Friday, August 24, 2012

Jeff Tagami’s Rocket

Last night I was shocked to see poet Jeff Tagami’s name on the “In Memoriam” list in this month’s Poets & Writers. Jeff was only 57—in my estimation, about 50 years too young to die—when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer this past June. Jeff taught for many years at Cabrillo College and was known for his intimate, vivid poems about the people he grew up with, the farmworker community in and around Watsonville, California.

I met Jeff only once, but that meeting has stuck in my head ever since. It was about 15 years ago, at a writers’ conference where Jeff was teaching a workshop. I’d made an appointment for a one-on-one manuscript consultation with whatever poet was available, and had randomly drawn Jeff, whom I hadn’t heard of before that day. I brought in a few poems and nervously headed down a hall toward the room where we were to meet. Jeff—a boyish, soft-spoken man only a little older than I was—greeted me with the news that the room was occupied already, and we’d have to grab a couple of chairs and sit outside. We found a quiet spot under an overhang, and with the breeze riffling the papers in our hands, Jeff took a slow read through my poems. He made only a few comments; he thought they were basically good to go and didn’t want to steer me off in the wrong direction just for the sake of saying something. That was fine, I said, because what I really wanted to ask him was, “Where do I go from here?” I’d had a few poems published in decent literary journals, I told him, but I was feeling like Sisyphus rolling that rock—it seemed like every time I got some momentum going, the whole machine stopped and I had to go back to sending stuff out and getting rejected again and again. I asked him, does this ever get any easier?

Jeff laughed and said, well, maybe a little. At some point, some journals may start soliciting work from you, which is a good thing, and which will feel like the tide is turning. But there’s no guarantee that you won’t have to go back to doing the same hard work you’re doing now, and you might have to do it for a long time. Then he said the thing that has stuck in my mind all these years:

A writer’s career is like a rocket, he said. You hope it soars and goes great places, but you have to get it off the ground first. Too many times, he’d seen writers build and build and build their launch pad—which everybody has to do—only to give up, frustrated and exhausted, just before their rocket was about to ignite. They’d done the workshopping, they’d read the work of other poets, they’d attended the readings and networked with other writers, they’d researched literary journals and book publishers. They wrote good poems, got some work out there—and then got rejected the usual hundreds of times and just couldn’t deal with it. It was bloody hard work, and they gave up when they actually had something good going there.

That’s the key, he said: You can’t launch the rocket without building the launch pad.

I think about Jeff and that launch pad all the time. Obviously he did pretty well with his—there he was, mentioned in Poets & Writers on that sad memorial list, along with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Gore Vidal. And as a teacher—well, all you can hope for is that your students will remember you for all the right reasons. And I certainly remember Jeff.

Here are links to some of Jeff’s work:

Review of his book October Light* at the Poetry Foundation.

*October Light is out of print and goes for a fortune on Amazon. So if you see it at a used book store, grab it.

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