In memoriam

34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.

I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.

But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.

The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.

I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.

I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.

Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):

“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”

You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:

We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….

Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”

Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.

I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.

He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.

Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.

In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.

Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.

Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.

The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.

I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.

This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.

I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:

Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.

Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.

I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.

I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.

We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:

…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”

Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.

It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.

10 thoughts on “In memoriam

  1. Hillary says:

    Rita – I am so sorry for the loss of a person so important to you. I love how you describe him. He sounds like my type of curmudgeon. If he is who you have been writing to/for all these years, i am grateful for his audience. He and i share a birthday. I concur that life has beauty and meaning, and always appreciate those who recognize that and who spend their efforts to reveal that and remind us of that essential perspective. I am sorry you did not get to say good bye to your old friend and mentor. P.S. I hope you write much, much more

    • Rita says:

      I just love that the two of you share a birthday. That feels very right. And thank you for the encouragement to keep writing.

  2. Laura Millsaps says:

    Rita– I am so sorry for your loss. I also had an older man who intimidated the hell out of me as it pertained to journalism. His name was Bill and was my faculty adviser through the first half of my undergraduate work. I was on my way in as he was on his way out. His office was full of dangerously high stacks of newspapers, around which he ceaselessly chain smoked. He seemed in many ways bigger than life. He was raised on a ranch in South Dakota and was an infantryman in WWII. He had no patience for bullshit, and often spoke to his advisees in the bluntest of terms about their prospects in journalism. When he “retired” he went back to South Dakota, both to ranch and to write and edit for the paper in his local home town. He died in 2013. I like how he valued writing for its power to inform, persuade, vindicate, or condemn the human community. I like how he valued the work of it, no matter at what level it happened, be it the Washington Post or the Weekly Podunk Crier. His lessons about caring both about the craft and the work of journalism has never left me, and while he also had a cantankerous streak and seemed ever in danger of going up in flames in that cramped smoky office, I have always been thankful for that first professional relationship in journalism in the same way that you valued your Robert. In the same way, I’m often writing to Bill. Often we don’t understand the full importance of our mentors until after they’ve left.

    • Rita says:

      I feel as if I know Bill from your words here. What a great-sounding character. And, yes, he sounds very intimidating. Nelson (the other poet in this piece) had an office like Bill’s. He ran the poetry workshop two nights a week, year-round, for decades, and he kept paper copies of every poem we read in it. The first time I visited his office (to ask permission to skip the intro-level class), I walked into an office covered in stacks of paper. He liked to tell a story about a student whose apartment caught fire and he lost every copy he’d had of his work. (Before computers.) The student came to him, distraught, but Nelson had a copy of every poem he’d submitted to the workshop. For myself, there are so many things I haven’t realized the importance of until after they have passed.

  3. Marian says:

    “Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins” — I can’t help but notice the timeliness of these words…

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Rita. I hope you keep writing to him here.
    Sending you love,
    Marian

  4. Kate says:

    Rita, I am so sorry for your loss. “He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living.” – What a wonderful way to live a life.

    • Rita says:

      It really is, isn’t it? He definitely lived life on his own terms–and constantly encouraged me to do the same. I know it was important for me, who can easily sink into a bleak view of the world and life in it, to encounter when I did a philosophy that everything in life is meaningful. He gave me a hopeful place in which to wrestle with my demons.

  5. Bethany Reid says:

    I’m glad you wrote this and glad I read it. It made to sad to see all that I missed by leaving Robert’s group when I did, but I’m reminded of all good things that went into that workshop — for a very long time — and the good things that came out of it, and continue to evolve.
    Bethany Reid recently posted…The Pear TreeMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Bethany. I missed most of what followed, too. I moved away in 1990, and I only met with a group at Robert and Paula’s house once after that. My correspondence with Robert was very off and on until about 10 years ago. He and Paula were a big support when my marriage ended. I will always be grateful for that. When I look back at my first years of knowing all of you, when you and I were both in Nelson’s workshop, I feel very fortunate. You and were work were so inspiring to me. I remember Robert saying of you that when names were taken, yours would be on the list. I agreed, and still do.

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