Brief Note: Found this in a folder on my desktop, and it seemed worth sharing. For a bit of context, upon learning my good friend Mark Brewin won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize from University of Utah Press for his first book Scrap Iron, and having read through his then manuscript that night, drinking one or two or more IPAs, I wrote him this letter.
Letter to a Poet
You will have a multitude of people scraping their strange little fingers along the pages of this manuscript in an effort to pick out what doesn’t belong, in an effort to do what their job title requires, to make this manuscript better and stronger and more competent than it could possibly afford on its own wages. I’d prefer not to be one of those people. Partially, because there is already much to admire in the language and movements across continents in this draft, but mostly because your growth as a writer will always come from the inside out—no matter how many people tell you otherwise.
It is a strange world we live in. One moment we’re expanding our worldly intellectual wherewithal while our mother leans down to offer us Pasta Fagioli, and the next moment were sitting with our aged grandfather unable to talk of anything outside of the thin borders of the town, city, and country that surround us. This island we create. And here I am in St. Louis, half a continent removed from you and yours, drunk, slightly so, pouring through more heartfelt and evocative lines of poetry than I’ve read in some time. I won’t tell you this to your face. I’d hate for you to get a big head. It would ruin you. Vanity is that bird flying headlong into its own flapping, crashing into the sliding glass door.
And it’s only getting stranger. Admittedly, I feel a distance too between us stylistically, you know this without me having to mention it, but I admire that yours is unique and decisive and consistent. You have your demons and your architecture as much as I have mine, and you have this lavish way of going about the task of bringing your reader into the fold, making him feel comfortable, offering him a drink and letting him do the talking for a while. Yours is the peculiar particulars wrapped up in long lines and fluid description. You find the marvelous in the particulars, in an honest way, in their accumulation—you are the Palace Depression.
What can I say to you that won’t make this stranger? We have spent many good nights plumbing the depths of poetics and craft, and our work is taking form like the welts you and your brother delivered to each other on that beach, that familial language bruising into such different shapes. You can’t go home again, ever. That is the promise lurking under the bridge of these poems, which isn’t unique—what is unique, is how far you search, the lengths you’re willing to go in your hopes of finding reconciliation. It’s not your fault. Your mother, your grandmother, your father, your grandfather, your brother: what you owe those people you’ve abandoned to their cigarette breaks in the soup factories of the world is what you deliver in these pages and nothing more. You are wiping the family out of your life, but in a necessary and satisfying way—for both you and them.
Strange are the roads that lead us home. _________ is calling us both back into her gentle fields of soy and corn and wheat and coal piles and train tracks. I still remember the coyotes blending into the train whistle blaring its way from up north on its speedy night haul straight through our town. That was home. Now, for me it’s the sound of road crews outside my window each morning, the lug of commuters, this computer skulking at me like a tiger that’d happily kill me if I failed to keep her fed and happy. Even this makes her happy. You make her happy. See you soon enough.