A Final Note for C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams passed away on September 20, of cancer. In Hopewell, mere miles from here. 

As a former student of C.K. Williams, 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, from critical theory to literature — matters a lot to me, and I suspect that others feel the same way. I think the more stories we have about Williams, the more we share his work, the better. It keeps his legacy urgent, of the moment, and alive. 

He even offered to be one of my senior thesis advisers — I ended up writing my thesis with Tracy K. Smith, and I graduated with a B.A. in English and a certificate in Creative Writing in 2014. He really made an impact on me. 

Now, I live in downtown Princeton, a few blocks from the Princeton Public Library. When I walked into Labyrinth Books last week, I just burst into tears when I saw the cover of Williams's Collected Poems — I couldn't hold it together to make it through the checkout line without shaking, the book as heavy as a brick. I remember it came out a few months after I arrived at Princeton as a freshman, in 2006.

Williams was one of the poets who got me writing in the first place. In Iowa, as a teenager who drove downtown once a month for poetry slams at Java Joes and who discovered a whole world behind books that spoke volumes in metaphor, I chose Princeton largely for its poetry program — and especially for the chance to study with C.K. Williams.  

I met him in 2006, my first semester on campus, when I passionately performed a spoken word poem (that I later performed at the University Chapel) at one of the typically-buttoned-up student readings at the Lewis Center of the Arts. My poetry circle at Princeton saw the advance copies from Farrar, Straus for 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, and we kept in touch over the years. I remember after one workshop, when we were discussing the poetic form of haiku, I attempted to explain an event that my hometown spoken word poetry scene had organized: a "Haiku Death Match." To his amused, yet surprisingly silent grin, I pretended not to notice the inevitable sarcastic comment he was planning to drop once my spiel was finished. 

As I rambled on about the bars and coffee houses in Iowa, the format ("two teams of four poets battle head-to-head against each other in three rounds"), the judging, the whole concept of "slam poetry" and what it all means, I realized that Williams wasn't (only) the gruff, incredibly intimidating Professor I feared, but also someone who, like my Midwestern father, didn't "get it" yet was patient all the same, who was somehow willing to hear me out until I lost steam, exhausted by my own enthusiasm. 

That spring, 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 Janine Braude, the program administrator, I sent an impassioned, effusive, meticulously worded email to the senior faculty, requesting that Olds make time to facilitate an undergraduate 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, and haw. He taught me what a one-line or even one word reply looked like, and 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 Auditorium, Berlind Theatre, Labyrinth Books.    

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.