(This post appeared first on the blog of the wonderful publishers of my book Losing Season, Cavan Kerry Press. I’ve remained connected with these wonderful people through their great good work in bringing the experience of beautifully made books and great untold stories to populations who might not normally receive them. I just love this publisher….
Just now Cavan Kerry is focusing their intentions on people who have disabilities. So we are writing about these, and finding writers with disabilities to write about their/our own experiences. This put me in mind of a writer I’ve been writing with for a while…)
I’ve just come back from spending a couple of hours, a couple enriching hours, with Randy Smit, the Reverend Randy Smit.
Randy and I get together at his home once every month. About a year ago, I received an email from him. I had no idea who he was. He asked if I would be willing to look over his poems and talk about poetry. Randy said that he was an ordained minister, had two graduate degrees, and through a former student of mine had developed an interest in poetry. He wanted to learn how to write poems that dealt with important experiences, ones that he felt prose simply wouldn’t embody. I was hesitant. I get a lot of these requests, and though I try to fulfill as many as I can, most of the time those who contact me do not want to develop the art; most want me to say that “these poems are very moving.” And I do understand that as well. After all, in our culture poetry is not an especially psychologically safe subject to talk about.
Randy asked if we could meet in his home. “It will be easier,” he said. And so I drove up to his place, parked, knocked on the door. A young woman answered. “Come in. I’m Elaine. This is Randy.” And she walked out of the room. “Elaine looks after me while my wife is at work at the hospital,” Randy said and welcomed me, smiling from his wheelchair. “Hey, I know you,” I said. “I’ve seen you in Sanctuary Woods when I walk our dog. I recognize you.” “It’s probably my glasses,” he replied, “a line I use all the time.” I reached out to shake his hand. “Sorry,” he said. “I can move only my head, and even that only a little bit. When we look at poems, you will need to hold what we’re looking at in front of me.”
He invited me into a spacious room with bookcases and floor to ceiling windows. “I spend most of my time here. I’ve come to know, really know the trees, the sky, the different animals and birds that hang out in the back yard. And of course the books.”
We sat at a large round table, Randy’s poems spread out there. “Okay,” he said and took a deep breath, and laughed. “I’m ready. Show me the ropes.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I want to be able to write real poetry. I want it to be about my days, but I don’t want it to draw attention to myself. I want us to talk about poetry. I want us to read poems together. And I want to just see what happens when we hang out.”
“We can do that,” I said, hoping that we could.
We looked at some poems, some of Randy’s, some of mine, some of poets I thought he would learn from. Randy can’t write anything down, but it was clear that he was absorbing it all, and loving it. I asked him if he wanted me to “write any of this down.” “I’ll tell you if I think you’ve said something I might not remember. Then you can write it down.”
After a while our conversation began to explore and reveal the intersection of poetry and theology and what Randy called “spiritual practices.” It was as if the subjects themselves were having a conversation.
During a pause in our chattering away, I asked Randy the name of his condition. “I have no idea,” he said. “This is how I came into the world. All I can do is open my eyes, think, imagine, and feel. I feel a lot. And I live in words. Words are my world. All I have are words. I live in my head in a world of words. Even when I’m with other people, and I love being with other people, it’s words that bring us together. Like us, now.
I couldn’t help but think of the biblical passage about the word becoming flesh. I mentioned it to him. After all, he is a minister. “Yes!! That is what happens. For me words become flesh.”
And so since that first meeting we have gotten together and lived in a conversation that enlarges the world of each of us—through words.
After we had met a few times, I said to Randy, “You know, I will never know what it’s like to be you.” He laughed. He laughs a lot. “And I can never know what it’s like to be you,” he replied and then added, “But we can keep getting closer and closer to understanding. We’ll never get there, but we’ll keep getting closer. Poems, yours, others, mine are going to do that for us.”
From that first meeting on, if asked what it’s like to be a poet, I am no longer able to offer one of the more common replies: “Poets live in words.” No, I, and likely most poets, live in words for part of each day. Randy lives in words all day, every day.
(Randy Smit writes the very next post on Cavan Kerry’s Blog. See that here…)