Adoptive Grandmother Continues to Watch Over Me

Or, “Not Knowing” Why I Am Writing in Tampa

“…before every great thought of Creation, there wakens in the soul that which is creative power in her, too. Her stammering overflows in poetry, she daubs on paper her adoration of the creator.”

— Goethe

After a twenty-year career in Baltimore’s literary community, and almost twenty years since earning a master’s degree, I decided to go back to school. Twice a year I leave my family (thank you) and abandon my job (it’ll get done) and join fifty other people shunning similar responsibilities to write, reflect, and learn during ten intense days at the University of Tampa’s new MFA in Creative Writing program.

I am not entirely sure why I am here.

In 2000, I published a memoir by Adele V. Holden, an African-American poet who was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore during the Depression. Borderline Maryland is referred to as the southern-most Northern state or northern-most Southern state; so to be black in the 1930s, it was decidedly less pleasant to consider the latter description. The last two lynchings in Maryland took place on the Eastern Shore in 1931 and 1933, not far from where Adele grew up. The run-down colored school stopped at the ninth grade. Her father’s outspokenness flirted with late-night visits from hooded men. But as with most good stories, hers included moments of triumph: moving to Baltimore to attend one of the country’s historic black colleges, teaching for decades at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and Baltimore City Community College, and being the first female black student of poet Elliott Coleman, who founded the prestigious writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Time and time again, Adele proudly talked about moments in her life such as her father confronting the county school board, integrating a Baltimore high-rise, and classes with Coleman, who helped shape her only book of poetry, Figurine, published in 1966.

Adele never married, never had kids, and saved her earnings with a tight-fisted sensibility. Along came this young publisher, who loved her story, even though pages devoted to the grandmother that she adored did not work. We discussed and, at times, politely argued over how to better incorporate or completely eradicate the “Grandmother sections.” Through such processes, authors and editors often forge strong relationships almost like marriages. “I love you, but Grandmother’s got to go” was not an easy thing to tell an eighty-year-old writer. Just before the book was published, she traded in her butterscotch-yellow Cadillac for a brand new black Infiniti (power everything, leather interior, a scrim that automatically shaded the rear window). Cash on the barrelhead.

“If you are going to drive me around the state promoting my book,” she told me, “then we are going to do it in style.” Imagine Driving Miss Daisy, reversed.

The conversations that occurred during those long drives across Maryland also strengthened our relationship. After my publishing company withered, she still expected my help. After my divorce, she still called after me. When she got sick, I ran errands. Whenever I got in touch after droughts of talking, she said things like “Oh, I just thought you had forgotten about me altogether.” I never figured out the genealogy, but I considered her my adoptive grandmother, and she considered me — I think, although of course she was too proper to say — her adopted son. When she died in 2006, she left me that fine black Infiniti, which I sold and donated the proceeds to the literary organization I founded to launch a poetry prize in her name.

She also left me her library, hundreds of books which sat in cardboard boxes under a tarp in a vacant garage for more than five years. Finally, I sorted through the books and moved “the keepers” to my house. Meanwhile, the urge to jolt my creative life led me to enroll in a new MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Tampa, a place as foreign to me as an Eastern Shore that lynched people.

The first residency came. A baby came. Deadlines came, and went, sometimes missed. A lot of life got lived in the interim. Then, weeks before the second residency, I found in the remains of her library a book by Elliott Coleman, whom I had never read. Okay, I said to myself, let’s see what this poet is all about. I opened the book, but before I could read the first line a piece of yellowed paper slipped from the leaves, a slight piece of paper folded no larger than a business envelope.

Printed in Helvetica with a judicial use of boldface, a very minimalist aesthetic that dated its design, the paper announced a forthcoming lecture entitled “The Private University in the 70s: Failure or Fulfillment?”  The lecture was to be delivered by Elliott Coleman, my adoptive grandmother’s mentor, on a Thursday afternoon in October 1972, as part of “Inauguration Week” events … at the University of Tampa.

What are the odds that I would ever stumble across a forty-year-old piece of paper buried in a random book that I happened to keep from a mountain of musty tomes that came into my possession five years before I ever thought about going back to school? To write. In Florida. And a book of poetry, no less, which I read as rarely as I played the lottery. While I would never be able to learn why Adele possessed this paper announcement, I could try to discover why Coleman participated in the inauguration events.

Returning to Tampa for the program’s second residency, I immediately showed the artifact to Richard Mathews — poet, English professor, and director of the University of Tampa Press — who shared my surprise over such a coincidence. A quick Google search revealed that the Inauguration Week in question involved the appointment of B.D. Owens (1971-1977). We know Coleman spoke on October 5, 1972, in the International Room in Plant Hall (the minaret-studded former Tampa Bay Hotel that became the university’s signature building). Not much else cropped up in a search, so I went to reference librarian Art Bagley at the Macdonald-Kelce Library. A thorough search of the university’s archives revealed little else: no pictures, no student or local newspaper articles, and certainly no reason why a Binghamton, New York-born poet teaching in Baltimore would be invited to the inauguration of a Missouri-born college administrator at an institution in Tampa.

Mr. Bagley did unearth the speech that Coleman delivered that day, entitled “Creative Stirrings in the Humanities,” which is not the topic printed on the yellowed slip of paper. It is not a particularly good speech, as such things tend to go, but Coleman had some interesting notions to share with the audience (we found no clue as to how large that audience may have been). The overall gist of Coleman’s comments settled on the role of Humanities at schools like Hopkins and Tampa that were dominated by students majoring in non-Humanities disciplines. Conversely, he discussed how students focusing on the sciences made brilliant contributions to Hopkins’s creative culture. One student, a native Cuban named Roberto Arellano, ditched chemistry for creative writing and Hopkins eventually established a fiction prize in his honor. Arellano said that everyone is an artist because everyone dreams.

In the Creative Writing seminars at Tampa, we talk a lot about “not knowing” in context of the writing process, that a writer (I dare say any artist) enters into making a piece of literary art not knowing where the narrative will lead her and that art surfaces unexpectedly from the unconscious. Coleman also spoke about the unconscious in his speech, about the importance of allowing language to emerge from the unconscious and “break through the limits of ordinary modes and orbits of the mind.” From this perspective, then, Coleman stated that most people possess great literary potential left untapped.  Meanwhile, Coleman had been refining his notion of Poetry (capital P) as something not “pitched” (conscious orchestration from the top down) but something “caught” (unconscious inspiration from the bottom up, or rather from within to the page). For one to “catch” poetry, therefore, one had to remain open to the unconscious in a way similar to writers being open to “not knowing.” Here we are today, forty years later, writers from throughout Florida, across the country, and around the world drilling into our vast reserves of the untapped unknown to release the art within us.

By the way, the link between Coleman and the University of Tampa seemed to be Duane Locke — poet, English professor, and editor of UT Poetry Review (which became Tampa Review, which in turn led to Tampa Review Online). Locke served as editor from 1964 to 1971, and was succeeded by Richard Mathews, who challenged the MFA program’s first cohort to create an Internet sibling to the revered journal.

What drew me to the MFA program at the University of Tampa? Yes, I had previously read the program director’s book and we had a bit of an email rapport. Yes, given my entrepreneurial spirit I dug getting involved with something new. Yes, the image of Tampa in January trumped Minnesota or Vermont or upstate New York. But I have this sneaky feeling that somehow, from somewhere, even if with just a small nudge, my adoptive grandmother had something to say about it, too.

Thanks, Adele. And by the way, if you can hear me, I am writing poetry.


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