"Eleventh Grade: 1971," the Background
Fifty years ago this month, I was a senior at Starmount High School, in the Brushy Mountains of northwestern North Carolina. I was writing a research paper on George McGovern, who would be the Democratic candidate for president. I was getting ready to graduate. In the fall I would be going to Appalachian, where I had been accepted in the residential college, Watauga College, and living in a co-ed dorm.
Fifty-one years ago, I was working with my classmates in Hayes McNeill's Contemporary Humanities Seminar, laying out our literary magazine, Green Salad. It's publication in 1971 was a major turning point for me; as I describe in the memoir, "O Beautiful Bug," seeing my poems in print confirmed a suspicion, a secret I had been keeping: I was a poet. Not a major poet, not a minor poet, but a poet all the same, someone who loved to read and write poetry. I still love it, and feel it to be an essential part of my life.
To read the companion piece, the memoir, follow this link to IndyWeek:
The poem was influenced by George Herbert's prosodic variations, his playing with rhyme and meter. I end with allusions to Dickinson, Whitman, and Thoreau, the American writers I admired the most.
Would I have turned that point, would I have confirmed my belief in poetry, if I had not encountered Hayes McNeill? I might have found my way eventually; I certainly found encouragement at ASU—thanks to Hubie Williams. And at Wake Forest, where I studied with Emily Wilson and Archie Ammons. But who knows? Would I have been true to my desire to write without Hayes's guidance?
As one can see in the poem and the memoir, Starmount would have been a less interesting place without R. Hayes McNeill, and my life would have been missing many riches without the friendship of Hayes and Gail. Those are reasons enough to celebrate. The rest is gravy.