I’m in the Warehouse on a Tuesday night
waiting for a fellow graduate student to come onstage
and read from her first book of poems, and Dr. Kirby shows up
and stands next to me in front of the big heater
in the back because it’s a cold night, and I start telling him
about a poem I’ve been working on and that
I’m trying to imitate his prosy, narrative style,
and he says, “Then you can be the next David Kirby!”
And when I e-mail him the poem a few days later,
he e-mails me back and says, “Terrific!
Now can I be the next Leslie Whatley?”
and I think, hmmm… what is this business we’re up to?
One hates to feel that one is being mocked
almost as much as one hates to be a brown-noser,
but it’s true that David Kirby’s first book,
Sarah Bernhardt’s Leg, was the first book of poems
I ever read all the way through, back in 1985,
when I was twelve years old and found it in a pile
of books my dad was throwing out, and I think
it had a big influence on my writing, though, of course
my biggest influence was my dad himself,
who never published a book, despite being my favorite poet,
one of those minor figures who haunt us
when we’re young, who roam our thoughts
transparent and bitter at how stupid everyone must be
not to see them at all. On the other hand,
I have to wonder if Dr. Kirby might not be thinking about ghosts too,
or perhaps something more literary, like John Ashbery,
who once defended himself against another poet
who was harassing him at a party
by saying, You can’t argue with me. I don’t exist!
At any rate, it should be absolutely clear by now
that I’m totally ripping off David Kirby,
among others, as well as, by extension,
all the poets he ripped off, etc.
The point is that you learn a lot from your teachers,
but at the same time you feel you’d like to take a swing
at them, in the same way you often wanted to give your dad
a good sock in the mouth, though, God knows,
the poor man suffered enough. Years ago
a few of his poems won a major award
and there was an article about it in the Opelika-Auburn News
which was picked up in the Columbus Ledger.
That weekend my parents had a party to celebrate the award,
and lots of their friends from the university drove out to our house
in the country to eat barbecue. My dad thought then
that this was the first of many prizes to come,
but, alas, my father never became a great poet,
and will never be famous, and so I have developed
an acute awareness of the fate of those ghostly fathers,
whose books never got published or have gone out of print,
yellowed with age on used-bookstore shelves,
if you can find them at all.
And with that in mind, it has long been my ambition
to seek satisfaction in the merely good, though it’s hard
not to want to be famous and admired,
hard to want to be something less than the greatest.
(As a friend of mine once said,
If you’re not comparing yourself to Shakespeare,
man, then what the fuck are you a writer for?)
Nietzsche once wrote that Every talent must unfold itself
in fighting…. Even the artist hates the artist,
by which he meant that we should take things
personally, nourish a consuming envy of the genius
of our teachers and our ambition to overthrow them,
to stand on top of the heap of poets and crow.
On the other hand, one ought to be wary
of all that claptrap romantic philosophy,
since it leads to the sort of ideas you find in Conan The Barbarian,
in which Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been trained since childhood
to fight to the death with other savages in a pit,
is asked by his wizened master, What is best in life?
to which he responds, To see your enemies
driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
And I must admit that I’ve often repeated this line
to myself in the shower, a little pep talk as I lather up
my body, which ain’t going to win any Mr. Universe contests,
in the same manner that I’ll often look in the mirror
after my wife has cut my hair and say, I am Spartacus!
and, No! I am Spartacus! as if I contained
multitudes of rebellious gladiators.
What it comes down to is that you either believe
Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history or you believe
the post-structural “death of the author” theory
—either the poet is a genius or else he’s just some schmuck
with a typewriter in the right place at the right time.
There is a great deal of heartache in being constantly reminded
that you’ll probably never be one of those Great Men,
and it has taken me all these years to figure out
what my father was trying to tell me when he said,
Writing ain’t for pussies, son.
But that night of the party, when my dad could still imagine
a future of literary fame, when everyone was sitting in the backyard
in the twilight a little drunk, staring into the embers
of the barbecue pit, a station wagon came
crashing out of the woods and slashing through the low pines,
tires banging over rocks and downed limbs, headlights casting
apparitions against the tree trunks, and a man
got out and called my father’s name and stood in the beams
of the station wagon’s headlights holding a page
from the Columbus Ledger and compared the photo
of my father there to the man standing in front of him
and, satisfied he’d found who he was looking for,
said to my father, I want you to write
the biography of Toto the Wonder Dog!
You know, Toto the Wonder Dog! The Wizard of Oz!
The man was a dog trainer from Phenix City, Alabama,
who specialized in terriers and supplied dogs for movies.
Looking for my parents’ house, he’d gotten the wrong turnoff,
and the folks in the next house over said,
Wallace Whatley lives through them woods, and pointed
the way, so the dog trainer aimed his wagon
into the trees and set off. Now he led my father
around to the back of his wagon and opened the trunk,
full of old movie posters and scripts,
dog registration papers and dog show awards.
You got all you need for a book right here, he said.
All you got to do is write it down!
And this, too, may be how history is made:
the Man-Who-Comes-Out-Of-The-Woods theory of history.
In the end, however, my dad persuaded the dog trainer
that he would never, never write
the biography of Toto the Wonder Dog.
So the dog trainer got angry and cussed my dad
and all the gathered guests and got back in his car
and reversed smack into a tree and bottomed out in the ditch
and then hopped out again to push against the bumper
and didn’t say a word to my dad or the other members
of the English Department who finally helped him
push his car back into the road but pealed out
in a cloud of gravel as everyone began to giggle.
At first I only wanted to be able to tell a story
as well as my father could, to holler
and do all the funny voices the way he used to,
to be the center of attention at parties, but now
I don’t know. You read the great poets and think,
Who put the hot in Hottentot? What do they got
that I ain’t got? But do you ever jump up from your desk
and shout, Suck on that, Shakespeare!
and your little dog too! One wants to be great
and famous, but one also wants to be happy.
One wants Harold Bloom to come out from behind
his curtain, like the great and powerful Oz, and announce
that it’s the Era of Leslie! the Century of Whatley!
but one also wants merely to say something funny,
to get a book published and then another and, one day,
maybe, get tenure. Still, I wonder what kind of life
we all might have had if my dad had agreed
to write the biography of Toto the Wonder Dog.
I like to think it’s the kind of job I’d immediately accept,
that I’d appear on the Tonight Show and sit next to the dog-trainer
while Johnny Carson made ironic remarks, thinking,
They can laugh at me now, but just wait until they read
The Life of Toto—
so what if it is a dog’s life?
It’ll still be a goddamn masterpiece!