Writing Heroes Part 1: Donald Hall

I recently read a biographical note on Bram Stoker that described him as “prone to hero-worship.”  I was overjoyed!  I too am hopelessly prone to hero-worship, and some people think that’s a bad thing.  Bram Stoker and I beg to differ.

My literary heroes are many and varied.  I could fill an entire post simply with their names.  However, in the interest of readability, I’ve decided to focus on a choice few.  For the next few weeks, I’ll be paying homage five of the writers who have  impacted my own creative life.  Some of these individuals are poets, some are novelists, and one is a musician and playwright.  Since most stories start at the beginning, I’d like to focus on my earliest influence first.

The first time I heard Donald Hall (former New Hampshire and national poet laureate) read, I was seven years old and he wasn’t reading poetry (for which he is perhaps best known).  My parents had taken me to a rural town in New Hampshire to hear him read from Ox-Cart Man, a children’s book he’d adapted from one of his poems.  At the time, I had no understanding of his literary significance, but I hugged my well-loved copy of his book to my chest after he’d signed it.

For years after that, Donald Hall slipped into the recesses of my brain, lying dormant until my first semester of college at Plymouth State University.  One of my first Intro. to Lit. assignments was to read a collection of Hall’s poetry, Without.  I read the book cover to cover right in the library, sitting in a green upholstered easy chair.  I had known that the book focused on his wife’s untimely death, but I hadn’t realized how deeply the poems would affect me.  I cried through the whole thing, right in the middle of the university library.  To express that kind of grief so exquisitely is a gift.  To write a poem that will make someone cry is a truly admirable accomplishment.  Already a poet myself, I decided then that I wanted my poetry to affect others the way Donald Hall’s had affected me.  He not only influenced my writing but also, unwittingly, challenged me to stamp down my boundaries.

As an adult poet, I differ stylistically from Hall more often than not.  I am a slam poet as well as a page poet, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m trying to straddle an electric fence.  I have met slam poets who don’t understand my admiration of Donald Hall, and it’s true that Hall has occasionally expressed his disdain for slam poetry.  I feel sometimes that there is this manufactured war between page poetry and slam poetry, but it’s a battle I want no part of.  I love Donald Hall for the writing he has given to the world and the inspiration he has given to me.

In the summer of 2008, I was asked to be one of three openers for Mr. Hall at , an annual arts celebration in Portsmouth, NH.  On the night of the performance, I sat in the green room at the Portsmouth Music Hall trying not to chew my freshly painted nails.  When Donald Hall arrived, the event organizer (who happened to be privy to my adoration) seated him (and his entourage) next to me.  Surprisingly, I was able to participate in a normal conversation about rural New Hampshire without passing out or vomiting.  Eventually, I worked up the nerve to ask Mr. Hall if he would again sign my copy of Ox-Cart Man, the same one he’d signed when I was seven.  He graciously agreed to do so.  I was truly elated.  That night, I performed as though it was my last hour on earth.

I truly believe that artists we admire can be instrumental in producing growth in our own work.  As a writer, I am a perpetual student.  From Donald Hall, I have learned how to grab my reader by the heart.  I have learned that there is a time for simplicity and quiet detail.  I won’t go on, but mind you, I could.  In the end, Donald Hall may not be the kind of hero that saves lives.  Instead, he’s the kind of hero that makes life, particularly a writer’s life, seem worth living.



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