My first collegiate writing class was a creative writing course taught by a poet named James D’Agostino. D’Agostino came to the first class wearing purple converse and an unkempt purple shirt that had a coffee stain the size of Texas on it. He looked around the class, scribbled a note or two, and then he took us outside to a building beside the university library. As we wandered across campus with this bearded stranger, I felt a connection to him already. I thought to myself That man’s a poet if I’ve ever seen one and, to that date, I had honestly only seen a few face-to-face.
Even though I had attached the label of “poet” to my human attributes a year or two prior and had read voraciously.
Or what I thought was voraciously.
Our first lesson was surface level discussion of Transcendentalism; I took pride in knowing the names Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau, but was ashamed of myself when I couldn’t recognize the trees that surrounded me. As we were discussing Emerson, D’Agostino was distracted by a butterfly. As though he forgot he was teaching, D’Agostinosuddenly rose up from his perch on the building steps and chased the butterfly.
His tie was like a kite in the wind and his unkempt shirt became, well, more unkempt. He only stopped when he recognized his shoe was untied. He held such reverence for the laces and he asked us how we tied our shoes—and that reverence he had for his shoelaces, he gave to each student who answered this seemingly unconnected question. I think about that question when I think about how we, as people and artists, friends and strangers, can come together when things in our life are untied.
D’Agostino, then, sprung up from the ground only to sink like a puddle of man to say:
“Write. About me. Chasing. The butterfly,” in gapped breathing.
I wish I could have said I had the line about his tie being like a kite. That would have been interesting. I hate to break it to you, but I honestly don’t remember what I wrote. What I do remember is that then and there, after seeing a grown man chase a little, white butterfly, I wrote the first piece of writing I would as a college student. I was so nervous when class began, but seeing D’Agostino was (and still is) a source of comfort for me I can’t quite explain.
To this day, when I’m in a new place for poetry or life in general, I bring D’Agostino’s first book Nude With Anything (New Issues Press, 2006) with me. It’s an old friend, a steady reliable for the uncertainty around me. D’Agostino gifted me the book a year before I graduated as I started to look forward at the possibility of graduate school, which in part, explains the last scribble of his inscription: Come back! While he wrote thathoping I’d stick around for my graduate studies, I read that command as encouraging me to return to the book regularly. And so, I do.
I also read it as a command to always come back to poetry. My first year of my undergraduate years was not spectacular by means of academic success. It was a myriad of things: my depression and anxiety in battle with each other, and the pervasiveness of I don’t deserve this, among other things. Those are still battles I face, but poetry provides connection, encourages empathy, and makes me a better person. And I will always grateful for that.
In one of our conversations, Jamie D’Agostino uttered the following phrase: Words change, worlds change, and words change again. To this day, I try my best to engage with those words. I also think of when he told me to rival the experience of being alive. And another time: I believe in you. All of those words are like my white butterfly I chase—they give me the push forward. Poetry pushes me forward. And I will always be grateful for my formative year with D’Agostino. It’s led us to a mentorship and friendship that is now almost ten years old.
By the way, the trees outside the library were Green Ash, Flowering Dogwood (the state tree of Missouri), and Serviceberry. See, that’s what poetry enables me to do consistently; research the world around me and share it in a way that connects themes and ideas.