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 was a poet I always called Professor. 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.