These Days I Waken in the Used Light

I Am Cowardly: So tonight’s the Premiere Reception for Words in Motion, that program I’m going to be on in a few days. It started at five-thirty, and I kept thinking that nobody would miss me if I didn’t show. I could stay at home and work, but I’ve got this big house mostly all to myself, and that can be a bit of a downer. I could go to Koffeeheads, my WiFi/coffee place in Fresno, but then I’d be about a ten-minute drive from the KVPT studios, where the reception’s being held, and I’d feel like an idiot for being so close but not having the guts to show up.

Why didn’t I chicken out? Most of my former CSU, Fresno professors were also going to be in the program and at the reception, and I hadn't seen many of them in years and years and I hate the fact that I never get to see them.

I’m a Cheap Bastard: I show up, sign in, and look for a place to hide. I’m by the punch bowl, getting some lemonade (does that make it a lemonade bowl?) when I hear a familiar voice. I look up (he's really tall) and it’s C.G. Hanzlicek, Chuck, my thesis committee chair, the guy who got me into the grad program in the first place, the guy who was just great to me in all of the years that I was his student. How much do I dig Chuck? I was in this anthology of Fresno poets, How Much Earth, and after name-checking all of my Fresno professors, I made sure to say that I was a “Hanzlicek guy.”

Next, I saw Corrinne Clegg Hales, Connie, who, when I was still an undergrad, was very encouraging and kept me writing when I was going through one of those writerly crisis of confidence periods that I have once in a while. She also blurbed my book, for which I am eternally grateful. I also talked to her husband, John, who’s also a writer and who was one of my advisors. They’re both great people.

A person I’m dying to see, but who I want to semi-avoid is Peter Everwine, my very first creative writing professor at CSU, Fresno. (As an aside, from this introductory poetry workshop there are three of us who ended up getting books published. If you can think of a program that can match that, let me know.) Why do I want to avoid him? Well, about a year after that poetry workshop, I took a literature class with Peter where we studied mostly European poets, and I couldn’t wait to get to class every week. Then he said that we were all going to have to do a presentation on a poet, and I freaked out. I’m a very shy person, and I couldn’t imagine my having to stand up in front of my fellow students, and especially Peter, and have to talk.

This is how fucked up I am: When I was at Fresno City College, I took an introductory guitar class and I was getting to be pretty good and I had a stellar grade. Then the instructor says that for part of the semester final we’ll have to perform in front of the whole class. I didn’t show up. my “A+” became a “B-” and, when I found out that for the inermediate class all of the performance tests would be in front of the entire class, instead of with just the instructor, my musical career was over.

Like I said, I’m shy. On the day of my presentation in Peter’s class, I don’t show up. To ensure that he won’t make me do my presentation, I skip his class for the next three weeks, and this was a class that I loved. Toward the end of my three-week hiatus, I run into Peter in the lounge in front of the English Department office and nearly the first thing he says to me is that he needs me to drop his class. I have to ask and ask and ask him to let me stay, and he finally relents. I end up with a horrible grade and a blown relationship with one of my (still) favorite professors. After that, whenever I saw him at one of the Fresno Poets' Association readings, I would go through this series of painful emotions: regret, anger at myself, shame, regret again, then, after wave after wave of sadness, more regret.

But then I need blurbs for my book, and I keep thinking that I would love to have Peter be one of my blurbers, but I feel too much like an idiot to send him the manuscript. Also, if he said no, I would be beyond crushed because what he thinks of my writing means that much to me. I send him the manuscript and try to forget that I did. A few weeks later, an envelope arrives from Peter, but I'm too scared to open it. What if it says that he won’t blurb my book? It sits there on my desk for weeks, but I have to mail the blurbs to my publisher, a publisher Peter and I have in common, and I can’t send them a sealed envelope that might not contain a blurb. I steady myself, try to become one with the fact that it probably isn’t a blurb, and open the envelope. It is a blurb, a great blurb, a blurb that choked me up the first time that I read it.

So, I want to see him because he was a brilliant teacher and role model and because he blurbed my book, but I don’t because I was an idiot.

As they’re telling us to sit down because the program is starting, I sort of walk past him and we get to talking, our first exchange of words in over ten years. The first thing I do is thank him for the blurb, and he asks when my book’s coming out. I say that it already did, but that the world had barely noticed, that nobody had cared. And then he says one of the coolest sentences that anybody has ever said to me: “Send me a copy, you cheap bastard.” Let the healing begin. I’m going to send him a copy as soon as I can figure out exactly what I want to say to him in the note that I’m going to include.

Philip Levine was also there, but I was too scared to go up to him. I was his student for two classes (a poetry workshop and a translation workshop) during the Spring, 1992 semester, but I had spent the previous summer reading every single word that he had ever published, and I was completely in love with and intimidated by his work, and completely terrified of what he would think of my poems/translations. How to solve this problem? By not turning any work in the entire semester, by putting all of my work for his classes into a big envelope that I put in his English Department mailbox at the end of the semester. I was a kid, man, give me a break.

I Am Fourth: The program’s starting and I find a seat, completely ready to be traumatized by having to watch myself on screen and, worse than that, by having my professors watch me potentially suck and bring dishonor to the program. Chuck was first to read, then Connie, then Lillian Faderman, I think, and then it was my turn.

I had read two poems for the program, Huron, and Today, and they went with Today. It’s strange, the first time that you see yourself on screen. I was pre-cringing, getting ready to be mortally embarrassed, but it was…okay. I didn’t sound too stupid, which was all that I was hoping for, to not sound too stupid. I was sitting next to John Hales, and he gave me props right away, and then so did Connie. I could relax and enjoy the rest of the show.

I Am Shifty: Bob T., the producer, recorded me reading Today three times. About two-thirds of the way through the version that Bob chose for the program, you can see me quickly looking over to my left three times, all shifty-like. Why? Because the P.A. (for those of you not in the biz, that’s short for production assistant) was sitting off to the side, right on the floor, just lounging around, not really paying attention to my reading, and I was wondering what he was doing and/or thinking.

I Have a Girly Voice: I’ve heard my recorded voice before, but that was when I used to carry a micro-cassette recorder with me in case I had anything profound to say. Mostly, I didn’t. Those tiny tapes, because of their quality, though, don’t really give you a sense of what you sound like.

What do I sound like, then? Not as cool as I thought I do. I know that I don’t have a James Earl Jones voice, deep and resonant and dignified, but I thought that it was at least semi-deep and semi-resonant. I gave up on dignified a long time ago. Nope. It’s much higher than I thought. My God, all of these years, I’ve been deluded. It’s no wonder that people don’t take me seriously.

I Am a Token: I, along with Luis Omar Salinas (the daddy of Chicano poets in Fresno) and Juan Felipe Herrera, was one of only three Chicanos in the program. I was ready to get all militant, because Fresno has turned out plenty of Chicano poets, but some of them, like Ernesto Trejo and Andres Montoya (who was with me in our very first creative writing class and who wrote lovely, lovely poems until he died of cancer [he didn’t even make it past thirty]) have passed, and some don’t live anywhere near Fresno. In fact, Juan Felipe just moved away for a teaching gig, so it’s up to me to hold it down, keep it real, and represent for the Chicanos. Viva la Raza.

(I got an e-mail today, 8 August 2005, that went out to all the writers who participated in Words in Motion and that explains the criteria for inclusion:

    •     Living
    •     Currently residing in KVPT's viewing area
    •     Have at least one book published (excluding self-publishing)
    •     Subjects relating to the Valley or universal subjects

Okay, I hope this e-mail didn't go out to we participating writers because somebody read this post and took the "I'm a Token" thing seriously, because I was just trying to be funny.)

I Am Honored: So I was in this program with every single one of my creative writing professors from Fresno, even those like Liza Wieland and Juan Felipe Herrera, both of whom I studied with for only one semester. I mean, it doesn’t really mean anything, like I’m that great a writer or something, but there’s this show that anybody can watch that shows me with the people who helped to make me into a writer, which is another way of saying who helped to make me into myself. Cool.

Here Comes The Girl: It's post-screening, and I'm hiding out by the buffet, eating the free food and trying to be inconspicuous. A young lady who works for KVPT comes up to me and tells me how much she liked my reading. Finally, I think, here's a poetry groupie. I knew writing poetry would pay off one day. Well, players have to play (in this scenario, I'm the player), so I think, Let's do this thing. I try to be all self-deprecating and funny and charming. I can fake charm pretty well because I just ask myself, What would Bill Clinton do?, because he seems to get laid, a lot. She's from Seattle, where I went to grad school, so I ask her all about that. She’s new to Fresno, so I ask her about that, too, because, hey, I’m really interested. I make her laugh a few times, and I’m thinking that this is a done deal, as they say. The next thing that was going to come out of my mouth was, Hey, what are you doing later?, but then she starts talking about filling out some paperwork. I thought that she had been making her move, but, all along, she had just been trying to have a work conversation. Damn, I’m smooth.

I'm No Good at Goodbyes: I left as soon after the program as I could because I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to my former professors. Why? Because I am so grateful to them and so fond of my time as their student that I might say something borderline embarrassing like, “You gave me my life,” or “The best years of my life were when I was in the creative writing program here,” even if both of those sentences are absolutely true.

I’m Thirty-Six Dollars Lighter: Right before the screening, the president of KVPT takes the lectern and basically says that if we writers, we who donated our time, want a copy of Words in Motion, we can get one by becoming KVPT Supporters at the $36 level.

I looked around, and everybody seemed to handle it pretty well, with great dignity and strength of character. Really, though, for as long as I’ve been pretending to care about "public television," thirty-six dollars isn’t that much to spend.

(I got an e-mail today, 10 August 2005, to let me know that I'm actually going to get comped on the DVD, so I could probably get rid of this section, but I'm pretty proud of my little pretending to care joke.)

Overall: It was a great night. I saw all of my old professors, was in a television program with them, didn’t die from shame at my performance, got to practice my Clinton-style moves, and then paid way too much for a DVD.

The title of this post, These Days I Waken in the Used Light, is the first line of Furious Versions, a poem by Li-Young Lee from his second poetry collection, The City in Which I Love You, one of those poems that changes your life and influences your writing from the moment that you read it.

great post

boy do I miss you. Antoine


Cool Breeze, I miss you, too, you fucker, but now we're both sounding, uh, less than macho. I'm gonna go out now and get into a street fight.