IV. “For the first time…I can call myself a poet.” (10/11/1980 – 12/1/1981)

NEA Acceptance Letter, Wesley McNair

A central narrative in this section of the letters is my growing sense of myself as a poet. Returning to Colby-Sawyer College from my NEA fellowship to teach in the fall, I am committed to organizing my life around poetry. So I write to Don in the first letter of this section about applying for a new college position as a poet, against the odds of obtaining one. (“I plan finally to adjust my teaching assignment to my real self, kept secret for so long!”) Shortly afterward, I report my decision to resign as coordinator of the American studies program I founded, and my intention to apply for a full-year sabbatical in the ensuing year in case my job search doesn’t pan out. My NEA grant has allowed me to create enough poems for part of a second book, I tell Don on December 5, 1980, and I want to continue the momentum. “For the first time in my life,” I write, “I can call myself a poet, without misgivings.”

Yet events conspire to limit my output of poems. A mid-life crisis, brought on by the death of Diane’s father, family struggles, and an up-welling of regrets — leaves me “crying a lot,” as I tell Don on January 17, reluctant to spend time with poetry and its reminders of my “inner life.” By opening up my emotional life in this period, poetry has itself no doubt contributed to my situation.

One exception to my inactivity as a poet in early 1981 is the poem I write for Diane in sympathy for her grief , “A Dream of Herman.” Fussing over its final line with Don occupies a series of our early letters in the section. Otherwise, I try to hold myself together, using my spare time to teach in the night school at a nearby business college so I can pay some bills and send Diane to a summer session in pottery at the Haystack School in Maine. In one letter, I toy with the idea of writing a textbook for a new source of income.

In May, however, spurred on by acceptances by both Poetry magazine and The Atlantic, I tell Don I’m ready to start writing once more. And I do, sporadically, though my personal struggles continue. They include Diane’s two back operations that have resulted from her work in the state liquor store and prevent her from attending Haystack. All summer, our lost summer, she must recuperate, and I must serve as a house-husband, summer-school teacher, and occasional assistant for carpenters renovating our house. Dealing with such troubles and distractions, I send only three letters to Don in the summer of 1981, one of them composed in September.

Barn across the road from McNair’s farmhouse
McNair's farmhouse in North Sutton, at twilight
McNair’s farmhouse in North Sutton, at twilight

Don’s correspondence in this section, like mine, is more personal than it has been before. It tells of his own sorrows – his son’s car accident, the dire health and eventual death of Jane’s father in Michigan, and Jane’s difficulties with depression. But by the fall of 1981 Diane is on the mend, and though Don is often on the road with an author tour and visits with Jane to Michigan, the two of us are back to active discussions about poems in progress and the revision of my still unpublished book, which the editor of Carnegie Mellon University Press has invited me to submit during his 1982 round of submissions. My year-long sabbatical, with its promise of new poems, has begun.

[This section has 60 letters]