Friday, 3 April 2020

I Thought I’d Won The Nobel Prize

When I was in my twenties, living in the west end of Fort William, I wrote hard little poems; my models were W.W. E. Ross and the usual gang of American imagists, but above all others, Raymond Souster.

The trouble at that time was that the more I wrote, the shorter my poems got, until there was little more than punctuation on the page.

I was on the verge of giving up. I figured Souster was the only writer in the country who might understand my dilemma, so I called directory assistance in Toronto; he was listed.

I wrote the number down and it stared at me, daring me. I was afraid to call. I was going to call. I started to call and stopped. Finally, I called. What did I have to lose? No answer would have been an answer.

His wife Rosalia picked up.

It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce the poet’s name. I asked for Mr. SOO-ster. She may have laughed. My pronunciation was, for want of a better word, Italian.

She asked who was calling.

I told her, and explained why I’d called; what I didn’t know then is that she, too, was Italian; my good luck, because she understood why I’d pronounced his name as I had. She called the poet to the phone. She had to call him more than once. I heard her whisper, “Talk to him, he’s Italian!”

When he finally said hello, I told Mr. Souster in a rush that I was on the verge of giving up the craft, that he’ d been my model, that I was coming to town on business—only half true—and could I buy him lunch and show him some work, and would he comment on whether there was any point in continuing down my miniature path?

He was reluctant but he agreed.

A few weeks later, I met him where he worked. A poet in a bank did not seem odd to me, then or now: T. S. Eliot was a banker, Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company, and I know the importance of making a living.

I don’t remember where we went for lunch, but let me recommend against the soup when you are young and nervous in front of someone you admire; it’s hard to hold a spoon with a trembling hand.

He read the two dozen poems I’d brought, one by one, carefully and without a word, and when he had finished he said he’d give me an introduction to his publisher. I thought I’d won the Nobel Prize.

And he paid for lunch.

Later on, I got the loveliest rejection letter from his publisher, but that didn’t matter. I’d been taken seriously by the poet I admired most.

Much of my new poetry collection, All I Have Learned Is Where I Have Been, is derived from my time as a newspaper columnist in the Toronto Star newspaper. A few of the poems are versions of the ones I showed Souster.

He published his first poem in the Star when he was 15 years old; we have the newspaper in common. Some of his themes—the poor, the homeless, daily life in the city—were also my themes, both as a journalist and as a poet. I owe him a debt.

My work is a form of repayment.

—Joe Fiorito

No comments: