I want to say the year was 1981. I was a student at the State University of Oneonta and I took a poetry workshop class with Donald Petersen. We were a small group. There was the feminine gay guy (I wasn’t out yet), a hippy girl, a girl who wrote offbeat funny poems, a guy who wrote interesting surrealist poetry, and intellectual man with a pony tail, the girl who lived across the hall from me and wrote her poems in calligraphy and me. We were an eclectic bunch of poets and wisely our professor assigned one book, and anthology called The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940, edited by Mark Strand.
I had only written poetry for a very short time. I started when I was at Hudson Valley Community College. Most of my poems were idealistic claptrap. The gist of it was “Wouldn’t It be nice if the World had a picnic by a river”. I wrote an anti-war poem called “The Virgin Snow “. “The soldier bleeds on the virgin snow. ” The worst poem was called “Chicken Woman, USA “. Luckily, I lost that poem.
The anthology our professor assigned was full of poets I had never heard of like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, Randall Jarell, Robert Lowell and so many other poets. Very few poets rhymed: mainly X. J. Kennedy and Richard Wilber. Our professor encouraged us to explore the book and find poems that reached out to us. I found myself loving The Prodigal” by Elizabeth Bishop, and Skunk Hour by Robert Lowell. I loved the Pop Art of Kenneth Koch’s You Were Wearing and the life of a garbage dog as told by a kid in Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9 by Robert Sward. I even asked Professor Petersen about the poems of John Ashbury. I didn’t get them. I don’t think he cared for them either.
Over the semester my poetry began to change. For starters, I was writing multiple drafts of the same poem. I was writing more about my life, except I didn’t tackle being gay. I learned to not write in cliches and leaned the difference between telling and showing. I appreciated that poetry was about the images. I could certainly see it in some of my favorite poems in the book like In Montecito by Jarrell or the Dream Poems of John Berryman.
I don’t know what happened to the other poets in the workshop, except the girl who wrote in calligraphy dropped the class. I wish I was closer to the gay poet in our group. He was a brave guy to come out like that. I hope the others kept writing because they were good. I felt bad that I never contacted Professor Petersen and tell him how I was part, years later, in the open mic poetry scene in Albany. I never told him how that one poetry anthology changed my life, for the better, how it opened my mind to all the various types of poetry existed.