A few years ago, my friend, former teacher, and mentor, Steve Orlen, came to read his poetry at the school where I teach creative writing, and I had the great pleasure of introducing him to a New York audience. About seventy-five people attended, and before Steve got up to do his thing I read the following introduction:
Steve Orlen has authored five previous collections of poetry, including This Particular Eternity, Kisses, and The Bridge of Sighs. He has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at the University of Arizona and in the low-residency M.F.A. Program at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Tucson with his wife, the painter Gail Marcus-Orlen, who designs all of his book covers, and they have a talented young son named Cozi, who attends the University of Massachusetts. Of Cozi, I have heard Steve say, "I wish he would just become a poet and get it over with," which leads us into the more anecdotal aspects concerning Steve Orlen, the man. First of all, he is the best teacher I have ever had the privilege to study with, and I would not be standing here right now if I hadn't taken his courses at the U of A. Also, Steve Orlen, like most poets, has been the subject of a few juicy rumors. Now, rumors in general are a dirty business, and we should always take them with a couple dump trucks full of salt. Most people would consider themselves lucky to have lived the lives that their rumors attest to. But there is one rumor, and it's probably true, though where poets are concerned, nothing can be confirmed unless you've witnessed it with your own eyes—and sometimes not even then. But this specific rumor, whether scuttlebutt or legend, says more about the heart of this poet than anything I could possibly concoct with a lot of fancy language. As the story goes, Steve Orlen got into a shoving match in a bar with a drunken Kurt Vonnegut because the distinguished novelist exclaimed that "free verse is shit." This was 1966, and I imagine the scene would not have played out any differently if Steve had been toe-to-toe with Norman Mailer, Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Yahweh Himself. Anyone who would broadcast such ridiculousness was going down. You'll be glad to know that Steve has mellowed over the years, as any good man would, but that fire still rages in support of the craft of poetry—on the page and in the classroom. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he's poetry's promoter, manager, trainer, corner man, cut man, and seasoned pugilist all rolled into one. The blurbs he writes for his contemporaries' books sound better than most poets' poems. And, tonight, we get to celebrate Steve Orlen's reaching yet another significant milestone: the publication of Elephant's Child, New & Selected Poems from 1978-2005. Seriously, this is the real deal. Please welcome Steve Orlen.
As the booming applause began Steve jumped up from his chair and hugged me as hard as I've ever been hugged and then he took the podium, thanked me and the college, and proceeded to bring the house down with his beautifully constructed, longish narrative-lyric hybrids. I swear there were people crying in the crowd. This was one of the greatest nights of my professional life.
On November 14th, Steve Orlen passed away as a result of a sudden terminal illness. During the prior week he had been surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues. Alison Hawthorne Deming shared with me that he spent that time, utterly present and Buddha-like, working on his final manuscript with his former students (accomplished poets in their own right). Awareness of such facts tempers my grief somewhat, but makes my heart even heavier, so heavy I'm going to cover-couplet W.H. Auden: Earth, please receive your honored guest. Steve Orlen is laid to rest.