A Final Note for C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams passed away on September 20, of cancer. In Hopewell, mere miles from here. When I walked into Labyrinth Books last week, I actually burst into tears—awkward, ugly, unexpected—when I saw the cover of his Collected Poems. I just couldn't hold it together to make it through the checkout line without shaking. The book felt as heavy as a brick.

As a former student of his, everything I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to surrounding his work and his impact—from Princeton to Paris, from Newark to New York, from poetry to translation—matters a lot to me. I think the more stories we have, and the more we share his work, the better. It keeps his legacy urgent, of the moment, and alive. 

The truth is I chose Princeton first for its poetry program; second, because I could afford it. (I moved out on my 18th birthday; I paid my own way.) The chance to study with Williams and the roster of rock star writers on the faculty seemed like a new world, a way out.  

When I was 15, I read "Tar." And it changed my life. I remember taking the city bus from my suburban high school to a local university, where I took my first college class: a poetry workshop. I remember what awe felt like. I didn't know a poem could do that. With the help of a few patient teachers, I discovered a whole world beyond books that spoke volumes in metaphor. Soon enough, the monthly poetry slams at Java Joes, our downtown coffee shop, became my ritual. I remember those electric months. They felt essential. They felt important.

I met him in the fall of 2006, my first semester on campus. It was after I passionately performed a spoken word poem at one of the typically-buttoned-up student readings at 185 Nassau. Friends of mine in his workshop at the time described seeing the publisher's advance copies of his Collected Poems. I remember that they teased him a bit about his dust jacket photo—he was slightly self-conscious about his smile. 

I took his advanced poetry workshop in the spring of 2009. That semester, when the then-Director of the Creative Writing Program, Susan Wheeler, told me that Sharon Olds, one of my favorite poets, was planning a poetry reading on campus, I sprung into action. After I was given the green light by the program administrator, I sent an impassioned, effusive, meticulously worded email to the faculty, requesting that Olds make time to facilitate a poetry workshop during her time at Princeton: 

I gasped out in surprise when Professor Wheeler told me that Sharon Olds is coming to campus [...] I have long loved Olds's work; I remember my first encounter with one of her poems in high school. I have since scoured bookstores to find every book she has published — each one, I might add, now scrawled with my own poetry. "Read, and write; read, then write," said Professor Williams on our first day of class this semester. I did so with Olds's work — almost plagiarizing in the first drafts, then gradually growing with a voice all my own. It means a lot to me that Olds is coming to campus, and I thank you for bringing her here.  

Williams response was brief yet sympathetic, even charmed:

Dear Jeanette,

That's a nice thought, but for many reasons not at all practical.

Best, CKW

In our correspondence, I am all exclamation marks and he is all ellipses, commas too. Short, severe commas that hacked through, cut clean. He would sign off without punctuation—CKW—while I, ever so Midwestern polite, would hedge, hem, haw. 

Williams taught me what a one-line or even a one-word reply looked like. Eventually, I learned to not take his brevity personally. He was saving his long lines for his poems, for the melodies that would unwind like a lazy jazz tune, a solo he would trumpet out in his signature lilt at poetry readings—185 Nassau St, Richardson, McCarter.    

After one workshop, when we were discussing haiku—and how to take it seriously—I started to explain an event that my fellow poets in my hometown spoken word scene had organized: a "Haiku Death Match." It wasn't easy. As I rambled on about the places to perform poetry in Des Moines—the bars, the coffee houses—I pretended not to notice his amused grin. I went on and on about the format, the judging, the whole concept of "slam poetry", and what it all means. 

I braced myself for whatever inevitable sarcastic comment he'd drop once I was done.

But it never came. He was patient. And nice. Even kind. I realized that Williams wasn't (only) the gruff, incredibly intimidating Professor I feared, but also someone who was somehow willing to hear me out until I lost steam, exhausted by my own enthusiasm. 

During office hours in 2009, he said something that gave me a glimmer of true confidence: he offered to be one of my senior thesis advisers. It was an amazing moment. (I ended up working with the incredible rock-star poet Tracy K. Smith.) 

Williams changed my work: my focus, my drive, my style. He really made an impact.

After one of his poetry readings at 185 Nassau Street, I waited in line with the crowd, and then said hello at his book table. I asked him to sign my copy. To Jeanette, he wrote. Can't wait to read your book of poems. That meant a lot. That still means a lot.