I once heard Kurt Vonnegut says a writer has to believe that what he’s writing right now is the most important thing anyone has ever written. That was hard for me in the beginning because my Presbyterian minister father taught me to be modest, humble and circumspect. At potluck suppers in the church basement, we always waited to be the very last in line. I never learned how to be important.
Then I met David Lehman. In high school an English teacher told David that he was a poet, and he believed her. The day I met him he stuck his head out of his dorm room door as I was entering mine for the first time suitcases in hand and asked me, “You don’t have a copy of The Paris Review with you do you?”
“The new Paris Review. I’ve got a poem in there. Hi. I’m David Lehman. I’m a poet.” I did not see a poet. I saw a gawky, pimply, eighteen year old kid with a New York accent and a Yogi Bear lilt in his voice.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. “Pete Ferry, Undersecretary of the Interior.” David didn’t seem to hear me. He shook my hand. David and I were students in a summer program at Oxford and after sharing a plane ride, had been bumming around England on our own for a few days. Oh, we had a good time with David for a couple of weeks. We (three of us had come together from Ohio and had never even been to New York - we were groped in Times Square and charged eight dollars a beer on Second Avenue - much less London) had chips on our shoulders, a bit of residual Midwestern adolescent anti-Semitism, and an absolute phobia about being ugly Americans. And now one of us was David, our worst fear, the ugliest American of all, a New York Jew. So we mocked him, imitated him, asked him stupid questions (“Do poets wear boxers or whitey-tighties?”), and it all missed him (“I don’t think it really matters. I wear briefs. Kenneth Koch wears boxers. This I happen to know because I once came home to my apartment to find him playing the violin in his boxers for a graduate student in comparative literature. She was quite beautiful.”) For a couple of weeks we huddled together talking about all the stupid things David did and said, and then he did something stupider. He challenged John Fuller to a poetry reading. We were just mortified.
Fuller was one of our dons. He was young, handsome, witty, wry, bored, very British. He was also a rising star among British poets and the son of Roy Fuller who was the sitting Poet laureate of OxfordUniversity. Fuller accepted, and on a Wednesday evening after sherry and shepherd’s pie, we sat back gleefully to watch David’s vivisection.
John Fuller began the evening with some nakedly deprecating remarks about his young challenger from across the sea. He was at least annoyed, perhaps insulted. We choked on our laughter, bit our thumbs, but David beamed at us oblivious, certain that we were all on his side or certain of something, at least. Then they began to read. They took turns standing at the podium trading short poems. We were quieted. David wasn’t that bad. David was pretty good. We looked sideways at each other and raised our eyebrows. After half an hour David said that he would now read some of the New York poets who had influenced him: Koch, Frank O’Hara, David Shapiro.
“No, no,” said Fuller with a wave of his hand. “Read your own stuff.” They read on. David was damn good. After an hour Fuller took the podium and looked back at David. “Got a long piece?”
“I have one long piece I want to read. If you have something, too, we’ll read these and then go home.”
“Well, I have one, but I’m still working on it.”
“Try it. I want to hear it.”
“You first,” said Jon Fuller.
And David read a poem called “Supercargo.” He shuffled pages and started quietly, perhaps uncertainly, but his voice rose and rose with the poem, and he stood forward on his toes although he was tall to begin with. He was wonderful. When he finally sat down, we found ourselves clapping.
Fuller took the podium and looked down for a long moment at his loose sheets. “I can’t follow that,” he said finally, and sat down, too. Oh we had a party that night. The girls dangled their bare summer legs from our dorm windows over the Cherwell River, and we all laughed and sang and passed a hashish pipe and bottles of Spanish Graves. We toasted David all night long.
For the rest of the term, I spent as much time as I could with David Lehman. We ate Chinese food because David was homesick, hitchhiked to the sea shore reciting poetry between rides and made plans to go to France where David said “the vegetables all taste like fruits.” Before the end of the summer, Fuller, who had a little basement press, had published a broadsheet of David’s poetry (I still have a copy of it somewhere), and I knew I wanted to be a writer and was able to say it aloud, at least to myself.
-- Peter Ferry