- In Memoriam: Jim Simmerman
Like many of us here in Nebraska, I first met Jim Simmerman at the Prairie Schooner Seventy-fifth Anniversary Celebration and Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. A long-time contributor to Prairie Schooner, Jim was invited to give a reading, but while here, he also went out of his way to meet people, to talk to students both graduate and undergraduate, to find out about our Creative Writing Program (which he later recommended to several of his own students), to visit as many of Lincoln's coffee shops and dive bars as he could in a weekend. Everyone was impressed with Jim's wit, his down-to-earth warmth, and besides, the women all thought he was pretty damn cute.
Jim and I had corresponded a few times prior to the conference about the connections between his book Kingdom Come and my Women at the Well, both of which take liberties with Biblical stories. We joked about going on the road together as a duo to give readings, maybe loosen up the Bible Belt a few notches.
I had also used Jim's "Twenty Little Poetry Projects" exercise many times in the classroom, as it was always great for shaking up students' preconceptions of how a poem could be constructed. When I saw an ad in Poets & Writers seeking submissions for an anthology of poems based on the exercise, I was determined to try and get in. I e-mailed Jim about my attempts and he gave me a little feedback, even fed me a line about cesspools and Circle Ks, which I included in the poem. When the anthology Mischief, Caprice & Other Poetic Strategies came out from Red Hen Press, I asked him what it felt like to have become his own genre.
Jim was one of the people I enjoyed catching up with at AWP Conferences. It was usually just for a few minutes over a beer at one of the Prairie Schooner receptions or during a pause on the dance floor, though at the conference in Baltimore we spent several hours at the aquarium, getting splashed by performing dolphins and marveling at our first sight of sea dragons, which we [End Page 243] agreed were the most fantastic creatures we had ever seen. The last time I ran into him was at the Chicago conference. He told me about the hip replacement that had him walking with a limp, but he was still out on the dance floor, moving with enough enthusiasm that his glasses flew out of his shirt pocket and across the crowded room. It took several people a half hour or so to find them. And then he was back out on the floor again. When I left, he was still out there. Dancing.
News of Jim's death shocked and saddened those of us who knew him here in Lincoln, as it shocked and saddened people who knew him everywhere. There were conversations, phone calls, blogs on the Internet. Some speculations. Lots of whys? No answers good enough to comfort.
In his poem "The Flood" (from Kingdom Come), Jim wrote:
For every story
that gets told through to an ending isa different story we'll never get to hear,
or a different ending, or a different wayto arrive at that ending.
This is one of those endings that we, like many people, would wish to rewrite, but as Jim wrote in his poem "Fly" (from Moon Go Away, I Don't Love You No More): "I can't, and I can't wish it harder." We are left with our memories and the many wonderful poems Jim gave us, with no recourse but to honor the request Jim made in another poem from Moon Go Away: "Tell them I was there." [End Page 244]