One might well begin with The Origin of the World. That was the first book of Lewis's I read, the summer after my sophomore year in college. It was unlike anything I'd read before. I was captivated by its mysterious rhythms, alternating between graceful lyricism, day-to-day banality, and wiseguy schtick. Who was this dashing and disheveled person who'd written such poems?
We first met at a reading at Space Space in Ridgewood. Tony Iantosca, one of my oldest, dearest friends and my roommate at the time, who had already started studying with Lewis at the LIU MFA program (a couple years before I enrolled) had brought me. The reading of course was terrific, and afterwards we hung out awhile. Any feelings of intimidation were quickly dissipated by Lewis's gentle, attentive manner. He had the disarming quality of genuinely listening and responding to you, despite whatever else might be going on in the room. A sense of real curiosity in who people were, what they thought, how they related to one another, who they might become.
Becoming a poet, for me, began with Lewis. A poet in the sense of being a person who writes and reads with and in relation to others, in community, in shared rooms and little magazines and webs of stories and personalities and relationships and conversations, who gives one's time and attention and care to the endeavors of those around oneself. This sense of being a poet I must have learned from Lewis.
If, in my memories of him, there are so many people and so many places, it's because of this attention to how all the details come together, how you can not leave anyone out, and the relationships between us all become the very stuff of life, and writing, which are indissoluble. You can take anyone seriously, give anyone the time of day. This is another thing I learned from Lewis.
Thinking of him now, little bits and scraps of language, teachings you could say, either things he said or lines from a poem, keep echoing in my head, things I'll always carry. “A poet is just a person in a room,” he told me once, about so-and-so, who I was nervous about contacting to solicit work for a magazine I was making. “If one person believes in you, / that's all you need,” a line from a poem, “Hotel Room in Lhasa,” from Inseparable. Perhaps somewhat ambiguous in its context in the poem, but I always think of this line in connection with Lewis's teaching, his generous spirit and attention. I don't remember the occasion, but I read this poem to Lewis once, at a party at LIU, in the English Department lounge, where we all went around reading him his own poems, much to his embarrassment and obvious delight.
Given how textual our relationship was, particularly over the past few years since I've been living far from New York and we've communicated mostly over email, it's funny that what comes most vividly to mind now are the inflections of his voice, his gestures: that shrug that took up his whole upper body; arms, shoulders, and head all engaged in one shrugging motion. Or that lowered chin, eyebrows raised posture, mouthing a droll, incredulous “wow.”
Ah, I've learned so much and have been so held by Lewis's friendship, his mentorship. All I can say is thank you.