For decades I jotted down phrases that captured images that came to me—a dollhouse staircase, a cat lapping sunlit water, or icicles reflecting a sunset like jeweled daggers—then stuffed them in folders or slid them in desk drawers.
I never expanded those fragments into poems because I listened to a denigrating voice in my head saying, “Not good enough.”
But I never tossed them away, either.
I’ve yearned to be a writer since my teens—or, truth be told, be seen as a writer. I loved to read, gravitated toward an undergraduate English major, and daydreamed of my photo on the dust jackets of published books.
Underneath that fantasy lay an aching need to appear competent, worthy, and intelligent—none of which I felt after flunking out of two different colleges.
Pressure to earn a paycheck, and the fear that I wasn’t smart enough, had nothing to say, kept me silent. That voice whispered in my ear, “Nobody’ll pay attention anyway.”
That voice subconsciously drove the emotional bus of my life from the back seat.
In 1982, after a decade as sales estimator for several HVAC companies in Tucson’s boom-or-bust economy, I submitted two parallel resumes to Hughes Aircraft—writing/editing on one page (what I wanted to do) and mechanical contracting on another (what I’d been doing). I wanted my foot in the door of that enormous corporation because it offered Tucson’s largest steady paycheck. Ten thousand people arrived in company parking lots every morning.
Based on my contracting experience, Hughes hired me as facilities engineer. Two years passed before a manager in the TOW missile program discovered my second skill and hired me as senior engineering writer. I polished engineers’ lab reports into understandable English, then added executive summaries and cover letters so a colonel at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama could make informed decisions based on their data.
My editing garnered a few strokes along the way. One manager often stuck a Post-It note on the top page of his reports: “Bill, work your magic on this.” Officemates velcroed a special name plate onto the front wall of my cubicle—Amanuensis Senior.
Seated at my corporate desk, I could truthfully call myself a writer, but in my heart of hearts their praise rang hollow. I revised other people’s inept, tone-deaf prose but scratched out few fragments of my own. For twenty years, as an editor, I rubbed shoulders with creativity, like being an art critic rather than an artist. That voice kept nagging me. I never trusted that any worthwhile writing could arise within me.
For all those years I told myself I couldn’t really write unless I had a perfect writing space. Only a cozy room walled with books could nurture my high endeavor of literary creation.
That was my fear talking — fear of not being good enough, of not having what it takes. That voice allowed my head to play my heart for a sucker.
In 1999, my wife Wanda and I built our retirement home in the Ponderosa pine forest ten miles west of Show Low, Arizona. I fitted its southeast bedroom with floor-to-ceiling custom bookcases. A French door opened onto a rear deck with a fifty-mile panoramic view over the treetops.
At sixty years old, I sat in that perfect writing space. No more excuses. On a 3×5 card I wrote a challenge and taped it to the bedroom door: Bill, what are you waiting for?
I rummaged through files, found some scrawled fragments, and spread them across my desk. Each sheet held a phrase I’d scribbled in haste before it evaporated from my mind. I honored these snippets by following them wherever they’d take me during months of writing, rewriting, and tweaking. Hunched over my desk, gripping a #2 pencil, I filled yellow legal pads with whatever words appeared, wandering through their twists and turns until I felt them begin to sing.
An image of Old Tom, our half-feral adopted tabby cat, licking sunlit water in a throwaway pan:
Freckled fire ignited in a dented skillet
by an outcast cat dangles me
beyond all words
over the trembling radiance blazing
deep within 10,000 things.
One morning, leafing through a poetry anthology, I found some lines from “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin. A young student of John Berryman, Merwin asks his teacher:
how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Two master poets tell me to step off my hamster wheel of self-loathing and trust what comes to me.
After wrestling some fragments into shapes that stood on their own, I spread their pages on the office floor one afternoon. I’d worked on them individually for a long time but never saw them arrayed all together like that. I sat for a minute in my chair to survey the lot, then leaned down and began rearranging the sheets, laying one next to another, until fruitful combinations emerged.
From one clump of nine poems, a theme started to jell around weekday early morning runs before commuting to my tech-writing job.
I wake to morning drizzle in the desert.
Crisp sage air with the dust washed out
Exhilarates my early run in the wet,
Free as a boy stamping through puddles.
My senses relished the freshness at dawn. I savored uneven sidewalks under the soles of running shoes and the play of early slanting sunlight:
Fluid shadows of my striding silhouette
Slide along masonry walls,
Pedestrians’ cologne hangs in the air,
Barking dogs prance in fenced yards.
My breath validates
This interim between waking and work,
Not the salary from my waiting job
Or weekend jaunts in the Catalina Mountains:
I recalled one strong run
On the half-mile hill in Sabino Canyon
Unforced breath powered my legs.
I floated up the steep asphalt
Or vibrating with pulsing blood after an exhausting track workout, while hanging from a goalpost to stretch my spine:
I squint into the blinding dawn,
kick my feet overhead and launch
smoothly off the bar,
floating with gymnast’s grace
in a long javelin arc
tossed straight through the rising sun.
I sat back in my chair, delightfully stunned at how well these poems captured the animal vitality of those mornings. This is my opening section.
A warmth washed through my body. These images cobbled together from my daily life were worthy of song.
I left the pages spread out on my office floor over the next two weeks. Many mornings, I found both cats lounging on my paper piles, chased them from the room. Then I got on my knees to inspect the entire array again. As I reread them, the pages took on a collective energy. Some poems spoke to each other, calling for proximity, others did not.
Natural groupings developed. I sorted them into piles, let them sit overnight. The next morning I’d read each pile, trying to encounter the poems as a reader, not as their author.
In the end, four discrete sections emerged. Finally, I decided which individual pieces would open and close the collection.
The first— “A Question of Scale”—offered a sense of what the reader could expect.
A child is already a full-blown philosopher
asking, “Where did I come from?”
Jogging under a winter morning sky
I still wonder that same question,
wishing the universe would kneel down
so I could hide my face in the stars
and run forever.
The final poem— “Touch Your Throat” —invited readers to open a door through which to see their lives differently.
Your words will flow toward the wordless,
Adding your breath to the inexpressible.
Take the first step before worrying
How much water ran past
In your reverie by the creek.
Set off now,
You’re only one brief instant here.
I took this sheaf of papers in hand and walked the local dirt roads, reading them aloud from start to finish, ignoring querulous glances from passing drivers.
Can these poems make it in the world?
In January 2002 I spent $265 to attend WRANGLING WITH WRITING, a weekend conference held by the Society of Southwestern Authors in Tucson. My fee covered workshops on Friday and Saturday, as well as a private 15-minute interview with a workshop teacher.
I first heard of Harvey Stanbrough, the only poet on the faculty, when a friend on the Society board told me he was a Pulitzer-nominated writer who’d been a popular teacher the previous year. I scheduled my “one-on-one” with him on Saturday morning.
Harvey sat at a café table next to a bubbling fountain in the sunken hotel lobby courtyard nicknamed “The Pit.” I approached him, nervous as a novice gladiator stepping into the arena to face a hungry lion. I noticed his muscular, stocky build. He wore steel-rim glasses, a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. Wavy brown hair swept back from his high forehead into a mullet.
We shook hands. I handed him six stapled pages, a sample of what I thought was my strongest work. He began reading.
He turned a page.
Oh, God! My stuff must really suck! Sweat rivulets itched their way down my back.
His eyes narrowed as if squinting into the sun, flicked back and forth as he read.
He turned to another page.
My heart pounded.
He finished the last page and looked up.
I held my breath as he met my eyes.
“You should be teaching here!”
That small hinge of five words — You should be teaching here! — pushed open large doors of possibility.
On June 4, I found Ghost River Images, a publishing consultant, in Tucson’s Yellow Pages. I called Mike White, the owner, and said I had a poetry manuscript ready, but needed it printed before July 21.
That afternoon I mailed him the dummy and my Word files.
Mike emailed on June 7:
I had to translate your files into a Mac word-processing format, then re-translate them into a text format, and then import them into PageMaker. I typeset a few pages to prove it works. We can proceed without further problems.
He quoted a layout fee of $525 to ready me for press with a 5.5 x 8.5 trade paperback format and saddle stitched binding. Printing costs depended on how many copies I wanted.
I gave him the green light.
Before the Rodeo-Chediski Fire devastated the surrounding forest, I often strolled on neighborhood dirt roads with a sheaf of poems in hand, reading them aloud regardless of stares from passing drivers. Walking in mottled sunlight filtered through trees evoked an old Navajo prayer in my heart:
As I walk, as I walk, the universe is walking with me.
In beauty it walks before me. In beauty it walks behind me.
In beauty it walks below me. In beauty it walks above me.
Beauty is all around me, as I walk the Beauty way.
Now the soothing embrace of beauty no longer enfolded our high-country home. Now I walked on blackened ground, humbled by forces indifferent to me, the soft pine-needle duff no longer under my feet.
Each morning Wanda and I cut and hauled charred manzanita branches to the landfill. After, she retired to her painting studio, and I settled into my corner office, its French door open onto a rear deck overlooking the devastated hills.
The wildfire had forced us to flee to Flagstaff for two weeks. During that limbo, not knowing if our home was spared or not, I worked by phone with Mike White in Tucson to guide Songs in my Begging Bowl, my first poetry collection, into print. Mike and I decided on details of typeface, font size, indentations, and cover design. He helped me order ISBN and LCCN numbers along with bar-code art.
Up against a deadline, scheduled to give a luncheon talk to the Society of Southwestern Authors in Tucson on July 21—my first crack at selling books—I anxiously awaited the arrival of copies from a job printer in League City, Texas.
Poems in this collection came to me slowly over many years. Somehow a rhythm or a sound, an image or a snatch of conversation would lodge in my innermost core — my “soul bowl” — and not let go, like a sand grain irritating an oyster. Then began a slow accretion. A line or phrase formed, and then another line, and yet another. After weeks or even months of tweaking – repeating lines, listening, re-visioning — the cluster of words coalesced and began to sing.
Only one time a full-blown poem arrived in a single sitting.
One afternoon, not long after returning home after the fire, I slumped in a chair on the back deck, staring with disgust at scorched trees all the way to the horizon.
I closed my eyes. A hot rage welled up in my throat. “Goddamn you, Leonard!”
I pounded the arms of the chair and wept.
Then I grabbed a notebook and pen from the deck table. The poem wrote itself:
Here’s What I Say, Leonard Gregg
Leonard, Tuesday morning you tossed a match
behind Cibecue’s rodeo ring to stash
some firefighting cash in your pocket.
That’s what they say.
By Wednesday that match exploded the Rim
into smoke plumes smearing
brown sundown light across the noon sun.
A sheriff’s bullhorn screeched warnings
at the end of my driveway.
I ran for my life.
When I heard what they say, I ached
to hang you like a piñata and thump you with a ball bat.
But I’m too sad to punish you, Leonard.
Exhausted, I sink to my knees,
sobbing on this blackened ground.
If you’d been a haphazard lightning strike,
I’d hang my grief on a random hook.
But I see from my window the charred skeletons
on Juniper Ridge. These cremated hills
backtrack twenty miles below the Rim
to your deliberate, greedy face.
Locking you in a distant prison serves nothing.
Here’s what I say, Leonard Gregg.
Serve in Cibecue the rest of your years
surrounded by silent elders who weep
for Chediski Peak, White Springs and Pumpkin Lake,
watching gray ash choke the creeks and bury cornfields.
Serve until they lower you into the cemetery
and your ashes grow corn,
until your grandkids can teach their kids
to hook bonytail and trout again in the stream.
Serve until sap rises in your heart,
until growth rings root you into these mountains
and sink you into the canyons all around,
until you rise into beauty in this place.
That’s what I say.
The next day UPS arrived with a heavy box. I tore it open and lifted up a copy of my book.
On July 21 I gave a luncheon talk to the Society of Southwestern Authors called Poetry and Self-Blessing. My title came from the healing salve I felt each time I rubbed together these words from Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow”:
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness.
I quoted my own poems and some from the poetic tradition to illustrate how to have faith in the way you are made for this world. How, in Mary Oliver’s words, you can “save the only life you can save.”
When I finished, warm applause washed over the podium.
I shifted to a seat behind a nearby table that held stacks of my freshly minted book. Audience members crowded around. My body fizzed with excitement as I signed title pages. When the line finally ended, I’d sold sixteen copies.
Feedback from the audience and the thrill of my first book signing energized my drive back north to Show Low. I felt seen and validated—launched into a literary life I’d only dreamed of inhabiting.
In January 2002 Harvey told me, “You should be teaching here.”
A year later, his validation came true.
At the next SSA conference the following January I taught a workshop called Following Your Thread: Finding Your Poems.
As I entered the classroom, a roomful of upturned faces looked at me as if I were some sort of guru.
Sweat ran down my back as I arranged my papers on the lectern.
Once I began talking, I warmed up to my message. As a first-time poetry teacher, I liberally dispensed the medicine I should have taken myself many years before to heal the nagging inner voice of a shamed little boy.
“Your ordinary world is worthy of song because no one is human in the exact way that you are. Details from your life that you set down in language become the end of a thread that leads to amazing riches.”
Over and over, I emphasized two words — “quarry” and “trust.”
“Dig deep into yourself and quarry your experiences for images and sensory textures. Trust those images that come up. Then shape your secrets and sorrows, your memories, and dreams into poems only you can write.
“Trust what emerges no matter how odd, contradictory, or unrespectable. And refuse to believe your feelings are inconsequential, or worse, wrong.”
That’s what I offered as a teacher because that’s all I ever wanted to hear.