(Originally presented as part of a celebration of Robert Dana during the 2007 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held in Atlanta.)
Robert Dana gave me the most important thing an experienced writer can give to a relative beginner, and in so doing, he showed me the way toward the most important thing I could giveâ€“had to learn to giveâ€“to my own work.
I met Bob in late 1975, midway through his year as visiting poet at the University of Florida and at the end of my first full semester there as an English doctoral candidate. I had been out of school and doing home-town newspaper work for several years following my undergraduate and master’s studies at Harpur College (now Binghamton University). During those out-of-academe years in Jamestown, New York, I went to the local library two or three mornings each week â€“ my journalistic job was an evening oneâ€“and I spent my time there reading and writing poems, trying to hold onto the life I’d tried to give myself in Binghamtonâ€“a life in which I’d gotten special dispensation to write a small collection of poems rather than a critical thesis for my master’s degree, and a life in which I wanted to call myself a poet.
I didn’t really understand those James L. Prendergast Library mornings when they were taking place, but I do now: they comprised the definable hours when I went from thinking of myself as a poet to being one, from caring about the idea of writing to caring about the writing itself. Rather than writing something and setting it aside to write something else, I would write and reconsider what I had put down, and then I would rewrite. I showed my work to no one.
I went to the University of Florida to study literature, but I found myself much more interested in the conversations of the creative writers around the department, and I got up the gumption to test myself by trying to gain admission to Robert Dana’s poetry workshop for the spring semester. I took the required sheaf of “test” poems to his office in the late fall, handed them over sheepishly, and quickly retreated.
Soon thereafter, I received word that I had been admitted to the class. The holidays and semester-break weeks went by, and when I walked into the initial workshop meeting, I discovered that one of my poems was the first item up for discussion. Ohhh, geez . . .
But the outcome was a happy one. The teacher liked the poem and had placed it at the head of the list so he could use it to help him make some fundamental points he had on his mind. He spoke of my poem in terms, and from angles, that had not been on my mind as I wroteâ€“which is not to say that he inflicted critical harm or bosh, but that he saw what I had tried to achieve much more subtly than I did while I was in the process of listening to that strange voice and music that occasionally came into my head.
Again and again across the ensuing several months, Robert Dana explained me to myself, helping me to take more frequent and more rapid steps toward . . . well, for the moment, let’s just say “toward.”
Bob’s read-outs of my poems were a vital help, but the most crucial thing he gave to meâ€“the one I referred to just a moment agoâ€“lived at a quite different (though still related) level. He offered to me, at first indirectly and eventually directly, his opinion that I was good, that I would get better, and that I ought never to allow anyone to make me think these two statements were not true.
I would not try to argue that every writer needs the good fortune of having someone say such things to him or her, even though a part of me believes this to be almost true. Bob was of course just a single voice with a singular perspective; I’ve certainly come across many other people since 1975 who likely would be glad to give me a very different opinion of my writing. But Bob’s support, coming as it did as an injection into my vacuum of solitude, and accompanied as it was by his critical/technical sense of what I had been doing, was immeasurably valuable.
Bob showed me how to set a course that would allow me to move closer to what I was doing, and yet to step away from it at the same time. Subjectivity and objectivity in tandemâ€“their necessary linkage is a cliché in the speaking, but not in the enactment. A cliché turned vital because, as Bob often liked to remind us via the words of Keats, it has been felt upon the pulse.
We all need, and most of us long for, great teachers. Many of us would hope to be great teachers, if only for one person at one moment. And, the odd thought has occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind “being” a great teacher in another sense: To be standing somewhere and have someone tap me on the shoulder from behind; to turn and see that person’s face shift from pleasure to confusion; to have that person say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were Robert Dana.”
What an honor.