(THIS POST FIRST APPEARED WITHIN WEEK ONE OF THE LAUNCH OF SHE WRITES...I wanted to re-run it because she is truly our muse, and if you don't know who she is, you should.)
Diane Middlebrook first blazed (oh did she blaze!) into my life when I was nineteen. We were not friends then, not yet. She was my professor, and I was her student—one of many in the extraordinarily popular lecture course she taught at Stanford on Poetry and Poetics. It was 1991, the year her Anne Sexton biography was published, and its success had vaulted her from Stanford’s limelight onto the national stage, where she was thriving. I knew nothing about this. Being a decidedly unsophisticated, unambitious, and frequently hungover student from San Antonio, Texas, I did not read The New York Times or inquire after my professors’ accomplishments beyond the classroom. And so I can safely say that the impression she made on me at that time had nothing to do with her fame and everything to do with her enormous power as a teacher of poetry.
On Monday and Wednesday mornings every week of that bright, leafy California autumn, beginning promptly at 9AM and concluding precisely at 9:50AM, Diane Middlebrook introduced me—as she did thousands of other young minds—to the art form that most captivated, electrified, and fascinated her. Her personal passion for poetry was gripping, and her unforgettable lectures woke me up—with a sharp, luscious jolt—to the presence of something crucial and divine. I cannot imagine anyone listening to her teach without being so moved. But her passion alone would not have changed my life as a young, literary-minded woman, or as a writer. For that something else was needed, and it was Diane’s ability to lay a poem’s mechanics bare, to examine, dissect, and take it apart, line by line and rhyme by rhyme, without ever forgetting or failing to honor its awesome, primal mystery, that made her so good and so rare. Diane did much more than introduce me to poetry’s greatness; she changed the way I read, the way I listened, the way I wrote. With her expert guidance I came to know Milton, Ovid, the King James version of the New Testament, Plath, Rich, Sexton and Smart, and so many more. By her genius I was tutored in the art of poetry’s execution, shown its evolution over time, and all the while urgently encouraged to fall freely, swooningly in love with poetry itself.
It helped that she captivated me, too, of course. The sight of her! Truly I’d never seen a woman like her, not even close. That spiky brown hair! That complete command of the classroom! That mind! Those words! Those suits! She did not just open the door to poetry for me. She was redolent with the heady aroma of glamorous sexy power that an unabashedly intellectual woman could possess. I wanted to know her, but I wasn’t ready yet. I never spoke to her outside of paper or exam. Lucky me, I got a second chance.
Twelve years later our paths crossed again. I was living with my husband in London; we were asked to host a Stanford alumni event featuring Diane Middlebrook as the speaker. I leapt at the chance. On my bookshelf I found the worn copy of Ovid I’d purchased for her course, filled with notes and jotted-down bits of her voice and thoughts. Wonderfully, it still contained the syllabus that began with Blake and HD and concluded with Plath, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. (I remember thinking that was so cool!) This syllabus also reminded me, however, of the stern, exacting Diane, who tolerated no nonsense from anyone. I felt a frisson of fear. This irritated me—hadn’t I grown up since then? Perhaps not. I was becoming a writer, just out of graduate school and working on a thesis, but these bona fides did not prevent me from meeting her with the lowered eyes of an aspiring lover, the fluttery enthusiasm of a fan. I produced Ovid, my syllabus, and lots of compliments. Diane, never insensible to praise, was pleased. She was also quickly bored. The other guests had not yet arrived, and she wanted to be stimulated! She wanted to have a juicy talk! She wanted to know what I was all about!
Sometimes I like to imagine Diane cruising the bar of the literary high life, striding through the crowd, looking for action. In that sense, she picked me up that night.
Diane, however, was not an elderly male writer sizing up a conquest. She was Diane, and as soon as she detected my posture of obeisance she firmly corrected it—for my sake, and her own. This was the teacher in her and the feminist, too. Turning the conversation away from herself and back to me, she had little trouble discovering that I was working on a book, my first. “Aha,” she said, her eyes suddenly fiery, alight. “You are a writer!”
A writer! Unpublished, unrecognized, no agent, no office, no CV. But a writer all the same. I’d never called myself one before. But Diane’s confident pronouncement produced a startling effect on me. She’d never read a word of my work, yet I felt licensed. Anointed. Rallied. Ready. For real. She was uniquely capable of producing this feeling. I have since met many others who felt similarly authorized by her, alerted to the pressing need every artist has to take charge of his or her creative or intellectual identity; one they’d long felt but have struggled articulate, or to own. To transmit this to young artists, what a gift! To transmit this to young women, what a revolution. She’d been doing it for years; she never stopped. It was at that moment that I began to love her.
Days later Diane invited me to lunch—a treat for her too, for she never indulged in lunch while she was in the thick of working on a book. (Her Husband was in the galleys phase then.) For three hours, over cool lychees and warm cilantro chicken from Waitrose, we talked about being writers. I was thirty, she was sixty-four; she was a biographer, I was a memoirist; I was at the very beginning of my career, hers was at its height. Yet we talked and talked, and found that we had much to offer one another, in ways that surprised and invigorated us. Diane was delighted. I was giddy. Our encounter whetted her appetite for more: an intergenerational discussion, ranging from the practical to the theoretical but sharply focused on the business and craft of writing, an exchange both supportive and provocative, food for the soul. After our lunch she hatched an idea that changed my life.
“I have a proposition for you, my dear,” Diane pronounced, taking my arm as I made to leave the summer party she, Carl and the Showalters gave each year at their London flat. “We two ought to start a salon.” (She pronounced salon with characteristic flair: SAL-on, and we the salonniéres!) “For women writers, I think—no men.” Soon afterward, we met, and began. We lingered only briefly over the decision to make the salons for women only; both of us knew that the spark between us, and our need of one another, had to do with being women, and that a community of women writers was what we were after. The names on her list dazzled me, but she valued my contribution of youth and talented, untested women writers, too. (She also valued my big apartment and financial resources, which made me particularly suitable as a co-host. I learned as much from Diane’s gung-ho practicality as I did from her fine mind.) Diane was to be our first speaker. Diane never failed to remind me that running a salon had its privileges.
Things I learned from hosting the London salon with Diane: Buy small French café glasses, the unbreakable sort, they are better-looking than plastic cups and go right into the dishwasher. Always start on time and end on time, no matter what. Prepare, but relax. Dress for the occasion. Do not permit “readings,” this is not a reading series, but a meeting of professional women interested in conversation and substance in relation to their craft. Aim high, and court both the sleeping beauties and the squawking divas of the “literary zoo.” That first evening I was more of a sous chef than a co-host, but I kept wine glasses filled and made ever-more-confident efforts at facilitating conversation. I am proud to say that Diane was quite pleased with me. But it was she who made it work.
And work beautifully! The salon was an instant, gratifying success. Diane’s intuition had been exactly right; women writers of all ages and genres had a great deal to say to each other; we were hungry for a place to talk, network, commiserate and meet. But our time as co-hosts in London was short-lived. I was only able to host three evenings with Diane before my husband and I were abruptly forced to return to New York.
There were other developments. By the time I left that October, of 2003, I was five months pregnant, and Diane’s cancer had returned. She’d already undergone her first surgery when we met. At that time she spoke of it as something finished, but it was not. Its recurrence was aggressive and pronounced; our abdomens swelled together, which was very strange. Back in New York, during an exceptionally biting winter, we met again as I nested in my new apartment (she helped me hang the curtains) and she stayed in the guest room, preparing for another major surgery. That surgery turned out to be a long, dispiriting operation, which revealed the extent of her cancer and gave some indication of the battle to come. During her recovery, my husband and I paid her a visit. He brought Peet’s Coffee. (How she loathed that hospital coffee!) We took a slow walk around the corridor together: I “cow-heavy” as Sylvia Plath once wrote, only a week away from giving birth, and she suddenly so light. We held hands. Diane wanted to talk about me, about my baby, about my book. As we walked she told me of a pregnant graduate student of hers who had shared a revelation about iambic pentameter.
“It’s the sound of a human heart, isn’t it?” Diane recounted, thin and weak that evening but ringing, and rousing, as ever. “Ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM!”
“Ba-BUM!” I can hear her saying it now, clear and bright. So many years after she had opened my ears to poetry, Diane taught me to listen to my baby’s heartbeat with a new ear, too. Upon his birth she sent The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. “For Kamy, Andrew, and Maximilian Isaac,” the inscription read, “one of the most euphonious books in the English language—may he imbibe it with his mother’s milk!” She knew him long enough to hear him talk, and long enough that he could tell me, after having dinner with her one night, that he preferred another Diane of our acquaintance to this one. That made me laugh, and her too; chatting up toddlers was never her strong suit.
Even after I left London, and even though Diane’s disease never left her, our friendship had some years left in it. Wonderfully, the salon turned out to have a tremendous life to it, too—life that Diane breathed into it even as she faced the increasing debilitation and pain her cancer wrought. The vision that came to her after our lunch that cold spring London afternoon gave rise to a community that grew and grew, continuing first in London with Diane and a new partner, Sarah Greenberg. (Since Diane’s death, the London salon goes on with Sarah and the novelist and essayist Lisa Appignanesi as its salonnieres.) In San Francsico she founded another salon with her beloved long-time friend and conspirator Marilyn Yalom, who continues to host it now with another young woman writer Diane dearly loved, Kate Moses. And six months after Max was born, with Diane’s encouragement and blessing, I founded a New York outpost with another of Diane’s intimate friends, the feminist critic, scholar, and author Nancy K. Miller, who has since become one of my closest friends. Diane, rightly, was our first guest.
In December of this year, 2008, almost a year after Diane’s death, we will hold our twenty-fifth meeting. How pleased and proud she would have been. How much I long to have her there with me again. Every day I long for that. Sometimes the presence of her absence at those evenings undoes me, and I’d give all of it, every second of it, to have her back.
Like so many of those who loved her, I saw Diane for the last time in her hospital room in San Francisco. It was our tradition to talk for hours, sometimes three, four at a go, when we had the chance to meet. But we both knew our time together that evening would be short. It was winter, dark outside and cool and wet in the city, but in her orbit things were warm, and as soon as I laid eyes on her I was seized by heartache and love. Diane had a formal, prickly side that sometimes made intimacy awkward, but that evening she was utterly disarmed, desirous of nothing but connection and touch. I too. She asked me to rub lotion onto her taut swollen legs; I did, chatting as I went. She asked me to help her walk down the corridor; we tried, but didn’t get very far. I showed her pictures of my sons, having become a mother for a second time more than a year before. She asked me everything, as generous and vivacious as ever, and we laughed a great deal. But there were many things I didn’t tell her. It was too late to tell her that my marriage was ending. It was too late to ask her a thousand questions I wanted to ask; too late to deepen our friendship as I grew older, too, and saw more of life, of pain, of joy.
For Diane, there was always work, and there was always poetry. She was an indispensable editor of my first book. She was expert in the ways of praise and criticism. She believed in me. And boy did she know how to love. (She liked to say “Boy!”) Her love was exuberant and fierce. To be loved by her was to be held close and kissed, at times, but it was also to be hurled high into the air as she stood back and shouted, with a steely voice that came from her pioneering roots, that hard fought, Midwestern, true grit that pumped rigorously through her veins: “Go! Go, go, go!”
That night, we made a list that night of things to talk about the next morning, penned as she faded into sleep. When I arrived the next day, wearing a shirt covered in a butterfly print I had chosen just for her, she was too ill to talk. But we kissed, and I whispered in her ear: “I am going to write for you. I am going to write for you.” She smiled. Yes. Rallied, ratified, roused again. For the last time, yes. But I will. By god, Diane, I will.