I learned recently that my first creating writing professor passed away. The thing is, he died in 2003. I didn’t know. He died on his 44th wedding anniversary. He was on his way to buy flowers. According to his daughter, he’d been upset because of news that funding had been cut for the writing program he’d co-founded.
He was the one who first lit the fire under my feet to write fiction. I was 19, and he told me I’d publish by the time I was 30. Before that, in high school, I wrote mainly rants. A high introvert, it was the only effective way for me to communicate anything to my friends and classmates.
In my first year of college, Jim Whitehead was the one who gave me the idea that writing could be more than that, and that waiting for worldly experience was just an excuse.
He taught my first creative writing course, Imaginative Writing. Former football player, former preacher, he waxed philosophical with a southern boom in his voice. Freshmen were usually taught by grad students, and he was like a deus ex machina, and I hung on everything he said.
He studied fiction by copying his favorite short stories long-hand, and he encouraged us to do the same. He encouraged us to mimic our favorites, and then discover our own voice. I chose Raymond Carver and Anton Chekov.
He asked me if I studied Zen. I knew very little about it then, and I asked if I needed some Zen in my life to help my writing. He told me I had too much of it already.
When I moved from Arkansas to Chicago, I started to miss some aspects of the South. I’d brought Whitehead’s work with me, and I discovered quickly that those aspects of the South I craved were all contained inside his poetry. The way he walks a sophisticated line between non-sophisticated humor and deep, honest, and unflinching drama. The way he plays at all times with words and form, and considers nothing–no matter how far from home in origin–to be beyond the reach of his local voice. A southern man and a scholar, his voice and wisdom helped keep me anchored as I tried to figure out who I was as a writer, far away from home.
Each year that passed, I imagined sending my first published short story to his mail box at the University of Arkansas. It never happened. I wrote a number of stories, but sent very few out into the world. Next year, when my first book is published, I’ll be 36. Six years too late.
The fact that I won’t be able to send my book to him saddens me deeply. I’ve started reading his poems to my daughters at bedtime (along with other poetry books, picture books, myths, folk tales, and occasionally writing samples from internship applicants when I’m trying to multi-task). As far away as I am now from home, and as much farther I’m likely to travel, it’s comforting having his words nearby to keep me rooted to where I’m from.
It seems fitting to close with a few lines from one of my favorite Whitehead poems.
A Poem for My Humerus
by James Whitehead
A recent x-ray of my arm and shoulder
Set me against cremation’s cleansing fire
More than I was before.
One time I heard it called a cleansing fire,
Suggesting guilt and terrible regret
Concerning life on earth. I’m not for that.–
Also, one time I called to ask about
A funeral, was told that the cremains
Were at the home of the deceased.
There’d be a service in another city.
Cremains! O this is how the language dies
Or says we’re desperate for another metaphor
To give a little dignity to death,
A sort of mousse with ashes that won’t do.
My humerus was lovely glowing there
Upon the wall, looking like the moon,
Or at least its head did, lit from behind,
The doctor smiling over my old wounds,
Scores to the bone, stray pieces of calcium.–
Worst comes to worst, he said, we’ll take it out–
My humerus!–and put a new one in
Made from incredible materials.
I asked him could I have the old one displaced.
I realized I’d want it in a case
On view, with a bright plaque explaining things
The arm had done, helped by its hand,–tackles,
Blocks, embraces, many sentences.–
But it won’t come to that, the doctor said.
Some Christians won’t cremate because they fear
Much difficulty with the resurrection,
God finding problems with the chemistry
It takes to put a body back together
I’m not concerned with that,
For–alas–the Christian reconstruction
Seems far-fetched, to say the very least,
And is a mighty viciousness when faith
That some will rise tortures all the others.
Tack or vicious seems to be the word.
Christ, I’d be rendered to a skeleton,
Then let an archeologist come on.
She’s fascinated. She is taking notes.
She holds my humerus up to the sun.