Would you be willing….

  • II. “Would you be willing to allow us to represent you…?” (1/20/1979 – 11/16/1979)

    Donald Hall

    Donald Hall at his farmhouse in Wilmot, New Hampshire

    ja-crop

    The section begins with an invitation by letter from Joseph Amaryllis, of the Amaryllis agency, to join his stable of poets. Though I didn’t say so in my reply, it was clear that Joseph was Don’s dual identity: his agency was located in the next town over from Wilmot, and the agency’s address was in the same font Don used for his letters. As Joseph Amaryllis, Don represented several poets whose work he liked, and he sent my own poems out to magazines for many years after I signed on, relieving me of that tedious and often dispiriting process. (Note the gradual creation of Joey Amaryllis as a humorous character during the eight-year period of these letters.)

    Argus Champion 1979

    Argus Champion, November 1979

    As Amaryllis succeeded with his submissions and my first collection grew, I submitted this volume, called The Faces of Americans in 1853 (its title derived from the chapbook that preceded it), to a variety of publishers, fretting over how to arrange the contents. Early in that process Don, who was a poetry consultant at Harper & Row, suggested the book to the editor Fran McCullough as a new title there. In the meantime, Don read my poems in progress one by one, combining praise with suggestions for revision I was not always willing to accept, used to going my own way.

    But it was impossible not to learn from his letters, which contained advice about everything from writing poems, to the substance and submission of my book, to what should be paid to poets for readings, to encouragement, sometimes in the face of rejection.

    title-collage

    (My own “first book was rejected 13 times before acceptance.” he tells me, and later remarks, “I tend to love everything you do, occasionally with one or two words to disagree about.”) Section II includes the happy news that I have received an NEA fellowship for poetry and can look forward to a summer and fall of free time for my writing.

    [This section has 24 letters]

  • Hall to McNair: January 20, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-1-20-1979

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    20 January 1979

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton
    New Hampshire

    Dear Mr. McNair,

    We understand that you have available for publication
    a manuscript of poems, of which some have not yet
    appeared in periodicals. Would you be willing to allow
    us to represent you, as your literary agents, in placing
    your poems in periodicals? We have had some success
    recently with Mr. Gregory Orr of Earlysville, Virginia,
    placing seven of his poems on our first attempts to be
    literary agents. We feel that diversification will
    increase our credibility. We also like your poems. We
    also like sending out mail. We also imagine that by
    retaining ten per cent of your earnings, we will be able
    to pay our postage, take trips to Miami, etc….

    If you would like us to proceed, we believe that we
    can secure a copy of your manuscript from Mr. Donald Hall,
    pry the staples from it, and use it for distribution.
    Would you please tell us not only which of the poems
    have been printed*, but which of the other poems have been
    seen by which magazines. Thorough, complete, and
    accurate records are essential, as we all know, in this
    difficult world…

    Yours truly,

    J.A.
    For Amaryllis Incorporated

    *& where


  • McNair to Hall: January 23, 1979

    McNair-to-Hall-01-23-1979

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    23 January 1979

    J.A. Amaryllis Incorporated
    Box 71
    Potter Place
    New Hampshire 03265

    Dear J.A.:

    What an attractive letterhead you have chosen for your new
    agency. And the color of the typeface, plant green, is just the right
    thing.

    I am of course flattered that Amaryllis Incorporated would
    think of representing me as my literary agent. I hope that my poems
    will contribute to the diversification which you say will increase
    your credibility. Have you considered, by the way, the possibility
    of a motto in those words? Credibility through diversification. I
    see it as a logo, rising somewhat toward the viewer out of an
    amaryllis bulb.

    Anyway, about the poems. The ones that are as yet unpublished
    are: The Bald Spot; Holding the Goat; When Superman Died in Springfield,
    Vermont; Going Back to Elinore Quelch, A Ballad; The Poetic License;
    Memory of North Suttob, rather, Sutton; and Country People. A
    distinguished group, I’m sure you’ll agree. I think I sent TPL and
    and MONS to the Iowa Review and the Ohio Review. These poems were also
    sent to Poetry Northwest, along with TBS, CP, HTG and probably
    WSDISV. Prairie Schooner saw some of the poems, but I’m not sure which.

    Since it is difficult for me to send poems out after one or
    two rejections, I am especially pleased to be your client. Needless to say,
    I am also pleased that the day has finally come when a literary
    agency has contacted me about my poems. After all these years of
    obscurity, it is great to be famous.

    Sincerely,

    Wesley McNair


    Read The Bald Spot(published version)

    Read Holding the Goat (published version)

    Read When Superman Died in Springfield, Vermont (published version)

    Read The Poetic License (published version)

    Read Memory of North Sutton (published version)

    Read Country People (published version)

  • McNair to Hall: June 15, 1979

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    June 15, 1979
    Dear Don –

    Just got a rejection from U/Pittsburg Press.
    My note (handwritten by Ed Ochester!) speaks
    of “fine work here” and goes on to say that
    “we have decided to go with other manuscripts,”
    and that I should try the Press “again next
    year if [my] book hasn’t been placed by then.”
    The note brings back memories of another,
    similar, rejection, sent me some months ago
    by New Rivers Press, to whom I had mailed my
    chapbook.

    Since I figure I’m due soon for a
    rejection from Yale, I’m writing to ask you
    if you can think of any other publisher to whom
    I might send the book. Do publishers generally
    accept unsolicited manuscripts from poets?
    I’m told there’s a NY agent named
    Scott Meredith who is fairly reputable and
    handles the work of many poets as well as
    fiction writers. Do you know about this guy?

    In my desperation, I’m up for any
    suggestions – am beginning to fear that my

    2/

    “gratification” may be “delayed” forever.

    Writing has been going well (up to today,
    at least) and has been going steady and strong
    for some time, thanks to your good influence.
    I hope all is well with your writing – and with
    Jane’s, in spite of her dismay on the night
    we were at your house.

    Down

    Wes


    A note from McNair about this letter: Jane’s “dismay” refers to the episode of depression that afflicted her during our visit.

  • Hall to McNair: June 21, 1979

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    21 June 79

    Dear Wes,

    Well, it’s damned discouraging. You are good!
    Eventually, more than 4 or 5 of us will get the
    message. Many good people have been slow to
    get published – Frost & Muir for two. Harper
    & Row is unbearably slow. Of course the letter
    from Ochester is hardly a bad sign – but one
    needs more than good signs. I was quick off
    the study block, an ambitious & precocious
    child – but my first book was rejected 13
    times before acceptance. Jane is going through a
    patch of getting everything rejected from mags,
    having been lucky earlier. She’s discouraged
    too. I cannot remember if you have ever tried
    Wesleyan. Are you at all interested in a small
    press? I just had a pamphlet with BOA.

    2/

    You might try Galassi (Jonathan) at Houghton
    Mifflin in the autumn, saying to J.G. that I
    asked you to try him. Publishers don’t
    generally accept anything – but some will &
    do.

    No reputable agent is
    useful to a point. I can explain, if this is
    obscure. I do use agents – but not for poems.

    The writing – I don’t need to tell you – is
    what matters. Keep getting better, & improve
    the mss. every time it comes back, & you
    will win through. As Jane & I always
    quote to each other, from “Mary Hartman,”
    : “Trust me! Trust me!”

    Love to you both,

    Don


  • McNair to Hall: July 1, 1979

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    July 1 1979

    Dear Don –

    I would be lost without you. Ever since
    your generous recommendation that I be
    invited to read at read at Marietta College, you
    have sustained me as a writer. Your
    advice, your bolstering of my confidence,
    have quite literally kept me going.
    These things are being written,
    I’m convinced, somewhere in heaven.

    Do you remember the cartoon of
    the two doomed men, deep in the
    dungeon, manacled to the wall by
    hands and feet, a small window
    far above their heads, one turning
    to the other, saying, “Now here’s
    my plan”? Now here’s my plan.
    I have consulted my Coda Awards
    List booklet and have found that

    there are fully five publishers who invite
    manuscripts in the fall. They are: Houghton
    Mifflin, Wesleyan, U. Illinois, Princeton,
    Carnegie Mellon. In addition, there is the
    Walt Whitman Award Competition, ending
    with the publication of the winning book
    I have decided to mail my book to the five
    publishers (or most of them) and to the
    Walt Whitman Award Competition, and
    to cover myself with telegrams in the
    event of success with one of the above.
    By the fall, I will have improved my
    manuscript (as you suggest) in any
    way possible.

    What do you think? Specifically, what
    do you think of the inclusion of U.
    Illinois, Princeton and Carnegie Mellon
    (esp. the last)? Would the book get enough
    play if I were favored with acceptance
    at any of these places?

    Un million de gracias, as the Chileans
    say, for all your help. You save my life.

    Love,

    Wes


  • Hall to McNair: July 3, 1979

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    3 July 1979

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    N. Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Thank you for that good letter. If I have been a help, I am
    delighted. And I don’t mean to be false
    [Written in margin: ly modest]
    about it: I have been a help!
    But I am delighted to have been, and want to continue to be.

    I like that cartoon. But I don’t think that your situation
    is quite so desperate!

    I think your saturation-bombing approach is excellent. And I
    would indeed submit to all of these places. Including the Walt Whitman.
    The University of Illinois is getting its books around. Princeton
    does a very good job. Carnegie-Mellon makes very attractive books,
    and mails them to people. I don’t think it would be a bad deal.
    Heaven knows, Houghton Mifflin would be the best deal. And I will
    mention things to Jon Galassi. But that means little. They will get
    at least a thousand manuscripts.

    So will most of the places. Which always makes it a lottery.

    I have been doing some more thinking about small presses, not
    with you in mind, but just in general. That phrase covers so many
    different things. I would not publish with Ithaca House. I’m not sure,
    really, that I would publish with New Rivers – but more likely. I would
    publish with Sheep Meadow. Or with Alice James… First of all, I
    would publish with Greywolf. Do you know of that? They publish Tess
    Gallagher, and do lovely books. “They” is a young man named Scott Walker,
    whom I met at the NBA thing about small presses, where Jane read her
    poems. A terrific, energetic young man – who makes his living by
    publishing poetry! Obviously, the secret ingredient in such a “living”
    is, as Pound would put it, low overhead. But he does, doing everything
    himself – editing, designing, overseeing the printing, distributions,
    sales, wrapping packages…

    I liked him enormously, his vigor and intelligence. He does not
    think of himself as some sort of bush league. He just wrote me a letter,
    saying – freshly, cockily – that if established poets really liked small
    presses, how come they never made small presses their major publishers?

    I think I was being solicited, but I am not certain.

    I told him that I was very fond of Fran McCullough, and would stay
    with her out of loyalty – something which I think will shock him; I think
    that will sound to him like being loyal to General Motors. But he is not
    prepared to be some sort of farm system. He wants to be the continuing
    publisher of terrific poets who never leave his stable. Tess Gallagher
    has had opportunities to go elsewhere, but she will stay with him.
    [Written in margin: So far, anyway.]

    Distribution for small presses is getting better and better. It is
    probably not quite so good as big presses, but in many ways it is less
    frustrating. The thing about a small press, when it is expertly run like

    2/

    this one, and a few others, is that the author benefits from the
    absolute, total, undivided attention and commitment of the publisher.
    I cannot say that for Harper & Row! Fran McCullough cares, but she
    does not handle marketing, distribution, remaindering, advertising,
    promotion, and wrapping packages, the way Scott Walker does.

    All I am doing – with you, and I will do the same thing with
    a few other people – is to recommend re-thinking the notion of
    the big publishers and the little ones.

    Best as ever,

    Don


  • McNair to Hall: August 24, 1979

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    August 24

    Dear Don –

    It has suddenly occurred to me that I never answered your
    good letter about my book and where it might be published. This
    lapse does not indicate my indifference – far from it. In fact,
    I have taken your words so seriously, making them part
    of a conversation with myself, that I’ve forgotten to communicate
    with you about my responses.

    In brief, then: While I would probably consider publishing
    a second book of poetry – perhaps a second, smaller collection –
    with a small press, I would rather place my first book
    with a “name brand” publisher – a “GM,” to quote you.
    It’s that I’ve spent years putting this collection together,
    and I’d like to make the biggest splash possible with it.
    In the event that I can’t find my GM, I’ll try the other
    alternatives. And thanks, by the way, for putting the case
    for publishing with the small press so clearly before me.

    I’ve been working on a handful of poems – some of which
    will appear in the revised^ as per your suggestion manuscript of my book. I
    enclose two of the poems for the revised manuscript. I will
    send others as they are finished. I’m pulling the two
    “dirty poems” out of the book – they seem to break

    2/

    the tone of that section and the book as a whole – and I’m
    changing certain sub-groupings and sub-headings.

    You will be the first to see the final product. I write
    so much and so little that I frustrate myself, and
    everyone else, I fear. Still, I hope to have the new book
    for you soon.

    In the meantime, thanks for all of your encouragement.
    I would be lost without it.

    All the best to you and Jane,

    Wes

    DRIVING POEM

    In the room
    which makes trees go by
    and grass run
    along the edge of the slow
    field and farmhouses turn
    small and far away
    revealing one
    by one their windows

    OLD TREES

    By the road
    in the field, they stand

    lifting branches
    they cannot remember,

    rocking shut
    in the wind.

    In some other world
    they grow such trunks

    and hurled their leaves
    across the sky.

    Here, emptyhanded,
    they wait

    for the end which has been
    happening for years.

    Growing o’s
    around telephone wires,

    tethered to farmhouses,
    the old trees.


     

     

  • Hall to McNair: August 29, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-08-29-1979

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    29 August 1979

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to have your letter. These are good poems. I have a couple
    of questions. I guess I cannot quite see how they grow o’s. I can
    see them growing over or under. I guess I can see one branch going over,
    and another under, which do not touch but visually cross each other…
    but an o seems too symmetrical, possibly? I love the cadence and
    feeling of this poem, and then I am a bit disturbed by finding it
    visually not exactly perceptible.

    Again, I like the language of Driving Poem very very much – but
    I am troubled by the syntax, wanting it to be a sentence and finding
    no way to turn it into a sentence. Do I take it that the “room” is
    the driver’s seat of the car? Or perhaps more accurately the car itself?
    I might wonder about having a first line like: “This is the room…”

    Joey would always like to have more poems to send out, if you
    feel like it letting him.

    I do have considerable hope that you will find your GM – or that
    some decent GM will find you. And in fact, I have good hope for Harper
    and Row. It does not mean any more than it says, but it is a fact
    that Fran McCullough likes the manuscript very much. She wants to look
    at it some more, and confirm herself in her feelings – and I don’t think
    this is a sinister doubt. But the problem is elsewhere. It takes her
    a long time, and a good deal of effort, to get a book of poems accepted
    by the powers that be. The poetry-schedule is full up for a while.
    She cannot even bring the subject up, to the powers that be, for a while.
    And when she does, if she does decide to push your book as I hope and
    mostly believe she will, the powers that be may not take to it,
    or may feel that they cannot take on another books of poems at that time.
    Therefore, you are to be pleased that she likes her work, you are to be
    hopeful but not too hopeful, and you are to sit tight! OK?

    None of which should deter you from going right ahead with revising
    your manuscript and so forth. About the “dirty” poems, I too feel
    ambivalent. I am not sure that they belong there – but I am not certain
    that they don’t, either. Make your decision against them this time.
    Be prepared, possibly for some argument on another occasion.

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: August 29, 1979

    McNair-to-Hall-08-29-1979

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    August 29, 1979

    Dear Don –

    No, I have not seen work by Jenny Josephs,
    but if you say she’s good, we are interested in
    having her in September. Since readings by women
    are often co-sponsored by the Women’s Studies
    program here, I should have some bio material on
    Ms. Josephs to pass around – and to use later
    for publicity. It would be nice to have a poem or
    two by her also.

    I will have to check with others before I can
    say “yes” absolutely. But a reading in September
    does at this point seem quite likely.

    Thanks for the suggestion – and please send
    bio stuff as soon as possible –

    Wes


  • McNair to Hall: August 31, 1979

    McNair-to-Hall-08-31-1979

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    31 August 1979

    Dear Don,

    Needless to say, I am pleased, delighted in fact, that Fran
    McCullough likes my manuscript. I will do my best to be “not too hopeful,”
    as you suggest, and I send renewed thanks for your persistence in this thing.
    Your confidence in my poetry gives me more strength than you realize,
    as I forge ahead through revision after revision.

    And of course I am glad you like the two poems—disturbed, too,
    about what you feel does not work in each. How do the trees grow o’s, you
    ask. I meant to refer in that image to the o’s which telephone linesmen
    often cut around telephone wires. Please let me know whether my explanation
    makes you feel more comfortable with the image. You have me worried…

    Perhaps you are right about the verbless-ness of “Driving Poem.” I
    guess I was hoping that the verbs in the which clause would carry the
    poem well enough, in spite of the unusual syntax. About your suggestion,
    “This is the room…”: Do you think the line would stress the car more
    than the driving which the title refers?

    I am working hard on two longish poems called “The Thin Man” and
    “Hair on Television,” both of which I would like to put into the revised
    book. They would go into section one, along with “For My Father” and
    “The Bald Spot,” so that the section would give a sort of overview of
    the personal and some of the public concerns of the book’s narrator.
    Section two would begin with “Old Trees” and would move to the other
    regional poems of the present section one—i.e., “Fire in Enfield,”
    “Leaving the Country House” and “Memory of Kuhre.” Each of those poems
    contains a certain play of present and past—especially the latter—and
    so they would lead logically to section three, which would include all
    of the poems in the present sections two and three except for the “dirty
    poems.” “Driving Poem” would fall just before “Country People,” the other
    drivin g [sic] poem of the collection, in section five. The sections woud be
    called “The Thin Man”(1); “Memory of Kuhre”(2); “Going Back to Fifth Grade”(3);
    “The Faces of … (4); and “Country People”(5).

    I hope you find that my revision strengthens the book, and I hope to
    be able to show it to you before long. Thanks, as usual, for all of
    your help and advice.

    Love to both you & Jane,

    Wes

    P.S.: Please explain to Joey that I will be sending him
    poems as soon as they are ready –


    Read Hearing that My Father Died in a Supermarket (published version of “For My Father” with altered title)

    Read The Bald Spot (published version)

    Read Fire in Enfield (published version)

    Read Leaving the Country House to the Landlord, Five Years Later (published version)

    Read Memory of Kuhre (published version)

    Read Country People (published version)

    Read Going Back to Fifth Grade (published version)

    Read The Faces of Americans in 1853 (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: September 3, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-01-03-1979

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    3 September 1979

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Here is a book by Jenny, which includes reference to earlier
    books, and a famous anthologized poem. I know that I have been in
    anthology with her and that poem, and I cannot find it. Maybe – doubltess [sic] –
    it is somewhere in the Colby-Sawyer library. But then, it is somewhere
    in my library too, and I cannot find it. Jenny is a bit younger than I
    am, and has done a lot of BBC stuff and journalism of one sort and
    another, as well as the books of poems which are of course what she takes
    most seriously.

    As far as I can tell, there would only be two possible days,
    the 27th or the 28th of September. She is visiting with her daughter,
    and has a lot of things planned ahead of course, and I don’t think
    that she could stay around or come back.

    Let me know just as soon as you can, please.

    Well, I am delighted about Fran’s initial response also, and I
    know that I must not be “not too hopeful” and I hope to heaven you
    know it also. Chances are, as ever, that we will not get what we both
    want. But I hope that we do!

    Don’t be disturbed about me feeling that things do not work. I
    cannot remember ever having been wholly satisfied with anything by
    anybody I know. [Written in margin: Or by me.]

    I don’t feel more comfortable about that image with the o’s,
    because I don’t know where the telephone linesman came from. I think
    they have to be in there, cutting and making this unnatural, artificial,
    man-made o. I was trying to imagine a natural one, which is what I felt
    you had me imagining.

    I don’t know whether the line would stress the car more than the
    driving…I wasn’t particularly happy about the line that I suggested.
    But I felt the lack of the bone, with the verb missing. I don’t think
    that an incomplete sentence is really unusual syntax exactly. It didn’t
    bother me as being peculiar or unusual or eccentric. It bothered me
    as seeming somehow incomplete – I mean not just incomplete in the way
    that it literally was. As lacking some essential organism to make it
    thoroughly alive and vigorous.

    I look forward to the two longish poems, heaven knows, and everything
    else. Also to read the new order. I suspect that I will like it.
    But it is hard for me to know without actually reading through it again
    In the new way.

    I told Joey and he says cool.

    Love as ever,

    Don


    Editorial note about this letter: McNair is mistaken about having sent “The Thin Man” earlier and finally includes it with his next letter, on September 12. “Hair on Television” doesn’t reach Hall until McNair sends it on September 19.
    A note from McNair about this letter: Don asked for the fair copies of the new poems by telephone, telling me at that time about Bly’s poem on the subject of hair.

  • McNair to Hall: September 8, 1979

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    9/8/79

    Dear Don –

    Thanks for your encouraging comments about
    my poems.

    You asked for fair copies of “The Thin Man”
    and “Hair on Television.” I did send you copies –
    at least I thought I did – of those two poems
    in their revised form. In the event you did not
    receive the copies of my later note expressing
    the wish that they be sent on to The New Yorker,
    here are two new copies and a new request –
    to be relayed to Joey – that they be mailed
    to the above magazine. Please tell Joey that in
    exchange for his services (and his unshakeable
    faith in my poems) I will gladly send postage and
    envelopes at any time.

    You will notice that the revision of my book,
    a copy of which you have no doubt received by now,
    is somewhat different from the revision I described
    a couple of letters back. Again, I do hope you like
    the new version.

    Incidentally, I’ve never seen that Bly poem on hair.
    Do you have a copy of it? Or where can I find it.

    Wes


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 12, 1979

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    Sept 12, 1979

    Dear Don –

    Jenny Joseph may have a reading at Colby
    if she doesn’t mind a rather skimpy honorarium
    of $50. The date and time: September 27 at
    7:30 PM. I assume that the place will be
    Alumnae lounge, where you read. I will let you
    know soon.

    I enclose a copy of “The Thin Man” – hope
    you like it. I hope “Hair on Television” will
    be ready soon.

    More about the Joseph reading right away.
    Please let me know if $50 is OK. Perhaps
    I could get more if I were in charge
    of reading this year, but I’m not, and $50
    seems to be the limit.

    Hello to Jane – Love,

    Wes

    THE THIN MAN
    –Inside every fat man is a thin man trying to get out.

    Once in a mirror
    as it folded hair
    back from its face

    he discovered his eyes
    lonely, yearning.
    This was the beginning

    of his life
    inside the body,
    of standing deep in the legs

    of it,
    held
    in its elbowless arms.

    And when it walked
    he walked,
    and when it slept

    he dreamed of drowning
    under its lakes
    of skin.

    Oh the thin man
    trying to get out
    learned of its great

    locked breasts
    its seamless chin,
    the dead ends

    of its hands.
    And oh the heavy body
    took him

    to tables
    of food,
    and took him down

    into the groaning
    carnal bed.
    The pitiless body took him

    to a mirror
    which showed
    the eyes

    in a face
    immense and dying,
    who he was.


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 14, 1979

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    Sept 14

    Dear Don –

    Problems : I just got a note from the
    Women’s Studies Co-ordinator here, whom I
    had convinced to schedule a reading for
    Jenny Josephs [sic] – and the note informed me
    of a call she received from the Public
    Information office about a serious conflict
    On the 27th, the date she chose for
    the Josephs’ [sic] reading. It turns out that
    the 27th is the date of an art opening
    and the alternative date for Mountain Day.

    Unfortunately, a reading on the 28th
    would conflict with the normal social
    activities of a Friday night – few
    students are likely to be on campus.

    Under the circumstances, I can
    think of only one thing to do: schedule
    Ms. Josephs earlier in the week – or
    early in the next week. Tuesday
    the 25th is open, as is Monday the

    2/

    1st.

    I guess the blame for all this is mine,
    since I didn’t think to advise the
    co-ordinator – who is brand new –
    to examine the college calendar before
    choosing a date. And I am very
    sorry for the mix-up. But perhaps
    we can make this work after all.

    Please let me know if the 25th
    or the 1st will work for you.

    Yours in hope,

    Wes


  • Hall to McNair: September 17, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-09-17-1979

    [Click image to view]

    17 September 1979
    Wes McNair
    N. Sutton, NH

    Dear Wes,

    Let’s just forget about a reading. Nobody should read for $50.

    “The Thin Man” is just marvelous. I love it, and I think maybe
    it is even one of your best. I have two suggestions, or one suggestion
    and one query. The query is “yearning,” which seems to me a terribly
    corny word, a word from greeting cards, and very dangerous to use,
    especially so early in the poem. I wonder what you have thought about it –
    if you have questioned it – if you think it might possibly be improved?
    And on the other thing I feel more dogmatic: please remove the epigraph.
    Everybody in the world has heard this business about a thin man being
    inside every fat man…and therefore to use it as a epigraph is or appears
    naïve. I mean, the statement itself is as commonplace as “hot enough
    for you” or “it takes all kinds to make a world.” If you had a poem
    about watermelons, you wouldn’t have as an epigraph that watermelons
    are ninety-eight per cent water…or whatever. I mean to say, it has
    the status of sort of commonplace information.

    The poem exploits this commonplace information perfectly, and
    when we come to the reference or allusion, within the poem, we are pre-
    cisely ready for it – except if you have that epigraph there. In that
    case, it kills the surprise and spoils the poem. When I say that the
    poem is superb, I mean without the epigraph. I really do think the
    epigraph acts like a dog with a hundred eyes, or maybe a hundred sets
    of jaws, guarding the entrance and preventing anybody from getting in.

    And it is a wonderful poem. What a superb ending.

    If you are going to be over this way, could you perhaps drop off
    the book by Jenny? Or mail it, as I mailed it to you, if you can not
    get over.*

    Best as ever,

    Don

    *Or you could leave it with the C-S
    receptionist?


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 19, 1979

    McNair-to-Hall-09-19-1979

    [Click image to view]

    Sept 19, 1979
    Dear Don —

    I am extremely glad you like the poem, since I
    was quite worried about it. I believe you about the
    epigraph, I’m not sure about the word “yearning”
    yet, but I’m thinking about it.

    I hope you like the enclosed – please let me
    know when you can. Both poems would be a
    part of the revised book manuscript.

    I’m sorry about the reading. If the coffers
    were my own this year, I could perhaps have
    dug deeper. Still, I appreciate the opportunity
    you opened. I will mail the book tomorrow.

    Today, at 4:55 PM, I am on my
    way to the mail with this letter —

    Thanks for everything —

    Wes

    HAIR ON TELEVISION

    On the soap opera the doctor
    explains to the young woman with cancer
    that each day is beautiful.

    Hair lifts from their heads
    like clouds, like something to eat.

    It is the hair of the married couple
    getting in touch with their real feelings for the first time
    on the talk show,

    the hair of young people on the beach
    drinking Cokes and falling in love.

    And the man who took the laxative
    and waters his garden
    next day with the hose
    wears the hair

    so dark and wavy
    even his grandchildren were amazed,
    and the woman who never dreamed tampons
    could be so convenient wears it.

    For the hair is changing people’s lives.
    It is growing like wheat above the faces

    of game show contestants opening the doors
    of new convertibles, of prominent businessmen opening
    their hearts to Christ, and it is growing

    straight back from the foreheads of vitamin exports,
    detergent experts, dog food experts helping ordinary housewives discover

    how be healthier, get clothes cleaner and serve
    dogs meals they love in the hair.

    And over and over on television the housewives,
    and the news teams bringing all the news faster
    and faster, and the new breed of cops winning the fight
    against crime, are smiling, pleased to be at their best,

    proud to be among the literally millions of Americans everywhere
    who have tried the hair, compared the hair and will never go back
    to life before the active, the caring, successful, the incredible hair.


    See a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts of “Hair on Television.”

  • Hall to McNair: September 21, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-09-21-1979

    [Click image to view]

    21 September 1979

    Wes McNair
    No. Sutton, NH

    Dear Wes,

    “Hair on Television” is absolutely marvelous. I think it is one
    of the truly best. There are two problems with it, one of which you
    cannot do anything about. I don’t think the poem is derivative at all,
    but it might well be taken so, because of Bly on the subject of hair.
    This poem, and you, will just have to weather that sort of thing. And
    I’m delighted that you went right on into it, without any misgivings,
    and did it! It is just wonderful!

    The thing I don’t like about it, which you can do something about
    if you will agree, is the look of it on the page. I think it is visually
    ugly. I like total asymmetry sometimes, but this is not that, just has
    a tendency to get longer as it goes down the page, and this looks
    inadvertent, it looks therefore slack or thoughtless…visually only.
    It doesn’t read that way. But the visual is as real as anything else.
    I don’t mean to say its [sic] equally important, but every single little
    thing is important. I find the line about two and a half inches up
    from the bottom kind of long, for instance, and I think of rewriting
    it to make it: “detergent and dogfood experts helping ordinary housewives
    discover…” I don’t think you need the two “experts” and this would
    move the line a little bit to the left… Then I would do similar
    things at the end, or I might tend to take one of the earlier stanzas
    which is four lines, and re-break into three lines, making them longer
    lines… I do this sort of tampering with things in order to achieve
    a visual coherence all the time – but of course I don’t want to do it
    if I think it hurts the rhythm, the line-breaks, anything like that.
    The whole business, as you well know, is simply to be perfect in every possible way!

    Anyway, I do love it dearly. It seems to me that pretty soon it you
    might be ready to send Joey for four new poems to make a batch for sending out.

    About that other poem. Can’t you hear Bing Crosby singing the word
    “yearning”? Tin Pan Alley. And the word also reminds me of the most
    prosperous poet ever to emerge from Tin Pan Alley… I mean Rod McKuen.

    But it’s not that bad.

    I guess my notion is that nobody should ever offer a poet $50,
    but instead should save up three $50 offers, or preferably four $50 offers,
    and offer a poet $150 or $200. But I’m always getting crabby about this
    sort of thing. Yesterday Scholastic Magazine called up, to ask me if I
    was accepting their invitation to be on their Board… Some sort of Board
    that would meet annually to talk about writing in high schools… I
    pointed out to them that they had asked me two months ago, that I had
    answered their letter asking them some questions, but I’d never heard
    from them. Among other things, I wanted to know what they were paying me.
    Well, umm…umm…they were not paying me anything. And I asked,
    with my most vicious imitation of innocence, if Scholastic were a
    non-profit organization? If they had stockholders? Had the stock-
    holders ever received a dividend? And why did this idiot think that I
    should donate my services to create profits for rich investors? Really,
    people are always thinking that poets should give something away for nothing,
    or almost nothing – and nobody ever asks the paper manufacturers to give
    away the paper, or the ink makers to give away the ink!

    None of this is directed to you, who are a poet and not a
    rich investor! But it is my suggestion that it might be better not
    to have poetry readings than to pay $50.

    Best as ever,

    Don


    Read Hair on Television (published version)
     

  • McNair to Hall: September 25, 1979

    McNair-to-Hall-09-25-1979

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    September 25, 1979

    Dear Don,

    I was very pleased to learn that you like “Hair on Television”.
    That damn poem took me an eternity to finish…that is, to almost
    finish. You were right to suggest the longer lines in the beginning
    of the poem, and the shorter line in the fourth stanza from the end.
    I send you the I think finished product.

    I’m also enclosing the slightly revised version of “The Thin
    Man”. At first I was reluctant to change “yearning”. I of course knew
    that the word is often used in the rhymes of popular songs, etc. — that
    it is a “corny” word–but I thought, or sensed, that its very corniness
    lent a kind of comedy to the thin man’s predicament…rather like
    the comedy–the grim humor–that the shopworn word “doomed” provides
    in my poem “The Bald Spot” (It peers/ out from hair/ like the face/
    of a doomed man…). but I am convinced now that my judgement [sic] was
    faulty. The word doesn’t read as I had wanted it to, and besides, along-
    side “lonely”, it suggests that the thin man’s problem is romantic,
    and it shouldn’t. The replacement word “earnest” connotes a consciousness
    that is serious and unaware of irony–the appropriate consciousness
    for the thin man, I think. The “lonely”, accenting the seriousness
    of the thin man, and perhaps the seriousness with which he takes
    himself, helps achieve the sort of comedy I want. And I
    like that “earnest” reminds me of accounts of idealistic young men
    just beginning their lives (esp. as used with “lonely”), since I want
    the thin man to “age” in the course of the poem.

    Tomorrow I’ll have decided to scratch the line and start again.
    But today I’m sure of it, and of the above reasons for it.

    You mentioned a batch of four poems for Joey. How well you
    keep track of these things! I am still stuck on “Driving Poem”–how to
    write is as a complete sentence. I simply cannot find a satisfactory
    alternative to what I have now, though I think you are right that what
    I have should be revised. I’m still thinking about “Old Trees”, too,
    and an alternative for the “growing o’s” of that poem is even harder
    to find, perhaps because I wrote the whole poem around that image,
    of which I was so sure…I am not worried about “DP”, only about
    “Old Trees”, which I very much wanted to use in my revised book–
    which I would very much like to type and ship out. And so I hope
    for a solution soon.

    Please let me know you responses to the enclosed. I am
    glad you have liked these things, and even gladder that you have
    managed to write to me about them so quickly after you
    received them. Thanks for everything,
    Wes

    P.S. – I have decided to send the revised manuscript to : Harper & Row,
    Houghton Mifflin (if they approve of a “sampler” of my poems which
    I submitted earlier), Wesleyan and The Walt Whitman Award contest.
    I am also beginning to think that since “Hair on Television”,
    “The Thin Man” and “The Bald Spot” – all of which contain
    humor and have a ^more or less “pop” feel – will introduce the revised
    book (along with “for my Father”), the two porno/pop
    poems, feel more appropriate now. So I may include them after all!
    As I see it now, there are many poems which are like
    “The Little Lonely Comic [?]” and “The Characters of Forgotten Dirty Jokes”,
    even though they (the other poems) are not dirty. There are the
    three I’ve mentioned, especially “Hair on Television,” and there
    are others, such as, “The Thugs of Old Comics,” “The
    Poetic License,” “Rufus Porter by Himself” and “Thinking
    about Carrevale’s Wife.”

    HAIR ON TELEVISION

    On the soap opera the doctor
    explains to the young woman with cancer
    that each day is beautiful.

    Hair lifts from their heads
    like clouds, like something to eat.

    It is the hair of the married couple
    getting in touch with their real feelings for the first time
    on the talk show,

    the hair of young people on the beach
    drinking Cokes and falling in love.

    And the man who took laxative and waters his garden
    next day with the hose wears the hair

    so dark and wavy even his grandchildren are amazed
    and the woman who never dreamed tampons
    could be so convenient wears it.

    For the hair is changing people’s lives.
    It is growing like wheat above the faces

    of game show contestants opening the doors
    of new convertibles, of prominent businessmen opening
    their hearts to Christ, and it is growing

    straight back from the foreheads of vitamin experts,
    detergent and dog food experts helping ordinary housewives discover

    how to be healthier, get clothes cleaner and serve
    dogs meals they love in the hair.

    And over and over on television the housewives,
    and the news teams bringing all the news faster
    and faster, and the new breed of cops winning the fight
    against crime, are smiling, pleased to be at their best,

    proud to be among the literally millions of Americans everywhere
    who have tried the hair, compared the hair and will never go back
    to life before the active, the caring, the successful, the incredible hair.

    THE THIN MAN

    Once in a mirror
    as it folded hair
    back from its face

    he discovered his eyes
    earnest, lonely.
    This was the beginning

    of his life
    inside the body,
    of standing deep in the legs

    of it,
    held
    in its elbowless arms.

    And when it walked
    he walked,
    and when it slept

    he dreamed of drowning
    under its lakes
    of skin.

    Oh the thin man
    trying to get out
    learned of its great

    locked breasts,
    its seamless chin,
    the dead ends

    of its hands.
    And oh the heavy body
    took him

    to tables
    of food,
    and took him down

    into the groaning
    carnal bed.
    The pitiless body took him

    to a mirror
    which showed
    the eyes

    in a face
    immense and dying,
    who he was.


    A note from McNair about this letter: The letter moves from typescript to longhand because everyone in the house is in bed and I didn’t want to wake them with my noisy electric typewriter…. The two poems I tell Don I’m “stuck” on, namely “Old Trees” and Driving Poem,” I don’t complete until months later, the first on February 23, 1980, the second, re-conceived as “Trees That Pass Us in Our Cars,” on November 12, 1980. The published versions of these poems are available below, together with other poems I mention in this letter.

    Read Old Trees (published version)

    Read Trees That Pass Us in Our Cars (published version)

     Read The Bald Spot (published version)

    Read Hearing that My Father Died in a Supermarket (published version)

    Read The Thugs of Old Comics (published version)

    Read The Poetic License (published version)

    Read Rufus Porter by Himself (published version)

    Read Thinking About Carnevale’s Wife (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: October 4, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-10-04-1979

    [Click image to view]

    4 October 1979

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    No. Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I really love the new poems – as I tend to love everything that
    you do, occasionally with one or two words to disagree about. I think
    that “The Thin Man” and “Hair on Television” are wonderful. “Hair on
    Television” will always be visually ugly, to me, and probably to some
    few other finicky people – but not to many. And for me, of course, the
    wonderfulness of it otherwise is compensatory. I mentioned before that
    Bly’s disquisitions on hair are obviously going to occur to anybody
    who reads the poem, who is au courant. I say this because I suspect that it will
    be irritatingly true that magazine editors will object to that. But I
    could be wrong about that too.

    How about sending over some Fair Copies for Joey to send out?
    You can send them to me, because I see him practically every day. He
    is back from the VA hospital now, and I cannot see that the operation made
    much difference…

    But I mentioned this before, and it is probably wise to wait until
    you are satisfied with the other two, in order to have a bunch of four to
    send out.

    Your remarks about the revised manuscripts, and where you are sending
    it, sound just fine. I hope that there will be reason to withdraw your
    manuscript from various Wesleyans and Award contests… But there is not
    yet, and there may – we have to say this, of course – never be.

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

     

  • McNair to Hall: October 5, 1979 (1)

    McNair-to-Hall-10-05-1979

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    October 5, 1979

    Dear Joey –

    Will you please tell Don to send out
    the 2 poems which are ready – ie.
    ‘Hair on Television” and “The Thin Man” –
    preferably to the New Yorker?

    All the best,

    Wes


     

  • McNair to Hall: October 5, 1979 (2)

    McNair-to-Hall-10-05-1979

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    October 5, 1979

    Dear Don –

    This is a copy of the revised book. I am about to
    submit it to Dartmouth College for further
    duplication. I do hope you like it.

    You may be interested that I will be sending
    the revised book to Wesleyan and to the
    Walt Whitman Award contest. And of course
    I will be sending you another copy for submission
    at Harper and Row, still my most hoped for
    GM. (if you think the submission should be
    made right away, please pass on your copy –
    the enclosed.)

    Please let me know what you think of this –

    Best from Diane & me,

    Wes

    P.S. Our slide show & dinner is coming soon!
    more about this later.


    A note from McNair about this letter: The slide show and dinner I promise to Don and Jane took place in mid-fall, featuring a Spanish dish Diane cooked, paella, together with her slide photographs of our year in Chile.

  • McNair to Hall: October 9, 1979

    McNair-to-Hall-10-09-1979

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    October 9, 1979

    Dear Donald –

    I have the most wonderful news : I just
    received word from Senator Durkin’s office in Washington
    that (while official word is yet forthcoming) I have
    won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
    for Creative Writers. The Fellowship is for $10,000
    and should free up a bit of time for writing and
    travel.

    It is an award that is given (as you may know)
    for “quality of writing.” The judges, many of whom
    are poets, review I guess hundreds of submissions
    in poetry – each submission is 15 pages in length.
    I sent them no golden oldies – all the poems
    were quite recent – and this makes me feel
    even better about getting the award…makes me
    feel, that is, that newer stuff is as reliable
    as the better examples of the old.

    I am writing this letter somewhere in outer
    space. It is all floaty and nice up here.
    It is just great to know others think you can
    write!

    Weightlessly,

    Wes


  • Hall to McNair: October 12, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-10-12-1979

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    12 October 1979

    Wes McNair
    Dept. of English
    Colby-Sawyer College
    New London, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    It is kind of maddening of me to admit this, but I cannot stop
    from doing it: I have known that glorious secret for about two
    months. But I was sworn to secrecy (which I will retain) and I
    like to be somebody you can count on. I was bursting to tell
    you, but I had promised that I would not tell you. But it was a
    great pleasure for me, to hold that inside, and to think that you
    would be hearing about it one of these days. The person who was
    the chairman of that committee, which gave you the award, the
    chairman of the literature committee of the NEA, or something like
    that was…Frances McCullough! You might say, your fellowship is
    not a bad sign in coming (partly) from an editor as well as from
    other poets.

    I know those fellowships well, and most of my friends – the
    older ones, that is – have had one. Jane tried this year, and
    apparently did not. I tried years ago, twice in a row, and got
    turned down. But back then they were only worth three or four
    thousand dollars anyway. What are you going to do? My only, very
    faint
    distaste about all this is that I bet you will be off next
    autumn, when I am teaching. Well, I cannot complain. I’m absolutely
    delighted, and I hope that you translate those dollars into poems,
    with a little leisure, time to read, time to take walks – such as
    you have never had, or not for twenty years or so. I’m really so
    happy for you I cannot tell you.

    Joey has the word. Actually, there are some poems at the New
    Yorker right now. The New Yorker saw a few last spring, and by the
    time they had decided not to take them, it was too late to send them
    other ones – so they had to wait until this autumn. Joey will hold
    [Written in margin: i.e. they close down all summer for poems]
    onto these until he hears from The New Yorker about the ones that
    The New Yorker already has. And by the way, Joey just made his second
    sale to that magazine.

    Joey needed fair copies of the two poems because he doesn’t
    like to steal Donald’s. And Donald’s, as a matter of fact, were residing
    together with your letter in a box which will achieve the immortality
    of files at the University of New Hampshire.

    Joey says send no stamps, he will just keep ten per cent, like
    all the other agents.

    The Bly poem is one of his best known, from his best known book,
    Sleepers Joining Hands. I assumed you would know it.

    2/

    I have not had time to read the new manuscript. In the last
    few days, I have mailed a two-thousand word article to The Nation,
    a book review; a treatment of “film” for a textbook; and a three-
    thousand word article on Robert Giroux for the New York Times Book
    Review. I have finished drafting six thousand words for Country Journal,
    twenty-thousand words of an Appendix for a textbook, and a three-thousand
    word introduction to the textbook… I have been writing twenty to
    thirty pages a day, and revising earlier draft on the same days. And
    next week I go away for five days, four reading in four nights. Life
    is full, you might say.

    I would like to keep this copy. Why don’t you send a copy
    – after it returns from Dartmouth College, further duplicated – to
    Fran McCullough at Harper & Row, telling her you have added a
    bit and updated a bit. …And asking her how she likes the changes.
    She is, by the way, a very clever intuitive editor for such things.
    She helped me quite a bit with the structure of Kicking the Leaves.
    I say “intuitive” because she finds it hard to tell why she thinks
    what she thinks. But once she really thinks something, one does
    well to pay attention.

    I really look forward to reading the revision, and new poems,
    and everything…but the thing I look forward to the most is your time
    off from teaching because of this new fellowship!

    Love as ever,

    Don


  • Hall to McNair: November 16, 1979

    Hall-to-McNair-11-16-1979

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    16 November 1979

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Lovely to read all about you, in the Argus. In the
    same issue, it said that Denise was reading her poems tomorrow
    night, the 17th.* I cannot believe that she is reading Saturday
    night – especially since the Cochrans have invited us for supper
    that night. If you ever know of such things happening in the
    future, please do let us know. I think that maybe in our absence
    a bulletin has arrived and been overlooked.

    We just took a ten-day cruise. Did I tell you that?

    Anyway, I am delighted. Which term are you going to
    take off next year?

    I talked to Fran yesterday. She is not hopeful about
    any early moves – so I am really glad that you are sending out
    elsewhere. Nothing sinister in this. It is just that another
    editor (Ted Solataroff) has gotten away with signing up a good
    number of non-money-making books, which tends to mean that the
    powers that be will be sour on taking on more, just yet.

    The readings are going well. I am having tons and tons
    of them. I think it is a combination of Remembering Poets, Kicking
    the Leaves
    , and Writing Well – since a lot of places where I go
    seem to be using Writing Well.

    Love as ever,

    Don

    *[Written note on bottom: I telephoned. The 27th — & I will
    be in Arizona, damn.
    But Jane will come to the reading!]


    A note from McNair about this letter: The Argus is the Argus Champion, Newport, New Hampshire’s weekly newspaper, which ran a front-page story about my NEA fellowship. Denise is the poet Denise Levertov, who was to appear at Colby-Sawyer College… Fran is Fran McCullough, of Harper & Row, to whom Don sent my manuscript of poems in progress… Don’s footnote refers to the poetry reading I am scheduled to give on November 27 at Colby-Sawyer. As this section of the letters ends, we are both in high spirits, buoyed by the prospects our writing has provided us.