The Mentor’s Inspired Dedication

Amy Pence

In the last post he wrote on his blog, the late poet Joshua Vinzant, who committed suicide in 2007, portrays his poems’ recurring protagonist as “towing around his rusted-out misadventure life.” Vinzant’s chapbook, Max, eponymously titled after its hero and published last summer by Ropewalk Press, might have encountered its own misadventures in the publishing world but for the hands-on efforts of Vinzant’s mentor, the poet Rodney Jones, author of eight poetry collections, most recently Salvation Blues (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), which won the 2007 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

In the early 2000s, Vinzant had recognized in Jones’s work a kindred voice and vision and enrolled in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where Jones taught, so that he could study with him. “We had both been country boys who grew to love poetry,” says Jones, who notes a shared love of fishing and the blues and an appreciation of “an absurd sense of humor.”

After receiving his MFA in 2005, Vinzant, who described himself on his blog, In the Pirate Corn, as a “Bona fide, degreed poet. Carpenter, technical writer, teacher. Father. Husband,” headed back west to his hometown, Maryville, Missouri, with his wife, Jen Talbot, and their two sons. Employed there as a contractor by day, in the off-hours he wrote a collection of poems, “Max and the Life of Big Machines,” that traces the small-town troubles of the manuscript’s main character. “Corn, caskets & Max,” the prologue begins, then the poet warns, “A few things go horribly wrong.”

As he worked on the book, Vinzant kept up a correspondence with Jones. He sent his mentor missives about the collection’s progress, but he also revealed a darker reality. According to Jones, Vinzant had found himself struggling with a familiar alcohol dependency. “He was haunted by his own memories of his father and feared that he was going to make the same kinds of memories for his family,” says Jones, who is quick to add that Vinzant’s book “is not self-pitying, nor is it devoid of fun; every step of it feels true to character, heartfelt, visionary.”

After his student’s death at the age of thirty-four, Jones recovered the manuscript and sought the imprimatur of Vinzant’s widow, who approved of his plans to seek a publisher for the manuscript. “Rodney has a lovely and rare balance of gentleness and honesty that makes him eminently trustworthy,” Talbot says.

Jones then met with editor Ron Mitchell of Ropewalk Press to discuss publication. Mitchell was moved by Vinzant’s story, which he says reminded him of that of John Kennedy Toole—the New Orleans author whose novel A Confederacy of Dunces was published eleven years after his suicide and won a Pulitzer Prize—and by Jones’s dedication to the project. “His goal wasn’t just to see Josh’s work in print, which is admirable enough in its own right, and the point where most mentors would have been satisfied,” Mitchell says. “Rodney was engaged in each step of the process.”

In fact, Jones retyped the manuscript after sifting through Vinzant’s computer files, some of which were corrupted, to locate the body of work his student had enthusiastically described to him in letters. Mitchell and Jones then worked together to cull a chapbook from the book-length volume, maintaining the original order of Vinzant’s poems in the process.

The project culminated last August with the book’s release, but promotional efforts are still ongoing. At the time of this writing, Jones and Mitchell are compiling audio tracks of Max for the RopeWalk Press Web site, with writers such as Kim Addonizio, Benjamin Percy, and Robert Wrigley reading favorite poems from the book. Vinzant and his book also have a presence on Facebook, under the moniker Max’s Toolbox Heart.

Amy Pence is the author of the poetry collection The Decadent Lovely (Main Street Rag, 2010).  Her second book, Armor, Amour, is forthcoming from Ninebark Press.  She teaches in Atlanta and lives in Carrollton, Georgia.