It was not a conscious decision, on my part, to stop writing poetry. I simply turned my back on the entire experience. I dove into my studies, I was a History major and doing well in those classes. I had had a glimmer of a dream, but now it was gone, and I had to move on.
When I said that I went numb that first day back on campus, I believe that was the numbness I felt: burying that bit of a dream. I knew I could write poetry, but if doing that meant becoming cruel and insensitive, I wanted no part in that type of ugliness. I didn’t speak to anyone about it. I simply turned it off, I had plenty enough on my plate, including a marriage that was deteriorating around me.
A year later, my marriage now behind me, I made a mess of a very important mid-term exam in one of my favorite History courses. The exams for this particular prof were always ten essay questions done in a sixty minute period. I got wound up in one response, forgot the clock was ticking, and failed to respond to the last four questions. The professor called me at home, really upset, because he had to give me a D+, and told me he’d fudged even that. I asked if there was some way I could make up the deficiency. He told me to stop by his office the next day.
When I arrived, the professor sat down and invited me to do the same. He asked me if I would be willing to do a twenty page paper on any topic of my choice and I leapt at it, telling him I already knew what I would write about. It was Russian History, and I had a peculiar fascination with much of it. He asked me what I had arrived at so very quickly. I told him, Sophia, of course, the sister of Peter the Great, who came out of terem (a closeted existence for women of the nobility) to become the Regent of All Russia before Peter came of age, stripped her of even her name, and sent her off to a solitary cell in a convent for the rest of her existence.
He looked a bit surprised and then cleared his throat, “Well, that’s good, but there is a condition to be added to all of this. I also want a poem to go with the paper. Not too many History majors also write poetry. I would really like to see you blend the two together. I think it would be great to have a historical poet, here on campus.”
His words had begun to falter at the end, I’m sure there must have been some clue on my face. I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t write poetry anymore.” That was hard because I had not said that to anyone, until that moment. This was a small commuter college, an extension of the State University. And he was one of the most popular teachers on the campus.
A wonderfully gentle and pudgy little man that I had often given rides to when he missed his bus in the morning. I would see him trudging down the side of the road, his book bag slung over his shoulder, and I would pull up and he’d jump in with a grin, thanking me profusely for rescuing him.
“Why ever would you stop, Elizabeth? You have a gift, a talent.”
“Thank you for saying that, but not everyone feels that way, ” I was looking down at my hands, as I said it.
“Well, whoever said such a thing must be really stupid and knows absolutely nothing about poetry,” he adamantly stated.
I looked up and smiled and told him the name of my former instructor. He didn’t bat an eye and continued, “Well, Allen might think he knows everything, but he doesn’t. I have it on good authority that there are other teachers who think very differently. Allen does not always engage his head, or his mind, when he opens his mouth. What the hell did he say to you?”
So, I told him about that last and final encounter. He waved his hands dismissively and continued, “I know for a fact that Dr. Kummings thinks you are the best he has seen in years. You need to listen to that, not to Allen’s gibberish (I think that was a popular word with the professors on that campus). And besides, Elizabeth, I won’t accept less. You need to make up this grade and I will only accept a twenty page paper and a poem. Is that clear?” I almost laughed, he didn’t do stern very well.
I shrugged, thought about it for a moment, and nodded before saying, “I’ve never done an historical poem, but I’ll try it. No guarantees that it will be good poetry, but I’ll at least try it.”
We both grinned as I stood up to leave and he followed me to the door of his office. My mind was racing, trying to figure out how I’d get it all done, as I turned to enter the hallway and get on with my day. He called to me quietly and asked, “Why Sophia?”
I laughed out loud as I turned back to him. “That’s easy,” I said, as I spread my hands to define my five foot, one and a half inch, middle-aged plump figure, “her name means Wisdom, and the only thing I can find in my text books about her is a nasty quote that describes her as a ‘terribly obese, short and ugly woman,” I pointed to the wart on my upper lip, “with a wart on her face with hairs growing out of it.’ It’s pure empathy for a woman who held that country together and laid the foundations that allowed her brother to become The Great he is known as.”
“This could get very interesting,” he said. I nodded and walked away thinking only about the twenty pages I had to write, deciding I’d worry about the poem after the real work was completed.
(to be continued…)