Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jason Shinder/Wide Spirit

Jason Shinder was my last teacher at Bennington. I was told--by all of the poets, repeatedly, especially by my friend David--that I had to work with Jason and I had to save him for last. He was the man who could take a hundred seemingly distant poems and spin them into one coherent masterpiece, or so went the myth. The strange thing was that, with Jason, the myth was almost true.

The first time I entered Jason's workshop, he began by quoting an unbelievably long poem--some lovely verse by Dylan Thomas, I think--and we all sat astounded by his memory and the way he infused his own wide spirit into the words. If he would have said he'd written the poem, labored over it for years, we would have believed. Jason encouraged us to "feel" poems, move into them and through them. Memorization would help us do this, he said, and, though I struggle with this myself, I've found that he was right.

Jason was also an advocate for using our own words to spark new ideas. He told us never to throw anything away, all poems--good, bad and ugly--could spark more poems. He asked us to go back to old notebooks and highlight good lines or lines that struck us in some way and start the poem again, from there, without any of the reservations we might have had in the past.

When it was time to send Jason my work, I was hesitant. "I don't know how to put this thesis together. I have no idea how to order a book or even if it's a book," I told him one afternoon during a private meeting in one of the dining rooms. "Don't worry," he said, "I do. Send everything to me. You're a poet. Let's see what you've got." Throughout that semester, I learned more than I could have ever imagined form Jason. I did send him everything, and he sent me a back a manuscript complete with the essential poems, sections, clear divisions, comments and a blessed title. CONVERSION was scrawled across the top page in blue ink, beneath it, a handwritten letter praising my work. Of course, there was still much work to be done, but after receiving the manuscript and letter form Jason, I felt like there was a t least direction, something concrete and valuable to work towards finishing. I still have the letter and that manuscript and I take them out and look at them every once in a while.

Four years ago, when I sat down to meet with Jason, I could never have imagined what an impact he'd have on my work and life. He taught me about being honest with myself as a writer and about revising a body of work, not just individual poems. He also stressed the importance of being true to my own voice, despite that fact that some would say it was redundant or invalid or unimportant or uninteresting, and he assured us all that someone would, indeed, think or say all of those things about our work.

Writing wasn't enough, he said, we had to be community activists as well. We had to start writing programs at our local schools and neighborhood centers, we had to sit on arts boards and councils, we had to edit anthologies (lots of them) and never be afraid to move our own work. Jason taught me that a good poet is never without books, that a good poet doesn't turn down readings, that a good poet will share a poem on a street corner at midnight with anyone who seems to be in need of a good poem. Jason taught me to live poetry, to breathe it. I listened and am still listening.

When I got the news that Jason had passed away last week after a long (and mostly hidden, as was his way) bout with cancer, I sat and thought about all the things I learned from him, all the things he valued, big and small. He was friends with James Baldwin and told us once that Baldwin died thinking he hadn't accomplished much. I pray that Jason knew how much he impacted my life and the lives of those that knew him. He was a true poet who believed in the power of light and movement (Did I mention that one of my favorite tidbits about Jason is that he was a principle dancer in the film Grease? He lived so many different lives...) and sound, in all its manifestations.

Here's a beautiful poem about his own loss. How he'll be missed...


Just when it seemed my mother couldn’t bear

one more needle, one more insane orange pill,
my sister, in silence, stood at the end

of the bed and slowly rubbed her feet,

which were scratchy with hard, yellow skin,
and dirt cramped beneath the broken nails,

which changed nothing in time except

the way my mother was lost in it for a while
as if with a kind of relief that doesn’t relieve.

And then, with her eyes closed, my mother said

the one or two words the living have for gratefulness,
which is a kind of forgetting, with a sense

of what it means to be alive long enough

to love someone. Thank you, she said. As for me,
I didn’t care how her voice suddenly seemed low

and kind, or what failures and triumphs

of the body and spirit brought her to that point—
just that it sounded like hope, stupid hope.

--Jason Shinder