I went to a poetry reading, not because a former poet laureate was reading - how could I, when I had never heard of him, having given up on poetry years ago? - but because one of my professors was, from twenty years earlier when I thought I too would be a professor of English one day, and she was one of the professors we all admired and called by their first names behind their backs. Claudia, and Molly, and Tom - the young and gossiped-about and furtively crushed-on faculty in the department of English - as if calling them by their first names would make us closer to them. They weren’t the only professors we thought highly of, but I never would have dared called Gary Stonum simply “Gary”; not because he gave me my only B I earned in the the department, but because he was too much older, and wore matching socks. But Claudia always wore brown and black, as if to match her skin and her hair, and on at least one occasion I wore khaki and off-white hoping for the same effect. It did not work. And at this reading now, two decades later, she was wearing red.
The room was moderately full, although it should have been fuller, being as it was an event with a former poet laureate and a poet whose most recent work is having what we can only call a moment; I haven’t heard as much talk about one work since our president’s first inauguration. All the characters present I recognized in spite of having met none of them before: the graduate students who hope to look avant-garde but don’t have the taste to pull it off; the elderly professors who who have been dressing that way for over forty years and no longer care whether they can. And I was hiding there, the management professor who hasn’t even read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, among a sea of hand-crafted earrings.
I took only one class with Claudia, introduction to creative writing, in which we wrote a poem every week except one week in which we also had a choice to write fiction. My story was a unfunny comedy about a guy who accidentally killed the goldfish he was pet-sitting. The other students were a Sigma Chi who smoked a lot of weed, a girl named Dori, a pale and chubby nerd, and a girl who explained her poems every week. There were more of us than that, but if there were people I knew well in the class I have forgotten them. Of Claudia I remember two events from that semester. One, she patiently told the explainer each week that it was all well and good that her poem meant something other than what we had all thought, but that she wouldn’t be present to tell that to her readers, so it had to be on the page. Two, she almost lost her patience when telling the pale nerd that it was very dubious that the dream girl he had just described in verse was, as he had placed her, merely sitting under a tree, waiting for him to come along.
After the readings - first Claudia, than the laureate - crowds queued up for signatures and to buy books. Supposedly there were refreshments, as there always are, but I didn’t make an effort to find the cheese and crackers. Many of the people genuinely knew one or both the poets, as people they would actually remember. Some of them had become English professors, and others still believed they could be. Instead, I slipped out and walked home, breathing in the halal carts, although I have long since given up meat, and looking at the Lenten candles in the open church, although I have long since given up religion.