Readers may have picked up on this before, but my inbox is my to-do list. I rarely have more that twelve emails in it at a time because, yes, I avoid the unlucky thirteen. If I agree to do something for you (or with you) that requires two or three to-do simultaneous emails, I get cagey really fast because you're probably pushing me over my inbox limit.
Occasionally an email crosses over from being a "to-do" to being a "ghost." A haunting. Every day I see it, and every day I wonder why I haven't responded to it yet. Typically there is just the one.
Up until December of 2017, my ghost email had the subject line "My mother died, I am writing poems," and the email dated back to July 2015.
What type of jerk doesn't reply to that email, I ask you? Or rather, I asked myself. At least once a week. For a year and a half.
Then I'm in a meeting, and a colleague mentions she has been in ongoing correspondence with the author of this email. Who happens to be a famous and influential author, someone you admire greatly. Everyone gushes.
What type of idiot doesn't reply to that email, I ask you? Or rather, I asked myself.
The first time we met, we didn't meet. He give the opening remarks at a ceremony where I later got...third place. He had to rush out to catch a plane before the results were mentioned, so he probably doesn't know I'm a bronze talent and nothing more.
The second time we met, it was after a friend emailed to say he'd featured a sestina of mine on his website. I was delighted to introduce myself at the tail-end of an AWP panel and hear him say to others. "She's a great poet!" This will be a highlight of my conference. Later, in an email, he will admit he was stoned on Valium at that point due to a pre-existing injury.
I am trying to figure out why I spent hours, hours, reading and re-reading the concerns about Sherman Alexie this past week. Why I feel so soul-hollowed. Why I picked a fight with my husband last night (this probably isn't Alexie's fault; it has been a crap week).
In revisiting this email, I re-read emails we'd exchanged. Mostly his one-liners proportioned to my nervous, highly edited three paragraphs. How are the poems coming? Once, a snapshot of a stanza of mine and the comment that I'd "murdered" him. Once, the challenge regarding my photo: "You look way too happy. Need more suffering poet." (That was funny. I laughed.) Me, joking in return, sometimes with an edge, but never too explicit; that's how these games are played.
Because I'm searching for his name, another email comes up: the request to reprint my comments on one of his poems in an anthology. I say Yes, because I am a huge fan. For the single most difficult course of my MFA education, I wrote a final exam annotating "The Business of Fancydancing." I got an A in that class.
I finish this dive into the archives and I'm a little confused. When prompted with his poem, and actually his two elegies--an email one day, then another the next--why did I freeze up? Why didn't I just send him a damn poem in return? Why didn't I at least send condolences?
There is something you aren't finding, I think. I do the deeper dive, and that's when they come up, emails from the first email address in 2012 before the two other email addresses (his account has been compromised, he explains), the ones from Father Arnold. "You are an awesome poet. This is a very short fan letter," he says. It seems true! Maybe it is true. He pays attention to my work line by line.
The new draft he shares is ostensibly about spectacles, pictured as bare legs intertwined in a bed. The second "quick poem" he shares is a couplet about adult love. His phrase. He says he's working with his shrink to understand the concept. Because I am fancy-dancing, I send a text in return--a poem already written, one about my future husband--and he replies gracefully. Then he goes silent for a while.
When the surfaced with poems about loss, I couldn't reply. Because on some level I wondered if this was a kind of grooming. Because I knew that no matter how ably I rose to the challenge, at first, sooner or later I'd give something away that I did not want to give. Because I'd be trying to impress him. Because I am a huge fan.
Sometimes the cloak is praise.
Sometimes the cloak is humor.
Sometimes the cloak is grief.
Sometimes the person doesn't even realize he (not always a he) is cloaking intent.
Sometimes (s)he/they doesn't realize what the intent will turn out to be. Sometimes a person is genuine, and yet a charmer, and an abuser, and yet a survivor of abuse, and a valuable poet, and yet an oppressor of poets, all in one. We contain multitudes.
I hope people step forward with their stories, if the right choice for them, because it can be unburdening to be heard by your community. We are listening, we are here. We cannot allow the mourning of those who have "failed" us, who have lost our good faith, to obscure what was really lost: the words of talents who felt violated, suppressed, and threatened by the energy of someone more powerful than them.
My story is not a trauma narrative. I am not claiming that space. This is just what I happen to have to say.