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A Poetry Reading (and What Followed)
It was the autumn of my freshman year of high school and I didn’t know where I stood.
Fourteen years old, with an excess of social awkwardness as my primary character trait, I took
solace as the upright bassist in my school’s jazz ensemble. So what if I couldn’t talk to the other
freshmen without stuttering or glancing away or mentioning something irrevocably geeky, like
my steadfast opinions on the latest trends in contemporary literature? I could read sheet music
and rock a smooth bassline, and that allowed me near-exclusive access to (what I considered to
be) the coolest club on campus: Jazz Band.
By pure luck, my older brother, who had graduated the year before I entered the hellish
cataclysm of high school, had incidentally befriended a circle of laid-back Valley hipsters who
also held a collective musical penchant; they also happened to be seniors during my freshmen
year. During jazz ensemble rehearsal on one fateful night, Emily (a senior who played alto sax
and wore gorgeous necklaces) approached me during the break.
“Hey Sam! Would you possibly be interested in joining us at a poetry reading at Dan’s
this weekend?” she asked. I laid down the beautiful (borrowed) mahogany upright bass, carefully
tried to conceal my excitement.
“Yeah, okay. Sounds chill. What time?” And so began my foray into the domain of cool
older sibling/friends, dimly-lit basement gatherings, and, to a more significant extent, the
wonderful world of poetry.
The following Saturday night, armed with my brother’s begrudging approval and my
(generic yet useful) Good Poems anthology (edited by Garrison Keillor), I joined the ranks of the
Cool and the Wise. Amidst intermittently appreciative whispers, quiet slugs of cheap wine, and
of course the worshipful whispers of those who were taking their respective turns reading
Whitman and Plath, I became absorbed into that mystical realm which encompassed poetry. I
didn’t understand half of what I was hearing, but the cadence every word resonated deep within
me. I listened for colorful adjectives and playful verbs. I wrote down the titles of certain books
for later reference. I tuned in to the various idiosyncrasies of the human voice aloud. I even
shared a poem about elevator music that was stuck in the back of my mind, and found that other
people enjoyed it too. I (finally) made friends through the simple act of exchanging words,
thoughts, and ideas. Because of these words and books and amateur lovers-of-poetry, I was no
longer lonely. It was an extraordinary feeling.
In this way, I fell in love with poetry.
***
It was the summer of my nineteenth year and I didn’t know what I was doing in New
Haven. Standing in the Yale University Press lobby was too surreal for acutely, achingly nervous
me: Certainly there’s been a mistake, I can’t intern at an Ivy-League publishing branch, and if I
can just find the door… Then Mary, my supervisor, arrived and led me to the manuscript
editorial department.
Gradually, my anxiety subsided and I enjoyed the work sincerely (mostly run-of-the-mill
clerical fluff with some proofreading, and the occasional perk of attending seminars about the
book publishing industry). But I felt I was still searching for something – What was I doing
there? Then, on a humid mid-July afternoon, the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets winner was
announced. I had previously expressed curiosity about editing poetry to Mary, and she graciously
let me assist in the manuscript preparation.
In short, I fell in love with poetry all over again. Ansel Elkins’ Blue Yodel was
wonderfully, ambiguously, hauntingly beautiful. As I perused the poems for clarity, I was struck
by the connection intently forged between author and reader. Ms. Elkins opens the door into her
whimsically eerie world, replete with intriguing characters and marvelous imagery, possessing a
vibrancy that was somewhat lacking in the more academic tomes that I had been lightly
proofreading.
That same week, while I was filling in at reception, someone buzzed for entry and, once
inside, introduced herself as Ansel Elkins. Trying to keep cool, I made the relevant call and
informed her that her liaison would arrive shortly. In the meantime, encouraged by my reverent
curiosity, Ms. Elkins explained to me her purpose behind the folklore-esque Blue Yodel, how she
wanted to craft persona poems, scenes of outcasts who live on the margins of society. I expressed
my congratulations and inwardly marveled at the serendipitously intriguing exchange.
In that moment, when I literally opened a door for one poet, I realized I wanted to
dedicate my career to opening figurative doors for future poets. From then on, it became my goal
to facilitate opportunities for natural-born wordsmiths to help forge social and literary
connections among those who were ready and willing to read and revel in the intimate power of
the written word, and to hopefully provide solace to those who needed it most.
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