Attempting to describe my late friend, the wonderful poet Bill Corbett, to journalist Julia Lieblich, I stuttered a moment, then said: “Why, he’s the king of Bohemia.”
Julia smiled, apparently pleased by my answer. “I always wondered who was king,” she said. “I knew there had to be one.”
He may not have worn a crown, but he had a palace: 9 Columbus Square in the South End, long before the neighborhood became fashionable, respectable, or safe. The stately townhouse had an open-door policy, inviting entry by the hungry, tired, and poor literati of Boston and environs. Bill welcomed several generations of us into that home, with its high-ceilinged living room and expansive kitchen, and into his capacious heart; he and Beverly fed us, encouraged us, argued with us, educated us. Through Bill I met Fanny Howe, Joe Torra, Michael Franco, John Wieners, Robert Creeley, Ed Sanders, and Paul Auster, among many others. It was Bill who urged me to let two young poets, Joseph Lease and Thomas Sayers Ellis, edit an anthology for AGNI/New Cambridge Press. The result was a prophetic volume, On the Verge (check it out and see early pre-book appearances by Kevin Young, Laura Mullen, Natasha Trethewey, and many others).
Sometimes that open door proved a mixed blessing. I remember talking to Bill the day after two junkies broke in and tried to mug him in his own hallway, only to be chased off by his feisty fox terrier, Basil.
Bill was a booster and a battler. As a reader and critic he held nothing back. In the late eighties we were part of a writing group that met on occasional Sunday evenings in Harvard’s Lamont Poetry Room, then guided by the intellectually agile and spirited poet and novelist Stratis Haviaris. Other members of the group included Robert Polito, Mary Karr, Alfred Alcorn, Stephen Dobyns, Lewis Hyde, Jay Boggis, and Sven Birkerts. It was a tough crowd. I will always remember Bill’s boisterous denunciations of a line or graph he didn’t like, as well as the articulate ardor of his endorsements. With Bill, you always knew where you stood: he told the truth, and nothing slant about it.
If this brief tribute is heavy on lists of names, it’s in part to suggest the breadth of his friendships, as well as to honor Bill’s own documentary spirit. His antennae vibrated to the ever-flowing currents of the moment. Whatever came before his gaze was grist for poems. It’s no mistake that one of his books is titled Don’t Think: Look. And he was a historian too, penning A Literary Guide to New England for Faber.
Bill was an old friend of AGNI’s. He himself had edited Firefox, an influential Boston-based journal, and, later in life, he became a devoted publisher in the mold of one of his heroes, J. Laughlin of New Directions. His Pressed Wafer supported an eclectic and important list of writers, including Ed Barrett, Clark Coolidge, and Fanny Howe. He published and promoted poets and commentators on visual arts, his two passions. In the late nineties he was a member of AGNI’s poetry panel, devoting hours to pouring over poems, then meeting at the office—together with Robert Pinksy, Erin Belieu, Michael Franco, and Tom Sleigh—to analyze, debate, and promote work he believed worthy of publication.
Boston, to its everlasting shame, seemed unwilling to give Bill the recognition he deserved, and he was happy to decamp for New York. We had long thought of him as one of the New York Poets, aesthetically kin to O’Hara and Ashbery rather than Lowell and Bishop. Something of the city’s heart died with his departure.
In the nineties, a friend and I spent a day filming conversations with Bill. When we sat down to edit what we had, we discovered the camera had somehow been aimed at Bill’s feet. For six hours. So many of us sat at those feet over decades, I feel ready to compose a fresh set of Upanishads. In them I would tell about a pilgrimage to Gloucester with Bill and Seamus Heaney where Bill lectured us on the importance of one of his mentors, Charles Olson; I would mention dog walks with Beverly, Basil and Annie; and I would praise the way the whole family, including his daughters Marni and Arden, would gather together to celebrate the pleasures of merely circulating. I would have to pay homage, too, to Bill’s vast memory. He sometimes reminded me of Borges’s character Funes the Memorious, whose burden was that he could never forget anything. Dove sta memoria…As Pound put it: “Nothing matters but the quality / of the affection— / in the end…”
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.