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Stephen Wiest on Elliott Coleman.

WHEN BOB ROSENBURG, the publisher of Linden Press, asked me to edit a book of Elliott Coleman’s poetry, I accepted eagerly. I didn’t think that I had the credentials to ‘edit’ Elliott’s poems, so suggested that I choose the ones I liked the best and then have Elliott say something about each of the poems. I wanted to have the comments on the page facing the poem.

Bob and Elliott liked the idea, so I bought a huge ‘portable’ reel-to-reel tape recorder and began choosing poems for the book. Elliott and I set up a casual schedule to talk about these poems, usually twice a week. I would drag my tape machine the several blocks from my apartment to his and set it up. We mixed martinis and began the session. I would pick a poem and Elliott would read it aloud and then talk about it. We followed no set pattern. Sometimes, I asked about a passage in a poem, sometimes he spoke of the circumstances around the poem’s creation: where he was at the time, what was going on in his life, how it related to something else he was writing, whatever. Each session became a kind of spur of the moment autobiographical monologue.

I labeled the tapes, intending to listen to them when the whole project was finished rather then letting one tape influence the direction the next session might take. That, of course, was a mistake because this theoretical process I had imagined did not take into account the management of the tape recorder, or my challenged ability as a sound engineer. I set it up the first time and the sound was fine. I assumed all that was necessary after that was to turn the thing on. There was also the enjoyment and the excitement of the conversation claiming my attention, and there were the cocktails.  So, while Elliott remained eloquent and insightful during each session, my recording techniques became increasingly degraded as each session wore on.

When, the project concluded after several months, the logistical nightmare began. The sound quality on some of the tapes was incomprehensible. Since the recorder was not voice activated, static filled long silent spaces. There were other problems, including not turning the machine on for one session. The upshot was, in order to finish the book as originally intended, many poems from different sessions would have to be revisited, losing the spontaneity we had been aiming for. Also, the book would be at least twice as long as Bob had envisioned, unless we cut some of the poems, which I didn’t consider an option. So we dropped the idea of en face commentary. I was very upset with myself for messing up what I thought was a good idea, and as a penance gave up gin. Elliott, always sympathetic to a crisis, was kind enough thenceforth to keep a bottle of vodka in his refrigerator.

As I think of those days in order to contribute to this portfolio, I realize that messing up those tapes was not as bad as I had thought it was all these years. There are so many anecdotes about Elliott Coleman, this character who mentored so many people trying to decide whether they were poets, and if they were, what then, as they faced themselves in their year at the Writing Seminars. Each person who was helped by Elliott through that year has his/her own defining anecdote, probably many. Some are funny, and some serious.

This is one of mine: we were eating crabs and drinking beer one evening in late summer. Elliott was still in his charcoal suit and white shirt, although he had loosened his thin, dark tie. He took a crab and with a quick twist dislodged the back fin, that choicest part of the crab, with a large chunk of white meat at the end. Apparently, he saw it as a white rose, a bud just opening, and started to put it in his lapel. Thinking better of that, he turned and presented it to my wife, a white rose, from a troubadour to a lady. The table exploded with laughter, and he slapped his knee in that way he had.

REMEMBERING THIS STORY, I thought that the anecdotes, the stories, even the commentary by Elliott did not add to the poetry, because his poetry is so intensely searching for a choice, for a belief—finding it in one poem, losing it in another, that commentary, even if helpful toward a scholarly understanding of the poem, would interfere too much with that immediacy. I chose the poems in Rose Demonics to fill in the journey from a couplet in an early sonnet sequence, “June Sonnets”:

But I should have liked to write a poem strong
And beautiful as mercy, and as long.

I think his wish from that sonnet was granted, and I believe he accepted his belief in the last words of his prose poem “A Summer Sky,” that ends the book:

And we see,
and we know, in this swift circle of moments in
our very eyes, that lightened with everlastingness,
we have become a summer sky.

I’m still sad I lost the comments; they would make another kind of book, but I like this book better the way it is. And as Elliott writes in the title poem from Rose Demonics 1936-1966:

the auto-biograph     is     such     a
benedic anima mea

Stephen Wiest studied at Hopkins with Elliott Coleman as a special student, undergraduate, graduate student and Poet-in-Residence at the Writing Seminars for several years, ending in  the mid-‘70s. Now he spends most of his time on the Eastern Shore of Maryland finishing the long poem he began at Hopkins.

This essay is part of

A Fortnightly Review Portfolio

of work by and about Elliott Coleman.