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  • I was a freshman at Grinnell College when I learned that there were living poets. In school we'd never read a poem by someone living, unless you count Dr. Seuss or someone like that.

    At Grinnell, a friend who was a senior asked me what I thought about a poem he'd found in Poetry magazine. I nearly grabbed the magazine from his hand. It was a poem called "Aubade" about a couple waking up in bed together and reaching over to open the window and let in the rain, and how the rain sounded like jazz piano.

    "Where did you get this?" I asked.

    "From the library," he answered. (It wasn't supposed to leave the library, but such was his confidence and proprietary hold on the world of books and ideas.)

    "Show me," I said. He took me to the library and showed me magazines that came out every month filled with poetry.

    There were people out there writing poetry.

    In the Spring, Howard Nemerov came to campus. I might have missed it except the woman who would be my sophomore roommate asked if I was going to hear him read his poems. I went to the bookstore where they had his Collected Poems for sale. It was a paperback with a photo of him on the front. I actually covered it with clear contact paper because I didn't want the book to wear out or get wet or ruined. In those days, owning books was precious. My parents didn't have many books in the house.

    I read and read and read those poems. My favorite was three pages long, called "The Pond." I always liked stories, Robert Browning's monologues and "The Highwayman." This story, about a boy who fell through a skating pond and whose death gave the pond the name Christopher's Pond, was a story that could have happened in my own life.

    I had always written poems, but this was the first time I thought I could be a poet, that it was a suitable activity for serious and living adults. It was the first time I thought that anyone would want to read a poem I would write.

    He looked exactly like his photo, wth that WWII crew cut and a kind, open face, and glasses. My new roommate knew him, had gone to school in St. Louis with his sons. But I was too nervous to go up and meet him, and ask him to sign my book. What would he have thought of the contact cover, I wonder?

    That was 1983. In July 1992, Poetry printed a poem by me. I still have the book in its contact-paper cover on my shelf. And the cover of the magazine, with me right there with Mary Oliver and John Updike and Gary Soto and the rest, I have behind glass.
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