“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” – Lord Byron
When I was 19 and in college – the first time – I had an amazing English professor. I attended a small community college in northern Illinois and was amazed that a professor as knowledgeable, enthusiastic and invigorating ended up there. Far too few teachers are as unique, talented and amazing as Keith Severns. The man had energy, and not simply of the physical variety. His passion for literature, writing and poetry exuded through his being and burst from him with amazing velocity. He would shoot across the classroom and his speed intensified with the enthusiasm of his students… unfortunately, in this smallish former farming community, many students simply thought he was a bit mad… but, not surprisingly, I saw his greatness and appreciated his madness. Madness seeks madness, after all.
I remember reading Catch 22 in his class and as usual, was assigned to write an essay. For some reason, a traditional essay didn’t come to me for that particular reading. I pondered and decided to essentially write a play and placed the lead character, Yossarian, on trial. A week later, Keith returned my graded assignment with the most interesting note I have ever received with a grade. I still have this assignment and always will, but I can remember the note by memory, “Despite the greatness I see within this paper, other members of the Academy would have graded this accordingly. See me with questions.” Next to which was my grade – A+.
As many a manic professor, Keith drank coffee from morning until night and smoked at every opportunity. I am of an age when smoking was not prohibited inside and we had a coffeehouse attached to the cafeteria. It was a separate room with glass windows that you couldn’t actually see inside through the smoke cloud within. It was a special place where there was always laughter – I frequented it myself. In between classes, I spied Keith sitting down with his coffee and asked him if he had a moment. He motioned with his hand to have me sit across from him, and I did. I asked him what his comments really meant. Keith, being a lover of words, didn’t speak with more than required in personal conversations… quite purposely. All he said to me was this: “Do you know that many of the greatest writers kept journals? They wrote in them every single day without fail. You must express what comes to you.”… I paused, didn’t get it right away, but then asked about the Academy business… he replied, “I assigned an essay.”
I forget if it was before his class or after, but it was within months of it, I wrote my first honest poem. What I mean is, I wrote what came to me, rather than something forced. It hit me leaving class one morning, walking through the car park. It was fall and the first hard frost of the season, crisp and chilly out. My foot stepped on the grass from the curb and it crunched distinctly, and words began floating within me and oozing from my head. I opened my car door, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote every word. I felt quite inebriated… and free. It was an ethereal experience which I have had many times over, but as they say, you never forget the first time.
Since that conversation with Keith, I have always kept a journal. I’m not very good about the daily ritual, but I keep one. It occurred to me the other week that I should blog more than my poetry in this space, to write more here and more frequently. This is what brings me here, repeatedly, for a week thus far. And my need to explore, write and share is what will continue to bring me back.