A Woman of Genius
Interviewer: Ultimately, what can a teacher give a writer . . . ?
November, 2004. I am sitting in a crowd of fifty or so writers at a fundraiser for a local homeless shelter, waiting my turn to read. My friend M. stands on the makeshift stage with a German graduate student; together they are reciting, first in German, then in English, the lyrics to an eighteenth-century folksong. They are charming and funny and I find myself wishing I could be so easy on stage when my turn comes. L.G., my best and most gifted student, comes in breathless and late as usual, and crouches beside me, eager to show me something. She’s found, in a local bookstore, a rare copy of Lynda Hull’s Star Ledger and is overjoyed at her luck.
I’ve passed to her my love of Lynda’s work, and she has, as I did as a student, read and reread the poems, though only in the form of photocopies I’ve made from my books. Shamefully, Lynda Hull’s work has been permitted to go out of print and will remain so until 2006 when, thanks to Graywolf Press and series editor Mark Doty, her Collected Poems is published as the inaugural volume in their important new Re/View series.
It’s now my turn to read, and I’m no longer interested in reading the new poems I’ve brought. I want—I am compelled—to read instead one of Lynda’s poems. I want to fill the room with her glorious music, to make certain everyone there knows her work exists; I want, too, to inhabit her words in the way that reading them aloud permits; I want her with me. I take the stage and explain what has happened. I tell the audience that it seems to me particularly appropriate to read from Lynda Hull’s work on this occasion, that she has written with deep compassion about the lives of people like those we’ve come together for that night.
I read “Counting in Chinese.” From the opening lines the room stills, the listeners utterly absorbed. I forget them and myself.
We are all, together, wholly immersed in the poem. Lynda has transported us, taken us with her into memory, imagination, and sorrow. Her stunning, entirely original voice is an elemental, almost physical force we can feel in our bodies. It’s not theatrics when my breath catches at the poem’s crescendo, before I can read its final, devastating lines:
from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission
When I am done, a moment passes before the applause. No one wants to break the spell cast by the poem. I sit, a little dazed, filled with emotion. I am only half there; I am filled up by the poem, a “vessel,” as Lynda has written of herself, made permeable and transformed by its coruscating song. I am angry that her book has sold at a used bookstore for a couple of dollars. I am, once again, grieving her death, a loss not mine to grieve, but one I have grieved for over a decade. When I go home I will stay up late rereading her books once again.
“I, with no rights in this matter . . .” Theodore Roethke’s words from “Elegy for Jane” haunt me whenever I attempt to write about Lynda Hull. I knew her first through her work, which I discovered in 1989. I’d been accepted to the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College and had ordered the faculty’s collections, including Lynda’s first book, Ghost Money. As soon as I read it, Ghost Money became the book I carried with me everywhere. Here was a poet doing everything I most loved in poetry, who alchemized the essential elements of technique into something both necessary and beautiful in a voice unlike anyone else’s. Here too, was a speaker who, like me, was haunted by a past she could not wholly leave behind, a poet whose lyrical, elegantly tapestried narratives—unlike my own veiled and very apprentice lyrics of the time—enacted with awesome power and artistry the urgent reckonings of a survivor. “It snakes behind me, this invisible chain gang— / the aliases, your many faces peopling // that vast hotel, the past,” she would write in “Black Mare,” and I felt I knew what she meant.
The outlines of her remarkable life are well known. Born in New Jersey in 1954, she was a runaway at sixteen and lived for a decade on the margins, surviving what she’d later call “the drifting, savage years” of addiction, poverty, and life on the streets. In the late seventies she arrived in Arkansas, still married to her first husband, a Chinese illegal alien and gambler, and enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. There in the spring of 1980, she met poets David Jauss, whom she would later call her “1st & best teacher,” and David Wojahn, who would become her second husband, and began studying creative writing.
Jauss’s account of Lynda’s student days in Arkansas, “To Become Music or Break,” should be required reading wherever Lynda’s poems are taught. Though she was at first apparently preparing for a career in counseling, he writes, “she was already a poet. My wife, Judy, recalls what I said to her when I came home from school and showed her [Lynda’s] poem, ‘I have a student who is already a better poet than I’ll ever be.’”
Even allowing for Dave Jauss’s characteristic modesty, Lynda’s immense gifts were clearly evident from the first. Discussing her early influences, among them Hopkins, Dickinson, Keats, and especially her beloved Hart Crane, and what he calls her “extravagant, highly lyrical, even word-drunk” first poems, Jauss writes of the “intense love of beauty” and “essential hunger . . . this desire to feel and understand everything human, no matter how devastating,” that would shape her lifetime’s work.
From those early years in Arkansas until her death at age thirty-nine in an automobile accident in 1994, Lynda Hull would devote herself to poetry with the passionate dedication of one who has discovered her true vocation, “a woman of genius,” as May Sarton has written of Louise Bogan—one of the many women poets to whose work Lynda introduced me—committing herself to her art and to the process of creating, as Sarton wrote of Bogan, herself. In little more than a decade Lynda had completed a body of work that ranks her as one of the great poets of our generation and had published two prize-winning collections, Ghost Money (1986) and Star Ledger (1991); in the months before her death she was writing and assembling a third collection which would be edited by David Wojahn and published posthumously as The Only World in 1995. All three books are included in the new Collected.
Driven by that same intoxication with language and visionary courage—“Better this immersion than to live untouched,” she writes in “Frugal Repasts”—that marked her work from the start, these are poems of large and realized ambitions. Richly tapestried and expansive, they range out from the intense stop-time, heightened language, and emotional urgency of the traditional lyric to encompass a complexly layered exploration of movement through time, employing narrative elements of story, scene, and character. Their technical virtuosity, however—the masterfully intricate syntax, diamond-precise diction, and closely observed, fully imagined, and resonant imagery and metaphor—never serves as decoration; nothing less than the most exacting confrontation with the intersection of our private and public histories is at stake.
Here is the final poem in “Suite for Emily,” a seven-poem sequence remembering a girlhood friend imprisoned and dying of AIDS:
from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission
December, 1989. Montpelier. It’s my first VC residency, the first time I hear Lynda Hull read. A slender woman in her thirties, she barely clears the podium. I can’t recall with certainty what she’s wearing this particular night, but she’s dressed in what she calls “reading drag”—months later she’ll joke with me that one’s outfit is the important thing in a reading—one of her long, vintage black dresses accessorized with dangling marcasite earrings and ankle-strapped high heels? The spandex miniskirt and beaded shell over fishnets and boots with a battered leather jacket? Probably the dress. Her short, angular haircut is dyed a gleaming and intentionally artificial red and that evening may have been dressed with a long, diaphanous scarf or wrapped in a chic turban. Her high Slavic cheekbones and wry mouth are free of makeup; her light eyes, even at a distance, luminous with intelligence and humor. She’s stunning and looks, as always, unlike anyone else, especially here, where most of us are wearing regulation black tees, flannel shirts, and jeans, or Southwestern earth-mother skirts with cowboy boots and turquoise and silver jewelry. She looks like a sort of punk-rock flapper, or a late-twentieth-century Akhmatova, if Akhmatova had come of age in Newark, Boston’s Park Square, or the twisting streets of New York’s Alphabet City.
Her reading is incantatory, at once theatrical and intimate, her New Jersey accent musical—she sounds as if the words she reads are delicious, heavy and sweet, in her mouth—and, as with her dress, it’s a voice wholly her own. She does not so much read the poems as perform them, entering their elegiac stories and the worlds she has woven so completely that she seems at times, and we feel along with her, in danger of being engulfed.
Yet when she speaks between poems, she seems completely at ease, despite what she will later tell me is a nearly incapacitating nervousness. She jokes, her wit both sharp and charming, and her introductions and between-poems patter echo the sensual rhythms and seamless shifts in diction, from street to high lyric, that energize her work. She is warm and unpretentious. That she knows, even welcomes, the risks her work demands both of us and especially of herself, is clear in every gesture, but so too is her lack of self-pity, her refusal to fall into cynicism and defeatism, what Wojahn has so aptly called her “hard-won and urgently expressed spirit of wonder.” It’s wonder we feel as well. Months later, when another teacher asks me what I want readers of my poems to feel, it’s Lynda’s reading I’ll remember.
I studied formally with Lynda Hull from June through December of 1991. She had a genius for teaching in the same way she had genius as a poet and brought to it a similar passionate intensity. “I’ve never known a teacher to inspire such ardor in her students,” Mark Doty writes in his afterword to The Only World, “a desire to be not like Lynda but like themselves—to step into their authority, their defining costume.” She was, as one of my classmates put it, “a soul guide.” And it’s true we adored her—once a group of us, women poets, joked with her that we would get leather jackets studded with “Lynda’s Girls” on the back. She seemed to delight in our affection, but unlike too many poets who exploit the intensity of the relationships that develop between teacher and student, Lynda never wanted anything from us, but rather saw it as her role to give, rather than take. Lynda was loved by her students, both male and female, because she loved us, in the sense that Erich Fromm defines it in The Art of Loving, not as a feeling, but as an action, “an expression of care, respect, responsibility and knowledge . . . an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity to love.”
In a low-rez program most of the exchanges between students and teachers occur through correspondence. Lynda’s letters often ran to a dozen single-spaced pages. She usually opened by sharing something of whatever was happening at the moment in her own life, often with a vivid and elegant description of her days:
I felt I knew her rooms in Chicago, the window she looked out as she wrote, the route she walked to and from the lake.
She wrote to me, as she did to all her students, as to an equal, as if we were friends. The tone of her letters is warm, even intimate, and often funny—Lynda had a wickedly smart sense of humor—and in them she shares her own vulnerabilities and struggles as a poet, though I would learn later that she kept her most personal struggles to herself. Her responses to the stories I shared in my poems and letters are filled with references to her own similar experiences, and her empathy was a nurturing force that helped me to grow, to risk. When I was most insecure about my work she shared with me her own fears and difficulties, telling me she often cried after workshop as a student, that she remained a “terribly slow” writer.
The margins of my poems and her letters are filled with pointed criticisms: “nice writing, but feels like autopilot. . . . protective . . . writing so good I almost buy it . . . more passion”—and exclamation points beside enthusiastic words of encouragement, especially on revisions: “oh yeah! . . . you’re singing! . . . exquisite!” She chided me for flat language, encouraged me for the carefully chosen verb, the on-target metaphor. She edged me, draft by draft—“we gettin’ there”—towards my best.
But she knew that becoming a poet was about much more than learning craft. She pushed me always to risk more, to push further and deeper into my subjects. Deeply committed to empowering the poets with whom she worked, she knew firsthand how hard it could be, particularly for women of our generation, to believe in our right to speak our most personal truths and pressed us, always, to brave saying what we really thought and felt, to tell the truth about our lives. “Write to me,” she encourages in one letter, challenging me to be more open in a difficult poem, “I done everything.”
“Once Lynda’s student, always her student,” an alum told me when I first arrived at Vermont College, and it was true. Lynda and I continued to correspond, exchanging letters and tacky B-movie poster postcards with captions like “When Strangers Marry” and “Betrayed Women!” from the time I graduated in 1992 until a few months before her death. Looking back at her letters and cards, I am struck again by how much I learned from her, how freely she gave of herself, and how much I miss her.
About a year after I’d left school, Lynda heard from a friend of mine still in the program that I was having a hard time—both personally and with my writing. A few weeks later, I received a gift bag from Lynda, filled with talismans and charms, including a tiny silver and carnelian box she’d brought back from Cuba. The box, which has sat on my writing desk ever since, was filled with confetti “for celebration,” and had a mirror on the inside lid, “so you can see yourself true,” Lynda had written on the card she’d enclosed. “When you lose your faith in your talent,” she closed, “take mine for you. Love, Lynda.” It is impossible to overstate how much that meant to me at the time, means to me still, and I know she offered the same loving gestures of support to many students.
Towards the end of her life, I felt we might have gone on to be friends, as she slowly began to share with me some of her troubles. Once, I called her in Provincetown. I didn’t know that she had slipped and was struggling badly with her addictions once again, and the Lynda who answered the phone was no one I recognized. Unnerved and uncertain, I stammered something inane and soon hung up. It was the last time we would speak. That I never had the chance to do better, to give back to her some small part of all she gave to me, is part of my grief.
Rereading Lynda Hull’s poems as I write this piece, I am struck again by my incredible good fortune; how many poets are lucky enough to study with a poet of such gifts? That she was, as well, the teacher of whom one dreams makes me doubly blessed. I try to pay toward my unpayable debt to her by bringing some small portion of the generosity she showed me to my own students, but always I fall far short. I feel sorry for myself—for all of us—when I think of the remarkable woman she’d have been at fifty and seventy and ninety, and when I imagine the astonishing poems she’d surely have gone on to write. And then I remember to be grateful, and I am, for having known her and for having the work she left us, to which I return again and again.
A final story: It’s 1997 and my first, chapbook-length collection has been published. I’m giving my first “real” reading to a good-sized audience at my undergraduate alma mater in Omaha, and I’m so nervous my hands tremble. I barely hear my introduction, and then I am standing at the podium, terrified that, when I open my mouth, no words will come, when all at once it’s all right; Lynda is there, beside me. I’m not a believer in spirits or communication with the dead, but there she is, her arm warm around my shoulders, whispering in that beautiful, unmistakable voice that it’s going to be great, that I should go ahead and sing.