Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind is Robert Day’s semi-occasional series of reminiscences on the subject of his brushes (tête-à-têtes, dustups, ancient friendships, literary lunches and kitchen conversations) with literary greatness. This series is soon to appear in book form with Serving House Press.
If the world of political religion were only as generous and accommodating as the world of poetry we could all live in un-interesting times, unless you count reading verse that makes nothing happen (in both senses of Auden’s famous phrase) as interesting. Which I do.
That these two poets are popular and splendid in ways beyond their received definitions (Ashbery, the modern master of Ars Poetica yoked to back stories; Różewicz, the voice of poetry as assertion), is evidence that some small part of what passes as modern civilization is free from cant, hypocrisy, and contempt—not to mention drone strikes, suicide bombers, female circumcision, and the mass murders of innocents by tyrants fat and skinny.
Coriolanus had no great flaw, only a series of arrogant mistakes; no fall from grace, in fact no grace at all but a mean-spiritedness from the start that takes on different forms as the play goes along—much like his name. And because this was the sixties, those of us listening to Joan Baez on the jukebox in the Gaslight thought Coriolanus’ trashing of the poor in want of food amounted to let them eat cake. Our revolutionary mantra was: Free Food and No Banking.
“The forty-seven percent,” I say out loud as we continue down Connecticut Avenue. “The Tea Party.”
“What?” says Barbara.
We met by chance in the late 1970’s when Jack and I tried to convince one another that I should be the Director of the Johns Hopkins Graduate Creative Writing Program. I was then teaching at Washington College, in Chestertown, where it turned out I stayed. But from those first days when I toured the Hopkins Writing Seminars, meeting the faculty and students, Jack and I became friends because of — as Montaigne writes — who he is and who I am.
Not long after our pas de deux at Hopkins, Jack called to say he would be coming to Chestertown (where he and Shelly had recently bought a house) the following Friday and would I join him for lunch? Agreed. It was to be the beginning of scores of Friday lunches, continuing to this day.
I had, like almost any American author who writes short fiction, read Mavis’s stories in the New Yorker. Along with Salinger and John Cheever in those days, you could earn multiple graduate degrees in creative writing by reading these authors. At one point I typed (on a manual typewriter, it was that long ago) parts of stories from all three to see what they had accomplished, and how they did it. I learned, among other things, what a fine sense of local detail these writers had: Salinger for the parks and subways of New York City; Cheever for the upstate suburbs with roaming lovers and Labrador Retrievers; Mavis Gallant for the rues of Paris; her stories were their own Plan de Paris.
Not that Dave would know this, but I first met him when he was in Utah and I was in Paris. A left bank book store (not Shakespeare and Company) had a display of American literary magazines, and I bought two or three to take back to my apartment in the couscous quarter. In those literary magazines I read a number of poets whose work I knew (and knew in person as well as in print) and some I did not: Dave Smith was among the latter in both regards. But instead of being just a poet whose poetry I had not read, he became a poet who sent his poems directly (and especially) to me via a literary cosmic connection established well before the Internet.
Each summer and into the early fall, my wife, the painter Kathryn Jankus Day, and I take up residence at L’Étang, a 16th-century farmhouse on the estate of Michel de Montaigne just outside the village of St. Michel de Montaigne. The farmhouse sits in a valley near a pond below the Montaigne castle—a huge Disney-like 19th-century Loire valley imitation built after a maid set fire to the original castle in order to steal some jewelry. Or so the local story goes. Montaigne would be skeptical.
He was a man who thought peace (Stafford was a conscientious objector during World War Two) was good; war was wrong. There were other kind words. About the self-evident and the oblique stories in his poems. About those poem’s gifted reticence. Then something extraordinary was said. One of his children, his daughter Kit I think, told us of her father’s repeated advice to them as they were growing up: “Talk to strangers.”
“Hey, kid,” Walter said one evening to me at dinner. “I read your novel. Very good. Would you read a draft of my screenplay? It’s a western and I’m a furtive Jew from New York. What do I know about cowboys? Walter was then writing The Electric Horseman, not for Robert Redford, but for Steve McQueen who, it turned out, was about to die. When that happened the studio sent the project to Redford who fired Walter. But all that was to happen later. For the moment, Walter wanted to know what I knew about horses and cattle and cowboys. I was flattered. Sure, I said.
Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.