Here is a lovely essay by my long ago teacher Robert Day, the same man as wrote the words REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM across the blackboard that first day of classes in Iowa more years gone than I care to remember. I wrote about him in my essay “The Novel is a Poem” in my book Notes Home from a Prodigal Son.
I was trying to be a writer. I had my portable Remington; the professor said I could use the kitchen table as my desk. To warm up, each day I’d add to my letter to Lola, typing on the small sheets of yellow sketchpad paper she had given me. After a paragraph or two, I would put what I had written into Mitchell’s McSorley’s as a sort of bookmark. Then I’d begin my own work—a novel set on the western high plains of Kansas into which I stuffed as many grotesque details (coyote hunters bringing into town bundles of ears, each attached by a strip of skin, to claim the bounty at the county office) and as much profanity (“He’s lower than snake shit at the bottom of a post hole”) as the prose could carry in hopes that one day a famous multi-adjective professor would lecture that western Kansas cannot be all that bizarre and profane. He, too, would be wrong. Neither the novel nor the letter was ever finished.