Tie This Guy Up, Make Sure He Stays at SDSU

From the land of poets

Sounds different from most immigrant arrival stories. His mother and his brother now live in Los Angeles. Tragically, his father died about a year after immigrating to the U.S. The causes were natural. If he had stayed in Odessa, the causes might not have been.

Kaminsky is tall (6’3”, at least) and, like many tall people, stoops a little, is a few pounds past lanky and, like many poets I know, somewhat heterodox in his attire — his teaching-day shirt tucked in front, untucked in back, unironed, and open three buttons over a standard white undershirt. His wife buttoned a few of the buttons for him before we left for class, and by the time we got there they were undone again. He was, rightly, oblivious to this. He has a big, slightly goofy grin and somewhat disheveled dark hair. I know a brilliant senior American poet who shaves himself in what one of my friends affectionately refers to as “the crop-rotation method.” In other words, he misses whole swaths of his cheeks and chin, and always in different places. Theodore Roethke once lost a pair of his pants for several weeks. Eventually, he found them on his desk.

Kaminsky lives with his wife, Katie Farris, a fiction writer, whom he met at one of his poetry readings. Their modest apartment, in the North Park area of San Diego, is spare and filled with light. I asked him how he and Katie met, and he said, “You will laugh, but our first conversation was about Kafka. When I read I had much accent, and not many folks at that moment could understand me. But ironically she had been studying Russian for quite some time. So, I thought: here is a beautiful, smart woman who can actually understand what I say? A gift of the gods!” She too is tall, very slim, and lovely. They clearly adore each other. Farris is a vegetarian and served us a delicious vegetarian lunch. I asked Kaminsky if he was a vegetarian. “Only when I eat with her,” he said. He referred to himself at one point as a “really lucky bastard” to have met her.

During my brief visit to his apartment, I failed to ask if I could see his study. Most writers’ studies are filled with books. I love looking at writers’ bookshelves. (Who said this: “Show me a writer’s library and I will tell you his biography”?) I learned later that Kaminsky’s study was in his garage, which made me regret even more not asking to see it.

I asked him how the June gloom was this year. He hadn’t heard of it, or didn’t notice, or it wasn’t so bad. He was also unfamiliar with the grunion run. San Diegans, teach him the lore of the Southland!

By the time you read this, Kaminsky will be 31. The teaching job I alluded to above is at SDSU, where he is an assistant professor of English and creative writing.

He happens to be severely hearing-impaired. “I got the momps [I’m leaving the spelling the way he wrote it, because I think the word should be pronounced and spelled that way — it’s more onomatopoeically accurate. Webster’s take note!] when I was 4. I never really think of myself as hard of hearing. Silly but true. Why? Because I don’t know the alternative, really. What does it mean to fully hear? Does anyone fully hear? What does it mean to be fully deaf? Sign language does not have a word for silence, you know.”

One of the highest compliments a poet can receive is that he or she has a good ear. It means that the music, the rhythms, the cadences of the poetry are strong. All great poetry is musical, and the music of each great poet is distinct, as Mozart is from Beethoven. Kaminsky’s ear is terrific.

I asked Kaminsky if it were possible for him to talk about how he hears his own poems and others’. In his head? His answer could have been given only by a real poet:

“Not in the head so much as in the shoulders, legs, hands, chest, brows, ears, hair. You know. Exactly the same way you feel when you read poems that make you go nuts.” The “go nuts” he is talking about is how Emily knew she had read a great poem: it felt like the top of her head was taken off. A.E. Housman put it a little differently. He said that if he was shaving and he read a real line of poetry, he would cut himself. Me, I have to settle for the old goose bumps and, sometimes, that electric eel running up and down my spine. For people who love poetry it’s like a narcotic. But free. Though usually hidden in objects called books, which are sometimes further hidden in places called bookstores and libraries.

Then Kaminsky said, “I don’t think poems are heard so much as lived through. They are experiences, pieces of life on the page. Elizabeth Bishop wrote ‘One Art’ over 20 years ago. A crunky [again his spelling and, I believe, more accurate for Bishop] old lady. Didn’t like people much. But her poem moves my lips when I wake in the middle of the night. It tells me how to go on when I forget I should. Is that something we hear? Sure. But it is more.”

Indeed it is. Here’s another thing about Kaminsky to keep in mind, particularly when you consider his hearing loss — the reality of his coming to America at 16 and speaking little English. It seems he left a girlfriend or two behind in Odessa, and what that will do to a young man’s heart does not even come close to what we usually call “broken.” I have a theory: all young men’s poetry begins with a broken heart. Kaminsky graduated from high school, college (University of Rochester), and a prestigious (Georgetown) law school, all by the time he was 24. I asked him, on a scale of 1 to 10, how well he spoke English when he first came to the U.S. He said, “When I came to U.S., I did not speak English. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, it is 0.”

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