On Terry Plunkett and the Art of the Schmooze
Terry Plunkett, for nearly 30 years, was part of the English faculty at the University of Maine at Augusta. In that time, he was also co-editor of Kennebec: A Portfolio of Maine Writing. Some years after he died in 1998, the Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival was established in his honor.
I first met Terry in 1989, when he published my short story, “Zelda,” in that year’s issue of Kennebec. Not only did he select it, but he telephoned me one evening to warn me: it was to be the cover story. Later that spring, he asked me to address a meeting of his creative writing class, which he held at his home in Hallowell. We had Chinese food for dinner beforehand, and had a curious conversation about Catholic girls and shiny shoes. I remember distinctly his first question to me in front of his class: “Why did you decide to start a story with sex?” Well, what better hook is there? I remember, an over-awed 23, being a bit nonplussed. But the question, I was to learn, was a true Terry Plunkett question. (In the ensuing years, Terry also selected some of my poetry and a photograph for other issues of Kennebec.)
One weekend this past month, my poet friend Lisa Ericson and I attended the 8th annual Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival together. We went for the companionship, meeting well before the programming began, so that we could share and comment on our recent work. That, I thought, would be the high point for me: I find Lisa’s comments helpful and insightful–she always sees those flaws in my work which I know and refuse to admit are there. We agreed, too, that we both would read at the open mic in the afternoon, one right after the other, to shore each other up.
The program, however, was more than a bit interesting to me. I knew that Dawn Potter, a poet and essayist I am privileged to call friend (and whose son plays baseball against mine), would be reading at 2. Other names, too, leapt off the page at me: Mark Melnicove, who was the director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance when I first joined in 1980, when I was 15, and who in later years would allow me to review books for Maine In Print. Gary Lawless, who opened Gulf of Maine Books next to the river in Brunswick when I was a kid, and who hasn’t changed a whit since then. Alice Persons, the beautiful, wonderful and insightful publisher of Moon Pie Press, who took a chance on my first chapbook, The Church of St. Materiana (always love and thanks, Alice!). Robin Merrill, whom I hadn’t seen since our graduate school days, but who always gives a sharp and witty performance: no mere reading for that woman, oh, no. And Ted Bookey, who has published several books, writes wry and dry poetry, and who, with his poet wife Ruth, curates a poetry reading series at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell.
At lunch Lisa were joined by Patricia Goodspeed of Jefferson, who had never attended the festival before, and who seemed a bit overawed. That’s when I realized how far I seem to have insinuated myself into the writing community here in Maine: I pointed people out to her, and told her she needed to schmooze. I even gave her tips on putting chairs away at the Harlow Gallery, something I did for years in the hopes that the Bookeys would notice me and invite me to read there.
Nice. Advice on the art of the schmooze from me, a basically shy person. Still, as I was talking to Trish, I began to think of one of the biggest lessons I took away from my years at the Stonecoast MFA, especially the semester I spent under the tutelage of Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Dahling, she would tell me in her husky voice, wrapping her floor-length fur coat around my shoulders, you must learn to schmooze. You must learn. You will get nowhere unless you learn. Laure-Anneke is the queen of schmooze: she knows everyone, and everyone knows her. She once told me the story of her coming to the U. S. after a successful writing and television career in Belgium: she was in love with two things, the English language and the poet Kurt Brown…and now she has published several books in English, and is married to the poet Kurt Brown. Does one argue with a person who arranges the world to her satisfaction just like that? No.
So I’ve been practicing the art of the schmooze over the past several years. In the breaks between readings and panels at the Plunkett Festival, I made the rounds as best I could, speaking to as many people as time allowed. I was pleased to see Peter Manuel there, as hyper-caffeinated as ever; Peter and I were together at Stonecoast, and he lined me up with a reading gig at Geno’s in Portland when he was still curating at that venue. I sat next to David Moreau, whom I met through Baron Wormser, my thesis advisor and the former poet laureate of Maine; we had a laugh about a reading Jack Wiler did in Hallowell during a blizzard, where David, Baron and I were the only attendees–we really should have not driven home that night, for sure.
How did I get here, I wondered. I know these people. I realize that I have taken Laure-Anne’s message to heart. I know these people because I want to be one of them. I want to read and hear their work. I want them to read and hear mine. I know these people, after years of sending out, getting rejected, then getting accepted; after years of taking chairs out of closets and then putting them back again; after years of walking up to them and telling them how much I liked this poem, or that one. I know them, and I’ve grown to love some of them.
All this because of Terry Plunkett, who inadvertently started me down the path of schmoozing. I am at home in this Maine writing community and am grateful. Thanks, Terry.