By Victor D. Infante
It would have been Erica Erdman’s birthday today, a fact the Internet has been reminding me of incessently. It’s a jarring little quirk of technology, this seeing the names and faces of dead friends appear unbidden on your computer screen. It happens more and more. You go to send an email, type a few letters in the “to” field, and the name of someone long gone appears. Do you want to send them a message? Oh, goodness yes. If only it were as easy as sending an email to the afterlife, or leaving a post on the wall of some otherworldly Facebook. My computer seems haunted, intent on constantly reminding me of dead poets: Ted Walker, Lawrence Schulz, Ken Hunt, Merilene Murphy, Angela Boyce, FrancEye, Gabrielle Bouliane, Dennis Brutus, David Blair, and so many others. You’d think the din and noise of modern life would drown out their memory completely, wouldn’t you? But there they are, ghosts in the machine.
And then there are the two most recent: Scott Wannberg and Hugh Fox. The former is easy, in a lot of ways. We’d been friends for nearly 20 years, and so my grief is a solid thing, as bombastic and casual as the poem he wrote for me and my wife off the top of his head one night, before a release party for an issue of Blue Satellite. (And Erica was in that issue, too. After a while, the ghosts begin to blur, indistinct images on a faded photograph.) Missing Scott is easy. It comes as naturally as breath.
Missing Hugh seems harder, having only known him slightly and recently. And yet, the sadness I felt at the news of his passing was unmistakable. I’d known who he was for some time, of course: a prolific writer, the author of the first major critical study of Charles Bukowski’s work, the editor of the famed ’60s literary journal Ghost Dance: The International Quarterly of Experimental Poetry, one of the founders of the Pushcart Prize. He was an impressive man, and finding an unsolicited submission from him one day in the Radius email box astounded me. For a moment, I’d assumed it had to be a poet who shared his name. But no. It was him. In his cover letter, he wrote, “Here’s one I wrote especially for you. I love/share your vision” Mere days later, after we published his poem and I dropped him a note to let him know it was online, he wrote back, “what a miracle to wake up to.”
But it was me who received the miracle that morning, who received a gift. The mere nod of approval from a man like that – unsolicited and freely given – was a jolt I sorely needed at that moment. I’d been feeling the weight of this new journal, so different than its predecessor, The November 3rd Club, and yet, in some ways, much more daunting. I’ll freely admit that I was worried I was in over my head, trying to do too much. That small boost was invaluable. It gave me the strength to move on, despite my small crisis of self-confidence. I knew I could never return the favor. And now, days after his passing, that debt burns in my throat.
All of us who take to poetry as a calling, especially those of us who work mostly outside the realm of the academic and corporate spheres, stand on the shoulders of poets such as Hugh Fox, who understood that poetry – that art, beauty and passion – isn’t a gift conveyed by an institution, that’s the prerogative of any one one group or class. Hugh found poetry – and poets – everywhere. He saw that an outsider poet from Southern California was worth taking seriously, and he sought out Latin American poets and published them in both English and Spanish when hardly anyone in America was doing that sort of thing. And one day, for reasons that I’ll probably never know, he took a shine to an online literary journal, and thought it was worth sending a poem. A poem’s a small thing, but if it comes at just the right moment, it can mean the world.
When you’re just starting out in poetry – and I suppose it’s like this in most fields – you pretty much think you’re creating the world anew. You’re not. Whether you know it or not, you’re building on the work of hundreds of poets before you. Maybe even more. You’re building on the work of people like Hugh, or Scott Wannberg, who was out on the road reciting poetry in places that had never dreamed of a poetry reading, or of Erica Erdman, David Blair or Angela Boyce, the more recent poets who added their notes in this tune of poetry we’ve been singing all the way back to Blake, to Donne, to Chaucer … and who knows how far back before that. If you slam or publish online, have a book on a small press or just read in open readings, it’s worth a little of your time to learn about these people, about how their work informs your own, without your even knowing their names.
And then get back to work. Because you owe them, and the only way to repay that debt is to keep the song of poetry alive, keep its symphony of notes, both banal and brilliant, cascading endlessly into the future.