- B. H. Fairchild
Fall, 1991, and I have decided to quit writing poems. I've published in respectable journals, some anthologies, and had a couple of small books win small prizes, but I'm teaching nine over-enrolled courses a year at the state university as well as a full summer load in order to finance my son's college education and get a head start on my daughter's. I have never attended an MFA program or a summer conference and therefore have never had an older poet advise me about the quality or promise of my work. The difficult and, to my mind, almost sacred adventure of trying to write the thing called poetry has not lost its excitement, but the cost is too high and has gone on too long. I am sick of the constant guilt I feel about taking precious time away from my family, especially for an enterprise performed solely for my own selfish and mostly mysterious purposes. [End Page 712] But in the blue-collar family in which I had grown up, one did not quit, not ever. On the other hand, one did not, if at all possible, make a fool of oneself. And I was beginning to feel like a fool.
One day as I leave the classroom with a fat stack of freshman composition essays under my arm, I notice a poster advertising the Sewanee Writers' Conference, then in its second year of operation, financed by a gift from the Tennessee Williams estate, and offering a fellowship competition, the winner of which could have his book manuscript read by any member of the faculty, including at that time, Anthony Hecht, author of The Hard Hours and the contemporary poet I admired more than any other. If I could win the fellowship, Hecht would read my manuscript, advise me kindly that the work was anywhere from worthless to mediocre, and then, and only then, could I quit with no doubts or regrets. Even then, weeks before the fact, I felt liberation breathing down my neck, and it felt good. This is the part my friends do not understand. I wanted to quit. I wanted a new life. I wanted Hecht to say, in some form, give it up.
Six weeks later, I am reading the fellowship offer and trying to kiss my wife at the same time. Three months after that I am sitting at a table in the University of the South student cafeteria directly across from three of the poetry giants of that time: Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and Donald Justice, as they casually swap stories about their friend "Cal," recognizable to me as Robert Lowell only because I have read the biography. Fast forward five days, and there I am, finally, liberation only seconds away, walking toward Rebel's Rest where Mr. Hecht sits in a rocking chair with my manuscript splayed facedown on the chair beside him, looking very much in my now near-paranoid state as if it had been tossed there. I can see handwriting in large letters scrawled across the last page that seems, despite the distance, to clearly say, "WTF?" [End Page 713]
As I approach, he offers a handshake, invites me to sit down, tells me how very much he enjoyed reading the manuscript, and begins his critique: "Mr. Fairchild, would you permit me to recommend your book to my editor, Harry Ford, at Knopf?" After waiting patiently for a reply to float up, he asks, "And would you permit me to nominate you for the Ingram Merrill Award?" (which at that time paid, I believe, $25,000). "And would you permit me to write an introduction for your book whenever it is published?" All of that took about ten minutes, and although we continued to talk for the remainder of the hour, I don't remember any of it, not a word. I believe I walked randomly around the campus for quite a long time in a kind of trance, then found a telephone and called my wife. She allowed me to talk without interruption for ten or fifteen minutes, and then said, "Are you drunk?"