by Roy J. Adams
At the age of 78, I just published my debut book of poetry. It was not the culmination of a life-long dream. Before my early 70s, I never imagined becoming a poet. During my first 69 years, I wrote a lot, academic writing, and all of it was literal. Like the whack-a-mole game, I played whack-a-metaphor. With its potential to radiate many meanings, metaphor is the nemesis of the literal. I wanted my readers to discern only one meaning, not puzzle or imagine the implications of many. In my seventies, I fell off a mountain into another dimension.
As a young man, I had set my sights on becoming a “writer,” which, to me, meant someone who created short stories and novels. I withdrew stacks of books from the library and read them with purpose. I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Chekhov and deMaupassant, Lafcadio Hearn and Nathanael West, and tried to emulate them.
I did not consider writing poetry. My working class circle in Northeast Philadelphia read novels and magazines but no one that I knew had any interest in poems. Some of the famous writers I read did, of course, write poetry as well as fiction. But, I found most of it to be baffling – a maze of riddles for which I had no patience.
At the age of 20, I signed up for a creative writing workshop at the Junto, an adult evening school originally founded by Ben Franklin. I subscribed to men’s magazines like Gent and Dude with a view towards writing stories appropriate for them. I adopted the surly manner of a young phenom about to break onto the scene.
A middle-aged Junto classmate offered to provide me with introductions to members of a circle of writers in Florida from where she had recently arrived. “It will do you good to get to know, hang out with, them,” she said. I quit my job as a linotype operator and headed to Sarasota where I rented a room in what had once been the home of a successful novelist and got a job clearing tables at a local restaurant. I went to a few parties attended by well-known writers but none took me under their wing. I did very little writing. After a few months, during which I made no progress in acquiring relevant skills, I returned to Philly where the newspaper took me back.
I tried to keep up the front, but it was all a charade. I was playing “pretend and it will happen.” It didn’t. The stories I wrote were pitiful. Rejection slips piled up. I lost all confidence.
In 1961, as I was about to turn 21, the military draft loomed and many of my high school friends were joining up. Several had become paratroopers, which, before the anti-war movement seized center stage, was considered by young men in my blue collar crowd a mark of distinction. I decided, what the hell, it would be an adventure.
In basic training the recruits came from a variety of backgrounds: north and south, rural and urban, black, white and other. In a notebook, I recorded idioms I heard with a view to somehow doing something with them. I never did. My energies instead went towards surviving jump school, hoping it would toughen my character.
The training was vigorous but I survived intensive drills and hazing. A malfunction on my first parachute jump resulted in bruises and sprains but no breaks and I went on to win my wings. Shortly afterwards, I was assigned to Korea where most of my efforts went into mastering tae kwon do. Back then, martial arts were exotic. Few North Americans had made black belt rank. Through intensive training and semi-private lessons, I completed that course too. But I did no writing.
Back in the USA, I met my wife, a graduate of what then was Carnegie Tech and I put my literary ambition on hold in order to give university another try. This time around, I stayed intensively focused—majoring in general arts and sciences—got excellent grades, and graduated at the top of my Penn State class.
At university, I did take one course in creative writing. I asked the prof if he thought I had any chance of becoming a successful writer. He hesitated and said, “It takes commitment and tremendous discipline. To become an excellent writer requires a long apprenticeship and there is no assurance of success.” With my unpromising beginning, I decided that the risk was too great and looked for alternatives that offered a surer payoff.
I wound up going to graduate school to study Industrial Relations, a field of considerable interest in that Great Society era. The bet paid off. When I graduated in 1973, I secured a faculty position at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. My career there consumed my intellectual attention for two and a half decades. Yet somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness, the idea of taking up writing again continued to linger.
I did not regret my second-choice career. It allowed me to fulfill three major life objectives: seeing the world, working on projects I found inherently interesting, and maintaining as much control of my affairs as possible. As a university professor, I researched and wrote about labor issues in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and elsewhere. For the most part, I was my own boss.
During these years, I always had reading material, mostly literary fiction, at my bedside. I had moved away from my working class roots to become part of a well-educated community including some poets. But I had only so much time for the arts and decided to devote it to film, jazz, theatre, dance and the visual arts. Along with opera, poetry continued to be left out.
In 1997 I took early retirement in order to gain even more control. Immediately, I signed up for a distance learning course in creative writing. But I was still not ready to fully commit as my university prof insisted I must in order to succeed. In addition to fiction, I had lots of professional projects on my plate and interesting opportunities came along that proved irresistible.
For a few years, I wrote a regular column for the local newspaper. Then I was recruited to become a candidate for political office. That took up another year, which led to my becoming intensely involved in local politics for several more years. I did continue to take writing courses focused primarily on short story and memoir. But, lacking commitment, the results were dismal.
My writing career was stuck until I sat in on an undergraduate course at McMaster on “short forms of literature.” Half of the curriculum focused on the short story, the other half on poetry. The poetry was a new experience, and I got on well with the professor, Jeffery Donaldson, who was also a well-established Canadian poet. He became my friend and, eventually, my mentor.
There are two local poetry workshop groups in Hamilton, and I decided to sit in on a few sessions. Soon I was workshopping poems (not very good ones) of my own. When, at one session, my line breaks were criticized, I asked for advice on learning more about the craft. Soon, I was working my way through books about poetry by John Hollander, Mary Oliver, Ted Koozer, Stephen Dobyns, Edward Hirsch, Stephen Burt, Matthew Zapruder and others, and began to read poetry by poets at several levels of achievement.
Jeffery recommended that I attend Poetry Weekend, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, an annual gathering of poets from across Canada. Whoever shows up gets approximately three minutes to read before a room full of poetry lovers. It was exhilarating and humbling and motivating. The poets were skilled, imaginative, and accomplished but were also real people, not the shamans who inhabited my imagination’s inner sanctum.
I also applied to attend San Miguel Poetry Week, a series of workshops led by distinguished American and international poets in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. By then my poetry had improved a bit, and I was admitted. I attended workshops led by Mark Doty, Jennifer Clement, Erin Belieu, Richard Hoffman, Ahren Warner and others.
The participants and instructors were easy on me, but many could not hide their doubts. I had more work to do. Finally, I committed. Instead of a part-time “hobby,” writing poetry became my priority, the work that dominated my day. In the summer of 2016 I had a poem accepted by Vallum, that year’s Canadian poetry magazine of the year.
By the fall of 2017 I had another poem accepted by an equally excellent, Canadian literary magazine, The Fiddlehead. I decided it was time to put together a chapbook. By then Jeffery Donaldson was reviewing and commenting on most of my poems.
A year later, the chapbook manuscript had gotten some good reviews and been short-listed in the well-respected Frog Hollow Press chapbook contest. It was, however, still unpublished when I spotted a listing in the on-line service Duotrope for a publisher whose name I did not recognize.
When I sent the manuscript to Silver Bow Publishing, I was told that, although they did not publish chapbooks, they liked my poetry and would be pleased to consider a full book if I could assemble at least 48 pages of poetry. I expanded the chapbook and, after so many turn-downs, was somewhat astounded to be offered a contract.
Voila! By early 2019, my debut book of poetry was in print and being distributed. When I was granted full membership in the League of Canadian Poets, I was reassured that I had—by virtue of both a wondrously serendipitous turn of events and a lot of focused work—become a poet. Not John Donne, nor Emily Dickenson, yet still I was the author of a literary work deemed sufficiently meritorious by an industry expert.
I realize that each year in North America thousands of books of poetry are published. So becoming the author of one of them is not a gold-medal achievement. However, for most of my life I considered myself so bereft of poetic talent that I made no attempt to read it or write it. To publish a novel was just barely conceivable; to publish a book of poetry was beyond imaginable.
What’s the lesson of this story? In part, it is an example of the “never too late” trope. Do not be intimidated by the claim that creativity, necessarily, seeps away in middle-age. Artistic bursts may occur at any age. But there is another subtly different lesson. If the muse can elicit a tune from a naysayer like me a few years short of 80, who knows what unsuspected artistry might be released from the depths of anyone who persists and remains open to inspiration? You may not achieve what you’ve long been after, but by going for it you might stumble on something even better.
a card dunce
This poem appears in Critical Mass, Silver Bow Publishing, New Westminster, British Columbia, 2019
Roy J. Adams spent the bulk of his working career researching, writing about and teaching Labor and Human Rights. After moving on from his full professor job at McMaster University in Ontario he sought to develop his creative side. During the half dozen years, his work has appeared in literary magazines in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Singapore and has won a place in several anthologies of award-winning poetry. He is the author of Bebop From Beau’s Caboose, a chapbook published by the Ontario Poetry Society in 2018 and Critical Mass, a full book of poetry published by Silver Bow Publishing in 2019.