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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

My Brush with Fame: US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin

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The news this week: On July 1, 2010, the Library of Congress appointed W.S. Merwin as the US Poet Laureate.

I'm delighted. Here's my story of meeting him years ago.

I'd been visiting a California college for a couple of days, giving readings and workshops. My airline ticket was cheaper if I stayed over the weekend, so my hosts invited me to do so, and join them for W.S. Merwin's visit a few days after mine.

A group of us went to dinner with him. The others, knowing my views on beef, instructed me not to order meat as he's a vegetarian; I told him at the table, and he laughed-- I had fish anyway, because I was in California.

He said he likes isolation so he can work; "I have a telephone that I can call out on, but no one can call in."

"How can you do that?" I said, and he just looked at me. Of course he doesn't give anyone the number.

He was extremely kind, made sure I was included in the conversations, and we all had a great time. But we talked until something like 15 minutes before his reading, hurried to campus, parked, and everyone rushed toward this lighted building where he was supposed to speak. We could hear the crowd of waiting students.

He was hanging back and I was next to him and saw the look on his face.

I've done a lot of readings where people assume you can go directly from the dinner table to the podium. Sometimes the organizers of a reading don't realize that the writer may need to relieve herself, to throw up from nervous tension, or just to have a few moments alone; bathrooms can serve all those purposes and few writers start a reading without visiting one. "I know where there's a bathroom," I said.

"Oh good," he said and we peeled off into the dark.

The organizers got to the reading and . . . Merwin and I were missing. (He has been known to be interested in the ladies.) They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off; when we got back they snarled, "Where did you TAKE him?"

"The man had to go to the bathroom," I said.

The building was full, students sitting in the windows, standing against the walls-- and they ushered him down the aisle to the front of the room. I listened from outside, leaning in a window. The talk was wonderful.

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