“Words put own and carried in the dark”: Homage to Jay Meek
April 11, 2015, Minneapolis AWP
Thom Tammaro, Moorhead, MN
Let me begin with the last stanza from a prose poem by Jay Meek called “Trains in Winter,” the title poem of his 2004 collection from Carnegie-Mellon University Press:
Hope’s the pure country I was born to, where the trains run on schedule in their periodic and beneficent sadness. I want to forget the casual insults that often pass for humor, and imagine the letters lovers might write, or the letters friends send every winter as their sentences cross the distance of the page. Their words are like a train arriving in Los Angeles while another train approaches the desert, and still another leaves the Chicago yards. Tonight I want to lie in my own bed and listen to trains moving across America toward a place still humanly possible, desirable if difficult, a day’s journey away.
I first met Jay Meek in 1984, about a year after I arrived in Minnesota and during Jay’s first year at UND in Grand Forks. My colleague Mark Vinz and I drove to Grand Forks to met Jay at the Westward Ho Motel, a wild west-themed hotel that verged on the surreal: barrel tables and lanterns, western things like spurs and leather saddles, and wagon wheels and tool-like things from barns, all hanging on the walls and rafters. I remember the three of us sitting for three hours in a darkened corner of an otherwise large and unoccupied room—drinking beer, eating peanuts and shucking the shells to the sawdust floor—though I’m not sure that’s what we were supposed to do with them—laughing and talking poetry. It was a grand night and the beginning of a twenty-three year friendship. On the drive home, I remember thinking, This western edge of Minnesota might not be so bad after all!
Jay—and soon after Martha (and Anna, who was mostly out east chasing degrees in music and writing at Yale, and Johns Hopkins, and Indiana Universities)—and I spent a great deal of time together in restaurants; over home-cooked meals; and in cars driving to-and-from poetry readings.
Jay read, edited, and published my poems. He skillfully edited my second collection of poems—taking a bloated manuscript of 85 poems and reducing it to 50, making it a much better book. Jay was a fine, fine editor, whose feedback I valued and trusted more than any other’s.
We wrote letters of recommendation for each other—or spoke on each other’s behalf—when we applied for jobs and grants and writing residencies.
We called each other on the phone; we wrote letters and postcards to each other; we sometimes met for coffee at the Country Hearth Restaurant, halfway between Grand Forks and Moorhead.
I remember those mornings when I went out to get the mail and found a letter, postmarked Grand Forks, with Jay’s name handwritten in the upper-left-hand corner above the green and black and logo of his university. How I loved letters from Jay! How I loved sitting down with them—finding my way through the elegance of his sentences, the intricacy of his paragraphs, the depth of his ideas, and always the joy and quirky humor which balanced the seriousness of his complex and amazing mind.
Sometimes he wrote postcards to me and to my cat, Bucko:
Dear Thom and Bucko,
It was good to see you two on Monday and I’m writing to say that a great coincidence happened, for that night Anna called to say she’d for the first time eaten a tomato and cream cheese sandwich. You know, I had bread from Great Harvest to take back, so the room temperature cream cheese and tomatoes [ones I had given him from our garden] were terrific on white, and I’ll try them tonight on sunflower whole wheat. Bucko, you might not want to try it. Let the two-leggeds do it. It’s always a charge to see you both—not you, in quite the same way, Bucko, although you’ll recall I noted aloud how handsome you were—and I carrytoday again an image of the Terminal Bridge hanging in the air. Who can cross over, to what other liveable and human shore? Love to you all, Jay.
E.B. White ends Charlotte's Web with Wilbur the Pig’s eulogy for his dear friend, Charlotte the Spider. Wilbur says, “[Charlotte] was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Jay Meek was both.
In late March of 1999, someone from the Bush Foundation contacted me and said that Jay Meek had made the initial cut for a Bush fellowship, and would I be willing to assist them with round two, by conducting what he referred to as a “Kitchen Conversation” with Jay Meek. These were informal talks and interviews with 2nd round applicants, meant to sound like we were sitting around the kitchen table talking smart. I said yes, I’d be happy to, but I disclosed to them that Jay was a close friend. Evidently, he knew that already, as applicants had submitted the names of people who might be willing to talk & write on their behalf.
On Saturday, April 10, 1999, Jay and I spent two amazing hours together—yes, we actually sat around my kitchen table and talked— and today I’d like to share with you some of that conversation which eventually became my report to the Bush Foundation. Jay told me that throughout his career, he had been “awakened” by travel—the aesthetic and artistic challenges of each of his books were born as a result of travel, of moving through foreign landscapes and meeting people in their communities, then allowing those landscapes to be absorbed by the body and soul and the intellect—and returned through the language of poems.
Jay remarked that he was “most alive” when he was about to embark on a new writing project—just as he was excited by thoughts of unknown adventures and possibilities when he was on a train leaving the station. For Jay, the quotidian world was liberated by travel, risk, and the need to feel “alive.” For Jay, poems were articulations of human passion, journeys of celebrations, despite restrictions and limitations experience often places upon us. For Jay, these moments represent some of his most rewarding experiences as an artist.
As a “teaching poet”—and Jay always and carefully defined himself as a “teaching poet” throughout his career—Jay remarked that he found great reward from helping students find their way toward their own liberating moments, and he spoke of several students who have done so. There was great pride in his voice and expression when talking about these successful students—three of them sitting next to me today.
About his book, Headlands: New and Selected Poems (1997), Jay told me that it was “an important book for [him], [his] first mortal act as a writer”—he said that the collection was a turning point in his life, a kind of retrospective of what his life had been, both as a writer and as a human, a documentary of his inner life as it played itself out over the years. Jay remarked that as a young writer, he saw the writing life as a “sprint” toward some unknown end, but that now, from his vantage point as a mature writer and human, he saw the writing life as a long race, with failures and triumphs. He was now more patient to watch his art grow, and more accepting now of failure, which he saw as a wise teacher. Where time was once an adversary, it was now an ally. Where earlier work experimented with various masks and personas, Jay seemed most intent on moving “the biographical self” to the forefront of his poems to explore the way the “self” intersects with the events from personal and collective experience. The poems beginning around 2000 were “tethered” to real events, people, and places rather than imagined landscapes and persons, the strategy of work found in two previous collections, Windows (1994) and Stations (1989). His poems grew from an emotional and intellectual center of the self, and recorded the inner life as it played itself out in a 4-5 year cycle.
So much of what Jay wanted in his poetry and his life can be found in his last books and poems.
“clarity and richness
hope and sweetness
and words put down and carried in the dark.”
This is all that Jay asked for.
Headlands is a book that I encourage you to read (and purchase, if copies are available today, and I think they are). It is a book that looks backward to the early arc of Jay’s career as a poet—and then looks toward the work of his future, work that would find its way into his last two collections.
I’m sorry to report that Jay did not receive the Bush Fellowship that year (though he had previously received on in 1989), but his wishes and desire for a poetry that moved “the biographical self” to the forefront of his poems to explore the way the “self” intersects with the events from personal and collective experience did find its way into his last two collections, The Memphis Letters, an epistolary novel (2002) and Trains in Winter (2004), as well as in unpublished book-length manuscripts.
Jay Meek wanted an America where the trains ran on time and moved across America, “toward a place still humanly possible.”
Jay Meek’s friendship was a generous friendship, as was his poetry. Here are two brief stanzas from his poem “Layover” from Headlands (90):
“…I am tired of having to invent my life
I am tired of caring for those
who are dear to me, only to have them leave
as I have had to leave.
I wish I could be generous in holding them all,
the friends I am grateful to,
those who on many quiet evenings
have made me glad.”
Jay Meek’s gift to us was his poetry filled with a generous humanity.
I’d like to end with a paragraph from Letter #50, the last letter in The Memphis Letters (134). Like Tom Joad’s Shakespearean-like “wherever” monologue in Chapter 28 at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, Jay’s passage resonates with generosity, humanity, compassion, desire—and belief toward a place still humanly possible, desirable if difficult.
For me, it comes closest to the heart of the poet—and the human being—that I knew Jay Meek to be:
All too soon now I will be leaving. I will sing for those who are empty, for those who are low on courage and lack words. I will sing for those who live in their own shadows, because I know their songs, and for the shy and tongue-tied, because I am one of them. I will sing for those in small towns, where our century is strangling them, and for those beaten down in the cities.