The name of Reuben Jackson’s poetry class, “Bold as Love,” intrigued me even though I had never much valued poetry. I had no accolades, no awards, no audience. As soon as I read the course title, I time-traveled to 1996, when I lived on a kibbutz in Northern Israel and spent the majority of my time lugging around Spaceship 13, a novel-in-progress I had been revising for years. Despite constant revisions, the characters felt underdeveloped, the plot meandering, so I gathered some twigs and placed them in the fire pit outside my room. I threw the manuscript into the flames, thinking of how Jimi Hendrix set his Fender Stratocaster on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival. You sacrifice the things you love.
Bold as Love was one of my favorite Hendrix albums, and Reuben curated the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington collection. I figured I’d sign up.
On the first day, we sat at a long conference table and went around introducing ourselves. Reuben sat at the head of the table next to the portable CD player he brought from home.
“I’m going to play you some John Coltrane,” he said, his voice serious, soft-spoken. “Some people say Coltrane sounds like a bunch of salad,” he continued, “but it’s all in the way he mixes it.” He pressed “PLAY” and told us to write what came to mind. Like a silent Miles Davis exiting the stage to give his fellow musicians an opportunity for expression, our instructor left the room.
As Coltrane played, I pressed my pencil against notebook paper and started writing. The words came out in a rush, in rhythms I had already possessed. It felt natural, in a way fiction never did. There was no agonizing over characters, plot charts and index cards. It was pure emotion.
We went around the room, reading our poems. I had two short pieces, riffs on cityscapes, and though I was nervous, I read them aloud. When I looked up, he was watching me, deep in thought and leaning back in his chair. He said nothing. Weeks later, he’d verbalize his praise, but for the time being, the silence spoke. As Miles Davis knew so well, the real music was in the silence.
Reuben often deflected attention away from himself because he wanted poetry to be the central thrust of the conversation. When he spoke of poems he loved, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird” or “The Day Lady Died,” it was with deep reverence.
The only other art form I heard him hold in the same regard was music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz musicians. Although he rarely talked about his work, he often had an anecdote or two to share about certain musicians, like his story of running into Stephane Grappelli (the violinist who accompanied the great Django Reinhardt on so many classic recordings) on a DC metro bus. Or he’d offer up inspirational quotes on the subject of creativity, as he did when he brought in a book of interviews with Pat Metheny. Sometimes he’d leave us with a haunting image, like Thelonious Monk in his final days, unable to play a single note on the piano. There was great joy and suffering in the artists he revered, but the point he wanted us to walk away with was this: poetry was serious business.
All good things come together, and all good things must part. Reuben had taught me all he could, or I had learned what I needed to learn. For whatever reason, it was time to move on. You sacrifice the things you love.
Ten years later, I’m in my room with the shades drawn, working on this essay. I graduated with and MFA in poetry this January. Then all hell broke loose, and it’s still with us. COVID-19 originally sounded like the name of a vitamin supplement and not a deadly virus that causes permanent pulmonary damage, or death. The lucky ones are asymptomatic. But do you really want to spin the gun barrel?
Evidently, many do. They ignore social distancing guidelines—even on nature trails, like this morning when my fiancé and I kept running into people prancing about without masks. We ended up cutting the walk short.
Now, more than ever, I think back on Reuben’s reverence for poetry, and how he taught us to share in that reverence. Poetry is serious business, which is why I write it. Poetry saved my life, on more than one occasion. It’s also broken my heart, especially recently. The pandemic death toll keeps rising, and rather than receiving empathy, all we hear are carefully-crafted campaign slogans. The poets have to make up in language for what their leaders lack. Maybe this was why, along with stories of Coltrane and Django, Reuben added the one about Monk’s final days. I can almost sense what Monk must have felt like, staring out the window of his friend’s house in New Jersey, unable to lift a finger to play another note.
Miles Liss grew up in Miami Beach, Florida. He has traveled and lived in England, India, Israel and the Virgin Islands. Currently, he lives in the DC area where he works as a high school teacher of English and special education. He recently earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Along with writing poetry, Miles dabbles in art, and posts some of his paintings on Instagram.