By Barbara J Eikmeier
One of my writing teachers is a poet. I saw him last week in the coffee shop. He wasn’t at his usual table, near the window where the light is best. This day, his table was next to the fireplace, where it’s warmer. Sheets of paper spilled across the table with a book of quotes opened in front of him.
I look for him every time I’m in the coffee shop. Pre-pandemic he wrote there three times a week.
Years ago, I took writing classes from him. He taught me about expansion and contraction – taking one line of free writing and expanding it to fill a whole page, then taking the full page and editing it down to one paragraph. He said, “Sometimes we don’t know what we are writing about until we uncover the core truth in our words.”
When I bought a little book of poems from him, I learned he was also an artist – his sketches graced the bottom of each page. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, he taught art and poetry to inmates in the 1970s. He thought if people read more poetry there would be less crime.
There, in that little coffee shop, I began taking drawing lessons from him. Under his tutelage, I learned to draw without looking at my paper. He said, “When you don’t look you draw what is true.” They looked like scribbles to me, but he praised my pencil lines as being honest. In the beginning I paid him. Then one day he asked if I would read his poetry in exchange for drawing lessons. I admitted I didn’t know much about poetry, but I knew when I liked it. That was all he wanted, for me to read his poems and tell him what I liked. He wrote a poem every day and typed as many as he could fit on one page, arranged in columns. At each art lesson he gave me another manila envelope filled with poems. My instructions were to circle 2 favorites and 2 least favorites on each page. In exchange I learned to draw trees and leaves, human hands, and coffee shop scenes of people deep in thought.
Between my travel and his vacations, we stopped meeting. Our visits were reduced to the times I saw him in the coffee shop. Then came the pandemic and he disappeared.
Last week, he was seated with his wife whom I’d never met. I went to him, squatted down and said, “Ah there you are! What are you writing today?” He looked up, his blue eyes watery and vacant. I asked, “Do you remember me?” He said, “I think so.” I looked across the table to his wife. She smiled a tight, sad smile and said, “He’s not so well.” Turning back to him I said, “You taught me to draw in exchange for reviewing your poetry. I’m Barb.” His wife’s smile broadened as she told him, “It’s Barb. The quilter.” I chatted briefly with her – long enough to learn that she knew everything about me from those days when he gave me lessons. I went back to my table and ate my pumpkin bread, aware with each bite that he was the one who introduced me to that amazing pumpkin bread. As I prepared to leave the coffee shop I returned to his table. This time he looked up at me with recognition in his eyes. “You’re the quilter! You read my poems.”
Eight years have passed since he gave me permission to use one of his poems in my novel. I have a new motivation to finish the revisions and get it published: I wrote a scene in it where my teacher, the poet, is reading his poem on a radio show. It’s a beautiful scene. I’d like him to see it in print. Time won’t wait. That’s the truth.
Barbara J. Eikmeier is a quilter, writer, student of quilt history, and lover of small-town America. Raised on a dairy farm in California, she enjoys placing her characters in rural communities.