We’re working hard already at the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing (which I get to co-direct) on the 30th anniversary edition of the Festival of Faith and Writing. If you have authors we should be considering, give us a shout. And if you have memories of past FFWs, too. My guest blogger today is Joe Lapp, who was on the FFW student committee in 2000. He got in touch with this memory–and I thought it worth sharing. Thanks, Joe.
When I saw that well-known writer and former Poet Laureate of the United States Donald Hall had died back in June, the first thing I thought about was his fall.
Not the fall, not the original entrance of humankind into sin. But his fall, the one that happened at the end of a night out with writer and illustrator friend, Barry Moser, during their visit to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in 2000.
I was a student at Calvin, majoring in English. Taking a visiting writer around was one of the every-other-year conference’s perks for kids like me. Donald Hall was one of my poetry heroes. I asked to be his student escort, and got it.
I was ecstatic. And also scared out of my wits. That’s how we’re supposed to feel around our heroes, right?
I had first visited the Calvin campus during the previous festival, in 1998. From a religiously conservative Amish-Mennonite background, the liberalism on campus enthralled me. People smoked! They talked about sex! Professors drank beer!
Never mind that John Calvin and his followers thought the early Anabaptists, from which the Mennonites sprang, were heretics—I was all in. Hey, we’re a fallen people. We all have our squabbles.
My own foibles that came out during Donald Hall’s visit to Calvin College came close enough to evoking humankind’s abandoning of Eden’s paradise. When my main-stage front-man’s flight was late and he needed a place to warm up his voice, pronto, I kicked a cello player and instructor out of the backstage ‘green rooms,’ mid-lesson, and ushered my poetry hero into the private space so he could prep.
I wouldn’t take no for answer, despite the cello lesson’s clearly scheduled, superior right to exist in there. To me, Donald Hall was a rock star. He deserved that green room, everyone else be damned.
Later, my negligence almost caused my hero to miss a book signing. Plus, I got super jealous, in a quiet, nonresistant Anabaptist sort of way, when a fellow student connected with Donald so easily over baseball as we drove to an off-campus poetry reading. I wanted the man to myself! Sin doesn’t like to share.
And then came the fall. Mr. Hall had stayed out late drinking with the hot-shot illustrator of a brand new edition of the Bible. Back in his hotel room, Donald had apparently tipped over, tweaking his hip.
Thankfully, my poetry hero could still dress himself, but he did require a lot of extra assistance limping around campus. In light of my previous faults, I was more than happy to help. In this fallen world, there’s often a chance for redemption.
Donald Hall’s writing became a touchstone for me during my three year dive into literature and creative writing at Calvin College. Reading his memoir Life Work, I was finally able to see writing as actual, fruitful work.
With my rural background, the life of the mind and the pen didn’t look like much beside the muscled sweating of the farmer, the carpenter, the everyday baking-cooking-cleaning of the bonnet-wearing housewife. But his words revealed that writing could be an actual profession, as honorable and upstanding as any other.
I’d like to think my time with Donald Hall—in person and in written words—made me a better poet, though I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t write much poetry these days, and I’ve more than once abandoned the creative life in favor of marketing and communications work that pays the bills.
But perhaps my time with Mr. Hall made me a better person.
The Washington Post article that reported Hall’s death said he sent and received so many letters from his rural home that he was awarded his own zip code. I got one of those letters, containing some comments on a few poems I had given him, and a thank you for my extra help with his injury.
There is something about the humanity of this famous poet deigning to reach out to me, a student writer who had shoved a few hackneyed poems in his hand on the way to the airport, that has stuck with me. Why would he have bothered, I wondered anew upon hearing of his death, to acknowledge my feeble work?
But poetry is all about our common humanity, and Donald Hall—I found through his writing, his personality, and his fall—was nothing if not human. As a writer and as a human, he was a flawed hero. But he knew this well, and he seemed to find authentic ways to be honest about his successes and about the places he fell short.
In Life Work, Hall was certainly honest about his attitude toward faith and doubt. Though he claimed a religious identity, he wrote, “To read what I have written, you would not know that I am Christian.”
At the time I read those words, I balked at the thought of a writer claiming to be a Christian yet not writing explicitly Christian material. But during my time at Calvin, I began to realize that a faithful perspective can take all of the world into account; it does not have to confine its expertise to the narrow, church-sanctioned topics or career fields I had grown up believing were the center of the Christian experience.
“My work is my devotion,” Donald Hall continued in Life Work. Barely accepting writing as ‘work,’ I confess to looking down on him for that assertion. A believer’s credentials ought to be deeper than some words on paper, I thought then.
But now, looking back, I realize that the actuality of Donald-Hall-the-man matched and expanded on the thoughts of Donald-Hall-the-writer. His actions during my brief contact with him showed transcendent spirit, even in his fallen humanity. And his largely undeserved kindness redeemed the nervous-student bumbling that, for me, overshadowed our short joint venture into that year’s Festival of Faith and Writing.
Donald Hall’s writing was honest about another thing, too: grief and loss. I was no stranger to grief during the time I read his poetry in college, and I relished his work for taking death—the ultimate fall—head on.
I once read his poem “Without,” a broken, keening wail over the death of his wife, fellow poet Jane Kenyon, in a creative writing class at Calvin. I loved the poem, but the deafening drum of loss was hard to take in that small room of circled desks. But that’s why I love poetry: sometimes it’s hard to take.
One of his metaphors for death resounds in my head: “Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.”
Eventually, we all fall. Rest in peace, Donald Hall.
Joe Lapp is a writer who has spent the last two years living abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam. He is working on a memoir about his family’s life as Amish-Mennonite ‘missionaries’ in an urban neighborhood in Washington, D.C. To read more, visit www.lappjoe.com.