Sunday Scribblings: Goosebumps

A few months ago, I wrote a column for Poetry Thursday called “Chasing Phil Levine.” In it, I talked about the experience of writing a letter to Phil, who was my thesis adviser and mentor during my grad school years at New York University more than 10 years ago. Yesterday, I received a response to my letter—and that was certainly an occasion for Goosebumps.

Here’s an excerpt from the original article:

Studying with a talented writer is a real gift, no matter how famous or how many books he or she has published. Phil was more than a mentor. He was a physical representation of how I wanted to live in the world as a practicing poet. He gave his time to me and my classmates, encouraged us to experience life in the real world, and pushed us to question everything. I knew that to be the kind of poet I wanted to be, a part of me had to change to practice this vocation.

In other words, Phil taught me it was OK to make an ass out of myself.

The letter was my “state of the union,” giving Phil a long-overdue update on my poetic and personal life. I sent a photo of my family and a few poems, as if Phil would even want this information from me. But I always felt that we had a connection, and that he was a true advocate for my success. I wanted Phil to know that I was healthy and happy, still writing poems, still making an ass out of myself every chance I get!

In the Poetry Thursday column, I said that getting a reply from Phil wasn’t that important—I wrote the letter for me. Well, I lied! I wanted a response. Since so much time had passed, I thought I must have misjudged the importance of this relationship. But all was revealed in the letter, and without going into too much detail, he seemed proud of my accomplishments and loved my most recent poems.

Lately, I have been waiting for responses from publishers telling me something—anything—about my manuscript. So when my husband gave me Phil’s letter, it was the last thing I expected. I hesitated for a minute, as if it was still a rejection letter. In that split second, I felt Goosebumps rise on my arms. Now, I’ve come full circle. I'm ready to put this glorious part of my past to rest.
Visit Sunday Scribblings for more Goosebump-worthy posts.


Rob Kistner said…
Thank you for sharing this January. We often forget the people who have helped shape our lives. I'm sure feeling the link again was wonderful... ;)
Herb Urban said…
That is terrific that he wrote you back with such words of encouragement. I often wonder if I should get in touch with my old professors and creative writing teachers. There is little voice in the back of my head that says they might not remember me. Such are the perils of the quiet pupil.
Oh, how wonderful for you! I got goosebumps just reading about it!
That was great. I feel so happy for you. Indeed it is a time for goose bumps.
Dick said…
Occasionally I hear similarly from ex-students (letter, not article, but often enough to flatter, if not so often as to over-inflate!) I imagine that Phil was as pleased to hear from you in terms of acknowledgment as you were from him. You may even have raised the odd goose-bump!
Paul said…
Glad to read about this positive experience for you. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Fledgling Poet said…
It is very satisfying to receive "validation" from someone you admire very much. I'm happy that you heard back from you mentor and that you had such a happy goosebump moment!
raymond pert said…
First of all, congratulations on having the very good fortune to have worked with Phil Levine. I don't really know how to articulate my admiration for his poetry and for what he's said and written about matters outside of poetry. His poems make a great impact on my community college students.

Second of all, when I was a sophomore at North Idaho College, back in 1974, I wrote Richard Hugo a long letter gushing to him about how much I loved his poetry and how much I enjoyed his readings. It was sincere and sophomoric.

Not long after, he wrote me a sincerely appreciative post card, which I have kept to this day. Hugo died in 1982. If he were still alive, I'd write him again, with some restraint, and tell him that to this day he is the guide I look to to help me understand the confusion I still feel as a working class kid living and working in a professional world so different from Kellogg, Idaho.

I'm very happy for you that Levine wrote back. Like another commenter, I'm sure that your letter to him moved him deeply. Fame and great talent does not diminish the human desire for appreciation.
January said…
Raymond, thanks for sharing your story about Richard Hugo. His book Triggering Town is one of my favorite books to read whenever I get writer's block.

It is quite special when an author responds to your letter. It can be that little bit of encouragement to keep going.

I do feel lucky to have worked with Phil. He always made you feel as if he was solidly in your corner.
January said…
Rob, Regina, Guatami, Paul, Fledgling--thanks for your comments.
January said…
Herb, you should definitely contact anyone who's had an impact in your life and tell them so. I had to quell that negative voice inside of me, but I'm glad I did.
January said…
Dick, that's one of those negative thoughts I had to overcome. With so many students Phil has had over the years, I wondered if he remembered me. He says he doesn't respond to many requests, be he's always been a letter writer. I'm just happy he responded.
Kamsin said…
Great story January! I guess teachers don't often get to really know what impact they have on their students lives, so I'm sure he really appreciated your letter. And that he replied really is a goosebump inducing moment!
I got goosebumps just reading this...wonderful. I remember that PT column well (I'll be so glad when you get to posting them again once summer is done!)
Tammy said…
That is certainly a goose-bump moment! We are our worse critics and his validation was very nice. Thanks for sharing.
Brian said…
I feel positive that you will hear good thing from a publisher soon.

Good luck my friend.
Anonymous said…
This gave ME goosebumps. Sounds like a dream come true. Congratulations!
bostonerin said…
What a treasure! I'm glad that you received a response. I hope that you receive lots of fan letters/thank you notes down the road!

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