This post is personal. It’s a little story about a man I admired and loved and lost.
A tribute to Poet/writer/editor Paul Zimmer
When I was 23, I wrote songs. When that didn’t work out, and I didn’t knock Paul Simon off the charts, I decided to write poems. After all, I had written lyrics, so poems had to be much easier. No music!
I had been reading a lot of Rod McKuen and feeling sorry for myself — sure-fire inspiration for poetry. So I went out and bought a yellow legal tablet (so cool!) and wrote and wrote.
I was living in Pittsburgh. A classmate was the administrative assistant at the International Poetry Forum there. She offered to introduce me to the poet Paul Zimmer, then also the editor of The University of Pittsburgh Press.
I summoned up the nerve to ask Paul if he would take a look at my poems and offer any advice. Under my arm were likely fifty-some pieces. Gracious as I had heard he was, Paul took the pile, combed through a few and gently said, “Let’s start over.”
That began my apprenticeship with an American original. He said he would tell me when I had written a poem. I asked him what his fee would be. He said, “Ya know, instead of a fee, what I’d really love would be access to your father’s locker room before and after games. (My father was at the time the head basketball coach at PITT.) I had grown up in Dad’s locker rooms, and this was all Paul wanted? He said it would be a thrill and interesting to watch pre-game talks as well as the press conference after a game.
We had a deal.
We met every few weeks. Paul would look at a poem, one about fishing, for instance, and say things like, “Now go read Yeats’s poem about a fisherman.”
After six weeks, he had not said I had written a poem. I asked if I should quit.
“If you want to,” he said.
Coach’s kids don’t quit.
Two and a half years later, he looked at the poem I’d brought and said, “You did it. This is not only a poem; it’s your poem.”
And that was it.
Paul Zimmer created a character “Zimmer,” a sometimes bumbler, a man of empathy. He loved jazz. He loved his dogs. He loved his family.
Two weeks ago I learned my mentor had died–in October. Nothing in the New York Times or anywhere. No obituary to be found. Paul had published the first books of at least forty writers who are now critically acclaimed. He discovered them. And not a tribute anywhere..
As a journalist in the Army, Paul covered the first tests of the atom bomb. He died of effects of that exposure. He wrote “Zimmer: Ass Over Tea Cups into the Atomic Age.” There is just one of his poems here.
Zimmer Teaches a Young Dog Old Tricks
Zimmer took me on. that wheezing, pony-bottled
gentleman assured me, sure as shootin’
I would write/make poems
hard as Wanda’s winter nipples.*
Zimmer, creaking critic, teased me
out of taught, told me
here a line and there a dash had
kicked his ass. He wiped my pose,
and led me like a lemming
to the little magazines.
Zimmer pulled my purple plug.
He ordered me to “look at Yeats’s fisherman
before you toss your lines.
No bass would hit your lurid bait.”
Zimmer punched my eyes out.
then he sent me searching blind for images
till now at night I see no stars,
no sleek and sinewed constellation.
I’m led by a grin across our galaxy
as this mock hero shuffles through my Milky Way,
a pencil in his bow. “Who is, what is that?”
demands the learned astronomer.
The starry night winks back and whispers, “Zimmer.”
*Wanda was one of Zimmer’s characters.
Published in The Same Ghost and in Poems from The Same Ghost and Between (Dawn Valley Press)
D.R. James has published a new collection, Flip Requiem with cover by Meridith Ridl. David does fascinating things with the ways he modifies nouns, giving us wonderfully fresh perceptions. Anne-Marie Oomen writes of these poems, “D.R. James flips poetic expectations like a skilled juggler of the world’s finest carnival.” Find it at your bookstore, or order from the publisher Dos Madres Press, Inc.
At last, the reading at The BookNook & Java Shop in Montague has been set.–7pm on April 28. I guarantee you will love the place along with its good food and beverages. Many thanks to owner and arts promoter Bryan Uecker.
Jack’s Homily, “The Devil Went Down to Douglas” is here for those of you interested in marking the occasion.
Don’t miss subscribing to this podcast. And Then Suddenly is the brainchild of the kind and brilliant Angela Santillo, whose path I’ve crossed once before while working with CavanKerry Press. Her podcast has a brilliant premise… Describe a moment in your life that changed… everything. She’s had that moment, and from it she has made this podcast. Here’s the conversation we had recently. I hope you explore many of the episodes. Because they will change you. In a good way.
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Visit Reader’s World or Hope-Geneva Bookstore in Holland, The Bookman in Grand Haven, the Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo, and The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.
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Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.