“I wound up taking several of his workshops, eventually doing an MA with him and, in the process, learned how to focus intently on details in my writing, to not be satisfied with easy poems, but to work and rework each piece. And I learned why reading widely, carefully, and deeply is so important (‘Read your opposites,’ he’d say in class). More than a teacher, he became, in time, a friend, role-model and, as my writing developed, my ‘implied listener,’ as he called the imagined auditor every writer has.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—November 2019—The call came at four in the morning, Greek time—suddenly, in my ear, the voice of Tom, a friend, fellow poet, and former classmate: “Sorry to wake you, Don, but I’m sure you’d want to know: Dennis died.”
Stunned, I lay in bed, discussed the call briefly with my companion lying beside me, then tried to go back to sleep, but only managed to toss and turn until sunrise, lines from his poems that I know so well wafting through my mind:
in a brief release of water from a woman’s
body I came,
crimped & spare sailor, cracked perhaps
a little with salt, wet
with too much swimming….
& elemental sorrow : we weep
for our strangeness….
(from “Poem for my Birthday”)
where I lived the river
lay like a blue wrist
between the bluffs & the islands
were tiny unctions of green, where
every morning the horses outside
my house woke the sun & their breath
was like wet foliage
in the cool air….
…how I reached speech
through a series
of dahs, made my face
a welt on the five senses…
(from “Making a Door”)
Later in the day, texts and emails started coming in from friends and other writers in California: “It happened in the middle of the night,” one said, “He died peacefully.” Another wrote that she’d talked to one of his daughters, who affirmed that his death was unexpected. He would never let anyone see drafts of his poems, his daughter had said, but it seems that he had left several “lying around.” A day later, a more formal email came from his oldest son: “I wanted to let you know that my father passed from this world early Thursday morning [September 12] in his sleep, at the age of 82. . . . Obviously, we are devastated. His brilliant mind, his humor, his voracious appetite for literature and poetry, his moral compass, his hook shot—what a loss for the world.”
A great loss indeed. Dennis was, over the almost 50 years I’ve known him, a friend, mentor and much more. I can’t even begin to account for how much I owe him. And now he’s gone. I’m left with a huge void in my inner life, and the question: How does one say good-bye to such a man? How does one fill the void?
I’d had a couple other mentors at Sac State in the early 70s, both much more flamboyant than Dennis—one the black sheep of the history department (I did a year of graduate work with him), the other an openly gay, toupee-wearing, classicist. Dennis was as unassuming as they were outrageous. At one time, their outlaw status appealed to me, giving me license to break through the layers of inhibitions inflicted on me during my school years under the thumbs of Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy. And it was, after all, the 70s.
By my mid-twenties, though, I was searching for something more meaningful. So, in the fall of 75, I left the history program and started working on a second BA, this time in literature, focusing on myth criticism, an approach that emphasizes the creative process. In class after class back then, we discussed how, by engaging in that process, a writer could not only tap into archetypal motifs that underlie all stories and poems, but also cultivate self-awareness. Soon, for me, it wasn’t enough to just talk about the creative process. I wanted to walk the walk. I wanted to write.
So, one day I shyly knocked on Professor Schmitz’ office door, a sheaf of poems in my hand. To my surprise, he took me and my poems seriously. I wound up taking several of his workshops, eventually doing an MA with him and, in the process, learned how to focus intently on details in my writing, to not be satisfied with easy poems, but to work and rework each piece. And I learned why reading widely, carefully, and deeply is so important (“Read your opposites,” he’d say in class). More than a teacher, he became, in time, a friend, role-model and, as my writing developed, my “implied listener,” as he called the imagined auditor every writer has.
He seemed so different from my other teachers, another outlier, but a different breed altogether—quiet, calm, indirect, semi-detached from everything going on around him. He rode a bike; didn’t even own a car. When he talked to students outside of class, he was friendly but always slightly distant, responding with a simple, “yeah,” or at most, “well, yeah.” He loved irony and wordplay. For every pun he tossed out, the sparkle in his eye and his half-grin showed that he had a dozen more he could follow up with. Eager to please, we grad students delighted when his “he-he-he” laugh or his chuckling “Right” came out in response to one of our comments or observations. I can still hear his, “Exactly,” “You bet,” or his vaguely startled, “No kidding.” And there was the humble, half-shy way he’d look down before he spoke, sometimes ending a comment with a fleeting, direct look of approval or doubt. When he read his own poems, his voice was subdued, almost mumbling, as if he were reading with that internal voice that was, as he taught us, the voice of a poem on the page.
In the three years I studied with him at Sac State, we played basketball together once or twice a week. And, in my last year, we were part of a group of faculty, staff, and a couple grad students who played poker once a month, all of us sitting around Dr. Sturtevant’s big dining room table, smoking joints and drinking beer, wine, or scotch—all except Dennis, who’d nurse a cola all evening.
I visited him at his home now and then, and even house-sat a couple times when he and his family went away. He happened to live almost directly behind my stepmother’s house, both dwellings having been built a short time after World War Two, with the same floor plan, etc. The house on 56th Street, the one my father moved into when he married my stepmother in 1956 (I moved in a year later), was always spic and span (a phrase my stepmother loved) and insistently quiet, decorated throughout with doilies, souvenir-plates, and tall bottles of colored water. In contrast, the Schmitz house on 57th was noisy, disheveled (but never dirty), with sturdy furniture and few decorations, mostly family photos. Where Nora, my stepmother, was severe, Loretta, Dennis’ Italian-American wife, was warm and talkative. And where my father was detached and all too willing to send me off to an institution or foster home when my stepmother would announce, as she did every year or so, that she’d had enough of me, Dennis was clearly devoted to his wife and ever-growing family. “Though I’m off by myself when I write,” he said in an interview a few years ago, “I’m with my family. Whom could I love more?”
I left 56th Street at 17 and never once thought of moving back. But that house one block away was, to me, always inviting and, more importantly, full of a poet’s secrets, ones I wanted to ferret out. So, while house-sitting, I’d press my face against the window of that little room in the garage Dennis had converted into a writing space, hoping to glimpse some detail that would reveal something of his innermost life. For that same reason, I’d thumb through the books and periodicals on the living room shelves and closely examine the family photos on the walls, mantle, and end-tables. Though I never found any secrets, I did get closer to Dennis. By the time I graduated, he had become, consciously or not, the father I never had. In contrast to my own father, he cared about what I had to say. Though tethered to his own inner life, Dennis knew how to encourage me. He was always honest about my writing, and everything else for that matter (how many times had my own father lied to me?), and always made it clear that he appreciated the quality of my mind (while my real father refused even to sign for a government loan so I could start junior college). Through Dennis’ tutelage, I completed an MA in English, went on to do an MFA with Richard Hugo at the University of Montana, and, in 1980, with his subtle encouragement, made an even bigger leap. I moved to Greece.
Living on another continent, struggling to find my way in my adopted homeland, I continued to share my news with him, still looking for his approval and of course still sending him poems. In rereading his letters now, I have to smile yet again at the fact that, until a few years ago, he composed all his correspondence on an old, cast-iron typewriter, the same one he used to write his poems. I still have his first email to me, from May 2013, in which he declares, “Now using Internet: We have broken through . . . to the 20th century.” And in a later note he explained, “The computer is for letters and laying out manuscripts (many of those, I hope), not actual writing—I [don’t] think my old typer can be replaced.”
Looking through almost 40 years of correspondence, I’m amazed at how consistent he was in the concerns he shared. Naturally, he changed over time, especially after his retirement in 1999, steadily becoming less ironic, more relaxed, more direct emotionally. Besides responding to my news and the poems I’d send, his letters would usually talk about family (Loretta and the five children and, later, the children’s spouses and their ten children), the constant flow of visitors, trips he and Loretta had taken (hiking along the Pacific coast, seeing relatives in the Midwest and on the East Coast, occasional trips farther afield); “Sac Talk” (i.e., what was going on at Sac State); how burdensome his university responsibilities were and, once he retired, how free he felt; playing basketball and following the NBA; home modifications and, in more recent years, moving house; and how he felt about illness, aging and, in his last few letters, the loss of his wife of over 50 years.
His letters are so rich in insight, so filled with humor and wry comments that I’m sure Dennis would forgive me for sharing a few passages here. It’s the best way I know of showing the kind of person he was:
“The twins [grandchildren whose parents live in the Bay Area] have started all the 3-4-mos-old stuff—rolling over but not heeling, barking but no teeth to bite with. Our almost-new car is less new by thousands of miles it seems. L [Loretta] & I are less-new as well.”
On hosting relatives and friends:
“L and I have out-hosted ourselves.”
“[M]any overnight guests (Napa & Bay Area grandkids) throughout the season, many days of over-eating. But here we are, survivors . . . .”
“[We went to] beaches that L & I hadn’t visited (Ft-Bragg and Mendocino areas) since the sea first made them.”
Going to a grandchild’s christening in Chicago: “. . . I would have preferred a warmer location, but Loretta & I remembered, though our bodies didn’t, the long-ago days when we lived through winters there.”
Attending his 50-year college reunion in Iowa:
“Who are these old people—I knew a few.”
“We loved our time in London . . . . We liked the human scale of things—buildings, amusements, the daily pleasures of the stroll among what turned out to be literary references.”
“We’ll try to do a week away per month this summer to acclimate ourselves to the heady retirement commitment.”
“It’s nice, for oneself, not to go to school. I’m on campus almost daily, using the gym showers, using the library & (classes started Monday) checking classrooms to see that everyone is doing his/her job. I haven’t reported anyone, but I remain a threat.”
“Hooray for retirement—I’ve been at it so long that I don’t remember what I retired from . . . .”
“Bless [your] retirement—you will love it as it will love you because poet-folk must live that way.”
On illness and aging:
“Getting old . . . means more of wanting what used to be, I guess, and what works for me.”
“The flu is good for runs of reading, books that one puts aside—they’re a kind of medication, I suppose. So one doesn’t feel guilty about dozing between pages.”
“. . . & so we have to treat ourselves with tenderness. We spill a little of ourselves as we walk, older but more aware.”
On the move to Half-Moon Bay in 2007 and to Oakland in 2014:
“[In Half Moon Bay] I bike every morning on a long asphalt trail above the beach—for about an hour—saying that I’m exercising when I’m really being a beach-bum, taking in the scenery, soaking up the air.”
“I’m nosing around [Oakland] neighborhoods by bike.”
“The move has changed us again, or, maybe even ‘back again’ because it’s interesting to live in a city again—so many of my spiritual references are to Chicago, & Oakland has that feel.”
On playing and watching basketball:
“[At the beginning of a new school year, playing in the Sac State gym, there’s always a] fresh lot of suckers-for-a-hook-shot.”
“I’m watching every Warriors game that I can because I know that this team is once in a lifetime. There’s a good sports-bar almost across the street, where I can nurse a diet Coke all night. My version of a continual Thai massage.”
“My NCAA pool has been drained, but I never guess right anyway.”
On having/not having a car:
“[It’s] hard to believe now that out of principle—I guess—we owned no car for the first 18 years [in Sacramento].”
“I did tell you that I gave up my car (I didn’t use it much—I prefer bike & BART & traveling by foot—to son Matt as a second vehicle?”
“I seem to be driving more now that I don’t own a car.”
On attending the AWP writers’ conference:
“12,000—who are all those writers, writing program academics & spear-carriers? Why doesn’t one just give up all hope when most of these thousands of writing-connected people probably read only themselves? Grumble, grumble.”
“The scale of AWP is inhumanly inhuman.”
“I had a great time at [the 2018 AWP conference in] Portland—no rush, lots of chat.”
On writing letters:
“It’s been so long since I’ve written that you may not remember the name, but after I start chattering, you’ll remember the tone.
“Thanx for your letter & poems—they arrived somewhat tattered—the Post Office machines attacked, but did not destroy because art is eternal.”
On my job troubles:
“You had the vision, you carried the bucket.”
“Your various vacation plans & activities, especially the two weeks away even as I write this letter (eating my lonely sandwich, drinking my humble water), seem just the restorative potion to make you invulnerable during the upcoming school period?”
Response to my relationship break-ups:
“How painful and soul-wearing—seven years . . . . You are strong but alone is hard.”
“[I]s intimacy ever easy? How does one explain oneself even to oneself?
Reaction to news of my doing a poetry reading in Greek:
“. . . your reading in Greek, with the audience reaction, must have carried you for days—along with a certain puzzlement at your own identity.”
On reading books:
I re-read Herodotus not so long ago as part of my old-age re-evaluation of books I read years ago . . . . Re-reading him brought back the then-Dennis. This time around I brought something else to him, but still I enjoyed most the rag-bag nature of the collection.”
Response to one of my books coming out:
“Your book is so handsome, so weighty in the hand, so real now. . . . I had read the manuscript several times & saw individual poems when you sent them, but a book is a book. How can anyone doubt the reading experience of a book in hand?
On writing poems:
“Some poetry in my life, a scribble here & there, poems out in some magazines, but I’m mostly doing errands.”
“Do we write to become ourselves or to become nobody else? We write for friends—who else has the taste & patience?”
“I’m coming to think it’s all in the delivery.”
On the importance of Greece for me as a writer:
“Your time there has given you a geography, not decor, not easy exoticism, but a voice out of its own place.”
“Your poems have opportunities now that poets here don’t get—a simple connection of where you live and the necessary ability to experience it in language. I think you should make even more of it—it’s your territory the way Detroit is Levine’s . . . . More Athens poems?”
“You must be pleased to have to put all that much of a life together [in Flow of Wonder], ordered it but left it so that the contents keep flowing. You’ve got Greece & Calif & every thing between.”
On attending the one-year memorial of his wife’s death:
“I felt pleasures & pain walking the same beaches & town areas. Arcata is a constant—the unchanging cultural distinctions—the college kids looked just like their 60s fathers & mothers & grandparents. That’s the delight.”
From his last letter, commenting on my reading at Solano College that he attended:
“Yes! The new Don—the name has gravitas & a sort of trick of the tongue.”
As a spiritual-father, Dennis brought solidity and continuity to my life and writing. He knew my work better than anyone, and wrote the kind of poems, more precisely, the quality of poems, that to this day I aspire to. He was—and still is—my “implied listener.”
Moreover, through his example, he showed me a different way to live, by which I mean a way to live as a poet: focusing on the particulars of the world around me while cultivating a rich and varied interior life, writing every day, reading widely and deeply, trusting process and appreciating the importance of play and discovery. Without him I never would have listened to the child inside me, never trusted myself enough to give that part of my inner self free rein when I sit down to write, never would’ve appreciated how essential to self-expression quietude is, how that duality—coming forth while turning inward—is what writing is all about, at least the kind of writing I’m interested in. Still more significantly, without his encouragement, I never would have taken the two biggest leaps in my life: first, dedicating myself to writing and, second, moving to Greece. The two, as Dennis helped me understand, are deeply intertwined.
Doing this, looking over the years of our relationship and laying out the ways he helped make me who I am today, I can feel the void he left shrink slightly.
Also, going back to his poems makes the weight of his absence a bit lighter. In his writing, image, metaphor and musical expressiveness are all-important. His poetry is rooted in the quotidian, the mundane, drawing from them the transcendent, sublime and redemptive. Steeped in compassion, with powerful emotional moments that the mind, wending its way through compacted metaphors and precise musical riffs, can inhabit, his poems have the depth and solidity of work that lasts. Still offering continuity, even after he’s gone, he writes in “Elms,” the last poem in his last collection, Animism, “What used to be is knotted / in the roots of what is . . . .”
There’s yet one more way I can continue to feel Dennis’ presence: to write. As I mentioned above, when I compose poems, he’s my implied listener, always has been. That won’t change, even if in my heart and mind his visage has acquired a slightly darker aura. The more I write, the more I’ll feel him there, making the emptiness left in the wake of his parting not quite so vast. So, let me conclude by offering a poem to him, my most recent—not a good-bye, but a gesture acknowledging our continuing relationship, its new dynamic. I have no doubt he’s close by, listening:
For Dennis Schmitz, 1937-2019
I keep seeing him in dreams
walking the edge of an Iowa cornfield
or sitting on a rain-slicked curb
in Chicago, the look on his face as if waiting
for the irony to hit. Sometimes I see
a slow creek heading west,
hear the sound of vowels cascading
down the page in a cold garage, his cast-
iron typewriter clacking, ribbon rising
like that stream in winter when each letter hits,
the words he worked to the bone
no better than the dahs at the tip of his tongue.
When the amniotic fluid breaks,
he knew, the body becomes a cage,
a trap. What lasts is that fossil we call
the soul, and the grind of aging joints
impersonal as rocks scattered in a field.
He’s cut but not cut down, happy to be
part elm, part oak and pine, happier still
to be sleeping in the body of the boy he was
those long, slow, summer mornings.
How to fill that void when what I feel
for him, mentor and friend, smolders
in every cell of my body?
Sometimes what’s intimate, he wrote,
only means there’s no elsewhere.
But what’s here is what is missing—
round head, short hair, sharp eyes. No elsewhere.
Riding his bike, shooting his hook. No elsewhere.
Quiet laugh, quick puns. No elsewhere.
He left drafts of poems scattered throughout
his house that last night he tucked his bones
to bed, still balancing on a ladder of humans,
I imagine, waiting for the irony to hit.
Or maybe he was gazing at motes of dust
drifting between shifting truths, playing
with prisms of light in tall beveled windows.
Author’s Note: “Poem for My Birthday” and “Eclogues” are from We Weep for Our Strangeness (Big Table Publishing Company, 1969); “Making a Door” is from String (The Ecco Press, 1976); and “Elms” is from Animism (Oberlin College Press, 2014). “No Elsewhere” appears here for the first time.
Photo Credits: Image 1 by the author; Image 2, cover photo by Gary Thompson; Image 3 by Anne Schmitz; Image 4 by Matt Schmitz; Image 5, Sacramento Bee file photo; Image 6 by Litsa Papalexiou.
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