Last night, the Nyack English department spearheaded by Brad McDuffie hosted a poetry reading with Donald Junkins in “Dead” Presidents Hall in Shuman (I say “dead” because most of the men in the portraits are dead, also in honor of Dr. Beach, who always refers to it as Dead Presidents Hall). In lieu of having our 6-9 fiction writing class with McDuffie, we were invited to trek up the hill to Shuman to listen to Junkins’ poetry and wisdom.
I loved his poems and the way he presented them, but I think my favorite thing about the night were the diversions. Every so often, he would trail off in the middle of a line to explain it, and by way of explanation tell stories of his life. He talked about life in the thirties as a small child, fishing in Maine with his sons, studying with Anne Sexton under Robert Frost, traveling to California with Robert Kennedy before he was assassinated.
I love listening to men and women of his generation speak. They have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that only comes through life experiences. Listening to a person in their eighties or nineties talk, I feel like the recipient of a grand tradition–like there’s something bigger in the world going on, something time honored and unique, something that I’ve been given to explore and fulfill. It’s like destiny manifests itself in the wisdom of our predecessors. Especially in today’s society that places value and emphasis on youth and physical beauty, we need to remember that the younger you are, the less you know. Age deserves respect. The good don’t die young; the fools do. Wise men live to be great-grandfathers.
So I had one question for Donald Junkins after the reading, one thought burning a hole in my mind. I waited while he signed copies of his book until finally I reached the front. I started out by saying, “I don’t have anything for you to sign because I can’t afford to buy one of your books, but if I did have money I would because I really enjoyed listening–” I got cut off. He reached back to his podium and grabbed one of his books that he’d read from, “The Cleveland Avenue Poems.” The dedication that he wrote on the cover reads: To Maggie, who was here, from Donald Junkins. It was possibly one of the nicest things someone has done for me without knowing me at all. After this exchange, I proceeded to ask him my question. “I’m a writer,” I said, “or at least I pretend to be. I want to make writing my profession. Do you have any advice?”
I wish I could remember word for word what he said, but basically it boiled down to, “Pursue it. You can make writing a profession. You might have to get a job as an assistant writer somewhere, but you can make writing a profession. Sometimes it’s scary because it’s not the most stable job, but you can do it if you pursue it.” He also told me twice to talk to Professor McDuffie. “Talk to Brad,” he said. “He can help you.” (Yes, McDuffie, that means I will likely be bothering you over the next four semesters while I’m here).
Then, a bit later, while I was discussing my independent study for next semester with D. Beach, Junkins came back to me. “You said your name was Maggie, right?” “Yes…?” “I have something else for you.”
I followed him back to his pile of books and notes that he’d read from. He had a two-page excerpt from his novel typed out on computer paper, as well as a list of the poems he planned on reading. He signed them both and gave them to me, reaffirming that if I pursue it, I can succeed as a writer.
I left that reading feeling more validated as a writer and more confident about my future than I ever have.