By Emilie Vardaman*
HAVANA TIMES – I met poet Will Inman in maybe 1997, in the early days of the Quarter Moon Coffeehouse in Bisbee, Arizona where I was a co-owner.
Will had come to Bisbee to do a reading in the coffeehouse, but he didn’t have a car, so some kindly soul had brought him from Tucson the afternoon of his reading.
August Schaffer made sure he had accommodations for the night, and since I had to head to Tucson the following day, I was charged with driving him home.
For some reason I don’t recall, I couldn’t take my own vehicle to Tucson, so August said she’d loan me her old VW diesel.
I showed up early to pick up Will and was ready to head out, but he mournfully told me he was hungry and hadn’t even had a cup of coffee. I semi-grudgingly opened the Quarter Moon, made a pot of the coffeehouse’s excellent brew and toasted us a few bagels, smearing the tops with cream cheese.
As the coffee finished brewing, I was wondering what I was going to talk about with the white-haired, slightly unkempt stranger for the next two hours. He was a good bit older than I, but that wasn’t really a problem. He was also gay, and I was fine with that.
But the man was a poet. A nationally recognized one. And that was intimidating. I don’t write poetry and am in the group of people who often times doesn’t “get” poetry. So that left me feeling a bit intimidated.
We took off up 80, coffee snugged between our legs and munching bagels. We sputtered up the hill towards the tunnel and within a mile of downtown, Will said, “Would you mind if I open the window a bit? That way the diesel fumes might not kill me before we reach Tombstone.”
I laughed and told him the smell of diesel always reminded me of Guatemala. With that, our conversation took off.
We spent the next two hours laughing, talking and sharing stories like we were old friends who hadn’t had the chance to laugh or gossip in a long time. We talked of our past, present, and future lives as we roared up to the interstate and then to Tucson’s west side.
When I pulled in front of Will’s house, I felt quite sorry our time together was at an end. But the time didn’t end then because he invited me into his home.
Startled isn’t even the word I felt as I stepped into his living room. I immediately flashed on the home of a woman I’d worked with at the Tucson Urban League a dozen years previously.
This woman had kept every one of her newspapers for maybe the last decade. Or longer. Some areas of the house had stacks of papers three and four rows deep, and they were piled up nearly to the ceiling. I remember the horror I felt knowing the house would be an inferno should there ever be a fire.
Will must have known that woman. She must have been his mentor, for his living room held a similarity in the piles of papers and magazines he kept, with the resultant trails running through them.
The biggest difference was I could see Will’s artistry in his piles of paper. They didn’t merely stack against the walls. He’d created curvy, winding trails, and he kept the piles low enough to allow sun and light to spill into his home and afford him a view of his garden.
This was a sharp contrast to Newspaper Woman. Her piles of papers covered the windows. She had but one narrow path through the living room straight into the kitchen. There she’d left access to the stove, refrigerator and sink plus a tiny section of one counter.
There was another trail into the bedroom. Although the bathroom was next to the bedroom, access was closed by piles of papers and one had to backtrack to the kitchen and follow a different trail to get there.
So Will’s house didn’t really compare. Thankfully.
I used his bathroom flushing with a bucket next to the toilet. He captured shower water until it reached the right temperature and used the caught water for flushing.
I followed the trail from the bath to the kitchen which thankfully had no piles of paper. There he handed me some iced tea and invited me into the back yard which, in contrast to the house, seemed lovingly tended and groomed.
There he took me through his garden and introduced me, truly verbally introduced me, to each plant. He told me a bit about each, like how long he’d had it and its habits.
He tore off a leafy green for each of us to nibble. He assured me it was full of minerals yet needed little water. It was bitter, but edible.
At some point during the morning, maybe as early as smelling diesel and laughing together, and certainly long before we nibbled bitter green leaves, I understood that this man was important to me and would be for the rest of his life.
And he was.
When I left, we promised to stay in touch and became regular letter writers. He’d often send a real letter, but more often he’d send a poem with a note scribbled on the back. I wish I’d kept them all but still have a few.
Several years later, I was attending Arizona Writing Project at the U of A for a six-week session, dorm and meals paid for via a grant. I knew Will had a writing group and met weekly, so I called and asked if I could attend.
Of course, everyone in the group but me was a poet.
The first week I attended, I brought nothing. Will read a poem of his about a wolf and it inspired me to write a piece for the following week.
I read it and got great feedback from everyone, but Will remained silent for a time. All eyes turned to him, and I sat there nervously awaiting his comments.
Finally, he looked at me and simply said, “That’s a poem.”
“No it’s not. I don’t write poetry.”
“It’s a poem,” he repeated. Then he looked away and had the next person share his work.
Many months later, I pulled my piece out and worked it into a poem. I knew Will had been right, and just had to mull it for awhile before I could shift its form.
I sent it off to him and got an immediate reply. It was the only time he did not send me a poem, just a message.
His one-line note read: “Told ya.”
*I’m a retired instructor from a community college where I taught Developmental English and Reading as well as English as a Second Language. I’m also now a published author of a bilingual children’s book entitled. Luisa the Green Sea Turtle – Luisa la Tortuga Verde del Mar. It’s available through Amazon, and is in a few (more and more each day!) bookstores.