Herb Scott- Some People Will Live Forever——–
Herb in the early years some of us did not know–
By Herb Scott
Skin, and bone, and weed
flower in the flesh.
Do not go to sleep.
Love is a dust we keep,
silt of the body’s dreaming.
Do not go to sleep.
If I were the speech of leaves
I’d let my body sing.
Do not go to sleep.
Words like willow branches
bend to the earth’s reach.
Do not go to sleep.
Are these the Cowboy years, Herb? My favorite photo of Herb in the past.
Herb or Herbie, as we affectionately called him during the years I knew him in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a man who loved poetry and student writers with the heart of a father. He came into my life or I came into his life when another professor, Jaimy Gordon gave Herb two of my poems in 1997, two poems that moved him within minutes after he’d read them, to publish my first book of poems, Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues press, 1998). I was then only a resident in Kalamazoo, spending most of my time writing and taking care of my young children while my husband worked to earn us a living.
Herb seen here standing with Marianne at the New Issues Press table at AWP
By Herb Scott
Each day redeemed by evening.
The stammering sunset.
The moon in its rut of sky.
The mind is white wicker.
Cows, heavy with the business of milk,
nod home from the east pasture.
There is a moan that milk makes.
The clatter of hooves, the lovely cow eyes.
Thrown oats. The rasp of rough tongues.
My grandmother’s small hands.
It is true the earth cries out at dusk.
Its various voices.
—I enrolled in the Ph.D program to study Creative Writing at Western Michigan University after my book came out that fall, and from then on, Herb Scott became my mentor, also mentoring many of my fellow grad students, who also went on the build good careers in writing and teaching. For me, Herb was more than a mentor or friend. He was like a father image, inspiring in me the dream to become better. He was like my father in many ways, never quiting in his voice, challenging me to write better poetry, to dream about bigger things. To me, he was a father to many of my friends as well. He was the kind of individual who could love each and every student in that special way that only that student could understand and provided that space within which each could grow without harming the other’s growth.
To my children who grew up in Kalamazoo, Herb was the only Herb on this earth. Years after my first book was published, and we moved to Western Pennsylvania for me to teach at a local university in Indiana, PA, I was watching a local TV broadcast where the son of my friend, a teenager named Herb was being featured. I called out to my two younger kids to come and see Herb on TV, and Gee, then fourteen, and Ade, ten, ran down the stairs into the family room. I watched the disappointment on their faces when they both exclaimed, “That’s not Herb, Mommie!”
“Look, that’s Herb,” I cried, and they laughed, leaving me sitting alone in the livingroom.
“That’s not Herb,” they concluded, running up to the main livingroom. That’s not the Herb that we know. Where is Herb, Mommie, they would ask. For them, Herb was the invincibly strong poet and father of poetry who had inspired Mommie in many ways, and in doing so, had also inspired them.
Herb was able to do this because he was also a father of several, a grandfather, a husband to his beautiful wife, Shirley, and a friend of writers. His dream to begin a press is now bigger than the dream itself. May his soul rest in peace. May poetry live forever as we celebrate those who have made poetry live.
For me, Herb was a pioneer in seeing and appreciating the African poetry that I write, understanding the stubbornness of my voice as an African woman writing about the loss of my homeland, the loss of family and about my new life in a strange land.
Herb went on to publish others- African Americans and people from other races at a time when many publishers shied away from the voices of the minority few. There are many reasons to celebrate him over and over because without Herb, many of us would have had a harder terrain to travel. Herbie, we remember you with fondness and with the memory of the poem that lives forever and with the poetry of your own poetry.
As a poet, Herb published his individual poems in numerous magazines long before we came to know him as our Herb, and continued to publish until his death. He also authored four collections of poetry. As a professor of Creative Writing at Western Michigan University, he was endowed the Gwen Frostic Professor, and held on to that title until his death at 75 in 2006.
Here are his books:
- Disguises , University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974;
- Groceries , University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976;
- Durations , Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
- Sleeping Woman (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2006
Herb’s Sleeping Woman, the book and the poem are my favorite just because I can see the years within which he is writing the poems. One of the realities of being a teacher and a mentor is that one influences one’s students, but the other side of the coin is that we are also influenced by the students we teach and mentor, especially, those advanced students we mentor for several years. One of my colleagues, a former student of Herb’s and now a poet and teacher too, told me when Herb’s Sleeping Woman came out, and said, “This is a new book, Patricia, a different kind of book. I can see all of us students in his mind just as we can see him in our poetry.” Of course, his “Sleeping Woman,” the poem, and especially “Invocation,” remind me of my own poetry, but the most significant thing is that in teaching poetry to many of us, we also gave something to him as a poet.
Herb’s last years:
Herb Scott became ill in my last year of the Ph.D. program, something which was devastating to many of us students, his family, and friends. He struggled for a few years, hanging in there, never quiting on us even as he lay in his hospital bed. He fought for us. I recall being lost as I prepared my dissertation, wondering if he’d be able to come back to K-zoo to look over the manuscript one last time. I had sent the manuscript to Crab Orchard Review Award competition for the Second Book competition without Herb ‘s critical look. But he had seen many of the poems prior to that and had had his say. Then one day before I would defend the dissertation, he came to campus, frail, but stubborn as always, and said, “Patricia, where is that dissertation?”
I went to the New Issues Press office, and stood over him after he’d labored for an entire night over that miserable manuscript. He began to toss poems out of the book, crossing out whole lines, telling me to redo whole poems as I stood there, almost in tears. Sometimes, you hated the process, the editing, the sharp knife of Herb’s editing fingers, but then there was his approval, his cheers, his praises that you were indeed growing as a poet. I told myself that I would always be that kind of teacher, the one who can both inspire a student and yet be critical of the things that need to be criticized, the things that will help a young writer become the best he or she can be.
Two of my sweetest memories were on two occasions when Herb took us New Issues Press poets out to eat at two AWP occasions: one in Kansas City, MO, and another in Palm Springs, California. In Kansas City, we were about a dozen or more at a very expensive restaurant. Everyone ordered, and when the bill came, the tip alone was over two hundred dollars. When the plate came around, I thought that my share of the tip was too large, a seventeen dollar tip from me, the African woman in America, the one who had to send money home to my war ravaged homeland- no, I said. I had ordered something that was almost the cost of that tip, I argued, and I wasn’t going to pay. Herb looked at me, upset, but forgiving, and said, “Okay, I’ll pay.” I laughed, but if I were his real daughter, he could have given me a bit of his tongue.
Then a year or so later in Palm Springs, we went to an Indian restaurant to eat, us poets and New Issues Press staff. I ordered the hottest Indian food, but no one knew it. Margaret, my good friend, a poet and grad student and staff then wanted to taste my food. I did not tell her how hot the food was, sitting between her and Herb. She took a huge spoonful of my Indian eggplant while I smiled. When Margaret put the spoon of steamed rice with eggplant in her mouth, she turned red and ran into the rest room to revive herself. I began to laugh, and of course, Herb was so annoyed with me, he said, “Patricia, that was so cruel, I tell you.”
Margaret survived the hot peppers and came out breathing hard. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Margaret,” continuing to eat my hot, spicy Indian eggplant. Margaret Von Steinen survived many more years after that. In fact, to prove it, here she is, now coordinator of WMU’s Prague Summer programs: oops, Margaret, the photo refuses to post.
At Herb’s memorial service, I was listed in the program to read his poem, “Invocation,” ironically, a poem that reminds me of all of the repetitions in my own poems. But as I read the poem, and tried to control my emotions, I could hear and feel Herb’s style, his calm, his ability to take on images that connect a reader to the poet’s feelings, and to make small things appear larger than life. This is what he had left us, I knew as his family of grown daughters, sons, friends, and past students crammed the Kenley Chapel at WMU campus on March 25, 2006. Herb’s memorial was like a huge famous poetry reading, a celebration of life and poetry, of the eternal value of both the man and his poetry, a very beautiful occasion.
A year later, Feb. 12, I wrote this poem in commemoration of a man that had helped shape so many lives. Poetry Month cannot go by without the celebration of Herb Scott.
FOR HERB SCOTT, ONE YEAR LATER
By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
—-Feb. 12, 2007
I want to remember you just the way you were,
a man, almost too tall for life, standing
at my door in Kalamazoo,
that small bend as if to apologize for your height.
I flipped open my front door, and there you were
in search of more poetry the way a hunter
follows deer tracks through snow country,
through wooded tracks,
through an alleyway of unfamiliar woods.
The poem I’m writing for you will be choppy
and stale, unedited and spent.
Time for freshness passed away with your leaving.
I used to watch you on an office chair, the sun
looking on, and I’d be there,
my manuscript under your sharp eyes;
you, holding on to a line of one of my poems,
dangling it before me and asking,
“Is this you? Is this your voice?”
I’d be there, sometimes, standing suddenly, always,
battling to save some useless image
in my lines, to save some figure of speech
not so ready to let go.
I’d be there, hiding my fear of losing a word or two.
Afraid I’d have to rewrite an entire book of poems
or maybe I’d have to redo my bullet-shelled-streets,
redo Monrovia, redo a child soldier
and his weapon, shortened just for him,
redo the faces of women who scared the stories
in my poems, redo the silences I grew to create
and recreate, take Monrovia to task again
so anyone reading will not see my tears without seeing
the scarred pieces of people, the quiet cries
that were too inaudible for pain.
So a reader could lift my lines to a burning flame,
examine them, hold them,
and let them float through wind and sky.
I’d be there beside you, and say, “yes, Herb,
that’s my voice, don’t you hear it?”
Your head, balding at queer places, your fingers,
struggling to hold on to the pen, coming down
on a word, your pen that had drawn all sorts of lines
through my manuscripts, and I’d stare
at you aging, but not truly aging,
and I’d say to myself, boy.
Scared again of losing you, of losing your twist and turn
on a chair as you examined my poems
as if you were God of the word, God of the line,
father of the image, father of the painter of the image,
and I’d think to myself, God, he’s already dying,
this man, already dying.
The big sun, coming through your office window,
and I thought, everyone I know is dying
all the time; dying or getting ready to die
or planning to die.
We’d fight, you and I over my African repetitions,
my syntax and tone, and you’d smile,
“It’s great, this one is great, and this is you,
that’s your voice, but this one, it’s some
other girl down the road some where; get her out.”
One day, you wanted to know why these women
“sitting on the Mat,” wailed for two weeks in my poem,
and I said, “That’s culture, Grebo people,
Grebo funerals, Grebo rituals.”
So you said, “Well, I can understand this repetition now.
Any time a group of people can sit on a mat,
mourning for two weeks,
they’ve got to run out of new words sooner or later.”
Herb in his final years—
In his final years, Herb continued to work with his former students and writers even from his death bed. I heard testimonies of young writers who confessed to sending their manuscripts to Herb in his last two weeks of life because he had asked to help out with their efforts. But mine came as a surprise when Herb called just a month or so before his death to inquire about my third collection and why it was still not yet published. He was hoarse, and could barely speak, but he wanted my poems rushed to him. “Mail it to me, and Shirley will bring it to the hospital,” he said, “and let me take a good look at it.” I could not convince him he could not do that being so ill. He refused, so I rushed the manuscript to him in Jan. of 2006. I called Herb in his hospital room a week later, and he said in that hoarse voice, “I love it, Patricia, I love the book. It will be published. I have been reading it right here in my bed.”
“Please stop talking, Herb,” I said, but he continued to give me tips on how “we” could get the book published. “And that memoir,” he said, “I still want to go to Africa to see you get an award for the memoir when it is done.”
So, Herb died quietly on Feb. 12, 2006. The call came from my friend and fellow poet, a mentee also of Herb, Jade Melvin (Metta Sama), about 8:30 Feb. 13. Her voice was serious, not like the Lydia Jade Metta, my younger poet friend and former classmate at WMU that I knew. I could not be consoled after that. I had lost a hero. The literary world had lost a hero. My husband let me cry loud for some time, then he tried to comfort me. My friend, another poet, Adela Najaro called a few minutes later from California to console me. In between the calls, someone remarked that “you were the other daughter,” and I could feel some jealousy there, but hey, Herb meant so much to me and to my poetry friends who knew him. I believe the best of us do not live as long as we should because we have given more than our share of God’s love away to the world, and sooner or later, God says, “There is just no more love left, come home, you are too weary for the world to keep down there.”
In closing, here is Herb’s one poem that will break your heart in conclusion.
It is strange
if we live for years
a good and loving life
we are never forgiven
our smallest transgressions
those first wavering steps
in the wrong direction
never to be brought back
although we stand
in the unlit doorway
late into the darkness