I ran the undergraduate writing program at Johns Hopkins for the last three years, so today is a bit of a homecoming. We drive past the greatest diner in creation, the New Wyman, and then head over to campus. While my wife circles the parking lots, I run in quick to surprise my former partner in the writing program, Susie. She was my program's administrator, but more importantly, she was my pal and my colleague, and a day did not pass that we did not put our heads together to try and figure out ways in which to make the new program work better.
I bound up the stairs in Gilman Hall and it's like old times. "Hey," I say, when Susie turns around and sees me. "I haven't gotten a paycheck in six months. What's up?" We hug and talk about some of the new construction on campus. Susie checks in on this blog from time to time so knows roughly where I've been. She says, "How are you doing?" and all I can think of, after 40+ poets and 16,000 miles, is - "I'm tired." Then we both laugh. She's busy and I've got to get to my interview, so we make a promise for my wife and I to get together with her and her husband for lunch when we come back through Baltimore later in February, and I race out to head over to see Hopkins's newest poet.
We sit at a wood table, facing each other. Smith has on jeans; a purple shirt pops out of a nice blue sweater.
He answers in complex but complete thoughts, filling in gaps in answers by looping back, putting periods in by saying, "I think that's enough." His voice resonates in this room, and he listens to each question and weighs it a bit before answering. The answers develop clearly and forcefully. Even when he completely disagrees with an idea that I'm searching for insight on, he does it like a gentleman, with a polite revamping and then a new path.
We go out front after we've chatted and I position him in front of the house, on a slight rise above me. The family dog - who barked when I went up these stairs when I arrived - sees me now and is silent. Smith is patient while I take out both 35mm cameras and start shooting. While we stand there, we talk about an old friend of his, someone who taught me in grad school more than 20 years ago. Smith remembers him in the old days, and thinks fondly of him now. We both love his work.
Before I go, I mention where I'm headed in the coming weeks. He hears one name and asks me to take along a special message. His eyes light up a bit - it's a fond memory or an inside joke, I think. I promise to pass along the greeting, and I go.