t stay. He said he needed to get home, that the pressures of the department pushed him back to Glenn, the cats, his computer, the beautiful French doors he and Glenn chose for their house instead of a new car. But it was clear he wasn’t feeling well. If I’m remembering correctly, he was in the hospital not too long after that. He survived, but it was the first time I started worrying about my old friend. It wasn’t the last time.

The last time we emailed each other we were working on setting up a get together with him and Glenn and me and Holly -- lunch or coffee or just a conversation at their house or our house. We both lamented how, though we live only a few blocks from each other, jobs and other responsibilities made it seem impossible to get this thing to happen. Sadly, it never did.

I sat down to write some thoughts about White as Silver (which, by the way, based on the half I have read so far, is brilliant as usual) and these are the places my mind went. They’re where my mind goes whenever I think of Rane. There’s more, but this is long as it is.

And, of course, there’s the aftermath of his death. The disbelief. The tears. My blindness when I posted Blind Melon’s “No Rain” (a song I, for whatever reason, associate with the death of a loved one) without seeing the sort-of inappropriate pun (still, I wonder if Rane wouldn’t have approved -- he did so love puns). The tribute/celebration at his Yoga studio. The strange, soft, quiet depression that settled in, that I couldn’t figure out, that I’d never experienced before. The uncomfortable condolences from co-workers who could tell I was upset but didn’t completely understand why (how difficult to explain my relationship to Rane to people who didn’t know him). My continued sadness that I don’t have a single picture of me and him.

There were the months before his death when I didn’t write a word and the way he somehow managed to kick my ass into writing again even from the grave. The mornings, 3:00 AM, walking into work and stopping in an empty field with my notebook and a flashlight to scribble down some notes. The strangeness of the week at work after he died: the alpacas in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the near panic attack on top of the roof of a three story house in Bryan, Ohio; the long, lonely drives between jobs when usually my stops are only five minutes apart; the vast amount of time to think that I can’t help but believe was the universe telling me I needed to think. The week, a month or so later, when I left his New & Selected Poems in my work truck so I’d be in good company, how I read his inspired introduction to that collection five times every day that week.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about today. Later. Probably in the Fall when Third Coast publishes my pseudo-elegy to Rane, which is drawn from the specifics of these stories.

Today I’m thinking about that hug after Sharon Olds’ reading. I’m thinking about his smile when I decided to reject major MFA programs like Purdue and Indiana University in favor of a smaller, less known Northern Michigan University (“It’s right,” he said. “From Lake Erie to Lake Superior. From Ohio’s prize after the Toledo Wars to Michigan’s prize after the Toledo Wars.”) I’m remembering my first conference with him, so many years ago, when he told me to stop making my poems and stories into jokes, that what I was writing about was important, was serious. When he told me I was beautiful, in spite of myself. When he told me he’d be my friend even if I wasn’t a feminist, even if I wasn’t a socialist. When, right before getting my BA, he took me out to eat at one of the many Mexican restaurants and warned me that, as a Midwestern writer, the coasts of America would always be suspicious of me -- that I had to be smarter than them, tougher than them, more resilient than them. When he told me he knew I was smarter, tougher, more resilient than I would ever believe of myself.

I’m thinking about how I had a reading last night and I was super nervous. But after getting home from a tough day at work, with about twenty minutes to bathe and get the cat to the vet and then about twenty minutes to get ready and get to the reading, White as Silver was waiting for me in my mailbox. How, during the reading, I dedicated my performance to him and, because he always got mad at me whenever I diverted the spotlight away from me (who he thought deserved the light) and onto him (who he always called a spectator in my career -- how untrue!), after I read the first poem the lights in the café turned off. I publicly blamed it on Allen Ginsberg’s ghost (the poem was about Ginsberg and Whitman), but I secretly knew it was Rane telling me to take credit for my accomplishments. And just in case I wasn’t sure, the damn lights went off again as I was reading the next poem.

That’s Rane. That’s his way.

“Live. Then write.”
- Rane Arroyo (1954-2010)

[UPDATE: 12/14/11]: Finished White as Silver. Phenomenal. Duh!


Stacia M. Fleegal said...

Beautiful, Tony. Rane's telling you you can find your way even in the dark!

Anthony Frame said...

That or he's telling to get back to the work (not the job):)

Wish I could have been at AWP with you and Dan, but from what I'm hearing the tribute was wonderful.