On February 15, 1971, I receive a telegram—a real telegram with teletype pasted onto yellow Western Union paper—announcing my acceptance into David Ignatow’s Craft of Poetry workshop at the 92nd Street Y. This will be my first workshop. I don’t know much about Ignatow—I applied because a friend said her brother was excited to have a chance to study with him (he didn’t get in)—and I buy two of his books. As I devour Ignatow’s colloquial poems of bagels and bums, apples and America, his laments of love and life, I feel a too-good-to-be-true nervousness.
I am overmatched. Many of the others have published, and they speak a lingo I don’t know. But I come to learn that Hitchcock selecting you for “Kayak” does not mean being cast in a suspense movie set on a tiny boat, but rather having George Hitchcock publish your poem in his literary magazine. The turning point comes when I bring a poem to workshop about a character named Harvey. After I read it, Ignatow says, “You know what William Carlos Williams would have said about that poem: ‘So you know Harvey, well then TELL me about him.’”
Not only do I have a mentor in David Ignatow, but I have William Carlos Williams as a “grandmentor.”
David and I keep in touch, and he is generous with his feedback and support, until the magazine I co-edit rejects a story by his wife, which David hand-delivered to me and I said I liked. David sends me a postcard with the salutation “Dear Nobody.” He accuses me of promising acceptance of his wife’s story so I could get an interview with him, then betraying him. He declares that I “have no guts,” repeats that I am a Nobody, and concludes with “we will never speak again.”
I am devastated by the vitriol yet amazed that I am Somebody enough for him to call a Nobody.
I remember that I have the phone number of a young writer David thought I should meet. I haven’t gotten around to following up, but I don’t know where else to turn, so I call. She sounds happy to hear from me, and I blurt out what’s happened and read her David’s postcard. She is as bewildered as I am, and says, “He always talked about you like a son.”
Can it be this simple: I rebelled against Daddy by making Mommy mad at him?
I write David a letter, apologizing for the misunderstanding but pointing out that I never said we would publish the story—just that I like it—and he gave me the story at the last of our interview sessions. David responds that he assured his wife of an acceptance because he thought I was in charge. He accepts my apology and closes with, “We will never speak of this.”
I am relieved but wonder if I will ever again be embraced by David. I next see him at a literary event and shyly approach his circle. David puts his arm around me and says to the others, “Alan and I have been through some things.”
I am considering graduate school, and I ask David if I can audit his MFA workshop at Columbia. (Many years later I will be in the administrative position of turning down such requests out of hand.) David agrees on the condition that I not submit poems to the workshop, speak during class, or see him during office hours. For me, this couldn’t be any more ideal.
I contentedly sit slightly away from the table, soaking up everything without concern at being judged. Not sure if David has officially received permission, I don’t tell anyone I am auditing. A few weeks into the term, David points to me and says, “Alan is an editor of a very important new magazine”—perhaps he has noticed that the other students go off to bars and cafes without inviting me. After class, I am asked along to the West End.
Good teaching means knowing what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Here’s an example of good teaching. David solicits some of my poems for a section he is editing for The American Poetry Review. He sends my stuff back because “you’re moving very fast and I want to catch you at your best,” asking me to submit new material just at the deadline. How clever: I don’t feel rejected, and I start to write like a maniac. I don’t know how long I will be “moving very fast,” and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. At the deadline, I submit and he accepts.
A couple of years later, I send David the proposed manuscript for my first full-length collection, and he replies, “I don’t think you have a complete book in this ms.” He names 21 poems that “could form the beginning of an excellent book, if you can be patient and continue to write to match these.” I am patient, and the book gets better.
I rely on David’s opinions of my work, so it is distressing when I send him a batch of pieces and he writes back: “With the exception of two poems, none of these strike me as very good.” A few days later I receive an addendum: “I’m sorry to have written you in haste. I was tired that day and low about most things but this morning the poems struck me much more intensely.”
I get a note from David telling me he is working on a new book: “So you’ll find my head buried in the typewriter next time we meet. It’ll be like I’m wearing a typewriter for a hat.”
I picture David writing the first sentence and grinning as the hat image comes to him, continuing to type with utter pleasure.
David gives a reading to a packed auditorium at the Guggenheim Museum. At the reception, I am too shy to wedge my way close to him. One by one, the crowd disperses, until it is just the two of us. I walk with David out into the frigid, sleeting February night and accompany him down Fifth Avenue, looking for a bus stop.
I say, “It’s quite a compliment that so many people came out to see you in this miserable weather.”
“Yes, I’ll have to remember that in my will.”
We cross slushy Fifth Avenue. David lets a bus go by as we talk. “There are a lot of people who care about your work, and you,” I say, my way of telling David that I care about his work, and him.
“Sometimes I forget that.”
While David is living in Jamaica, Queens, I have dinner with him in a Chinese restaurant. After dinner, David shops at a grocery store and pays with a twenty-dollar bill. The clerk examines the bill closely, back and forth, and after it passes inspection he apologizes.
“That’s all right,” David says. “It’s not my money, I just pass it along.”
Eventually, I become director of the undergraduate program at Columbia, where David now teaches. David calls to ask if he can reschedule a class, several weeks in advance. “Of course. You didn’t have to ask,” I say, to which David replies, “I always check with the boss.” One August, David—now in his late 70’s—calls to tell me he has Parkinson’s and will not be able to teach anymore because of the strain of the commute from East Hampton.
“I’m sorry this happened,” I say.
“Something had to happen.”
“Well, how do you feel?”
“I imagine the way Mr. Parkinson did.”
The last time I see David, he is in the hospital and he is dying. He asks me if he can teach next semester, and for a second I think he is delusional, but then he grins.
He tells me, “I like your gray hair. It looks good on you,” and I reply that I like the beard he has growing in.
“I’ll ask Rose,” he replies, referring to his dead wife, and once again I think he might be delusional, until I realize he is not talking about now or here.
David asks me scratch an itch on his head, and then he falls asleep. I take out one of his books from my bag to show his nurse, to make sure she knows whom she is caring for. David wakes up and sees her holding it. “That’s my latest book.”
When I get the news that David has died, I remember when he recited one of his poems at the beginning of a session at the 92nd Street Y, so long ago: “Ignatow is dying / and so is the sun.” We stared at him, waiting for the rest of the poem. That was it. David shrugged and said, “Hey, I got it published.”
Since David’s death, I have kept a wary eye on the sun.
Joel Oppenheimer’s private workshop, in 1972, meets on the lower floor of his duplex in Westbeth, the former Bell Telephone building (on the corners of West and Bethune) converted to artists housing. At the first session, I read a poem called “Things to do Today”:
This is a report
on the shape of the commune
at the present time:
The dishes need to be washed
and the candle on the kitchen table
is almost burnt out; the laundry
that has just been washed
needs to be folded and put away;
it’s stuffy, the windows need to be
opened, and Nancy, looking sad,
needs to be talked to
before she leaves for the weekend.
Joel responds “That’s where I live!” and I am off and running.
At a later class, all I have is a 21-word poem. I am embarrassed by its brevity and explicitness. Hoping there won’t be time for me, I comment more than usual on my classmates’ poems. But Joel calls on me. I am always amazed at how Joel can come up with ways to discuss a poem—questions to ask, comments to make—but what can even he possibly say about this one? I read the poem and cringe.
When was the last time
you said I love you
before I did
or touched my penis
before it was hard?
“Alan,” he says, then repeats, “Alan.” He shakes his head and calls up the stairs to his wife: “Helen, you’ve got to hear this!” She isn’t there. Joel says he has no suggestions, the poem is perfect. “Leave me a copy to show Helen.”
After class, Joel puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Alan . . . that poem.”
Could there possibly be a less erudite, more nonspecific response to a piece of writing? Could a writer dream of a better critique?
A year later, we meet up again at the City College graduate writing program. Joel says his goal is to separate the “tummler” (Yiddish for an entertainer who “makes a racket”) from the “poet” in me. On one of my breakthrough poems he suggests only that I add a “you” (I do) and delete a “so” (I don’t), but his comment on the bottom of the page is crucial: “Good—it works—the old problem we talked about, i think you’re getting to it more & more.” On another poem he writes: “Will this ever get written properly? i mean, it’s okay now, but you know it ain’t down yet. Have you tried this as a story?”
He is teaching the poet along with the poem.
In class, Joel reads us a poem a former lover has written about him, in which he is described as the ugliest man on earth. He couldn’t be more proud.
I have been admitted to the City College graduate writing program as a poet, but I convince the director to let me also take Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction workshop.
The class meets in Kurt’s midtown Manhattan townhouse. A few sessions into the term, Kurt tells us that his writing isn’t going well and he needs to take a week off. He looks pale and dispirited as he explains that he is trying to write about heaven and can’t figure out how to do it. Two weeks later, when I ask how the writing is going, he smiles, waves his thumb like a flag, and says, “A-number one.” He looks terrific. (His depiction of heaven doesn’t appear until a few years later, in the prologue to Jailbird.)
I write a short story about rock musicians. Kurt thinks it should be a novel. “Are you going to settle for easy victories, be happy with an ‘A’ in Creative Writing?” he asks me. I would be thrilled with an “A” in Creative Writing from Kurt Vonnegut, but I say I’ll give it a go. Kurt replies that I shouldn’t agree so fast: “Telling you to write a novel is like telling you to get married.”
Every couple of weeks we have a one-on-one meeting. Kurt usually says something before we even sit down: “You’re on to something,” and, later in the term, “You’re racking right along. It looks like a book.” The supreme compliment comes when he declares that in addition to being a poet I am “becoming a man of letters.”
After reading a new chapter, Kurt says, “These guys are trouble, get rid of them,” about two of the protagonist’s band members. I assume he is speaking to me as the author, and I am ready to expunge the characters, but he clarifies that he is talking through me to the protagonist, who should fire them in the story.
I leave feeling great. I am creating characters.
My momentum is strong, and Kurt invites me to meet with him after the term ends. A couple of weeks go by, and I muster the courage to call for an appointment. His wife answers and tells me, “The term is over, he’s not seeing any students.”
Before I can plead my case, Kurt comes on an extension and says, “It’s all right.”
At our meeting, Kurt asks, “Do you know famous rock musicians?”
“Not famous ones.”
Kurt explains that some kid in the Midwest will read my book and become a famous rock musician, emulating my characters because that’s all he knows about how a rock musician acts. Then kids will emulate him.
I am not only creating characters, I am creating people.
I ask how his book is going, and he replies, “It doesn’t much matter. It’s not going very well.” I can take this two ways:
1) If Kurt Vonnegut has such doubts, who am I to even try to get into the game? Or, 2) The fact that I, too, have such doubts doesn’t mean I am not worthy of being in the game.
I opt for the latter.
At the end of the session, Kurt inscribes my copy of Breakfast of Champions: “For Alan Ziegler, who has begun a book of his own.”
I never finish that novel, but fifteen years later my manuscript of short stories wins a minor award, and I am happy with this collection of “small victories.” I send Kurt the manuscript, and ask for a blurb, figuring I am probably the tenth writer that week to ask him for one—all with connections less tenuous than mine—and that he has probably long ago forgotten me. I include a return postcard, asking him to check one of five boxes: “I will try to take a look at the manuscript and maybe write a blurb.” “No, but try again with the galleys.” “No.” “Yes, but be patient.” “It’s done. Here’s the blurb.”
A week later, the postcard comes back. Kurt has checked the “be patient” box and added, “Just got back from England, so have to catch up on a lot of stuff.” But in the same batch of mail is an envelope with his blurb, which is prefaced by: “I’m honored to know you.”
Likewise, I am most sure.
William Burroughs has just moved back to New York from London, and it is amazing to see Old Bull Lee in the flesh, much less have him as a teacher at City College in the Spring of 1974. He agrees to do an independent study with me, and he gives me permission to tape his undergraduate lectures (which he delivers from typed pages). The first time I put my tape recorder on his table, I ask him to release the pause button when he starts talking so I won’t disturb him. Bill declines, preferring that I do it: “I don’t like to fool with other people’s machines.”
We meet at Bill’s sparsely furnished downtown loft. Usually, he wears a tie. Once, when I arrive he is sitting at a big table typing on an old Underwood; later, he has a new IBM electric. He serves me coffee and our conversations are dominated by intense caesuras.
At our final session, I show him part of the novel-in-progress about rock musicians I worked on with Kurt Vonnegut. He quietly reads the piece while I talk with James Grauerholz about small presses. Bill pats his front shirt pocket, making contact with a pack of cigarettes, but he doesn’t take one.
Finally, Bill says, “It’s very, very good. Polished.” He pauses, and I wait for “but.” Instead, he adds, “Do you have an agent?”
“No,” I reply, my heart beginning to race toward the finish line of a novel with blurbs by Vonnegut and Burroughs.
Bill starts coughing and says, “You really need codeine for a cough, but you need a prescription.” (The journalist in me recognizes the lead: “William Burroughs can’t get codeine without a prescription.”)
“I know some rock musicians,” he says. “David Bowie.”
“What do you think of him?” I ask, realizing that the lesson is over.
“Cold and purposeful,” Burroughs replies. “I also know Jagger. He’s a nice guy and a smart businessman.”
We talk about Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. Bill tells me that Naked Lunch originated as a series of letters. He signs my copy of The Wild Boys: “For Alan, from the Wild Boys.”
As I am leaving, Bill says I should feel free to return. “I’m here in the afternoon.”
Earlier versions of these pieces appeared in The Writing Workshop Note Book (Soft Skull).