My Father's Garden: Tending a Literary Legacy

Sebastian Matthews
From the March/April 2004 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

By definition death leaves unfinished business.
—Stanley Plumly

Only weeks before he turned 55, my father, the poet William Matthews, delivered a manuscript of poems to Peter Davison, his longtime friend and editor at Houghton Mifflin. It turned out to be the last book he wrote. He died of a heart attack on November 12, 1997, the day after his birthday.

Soon after the funeral, Davison called me to offer his condolences and talk about shepherding the manuscript into publication. With my father gone, Davison needed someone to help review galleys and verify publication credits. My father's partner, Celia Bellinger, had already discovered on my father's computer a few recently revised versions of poems in the manuscript. Obviously those had to be taken into account. Relieved to be asked to do something constructive, I got busy.

It seems my father, before his untimely death, was in the midst of a good run of work. In addition to completing the manuscript that would become After All: Last Poems, he finished his translation of Satires of Horace, which he had been working on for several years. Poised to take on new projects, he wrote in a letter to a friend that he might be ready to tackle Ovid. In another, he suggested putting together the cookbook he'd been talking about for years. Already an idea for the next book of poems had been percolating in the back of his mind; a few stray poems were on file. So it wouldn't be exactly right to say that when my father died his dreams and ideas died with him.

The Library Journal once wrote of my father: "Reading Matthews is like driving at night with a slightly mad but compassionate, and, above all, lucky companion who always seems to find a map to the unsayable in the nick of time." His old friend and mentor, Richard Hugo, wrote that when we read his poems "we become the strong people we want to be because Matthews reminds us and teaches us how to survive the natural process of fragmentation that results when we neglect what we really are and what life really is." Recently Edward Hirsch called my father one of the "wittiest and most heartbreaking American poets in the second half of the twentieth century."

My father wrote 11 books of poetry, including Time & Money (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Blues If You Want (Houghton Mifflin, 1989); and Ruining the New Road (Random House, 1970). He also wrote Curiosities (University of Michigan Press, 2001), a book of essays. He received numerous fellowships and taught at a number of schools, including Cornell University, the University of Colorado, the University of Washington, and, at the time of his death, the College of the City of New York, where he directed the creative writing program. He also served as president of the Associated Writing Programs and the Poetry Society of America.

Needless to say, my father cast a considerable shadow. And with a mother who was also a working poet, I had been reluctant to pursue the life of a writer; it felt both natural and impossible to declare myself a poet. When I decided to get an MFA in creative writing, I applied as a fiction writer. Maybe I just wasn't ready to follow in my father's footsteps. And since many people knew me as my father's son, at least I could hide a little by writing fiction.

After a year in the University of Michigan workshops, however, it became clear that I was neither very good at nor all that interested in writing short stories. Already halfway through the program, I thought it best to stick it out, spending my second year writing thinly disguised lyric essays posing as stories. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but now it's clear I was avoiding poetry as a way to sidestep my father's influence. It wasn't until after my father's sudden death four years later that I could actually see myself as a working poet. The shift came suddenly and unexpectedly, as if my father's death were a tree falling. No longer was I standing in its shadow.

Around the time I began work on After All: Last Poems, my brother, Bill, and I discovered that my father's will was unsigned. We decided we had better find a lawyer to help us with the estate. His first suggestion was to appoint an executor—someone to safeguard my father's literary legacy. I thought immediately of Stanley Plumly, one of my father's oldest and dearest friends. A distinguished poet and English professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, Plumly is deeply familiar with the "po-biz," as my dad liked to call it, and knows my father's work intimately. And since my father had informally asked Stan to serve as his literary executor years before he died, it made sense to ask him again.

Stan readily agreed and, surprisingly, asked me to join him in the role. He thought we could accomplish more together than either of us could on our own. Our lawyer approved of the suggestion, emphasizing that, as my father's chosen estate executors, my brother and I had the power to administer all his assets, including literary rights. Bill also agreed. "This way, you can be the family spokesman," he said over the phone. "We trust you to speak for us. So would have Dad."

I had a vague idea of what is required of a literary executor. Negotiating contracts, editing, trafficking manuscripts, collecting royalties, and registering and renewing copyrights seemed like the typical duties that would be asked of me. But as the daunting task of placing his letters and manuscripts in a university archive loomed, I could see there was more to the role of a literary executor than just legal and administrative details. I was hesitant to take steps forward, because I wasn't sure what to do first; my father's will, unsigned, was vague and offered little instruction.

Luckily, the demands of the situation forced me into action. In the months to follow, Stan and I participated in two memorial readings, were asked to grant permissions for the publication of poems, and proofread the poems that would appear in literary journals. There were letters to answer from old students and unread manuscripts to return. Over the winter holiday, my wife, Ali, and I packed up my father's extensive library and, unable to house them all ourselves, donated many of the books to Poets House, a nonprofit literary center and archive in New York City, and to the library of Berkshire School, his prep school alma mater, from which my father graduated in 1961. Finally, while packing up his Manhattan apartment, I gathered my father's literary papers and desk files and sent more than a dozen large boxes back to our home in Ann Arbor.

That spring, Ali and I made our first concerted effort to put those papers in order. On a cold Saturday morning, I pulled the boxes out of storage and hauled them into our living room. For the next two days we camped out by the fire, surrounded by my father's life of work, and waded through the dusty poems, letters, and manuscripts. Our living room was filled with spilled-open boxes, yellowed papers lying in stacks on every available surface. Every few hours we had to wash our hands of the dirt and grime.

At some point during the sorting, I came across an old issue of the Tennessee Poetry Journal, circa 1970. My father was the featured author. On the cover he's wearing a parka against the winter's cold, kneeling down to pet our German shepherd, Underdog. There are other photographs inside the journal, including a shot of my mom and dad—still together but about to separate—and one of my brother and me as little boys. Growing up with my father, I rarely saw family photos in the house, and had come to believe he had thrown them all away. So it was a strange and strangely comforting experience to find family photos there, slipped inside my father's work.

It would be an exaggeration to say my father "arranged" his papers. Manuscripts were bound together with rubber bands; individual poems often had the name of the journal in which they first appeared handwritten in the lower-right corner; old essays were stored either in a filing cabinet or in one of the computer files on his ancient Macintosh. That was the extent of the order he kept. One box was full of student manuscripts covering piles of old tax receipts; another brimmed over with official correspondence—years of random letters from conference directors, editors, festival organizers, and department heads. Early drafts of a manuscript overflowed one box, while later versions hid in another. Random postcards popped up between manuscript pages. My father kept contradictory lists of poems he'd published in journals, which meant they all needed double-checking.

After a full day of work, I still couldn't get a clear sense of the archive's contents. Entire decades of early correspondence were missing. I had been told by old friends that my father had engaged in ongoing correspondence with such poets as W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Richard Hugo, but it seemed that only a few letters from each had survived his many moves. I couldn't shake the feeling that important aspects of his estate were either tucked away in a storage shed somewhere or gone for good.

The work reminded me of the summers I spent as a boy in Boulder, Colorado, weeding my father's garden. Recently divorced, my father was used to being a summertime dad. He wrote in an early poem, "Moving Again": "If I lived with my sons / all year I'd be less sentimental / about them." Since we lived up in the mountains, 7,000 feet above sea level, my father's meager patch of dirt produced more weeds than vegetables. No matter how hard he emphasized the moral necessity of chores, I went to the garden reluctantly, literally dragging my heels. Maybe getting me to work in that garden was his way of maintaining some semblance of control over two unruly and energetic boys, or his way of compensating for being a distracted father. But no matter what he said, it was and always would be a weed garden. In Ann Arbor 20 years later, as I hauled a new box of my father's papers up from the basement, I wondered aloud to my wife, "How did I wind up back in my father's garden?"

As the day progressed, I kept walking away from the boxes, overcome with a sharp sense of despair bordering on panic. It felt like I had lost my way, was trapped in a dense forest with no discernible path out. The archive had to be catalogued, I understood, for legal and administrative purposes, but why did I have to do it? What about my own work? Ali would come find me and talk me down. She'd put on Bob Dylan or some other record my father and I used to listen to together, and eventually I'd return to the living room and dip my hands back into the boxes.

By Sunday night we had done most of the major sorting. My knees and back were sore from all the kneeling, my head stuffed and eyes puffy from the dust and mold. Instead of feeling a sense of completion—of a job well done—I was depleted, overwhelmed by the task of going through my father's literary papers and their constant reminder of my father's absence. I felt invisible in the work, lost again in my father's long shadow.

How does one go about managing a writer's legacy? And if that writer happens to be your father, how do you avoid resenting him for dumping all this work on you? In order to move forward, I needed to know what my father would have wished. I kept asking myself those questions. And I could only guess at the answers. As a young writer with little experience in the field, with only a few publications to my name, I felt unable to achieve a balance between doing what I thought I should do and doing what it seemed I was supposed to do. As an executor, as a son, I had been left with only fragments of a map.

Since Stanley Plumly and I had already collaborated on keeping track of my father's work and a plethora of permission requests, I turned to him for advice. For answers to estate-related questions, he suggested I ask for help from novelist Russell Banks. Another close friend of my father's, Banks was glad to help me with my father's archive. He assisted me in talking to a variety of librarians in the special collection rooms of university libraries, including those of my father's undergraduate and graduate alma maters, universities where he had worked, and those that specialized in the archives of American poets. He also gave me the number of a rare-book dealer who would appraise the literary estate and help broker its sale. I hadn't known that rare-book dealers dealt with literary papers, or that some, like George Minkoff in Alford, Massachusetts, were specialists in the archives of contemporary American poets.

But I was putting the cart before the horse. Before I passed along the archive, didn't I have to work on potential book projects? Maybe this is what I needed to do to achieve the right balance: to find a project that I could take charge of. I needed to become an editor of my father's work. Indeed, while sorting through my father's archive, I had discovered unpublished essays and interviews, early poems, articles, and reviews. Without really knowing what I would do with them, I had set them aside in a pile of files marked "new essays" and "prose pieces." Maybe it was about time for a second collection of my father's "occasional" prose to be published. Russ and Stan agreed: There was more than enough material for a book.

This time—maybe because I had a clear goal, or because some time had passed since my father's death—I enjoyed going back through the archive. It was no longer emotionally draining to work with my father's literary papers. I finally felt like I knew what I was doing, and I had the support of my father's friends. I began to fancy myself a literary sleuth as I searched for the latest version of each piece or checked for publication credits. In some cases, I had to retype pieces and decipher my father's handwritten revisions. Each time, I felt as though I was learning something new about my father and his mode of composition. I took my time, going through one box each night, opening a bottle of wine and playing my father's old jazz LPs.

Once I had collected all the possible material, Stan and I set out making the hard decisions on which pieces to cut. In choosing the interviews, we followed my father's lead. He always believed less to be more. We focused on his reviews that discussed poets prominent in my father's personal and literary life and essays that entered into a one-way conversation about some of his preoccupying interests—jazz, language, and friendship among them. We started and ended the book with anecdotal pieces that highlighted my father's friendships with his fellow poets. Our idea was to showcase my father's trademark wit and intelligence in these personal, candid works. In them, we hoped, a reader would hear a friendly voice—the voice of a man, as Galway Kinnell said of him, whose vision was full of "wildness and joy."

The book, The Poetry Blues: Essays and Interviews of William Matthews, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2001. With the project completed and the archive organized, I sent it off to Minkoff, the rare-book dealer, for appraisal. For the moment, I felt I had achieved the balance I had been looking for.

Maintaining this newfound equilibrium wasn't easy, however. One of the harder decisions I had to make was how to administer the money my father set aside for charitable donations. In his will, he had specified a certain sum of money to be donated to the Guggenheim Foundation. For a variety of personal reasons, I wanted to use the money in a different way while retaining the spirit of my father's choice. Since the will was unsigned, and thus not legally binding, I decided to follow my father's request by the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

Both my father and I had been to the Vermont Studio Center—my father as visiting faculty, I as participant—and its laid-back but serious atmosphere seemed a perfect fit for my father's legacy. So I decided to use the money to create a scholarship for underrecognized poets at mid-career. Along with Gary Clark, the Center's development director, I created an annual scholarship that would allow a poet nominated by one of my or my father's colleagues to enjoy a monthlong stay at the Center.

Houghton Mifflin had published my father's Selected Poems and Translations: 1969-1991 in the early '90s. After All had come out in paperback in 2000. And other than Time & Money, Blues If You Want, and White Pine Press's 1988 reissue of Sleek for the Long Flight, all of his books had fallen out of print. It seemed time to begin work on my father's collected poems. From working on The Poetry Blues, I knew something about the process of putting a book together, and I now had experience working with editors and selecting material for a book. I hoped that my experience as the literary executor of my father's estate would give me the confidence to tackle the job.

Once again, it was back to the archive. With fresh eyes and a new perspective, I began to see things in my father's work that I hadn't noticed before. I always knew that he wrote about jazz and jazz musicians, but I hadn't been aware of how much he wrote about work, travel, and loneliness, or just how many poems were set in hotels. My father's "body of work" was in part an autobiography of a working artist. In fact, many of his jazz poems can be understood as being spoken by a "thrown voice," one in which my father becomes part jazz musician, part jazz lover, and part master poet talking about his craft.

Stan agreed with me that the collected poems would be composed exclusively of my father's poems—no translations. Not a "complete" poems, per se; more of a "selected" collected poems. Once again, we chose poems using my father's own criteria. "When it came time to assemble a new volume, he was severe," Stan wrote in his introduction to Search Party. "Either a poem played in concert with the concept of the whole manuscript or it didn't." For instance, we chose only a few of each of the poems written on my father's favorite themes. He often wrote about driving at night, or wrote elegies for jazz musicians; we trusted two or three poems in each "category" to represent the ones we left out.

Once we had our preliminary choices made, we asked Peter Davison to read the manuscript and make his suggestions. Michael Collier, the new Houghton Mifflin poetry editor, also weighed in. Each made important contributions to the selection of poems, especially in helping us decide on the groupings of uncollected poems—one representing my father's early work, a second covering his later work. It was Stan who chose the title for the collection. "Search Party" is the title of the first poem in my father's first book, Ruining the New Road. Through the editing process the four of us had become our own search party. We set out as a group to uncover my father's printed legacy, stumbling around in the dark with flashlights. The treasures we found are collected in Search Party, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in January.

Last year, the Lilly Library at Indiana University bought my father's archives. After finishing work on Search Party, I boxed everything up one last time and shipped the packages off to Bloomington. I had mixed feelings handing over the estate, of course. On one hand, I was relieved to be finally passing on the care of the archive to professionals; on the other, I felt guilty, as though I were reneging on a promise I had made to my father. In the end, it was clear that the archive needed to be stored somewhere other than in my moldy garage, and that any further work I needed to do on the estate could be completed at the Lilly.

In the last few years, other projects have come to fruition. In 2002, a book of my father's translations, Satires of Horace, was published by Ausable Press, an independent publisher in upstate New York. Recently, I have been working with Sutton Hoo Press in Winona, Minnesota, on a collection of my father's prose poems and short stories in a limited-edition hand-set volume titled Provisions: Lost Prose by William Matthews. Stan and I are even beginning to throw around ideas for a final collection of my father's work, a kind of "William Matthews Reader." My early worries and insecurities have fallen away.

After working for the last six years on my father's estate, I have learned a considerable amount about what it takes to be a literary executor. Most important, I learned that an executor is wise to turn to the deceased writer's circle of friends and close colleagues. In my father's case, there was a brotherhood of friends who knew exactly how to assist me in breathing life into my father's legacy. With this newfound knowledge, I have been able to step forward, not merely as an executor, but as a writer, an editor, and a son.

Over time, the work of tending my father's legacy has reaped unexpected rewards in my own writing life, both informing my work and giving me a more complete understanding of the work of my fellow writers. What began as a necessary burden, as something outside my life that seemed unmanageable and without boundary, has folded into my life and enriched it in unforeseen ways. Not only have my own poems deepened and matured, I have also written a memoir, In My Father's Footsteps, about my relationship to my father and his legacy.

With my own life moving forward with its attendant family and literary endeavors, the garden has grown. Somehow, my father's garden and mine have merged. I am no longer weeding, but cultivating a garden.

Sebastian Matthews is the author of the memoir In My Father's Footsteps (Norton, 2004). He lives with his wife and son in Asheville, North Carolina, where he teaches part time at Warren Wilson College and edits the literary journal Rivendell.