Monday, May 10, 2010

Learning Friendship by Dona Stein Luongo

In college, shyness perhaps caused by difficult family circumstances: I should be at work to help out instead of pursuing an education while my father was in jail, kept me at a distance from professors who might have become literary friends, both book and writing friends. Also they seemed remote teachers or stars to be admired, not chums.
Professors (all male) with whom we shared enthusiasm for the works of Austen or Milton or Joyce we talked to after classes, but in those more formal years of the late fifties and early sixties, decorum was observed and meant distance at least for female students, me and those I knew. Our college literary friends (often writers and artists on the literary magazine editorial board and contributors) sometimes became lovers and/or partners, and here another complex story could and has been told, of the female often putting her interests and talents to the service of her literary partner's as she listens to, edits, and types his graduate school papers and/or literary efforts while working to support them or while taking care of a baby (sometimes working as well). In the meantime, her literary friends have gone in different directions to graduate school (which she turned down scholarships for because she was in love) or Europe, or Mexico.

Her literary friends are now his, but not really hers, even though she may write a novel on the kitchen table or send poems to literary magazines that are accepted. Sometimes, in the midst of his term papers and the baby's diapers, she feels alone, abandoned, but she doesn't know how or why.

That was me; I saw male literary friendships all around me. They were cemented by student teaching, by working with a thesis advisor, by stopping at this mentor's home (male) for drinks after a seminar, or at a bar. Soon these friendships involved advice about where to publish, who knew whom at what journal or press, and these friendships also soon involved first year graduate students, for by now the males were in their third, or fourth year.

These friendships carried over to tennis, to the men's Sunday morning basketball games, the Friday or Saturday night poker games, and sometimes fishing and camping trips. I watched the toddler on the sidelines, made sandwiches and ferried them and chips and beer to the poker table, and later packed for the fishing and camping excursions. For most of these years, my literary friend was my partner. We talked about books he read or we both read. Sometimes I felt like one of his students.
Soon, his male literary friends spread to universities across the country, extending from coast to coast, in some cases, even to Europe. Of course this was a proverbial men's club. I like to think it has changed, but the reason I describe it from my memory, is that today I see it working as strong as ever, especially where I teach. The Creative Writing Department Assistant invites one of his former undergraduate teachers (a male) to be a featured speaker and reader at the University. All invited readers for the Creative Writing Department so far this academic year have been male.
To back-track, upon being challenged by my partner to at least learn what you're doing after a few nice publications, I was accepted in my first Creative Writing class, at Harvard. At the end of this class, Peter Klappert was leaving Harvard, and as a result of his criticism and encouragement, female writing friends from that class talked about other workshop leaders, especially Kathleen Spivack, teaching through the Radcliffe Seminars.

A strong, vital, tough teacher, and advocate of poetry, she became a friend for many of us. From this class writing friendships came my way and I cherish some of them still--life friends and true friends in that we visited each other's homes, went to local readings together, read poems in public together (and became involved in politics together), introduced our favorite authors to each other, talked about our families, and talked about our struggles to write and publish; is it a surprise that we were all women, then in our thirties with children and ambitious partners, some of us limited by our economic circumstances, but all fed by our attention, interests, and efforts with poetry?

In these friendships, some of my shyness was eroded. That residue of shyness or reserve or formality (perhaps now family illness kept me distant, reticent) made me stand on the fringe, hang back, kept me from claiming as literary friends people I might have gotten to know better after meeting them, sometimes even being in their homes or speaking to them (sometimes in monosyllables) or in some instances even corresponding with them about poetry in two instances with the encouragement and intercession of a partner: J. V. Cunningham, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, John Logan, Anne Sexton and many other writers whose names you might recognize.

Today, I have no career in Creative Writing nor do I teach such a course, but I have literary friends without the struggle of conflicting tensions, no jealous partner questioning my choice to spend time talking about writing. Now--I think-- no youthful bashfulness (despite family illness and economic problems) gets in the way of my appreciating our writing strengths and successes. I even like to count a former spouse as a literary friend. So not all my literary friends are female, some are famous, and not all are close by. Yet I cherish our written and in-person visits when we indulge in literary gossip and information about grants and residencies, read each other's latest work, attend each other's readings, and cheer on each other's latest writing and reading enthusiasms.

We know our lives are the richer for our literary friendship.

BIO
D.L. Stein, a former Stegner Fellow in Writing at Stanford, has been writing in Greece and in Schwandorf, Germany while on an International Poetry Exchange Fellowship in Germany. Stein is currently at work on two prose manuscripts, "Gone Wild" and "Aphrodite in the Afternoon," and a poetry manuscript, "Desperado." Recent publications include Athens News, Quarry West, and Rattle.

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