FRIENDS OF DJB
Notes from Dennis
As newspaper editor, as program director, as editor of literary journals, as a producer of radio broadcasts, and as a teacher of writing, I have often been in a position to help writers get their work more widely read, or heard, not in the spirit of commerce, in the spirit of common empathy. In that spirit, let me introduce to you two hard working & serious poets I have known along the way, writers who pay their respect to details, write poetry for the love of writing poems, and whose lifelong work deserves our respect.
I’ve never known Michael Shepler as a friend. I can recall only once being in the same room with him, in 1978, ’79, or ’80, when I served as editor for Statement Magazine, the literary journal of Cal State L.A., and we were publishing Michael’s poems, eleven in all. Neither of us had much to say to one another, there in the chaos of a large meeting. That was all. Statement (1978) published three of Michael’s poems, including this one.
The door stands open, yellow, grinning.
Inside, silence is a soliloquy unto itself.
Dishes done & stacked, except for a half-filled
Cup of cold steel.
Keats nightingale, deafened by jackhammers,
Yammers in the trees.
A breeze slams against my blue-eyed broken windows.
Sky turning purple as a bruise.
Yet, despite not knowing Michael personally, the sounds of his voice & laughter, the way he walks, how he moves his hands, despite not knowing his history, his manner, his gentility, but having read his poetry for forty years, I feel I am his friend. I guess that might sound a little creepy.
Michael is tremendously prolific, creepily so. His first published poems date from 1965, the year he began to study with Henri Coulette at Cal State LA., just as Coulette’s book The War of the Secret Agents was named by the Academy of American Poets winner of the award formerly known as The Lamont Poetry Selection which honored a poet’s first book. (Today it is called the James Laughlin Award and honors a poet’s second book. Poets. They always have to make changes.) The list of past winners forms a neat & tidy who’s who in post-war/pre-millinieum American poetry: Ai, X. J. Kennedy, Carolyn Forché, the two Donalds – Hall & Justice, Mary Jo Salter, Garrett Hongo, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Gerald Stern, and others.
My occasional encounters with Coulette a dozen years after Shepler came to Cal St. L.A. make up my most striking memories of Michael. The Lamont-winning Coulette unfailingly spoke of Michael’s poetry with the courtesy of a colleague, and sometimes with the wonderment of a fan. As an editor, I had to decide: Should I take the word of someone who knows?
Here is one of five poems by Michael Shepler we published in Statement (1979)
ELEGANT CITY COMIX
rainy nights, oboe in hand
i would walk deserted streets
stoplights would change
blink — Green
blink — Yellow
blink — Red
& the neons did shine
whiskey bottles 50 feet tall
going into orbit!
dark cars slow then speed past me
they monitor my movements
& the men in the penthouse
update my dossier
dining on cheap takeout food
After our fleeting glimpse in the late-70s wherever I’ve gone in life, north-south-east-middle-east-&-home-again-in-the-west, I’ve encountered Michael Shepler’s poems. Yeah, I’ll be browsing in some coffee bookshop high in the Shenandoah mountains and select a lit mag at random from a random shelf and open it up at random to find a poem by Michael Shepler. How many times did this happen? A hundred? Twice? Never? Once? The answer is none of the above. My relationship with his poetry is ongoing, the previous poem always faintly present, slowly resonating, until I read the next Shepler poem which compels me again to the page/screen as the poem finds something in me that is rarely found, or, rarely in me. Sorry, I’m rubbing the coarse cloth of creepy, again. What I mean to say is, each encounter with Michael Shepler’s verse is like resuming a compelling conversation with a friend. However long I stay in the room with the poem the richer the experience.
Today, Michael posts a new poem on his Facebook page every couple of days, and each new poem appears carefully brewed and aged years in casks of oak. I’m hardly alone in my admiration of Michael’s work. Many contemporary poets and scholars have expressed their praise, including Coulette, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Fields, Lauri Scheyer, and Louis Simpson. I join these distinguished writers in appreciating Michael Shepler as a true poet whose verse reaches and reveals.
Mark Heyman was a poetic genius, and a friend of mine. (Soon)
Take a look at an astonishing retirement project by my friend Ralph Conde. Scholars will find it essential to any exhaustive study of the history of churches in the Eternal City, while lay admirers will get a full-bodied look into the history of the Catholic Church.