Mentor: Remembering William Packard
In the early ‘90s, I was living in a fourth-floor walkup studio apartment on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, between Bleecker and Thompson streets. A block and a half from Washington Square Park, the area being swallowed up by New York University.
I was freelancing fulltime as a writer for Howard Sherman Public Relations, a one-man shop housed in a basement office of an apartment building at Broadway and Bleecker, an easy walk from my residential cell. Howard’s clients were primarily in the post-production industry, providing support for commercial film and radio. I’d write press releases and features, and man the phone along with a part-time gopher, usually an NYU undergrad.
I had been writing poetry since high school, publishing a little though rarely sending anything out, and continued that when I moved from Little Rock to the Jersey Shore in 1979—the year Ted Parkhurst published my first book of poetry, How to Survive, for August House in Little Rock.
By 1990, nearly dried up creatively, I was concentrating on pounding out the PR.
But I had met a wonderful friend, Sara Dulaney, who lived and worked nearby—a marketing writer for NYU’s division of continuing education, a behemoth consisting of hundreds of professionals teaching primarily evening courses in every field imaginable.
Sara knew I was looking to earn more money, and recommended me to the dean of continuing ed’s writing section, who hired me to teach a professional writing course. While doing that, I learned that a continuing ed teacher could also take a free class. I looked in the vast catalog and caught sight of a poetry-writing course.
I soon happened to be talking long-distance with my friend Harry Maxson, a poet/writer who publishes under the name H.A. Maxson. We had met and become close while living on the Jersey Shore. Max had since married, and he and Maureen had moved from Jersey to Mississippi, where he completed his PhD in poetry at Mississippi State University. (Now they live in Delaware, where he continues to write.)
“I’m thinking of getting back into writing poetry,” I told him. “I can take a free class at NYU, and I’ve found one.”
“Who teaches it?” Max asked.
“A guy named William Packard.”
“He’s probably just the best poetry editor in America.”
“Uh…maybe I shouldn’t take it then…”
“No! Take it. It will be good for you.”
Packard cut an imposing figure, both physically and professionally. Physically, he appeared bearlike: perhaps 6-2 or 6-3 in height, barrel-chested, weighing probably 250, a dark and grey-stained full head of hair and beard, thick eyeglasses, and a deep but whispery voice which immediately created intimacy while also indicating he knew something you didn’t. A voice that a classroom of 25 could still hear, usually because we were struck silent by his resume.
A New Yorker, he had majored in philosophy at Stanford, hobnobbed with the Beats and other San Francisco poets. Returning to New York, he had published poetry, plays, novels and nonfiction. His awards ranged from a Frost fellowship to being honored at the White House.
As for his teaching poetry, his editing, and his impact on poets, hear how Wikipedia summarizes it:
Beginning in 1965, when he inherited from Louise Bogan the poetry writing classes at New York University’s Washington Square Writing Center, Packard taught poetry and literature at NYU, Wagner, The New School, Cooper Union, The Bank Street Theatre, and Hofstra, as well as acting, and playwriting at the HB Studio in Manhattan. Among his books, he is the author of The Art of the Playwright, The Art of Screenwriting, The Poet’s Dictionary, The Art of Poetry Writing, and The Poet’s Craft: Interviews from the New York Quarterly.
Packard was editor of the New York Quarterly (NYQ) for 33 years — from its founding in 1969 until his death in 2002. He published 58 issues. Poet and novelist James Dickey called Packard ‘one of the great editors of our time’. Cited by Rolling Stone as ‘the most important poetry magazine in America,’ the New York Quarterly earned a reputation for excellence by publishing poems, and for its ‘exceptional in-depth interviews’ with the prominent poets W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn, Richard Eberhart, Stanley Kunitz, Anne Sexton, Charles Bukowski, and W.S. Merwin, among many others. In fact, NYQ has, in its thirty-year career, published virtually every important poet in the nation. But the magazine is equally acclaimed for supporting the work of lesser-known poets. The poet Galway Kinnell once said of the magazine, ‘The New York Quarterly serves an invaluable function — and that is finding and publishing wonderful talents — such as Franz Douskey, Antler, Pennant, Lifshin, Inez, Moriarty — who may not have the recognition that their work so richly deserves.’
Truth is, I didn’t know all that when I walked in for the first time to face him. Otherwise, even Max’s caring encouragement may not have carried me there. But once arrived, my relationship with him immediately began to root and grow.
NYU had evidently sent him a memo telling him another teacher would be taking his course. After that first class, he walked up to me.
“How’s your course going,” he asked softly.
I don’t remember what I said. Probably a muttered “fine.” But we talked briefly, and his gentle welcome seemed to open the door for me.
Bill would provide handouts each class on a different poet, e.g. T.S. Eliot or Robert Lowell. But he would devote the entire class to the students’ poetry. He’d have every student provide him a poem each week, then have copies of it for the entire class the following week. By then, he’d have marked each poem. But before he’d return it, he’d have each student read the poem to the class. The students would comment, and Bill would summarize, then give the student the poem with his written critique and suggestions.
I found the course so valuable, I took it twice. When the first course’s final class had ended, I shyly walked up and handed him a wrapped gift. It was my first book, How to Survive. Earlier, I had found in the NYU library a copy of Bill’s book of three-lined poems, Voices/I hear/voices (1972). Within it was a poem which read (and I hope I have this right, since I haven’t seen it in years) “I bleed/when/I teach”. Using that image, I had inscribed my book with this note to him: “Thank you for bleeding on me.”
A couple of days later, a small packet came in the mail. It was from Bill: a note praising my book’s poetry, and a reprint of his father’s obituary, along with a sonnet sequence showing an unhappy relationship with his mother. So moved by this gift, I could only constantly pace my small studio like a caged lion, disabled really to do anything else.
Our classroom was in an NYU building bordering Washington Square Park. Occasionally, after class, we would walk through the park together, talking. Then he would head northwest to his apartment on West Fourteenth Street, and I would turn south to my studio. The experience eventually led to this sonnet a decade later, five years after his death at 69 on Nov. 3, 2002:
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
William Packard, my creative mentor,
often lamented to his poetry
classes how Manhattan’s night sky tortured
artists: grazing herds of stars fallen prey
to those two voracious wolves—smog and lights.
Through years of walking Greenwich Village streets
or Washington Square Park, we’d cherish nights
when Venus peeked through. Seldom we’d just greet
the moon. Once, through winter’s bitter cold, I
limped lonely past NYU’s library,
turned on LaGuardia, looked up and sighed,
“Oh, my. Hello.” Orion’s glow carried
clear and bright as lovers’ eyes down to mine.
I felt caressed, warmed, lost in the divine.
July 16, 2007
A year later, listening to a Sandy Denny song, I began reflecting on it, on Bill’s Voices book, and on talking with him in the park:
VISIONS/ I SEE/VISIONS
Sandy Denny, dressed as in tintype, steps
off the album cover and kisses me.
I reach out, softly touch her stretched triceps,
our bodies glowing, pastel comets free
and flowing through Trifid Nebula, dawn
mountains of opaque dust coating us, pale
as angels. Now night here in Washington
Square Park, William Packard leaning on rail
next to me. We watch walkers pass. Poems
brief as breath slip through his lips, their spirits
singing. He grasps the small book, potent rim
of his hand raising it toward the moon, its
pages burning like stars. Art never ends,
he whispers. I watch his great form ascend.
July 2, 2008
But while he was still living, and after he had come to trust my poetic judgment during that first poetry-writing course, he asked if I’d like to join him and a small group who would screen poetry for the New York Quarterly. I jumped at the offer.
We would meet regularly at Bill’s apartment. He’d divide the still-sealed mail (NYQ yearly receives thousands of submissions) among the four or five of us. They included, among others, Erica Smith, who later became an editor at Random House; Stephanie Dickinson, poet, novelist and co-publisher/editor of the literary journal Skidrow Penthouse; and Raymond P. Hammond, who eventually lovingly looked after an ill Bill’s affairs (he suffered a stroke in 1996) and took over as editor-in-chief of NYQ.
Filtering through each submission, usually of three to five poems, we’d choose a rare one for the selection stack. Bill would then take those and make the final decision about which poems to publish in NYQ. A couple of days after each session, the mail would bring a postcard, one side usually with an unpredictable image, the other with a note of thanks for screening from Bill, typed on his IBM Selectric which he refused to surrender to the computer age.
One of my most moving experiences in Bill’s apartment occurred one day when he and I were alone, talking. I had stood up, preparing to leave. He remained seated in his writing chair, his leather-bound, legal-sized yellow writing pad in his lap, ink pen in hand.
He said to me, “You know, Roger, these college writing programs have it wrong. They preach to young people how they need to get published. But I don’t believe writing is about getting published. I believe it’s about the relationship between me and God.”
As he said “me” he pounded once, hard, on his chest. With the word “God,” he slapped his hand down solidly on his open writing pad.
I nodded and said, “Well, I agree, except to me it’s this.” I pointed straight up, then to my heart, then to his writing pad.
He gave a quick nod, and huffed, “Good!”
Being in Bill’s apartment itself created a physical/psychic literary experience, which I eventually tried to relate in this poem, later published in NYQ:
for William Packard
You’ve moved Beethoven’s bust
from your main room—
crowded with head of Zeus
statue of Venus holding apple
bust of Shakespeare
framed Patchen poem
model’s color picture
and b&w of old professor
all above bookshelves
filled with leatherbound volumes
of modern and ancient classics
their browned pages
patched with bright red and yellow
smears of your highlight markers
flashing each ultimate phrase—
to your bathroom’s toilet top
where seeing it on Sunday
I recalled stories of him
reclused in dungeon-dirt room
ignorant of stench
from week-filled waste pot
and lack of light from lone candle
alert only to spirit symphony and
ink pen scratching on parchment
great phrases no one else had ever heard
About halfway through taking Bill’s course the second time, he came up after a class, saying that, in a couple of weeks he needed to go out of town. He’d have to miss one class. Would I teach it for him? Astounded, I agreed to.
I confess I prepared for that class diligently. Before he left, Bill and I met at a diner on Eighth Avenue for dinner and a talk. He provided me his handouts for the class.
“I’ve done some extra work on this,” I told him. I knew his handouts would cover Robert Lowell. “I went to the NYU library and got a couple of tapes of Lowell reading. I’d like to play a couple of selections for the class.”
He liked that idea.
“One of the tapes is of Lowell reading at the 92nd Street Y,” I said. “I was wondering if maybe you heard him read there?”
“Roger, I introduced him.”
Humbled, I smiled and said, “Bill, sometimes I forget where I am.”
He had hosted those poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y.
He also had a poetry course at the New School of Social Research, and had to miss a class that same week. I covered that one for him also.
The following year, 1994, in the midst of a snowy winter, Bill had stepped out of a building onto an ice-slick sidewalk, slipping. His heavy frame plunged down directly on his leg, breaking it in three places. He called to inform me of this.
“I’m not going to be able to teach my poetry-writing class this spring,” he told me by phone from the hospital. “Will you teach it for me?” I told him I’d be honored. And I meant it. Those brief fill-ins for his two poetry classes, along with my experience teaching my own class, helped greatly in preparing for taking over his NYU course that spring.
Also that spring, after a long day of writing and editing and an evening of teaching, I trudged back to the Greenwich Village studio, first checking the mailbox. I recorded in a poem what I found, and sent it to Bill:
Back from teaching class
where I was dull as gruel
and patterned as gray plaid
three envelopes plopped
from my mailbox:
I saved two coupons
for cheap sedans
to Newark Airport
I tossed down
wrapped in green tile pattern
like a busroom floor
symbol of my worth
to their Revenue Div.
It plopped like
on my mattress
I tore return
paper tan & smooth
White paper slipped out
photo fell in my lap
of Bill Packard seated
bedside at St. Vincent’s
right leg pale
as a late-night nurse
reflecting fluorescent light
Left leg swelled
like thick neck
of a pissed drunk mick
skin stretched so tight
it could split from a flinch
with steel rod screwed
beneath the knee
rod latched to rod
circling the leg
like a pod
ready for launch into orbit
I unfolded white paper
to find loved copy
of Bill’s last note from Bukowski:
eight lines of clean type
a three-letter signature
(its capital B like
a Roger Price droodle
of a whip resting on two breasts)
beside the trademark pen and ink
of tired old Santa’s face
or a little boy walking in sleep
By April 4, Bill had responded. He would always respond in writing, his IBM typing out his comments. As an example, here’s his response to this poem:
good job – there are 3 characters in this poem:
first, you – with your feeling dull as gruel;
second, Packard – with his leg swelled like neck of pissed drunk mick
third, Bukowski – with tired old Santa’s face, or little boy
walking in sleep. I sense there may be stronger relation
between 3 characters – teacher trying his damndest but still
feeling dull as gruel; another teacher who for all his damndest
gets leg out of whack; third, poet whose work is being taught,
tired old Santa, he has given all his Christmas goodies and now
is on his way out. All 3 characters are bereft, exhausted,
borderline beaten. Not to draw any generality about it, but
mull it over – am sure the 3 personas may be mask for one
persona, and title indicates LAST NOTE may be not just
Bukowski’s but also Packard’s and Armbrust’s. Worth
working it over, see where it takes you –
Wm Packard [his eternal signature in ink]
Bill and the legendary poet Charles Bukowski had carried on a consistent, close correspondence, and Bill had published several of his poems in NYQ.
Bill’s mailing, which led to the poem, included a copy of Bukowski’s note dated “2/24/94 4:28 PM”. Bukowski would die on March 9, which led me to title the poem “Last Note”. Here’s what the note, double-spaced, said:
Hello Wm Packard:
Got your letter and photos from the hospital.
Sure the gods are testing you. You are a Leader and a Creator.
Remain in the fight. I can think of no other man as badly needed.
I dispatch luck and love toward you.
Buk [ink signature and drawing]
Bill also organized readings for the New York Quarterly, and invited those published in its pages to read. He held the readings at the New School. I read there a couple of times. To have a roomful, perhaps 50 New Yorkers who love poetry, applaud you after reading your own work is a gift. But there was no greater gift than, after my first reading, when I went to the back of the room and sat with Bill. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, and said, “That poem to your daughter was beautiful.”
It was the title poem to my first book: How to Survive. This is the poem:
HOW TO SURVIVE
For Catherine, my daughter
Don’t be afraid.
There is an order to all things.
In the blindness of the ocean floor
The spinefish survives.
The ancient snail finds its way.
Something that swims
Rises from the deep
Looks for and finds the land.
Through jungle trees
The lemur shrieks
Risks the leap
And discovers limits:
The indifferent suction of gravity.
It learns it can survive the fall.
In open space
The human walks and waits for stars
Studies how to survive.
I will tell you how:
When energy is gone
And your body can run no more
When pain has sucked you dry
When the spiders of
Spit their poison through you
Find the spiders
And let them go.
You will cry
Oh yes, and scream
And feel something in you
At last rip away.
In the peace that follows
In the silence of yourself
Think of the spinefish
Think of stars
Find a mirror or a pillow
And say outloud
What you know is true:
Don’t be afraid.
There is an order to all things.
By 1996, I had taken a full-time job as the news editor for Back Stage, the NYC-based entertainment trade paper. I would eventually become the national news editor there. That full-time work, along with my night teaching, pulled me away from those weekend afternoons screening poetry for NYQ. I primarily stayed in touch with Bill with rare phone calls, and with poems I’d write for or about him, particularly for a birthday:
OLIVIER READS DAVID’S PSALMS
for William Packard
I hear your clear voice these five years later:
“David’s psalms are the greatest collection
of verses.” As if on elevators,
we huddled in silence, blank reflections
on faces, left mute by your legend.
Stout-bodied, heavy-bearded, unoffended,
you with searchlight eyes refused to pretend
we had heard: “I’ll repeat that.” And you did.
Now, listening alone to Olivier’s
sharp consonants crack like crisp lettuce,
I wonder how you’d respond to his ways
of altering tone from lisping softness
to shouts. Still, I pray for what David sees:
“…he shall give his angels charge over thee…”
September 2, 1999
Two years later that month, on Sept. 11, the World Trade Center tragedy occurred, just over a mile from my Sullivan Street studio apartment. The most meaningful way I felt I could respond was in a sonnet to Bill. I had begun writing sonnets consistently in 2000, I believe largely a result of reading his, and his teaching:
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
for William Packard
The day before your sixth birthday, Auden
wrote of sitting in a dive observing
a city caught up in fear and awe. When
he did, I suppose someone was serving
you dinner miles away, Mamaroneck,
pre-party promises as you slurped ade
while Auden sipped ale, alone in the dark
bar’s corner, napkin stained with words he made
stand at attention in eleven-line
stanzas. Some thirty years later, he told
you he had disowned those verses: a fine
line he had drawn for truth. Now, on this cold,
evil day, after you’ve turned sixty-eight,
we smell death, feel pain, can call his lines great.
A year and two months later, Bill had died of heart disease. Raymond told me he had found him lifeless that November day in 2002, seated in his writing chair, notepad and pen in his lap.