Must’ve been twenty-five years ago. So long ago. “You’re a wannabe poet,” he said. He was drunk, as usual. I didn’t respond. I knew he was feeling insecure. But I also knew he meant it. After all, I wasn’t getting published; I wasn’t submitting my writing; I hadn’t won any prizes. He’d won the Eisner, had a couple poems and a story published in literary magazines, and he had a bit of a rep among the writers at Cal, like Ishmael Reed, Leonard Michaels, and Thom Gunn. Not to mention those students who admired his writing. He had his fans. Then he says, “Ishmael hates your writing.” I didn’t know what to think. Was it true? Did Ishmael express a lack of interest or a negative opinion about my poetry? Or was this a lie, just to make me feel bad?
A few years later, in the early nineties, Ishmael published one of my poems in Konch Magazine. I hadn’t even been aware of it. I lived in Berkeley back then. One day I ran into Ishmael, and he told me he published one of my poems. So, I went to the bookstores, looking for one that carried Konch. Weren’t too many, but when I found one, I looked through all their issues of Konch. Finally, in one tiny, dusty place, a bookstore I’d never been in before, I found the magazine with my poem in it. Ishmael had published Requiem. I still have that magazine, somewhere. In a box. Most my books are still packed, since moving to San Francisco nearly four years ago. The boxes sit on shelves downstairs in my storage room. When I have my own place again, I’ll unpack them.
I saw Ishmael a year ago at the library here in The City, the Main Library on Larkin Street. Hadn’t seen him since the nineties. He was there to discuss and promote his book Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media. After the discussion, he sat behind a table, his wife standing to his left, handling the sales, keeping tally of how many books sold. People stood in line to have Ishmael sign their copy. When my turn came up, I handed him the book and said, “I don’t know if you remember me.”
He said, “Sort of. What was your name?”
“Estela de la Cruz,” I said. He nodded, saying,”Oh, yeah.” He turned to his wife and said, “One of my former students. One of the best in the class.” I don’t know if he meant that, or if he was just saying it. I know some of my classmates liked my poetry. He signed my book and asked, “You live here now? In San Francisco?”
“Yeah,” I said. Then I asked him, “So, what’s going on with Dellums?” Ishmael shook his head, took a deep breath, sort of laughed, not amused, but more like dumbfounded, disappointed, perhaps, and he says, “He’s old.”
I smiled. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s probably it.” I shook his hand, told him it was good to see him again. And he says, “Yeah, you too.” As I turn to leave, he says, “Give me a call. I’m in the book.”
I nodded. “O.K.,” I said. I haven’t yet. I’d like to, but…
Thom Gunn died in 2004. I was living, or rather, existing, in Davis then. My son emailed me an article about Gunn’s death. An article that made me very, very sad. And surprised me too, actually. I had no idea. My first class assignment in Gunn’s class had been to write a poem. When he returned our work, he said, handing me my poem, “Very good. One of the best in the class.” That was my first creative writing course at Cal. I was in my mid-thirties. I was thirty, when I took my first creative writing course, at a community college.
I didn’t know, until very, very recently, that Leonard Michaels died too. In fact, he died a year before Gunn. What’s odd is that I saw a man at the BART station two or three years ago. Our eyes met briefly and right off I thought he looked familiar. As we passed each other, I saw through my peripheral vision that he did a double-take. He turned to look at me, back and forth, back and forth, as if he recognized me. I even felt he wanted to say something. That man looks so familiar, I’m thinking. Then, Oh! Is that Leonard Michaels? Naw, couldn’t be. Wouldn’t he be much older? How long has it been? I turned to look behind me, and he was also looking back at me, but we kept walking, moving on, in opposite directions.
Obviously, it wasn’t Micheals. But it was. To my reality, it was. It’s who I saw. Now that I know he died in 2003, to my reality, it was his ghost. So, who was it actually? Someone I had known and didn’t recognize? Was it a total stranger? I don’t know.
In Leonard Micheals class, we sat around a discussion table. After turning in our stories, Micheals would read us a couple at the next class meeting. He read an example of a well-written story, or one that didn’t cut it. Then we’d discuss it. Micheals would point out what, or why, something worked well. Or didn’t. One day I walked in a few minutes late, because he was at my apartment, and he delayed me. (Too late now, but I wish I’d had more sense. But I didn’t. He was wild. Wild and a bit on the edge. That used to appeal to me. Used to. In days when I threw caution to the wind. I don’t even have the excuse of too young to know better. I was not young. Just reckless. And stupid. He was ten years younger. He was young, but I wasn’t.) All the chairs around the table were taken, so I sat on the floor, along with a couple of other students. They were discussing my story: The Bukowski Fan Club. He liked it. I felt good. So good. I’m on my way, I thought.
“What about when she wipes her feet before she climbs back into bed?” Michaels asked. “What do you think about that?”
“Maybe she wants to feel she’s not as disgusting as she actually is,” a girl answered. Her comment amused me, but, yeah, it also made me a bit uneasy. Michaels never revealed the name of the writer. The writer didn’t matter; the writing did. “Don’t you see how each word leads to the next?” he asked. “Every word is necessary. There are no wasted words here. And every action is directly connected to what is said.” The students sat with blank faces.
Gunn had also defended a story of mine. The reader working with Gunn, a grad student, missed the point. He wrote on my paper, “You essentially leave his ‘dick’ hanging.” It didn’t get passed me that he felt clever. That pun was too easy. Gunn had to explain it to him: the “dick” was central to the story. “But I still don’t see it,” the grad student says to me. I didn’t explain it to him; I left him hanging. It didn’t matter to me that this limp dick didn’t get it. Gunn got it, and he liked it. “I have to tell you,” the reader says, “I don’t agree with Thom.”
“O.K.,” I said. I can’t remember the name of that story. But I think it starts: “Let It Bleed was playing on the stereo.” Come to think of it, “dancing” is in the title. Oh, I remember now, the title of that story is “Learning To Dance”.
He told me he would’ve started the story with, “Beer cans flew across the room.”
“Yeah, but that’s your story,” I told him. “This is my story.” Beer cans flew across the room in my story too, but toward the end. I have no idea what his story was. Beer cans flew across the room. There were four of us there. There were four stories, even if beer cans flew across the room in each one.
One time when I sat, because it was the only chair available, in the first seat to his left, Micheals seemed uneasy, embarrassed. He always sat at the head of the table, near the door. He put his hand over the left side of his face, thumb on his cheek, fingers at his temple, and seemed to squirm a bit. Oh, shit, I thought, I embarrass him. I didn’t know yet that he had met with Micheals in his office. “Sorry I’m late,” he had said, “I was fucking in the shower.” He’d already graduated, but didn’t know what to do next, besides get drunk, eat Valiums like candy, and write (or attempt to). And be an opportunistic asshole, I might add. Hell, I’ll bet he still is, even if he’s stopped drinking. I once said to a friend who knew him well, “I wonder what he’s like, now that he’s sober? I wonder if he’s different? He used to be such an asshole.”
“Estela,” my friend says, “he’s still an asshole. He used to be a drunk asshole, and now he’s a sober asshole. He hasn’t changed.”
At the end of the semester, I wrote something Michaels didn’t care for. I tried to write about my father. Micheals said it was too personal. I realize now that I didn’t have enough emotional distance, or clarity. Or even courage, I guess, to write about that crazy, drunken, suffering bastard. He died (nine years ago) without even realizing the bitch killed him. The bitch won. He might’ve been more powerful physically; could, and sometimes did, beat the shit out of her. But my mother was (is) much more powerful psychologically. The narcissist has an insidious nature. The narcissist is highly skilled. As long as he didn’t let go, kept in contact with her, he was doomed. She challenged him, and he took her up on it. Dumbass.
He was a dumbass too. I’m sure he still is. It occurred to me then, and I still believe it: part of my attraction had to do with my father. Psychologically. It was probably more about my father, than it was about him. When our inept parents hurt us, we unconsciously seek to resolve the issues. Unless, or until, we wake up, and heal.
Well, hell, he might be a dumbass, an opportunist, an asshole, but he has an MFA. He teaches somewhere. He eventually got a fellowship, or something, and got into an MFA program. At least, that’s what I heard. When I was existing in Davis, I found a City College catalog in my mailbox. I thumbed through it, took a look at the English courses, wishing I was teaching somewhere. And there I saw his name. First initial and last name. I thought, Naw, it can’t be; it’s someone else; it’s just a coincidence–same first initial, same last name; just a coincidence. The courses were in creative writing and Chicano/Mexican-American/Latino/Hispanic literature. Oh, it’s him, I thought, it is him. I knew it was him. One of his classes was in Davis, at the adult high school. I thought, Oh, shit, I hope I don’t run into him; like at Bogie’s. Bogie’s was an independent bookstore near the UC Campus. I went fairly regularly, scanning the Native American section. I concentrated then in Native American writers and Native American culture and history, preferably from Native American perspective.
He told me I was going to end up living in a Section 8 apartment after I graduated from Berkeley. The day he told me I was a wannabe poet, he also told me I was a loser. Then he said, “I’m a wannabe. I’m a loser.” I knew it was about himself, but still, I think that shit registered somewhere inside me. My ex-husband said shit to me too. My parents said shit to me. Important people in my life have said shit to me. Even though I resisted, “No, I’m not.” I think I let it register somewhere inside me.
In the early nineties, I was a grad student at San Francisco State University. I completed the coursework, but I didn’t write a thesis. When I was at Cal, I loved school. But at SFSU, I hated it. I felt angry and disgusted. Maybe I didn’t/don’t have the right stuff. Maybe I lack brilliance, like Adelman told me. That bitch. As if I wanted to be like her. I didn’t/don’t want to be like her. Like them. Like Gunn’s reader.
I wanted to be an artist, not a scholar, or a creative writer. It’s the only thing I have ever wanted to be: an artist. Still, I wish I had been able to write a thesis. I wish I had gotten my M.A. I wish I could teach. Teach writing. I wish writing was easier for me. It’s isn’t easy. It’s a struggle.
So, what am I today? Thirty years after my first creative writing class? Nothing, much. Well, I’m a poet of the shadows. Sometimes I step into the light, step up to the mic. I’ve even got a few fans. He is the muse to some of my love poems dressed in black. Though, since then, I picked up another. Don’t want any more. That’s enough. But I’m not a prolific writer. It’s just too hard to get there. Damnit. Goddamnit.
Sometimes I think I am a loser. Sometimes I think I’m not, but, definitely, I was born to lose.
Well, all right, I was born to lose. But I haven’t lost yet. I’m still struggling, still kicking. I almost gave up a few years ago. But I got back on it. Got back on this road. Got back to the dream. I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up. I’m alone. I’m down and out. Again. But I’m not giving up. I’d rather have my life than his. But I want more. I want it all.
The painter Alice Neel, in the film Alice Neel, says, I wanted everything. I didn’t want just art. I wanted everything. Everybody wants everything. It’s just that they get practical and they have to settle for a certain amount. But maybe I wasn’t all that practical, so I ran into stone walls.
Hubert Selby, in the film Hubert Selby, Jr.: It’ll Be Better Tomorrow, says, Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you got.
When I was nine years old, I saw Jack Kerouac read from On The Road on the Steve Allen Show. That was the exact moment I knew I wanted to grow up to be a writer. What happens to a dream deferred? Hell.
But as Bukowski says: what matters most is/how well you/walk through the/fire.