Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Summer of 2000, after the first of a two-year MFA program at NYU, I had gone to Detroit for the annual Cave Canem retreat for African American poets, and met Don, another aspiring bard. Poets were arriving from all over the country. Like me, Don was from New York. I had only lived in New York for a year, having escaped the tedium of my native South Jersey, but because I had ridden the New York subway uptown a few times, I felt entitled to some metropolitan cred. Later that summer, after we got back home from Cranbrook, a kind of high-art school and museum where the retreat convened that year, Don introduced me to Ginger, my future wife. Aloof and pretentious, Don was a dick for all the wrong reasons. He wasn’t even a decent writer. I kept hanging out with him because he was a one-stop shop projection of everything I disliked in myself.
For the record, Cranbrook is 17 1/2 miles from the Detroit Amtrak station, a roughly six-hour walk that took me all night to make because I was delayed when, at about Twelve Mile Road, it began to rain. I trod the earth like a pilgrim, tempting lightning bolts, UFOs, and rapture, anything to relieve me of that distance. According to city maps, both the Amtrak Station and the Cranbrook campus were on Woodward Avenue. I hadn’t tried to estimate the distance in scale miles because I was certain that some form of transportation must serve a thoroughfare of that size, no matter that I came in late on a Saturday night. I didn’t know that Detroit was no average American city, and that in 2000, there was no available public transportation after sundown, and maybe not on weekends at all. I waited an hour at one bus stop in downtown Detroit, sitting with my hiker’s backpack that contained mostly poetry books and clean underwear for the two-week-long retreat. I watched the city relent like a tranquilized beast beneath the sky’s creeping pigment, and finally, I got to stepping. My plan: keep moving in the direction of Cranbrook until something came along to intervene between my feet and the road. The streets were not simply empty; I felt like a struck match bobbing above a trench line at night along the Western Front. I imagined myself like pollen on a quantum wind, reincarnated at the gates of Cranbrook. Deliver me
, I begged the stars as I waded through the night soaked to my skivvies. No chariot of any kind had swung down to collect me. The farther I walked, the more I resented the cosmic joke I thought was being played on me. The more I walked, the more determined I was to outlast the adversity I was facing.
The streets were not simply empty; I felt like a struck match bobbing above a trench line at night along the Western Front.
At Cranbrook, I wrote poems as if I was having angry sex. Those poems are lost now in a rainbow assortment of floppy disks rubber-banded in a dusty shoebox somewhere, and I’m sure all sucked anyway. But the memory of unhinged, manic productivity remains. At Cave Canem I was surrounded by other young poets called like pilgrims, like people called to that mashed potato mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
. Somehow, Don emerged from that fever dream as a kind of Virgil leading me to the next stage of my life.
My little sublet in the East Village, with the window on the air shaft and its routine accoutrements — 40-ounce beers from the bodega, a tartan sandbag ashtray, and the pigeons on the AC unit, their racket sounding like a cash-counting machine — no longer seemed worthy of my presence when I got home from Cave Canem. I felt like I’d been sanctified by my travails in Detroit. I was too good for my old haunts, too, and reached out to Don, thinking he symbolized all that I aspired to.
Don had been educated in selective prep schools, and had gone to Yale, but he’d decided against pursuing a master of fine arts degree in poetry. He’d spent most of his life as a scholarship boy and had had enough of the rigors of academia. That decision cost him access to the literary establishment, he claimed, and insinuated that I’d had it comparatively easy — that I was lucky for having grown up with conventional narratives of class and race to fall back on. He insisted that the only people who could understand his experience were those who had likewise balanced on the poverty line at home while at school they enjoyed the bounty of age-old endowments founded back when cotton was king. I offered the analogy that only one alcoholic could help another alcoholic get sober, and I conceded that a kind of exceptionalism might apply in some cases. But I thought it was presumptuous of him to declare an impasse between me, the public school kid, and himself, the scholarship boy. This, I decided, was all an elaborate humblebrag on his part. I felt spurned and grew competitive.
In the back of my mind, I knew that I could only begin
to imagine the demands and hazards of the gilded academic cage he felt he had to escape. Could I have suffered the social isolation of being recognizable to all my peers most immediately as “the black guy” throughout my entire adolescence, all while maintaining a superlative GPA? Hell no. No one expected me to become a neurosurgeon or a Supreme Court clerk, and I had little to lose if writing didn’t work out for me. Still, I couldn’t just let him floss on me. My inferiority complex kicked into overdrive.
I followed Don’s directions to a subway stop near Prospect Park that seemed to let me out in the middle of a highway. I couldn’t have been more disoriented if I had exited through a manhole cover, but there he was, greeting me as promised. Like a couple of weathered professors, he and I doddered from Long Meadow to the ball fields chatting, arms folded across our chests here, hands clasped behind our backs there, about our fears and prospects for the literary lives we both admired and envisioned.
He and I were wasting all of our intellectual pretension on each other. Donald suggested we needed a third to join us for the evening. It was First Saturday at the nearby Brooklyn Museum. He mentioned a girl he’d met recently. I suspected he was trying to third-wheel me when he described her as “this redheaded Salvadoran,” and pulled that “she went to school in Cambridge” crap that people do when they want to tell you they went to a school that’s too fancy to be identified by name. Okay, I shrugged. Game on
. It did not matter, then, that she was hot, that she did indeed have flaming red hair, or that she had an around-the-way affect. (She wore big hoop earrings, for which I have always had a weakness.) She was the object of his interest, and I had a score to settle.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Air Traffic
, a memoir in essays. His collection Digest
won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His first poetry collection, Totem
, won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is Poetry Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review