by Caroline Keene, '08

When I was in high school, I wrote poetry occasionally. But it was of the usual kind, aka painfully bad: scribbles splayed across the inside of my physics textbook, or in my journal at night, when I wrote of the pain of being sixteen and overwhelmed. When it came to reading, the poetry I consumed was primarily what was assigned at school: Ravens, and the like.

However, I do recall a time or two when I was able to create something that was more than just a transcript of my latest mood swing. Even more vivid is the experience of stumbling across a poem whose words made the insides of my nostrils burn. Emily Dickinson once said you know you have read poetry if you feel as if the top of your head has been taken off; I’ve always defined good writing as words that put fire in the nose. Taking a class with Tomaz this past spring was akin to feeling permanent nostril burn for four months.

Now, I have to admit it is difficult not to be jaded at Richmond by your senior year. (And by jaded, I mean not unaccustomed to taking challenging courses that are taught by professionals who are passionate and dedicated and-most of all-excited by their students’ potential.) Nevertheless, it was a gift as an undergraduate to learn about the craft of writing poetry from a poet of Mr. Salamun’s caliber. It was extraordinary to sit in a small classroom with him week after week, and not only learn from him, but hear his stories; about his native Slovenia, about New York in the ‘70’s, about his time writing in Mexico, or in Iowa or in France; just to be able to have office hours at almost any time with Tomaz – to sit and discuss one’s own spotty work in the sparsely furnished room that was his office, his desk populated with neatly organized folders and an ever present cup of tea -- this was all something I never would have expected. But I digress.

Each meeting was based around the distribution of our own poems between classmates; poems previously read by Tomaz a few days prior, but new to everyone else. One by one, we would read our work aloud, and then prepare for the soft and heavily accented voice at the front of the room to deliver its opinions. And in his opinions, Tomaz could be blunt. The first time I read I recall Tomaz saying, in front of the class, that he did not like my poem. It was, of course, nothing personal. A shrug of the shoulders, and a slight wave of the hand. “It is too rambling,” he said. “Too much.”

Too much? Leaving class that day, I was distraught. Of course, he was right. And I needed what he told me: it was like a bucket of ice water had been thrown over my head, one that said, “drown out the too-much-ness, Caroline. Then work with what remains.” When I think of the semester, I think about how Tomaz was like water to every one of us at some point: “I find this …boring.” Splash! “No. All cliché.” Splash! “There is nothing here. This is not you at all.” Splash!

However, Tomaz was never too brusque or pompous with us. There was no holier-than-thou attitude in this class experience: the focus was on us, and Tomaz’s only concern was making us the best poets we could be. His honesty was accompanied by genuine enthusiasm for what we were producing – whenever it was deemed worthy of exultation, which it often was. Most of all, Tomaz reveled in our differences: the variation that came from our mouths as a day’s reading swept around the room. Tomaz had praise for Devin and his “masculine American poetry,” for Andrew’s myth-laden and haunting creations. Erin’s playful, often raunchy, work made him smile, as did Amanda’s, who wrote as she dressed: in a manner that was simultaneously sophisticated and flippant. Emily was singled out for her carefully elegant writing, as was Alexander, but for his very experimental approach. His poems formed diagrams; their origins were often incredibly strange: translations from Asian gaming websites for instance, but our teacher loved this. He loved all of it. And it was Tomaz’s belief in our work that brought many of us to the beginning of a place where one can feel comfortable with this flimsy notion of “writing,” of what it means “to be” a writer. I recall him turning to my supremely talented (and quiet) classmate Sara numerous times throughout the semester when she had finished reading. Practically oblivious to her deferential nature, he would say, “Ah, you are a writer. This is publishable, your work. You know this, yes?”

The pleasure Tomaz derived from our class’s hodgepodge of poetic styles was echoed by the fact that throughout the semester we also read an astounding range of poets: contemporary writers like Graham Foust along with Chinese writers from the 12th century; Chilean and Greek poetry; strange, surrealist work by the Russian poet Daniil Kharms one week, the spare and straight-forward poetry by the young American David Berman the next. And, Tomaz had us reading well-known female poets like Elizabeth Bishop alongside much less famous women like Chelsea Minnis. A highlight of the semester was when a poet we studied in class came to our campus for a reading; Tomaz’s friend, and fellow Slovenian, Primoz Cucnik. His work, along with Frank O’Hara’s, was my favorite of the semester; to hear him read in person was truly amazing.

My final point about studying with Tomaz is, admittedly, the epitome of cliché: “Look and see how the artist’s passion becomes transformational for his students!” Regardless of how many times that has been uttered by frenzied undergrads in the past (and with deepest apologies to my cliché-phobic teacher), the sentiment remains unavoidable here. Maybe it is as simple as his passion. I’m not sure exactly, but I am positive about the whole transformation part. That was tangible; witnessed by the growth of our work in such a short time, by the risks I saw my classmates taking as the weeks carried on. The vulnerability that had been shimmering in all our eyes that first day in January was a memory by spring.

Tomaz made us want to go to that scary place that writing can make you go, and with glee. The noise that often came out of his mouth after he had read something he liked is now ingrained in my head forever. It is a noise not only to write by, but to live by: fingers and knuckles smacking against computer paper as lips released a jubilant “Poooow! Poooow! Poooow!” into the air. Addictive sounds, indeed.

Caroline Keene, '08, was a political science major and wrote for The Collegian during her time at Richmond.