In the spring of my junior year, Eckerd College hosted renown poet and author May Sarton in an Artist in Residence program. In exchange, May Sarton delivered a public reading to a packed house and agreed to conduct a workshop for poetry students. She would select which few works to critique from student submissions; the public was invited but space was limited.
In May of 1981, May Sarton was 69 and had already published 13 volumes of poetry, 17 novels, six works of memoirs and journals, and two children’s books. She became a figurehead for lesbian scholarship, unwillingly, after the publication of her 1965 novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Instead of branding her a heathen, her honesty made academia take notice and her work began to be studied seriously and appreciated for its artistic and cultural merits. All in all, one heck of a role model for a budding young poetess. Even if I was hetero.
A single piece of paper resting in my narrow mailbox announced my poem had been selected for the workshop. Be in Classroom X at three o’clock on Thursday. I picked my outfit with care. Purple peasant blouse, pearls (always), slim khaki skirt, two-inch-heel sandals with chunky brown straps. Sorority take on a hippie chick.
By three on Thursday, every desk in Classroom X was taken. Students folded on the floor in any available square, the walls were lined with leaners, and I was a nervous mess. This would be my first critique and it would be delivered by one of the world’s most famous poets in front of at least fifty people; students mostly but as many old people from town who could stuff in. May Sarton entered to applause. Tall, thin, thick waves of white gray hair standing from a long face with a strong, sharp chin and a large nose to support large, round glasses. She dispensed with opening remarks by emphasizing how enriching it was for her to interact with students, her favorite part of these programs.
She called the first student to the lectern and asked him to read his poem. When he returned to his seat, she presented a thoughtful review of the strong points in his composition, questioned some of the images, offered an idea or two on how to explore further. Gentle, respectful. And so it went for the next four students.
I was last. Acutely aware of the dark rings under the arms of my purple peasant blouse, I picked my way to the lectern. Mine was an incredibly simple poem and for that reason alone, I couldn’t believe she’d singled me out. Knees knocking, voice shaking, I began. “It’s called, ‘A Poet’s Prayer:’
Oh Lord / Come help your frustrated poet. / Bound by the witching hour / You plague me. / You bastard.
You tell me I will be a Voice / for your wonder, / a mystical medium / to describe the magic.
Then / You make the moon a pulsing disc of silver / And you charge the black water / With dancing electric eels of light. / And You put me on the seawall and whisper / ‘Tell them about ME.'”
My face burned from nerves and pride as I stepped across students sitting cross-legged in the aisle. I hadn’t even reached my seat when May Sarton began. This one, she explained, she saved for last because it was the weakest of the submissions. Immature. Childish. Shocking language for no reason. And worse of all, by her assessment? You say you can’t describe the scene and then you do it!
The room went uncomfortably silent. Then the program was over. I pushed through students and townies alike, focused only on finding the door of the room where my mother was teaching. Her class was just ending and she pulled me into a tight embrace. “What did that mean old lesbian do to my baby?” she hissed, stroking my hair while I sobbed on her shoulder.
What did she do? She said my poem was bad. By any measure, I’m sure it is. But that critique dammed up any urge to write poetry. And I now realize the experience colored my expectations of critiques. I attended two writer’s conferences between November and January; workshops at both tore chunks from my soul, even though the feedback was not exclusively negative. My problem lies between my ears: something physiological happens in my brain when a respected someone critiques my work. Unless they dance on the table, I start to emotionally hemorrhage.
In May of 1981, after that devastating workshop with May Sarton, I wanted only to erase every memory. But until school was out three weeks later, strangers kept stopping me on my way to class, or in the library, or at the post office to say shyly, “I liked your poem.” At the time, each attempt at comfort was salt in an open wound. Reading my journal 35 years later, I appreciate the kindness of those strangers.
It’s time to stop letting May Sarton’s careless words haunt and hurt me. But I also vow to submit only essays I’m unattached to for any future writer’s conferences. I’m unequipped to accept real feedback on my real work.
I’m a solitary witch. Perhaps I’m also a solitary writer.
I love that poem. Read it several times and each time it had an increasing jolt.
I left the jolt comment.
Poetess! Heal thyself! Methinks this is a good step forward!
James W. Hall was a dear friend of my late brother, Robert Meacham Jr. That plug of support means the world to me and I am deeply grateful.