Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Remembrance of John Ditsky, friend, mentor, poet, professor

The news of John Ditsky's death came to me with a distinct Ditskian lack of drama: A friend sent an email message saying our beloved writing teacher had passed away on Monday, May 15. No other details. As vague and understated as the man himself.

In the English Department course calender for the University of Windsor, I once read that John Ditsky's poetry had received over 1,400 acceptances. An amazing number. That wording always intrigued me; sort of rankled me in its lack of specificity. I had always meant to joke with John, saying, "Did you write two poems that were each accepted 700 times?" but never got around to it. Maybe he wrote one poem that was accepted 1,400 times -- a feat much more difficult (albeit bizarre) than writing and publishing 1,400 poems.

If not for that entry in the course calender, I might not have known John wrote at all. He never spoke of his work, and dodged questions about it. He taught writing -- or rather, oversaw a creative writing seminar -- and American literature. Once in a writing class a poet -- with a tenuous grasp of her native language -- tried conveying the ecstacy a character experienced when she "had" an orgasm. As the rest of us jousted with the gnarled language of the poem, John, in his typically understated, darkly comic way, informed the poet that people do not have orgasms, they achieve orgasm. He said that in 1991, and I made a mental note of that fact.

John was a tall, maddeningly thin man -- at least to me who packed on the pounds slamming pints and jamming back sandwiches at the campus pub -- with the most improbably deep voice. He spoke softly so I never experienced the full power of his voice, though I imagined it powerful enough to easily break a man's ribcage. Although he had an excellent sense of humor, John was slow to laugh. His natural shyness coupled with his intensely introspective nature often left uncomfortable silences in the midst of conversations. But his laugh existed. I had heard it. And it was a prize: part bellow, part bear-roar, and wholly capable of expressing without words just how much he enjoyed a good joke or bon mot.

One morning in the Department of English a fellow grad student was explaining to me and John about the lagging attendance numbers in the Expository Writing classes she (and I) taught. My classmate said she resorted to threatening her students with deducting 1% from their final grades for every class missed without a valid excuse. To which I said, "If I could do the math, I'd threaten like that, too." There was a momentary pause as John slowly smiled, and then filled the hallway with his sonorous laugh.

There was an afternoon when John gathered with about a dozen of his students at the campus pub before an English Department party. We drank pitchers of beer, played songs on the coin-laden jukebox, and vied for John's attention. His conversation was sometimes sparse, answering lengthy questions with a single word. At one point someone mentioned hearing in the news that NBA star, A.C. Green had publicly admitted to being a virgin. In the hush during which everyone digested this morsel of news, I feigned disbelief and said with all of the gullibility I could muster, "But he played for the Los Angeles Lakers!" My statement was greeted with derision and people explaining to me that one could play for the Los Angeles Lakers and still be a virgin... Then John laughed. He got it. And slowly, so did everyone else.

John's academic specialty was the work of John Steinbeck. I had heard from numerous people that John was, in fact, one of the foremost Steinbeck scholars in the world. In one of my creative writing journals (a course requirement submitted quarterly for grading) I asked John what exactly was it about Steinbeck's writing style that made him so great. John wrote back, "I never said Steinbeck was a great writer." Vintage Ditsky. I mulled that one over for... well, until this day.

For all of his personal awkwardness and vague remarks that were the hallmarks of chats with John, he was a man of incredible good humor and encouragement. It was a quiet encouragement, but it was there, and it was steadier and more reliable than more vocal forms with which I've been in contact since my days in the English Department. I took two writing courses with John and a number of American literature classes. I was one of the few students who missed few classes. Unfortunately, I don't think I was the friend to John that he was to me. I never raised my hand once in his classes -- or any of my other classes. Convinced I would only utter the painfully, ridiculously obvious about any given subject, I sat back and took notes, and contributed nothing. Even when hollow silence followed one of John's questions in class, I sat there feeling his pain, but doing nothing to relieve it. I can't remember if I ever offered him a cop-out or apology or an explanation for this. Had I been in his shoes, I'd have wondered just what the hell was wrong with me. But it was never an issue with John.

He was kind enough to have me over to his home in Detroit a few times, showing me his massive book and record collections. It took years, but he owned hardback editions of nearly every one of his favorite books -- and there were thousands of them. As for his records, they were an intimidating presence in his sitting room where we retired to drink cans of Milwaukee's Finest. When I noticed the gray metal card catalog on the shelf, I asked John if he kept the albums in alphabetical order, or by genre. He seemed puzzled and said, "No, they're organized by serial number." And he was serious.

John generously read and commented on every piece of writing I ever gave to him -- and I submitted thousands of pages of writing for his perusal. I never had a feeling that he much cared for what I wrote, but I valued his opinions, which always centered on concrete problems in the writing. His advice was sound and helpful. As second reader on my masters thesis, John used his question time during my defense to make a statement about how much he enjoyed my work. Of all the times and places he could have done that, he chose the absolutely perfect, most meaningful venue. He ended his statement with an embarrassed laugh and said, "Well, there's a fan letter for you."

After graduation, I remained in touch with John via letters. I typed mine on a word processor and he composed his on an electric typewriter. No matter what I asked him in my letters, I never got more than a couple of paragraphs out of him. But, being a poet, those paragraphs resonated until his next letter arrived -- and usually beyond that. At some point I stopped writing. I know it was me because John was as reliable as clockwork -- if you sent him a letter, you got one in return. So, I still owe him one.

John Ditsky was a good friend and an invaluable mentor to me. He tolerated my foibles, silently beared my hangovers, listened to my bluster, vitriol and sad antics, and never held any of it against me. John's death is a violent shock to my heart's neighborhood. I had no idea he was ill; have no idea what brought about his death. But I'm damned sad that he's gone.


Richard said...

He sounds like he was a wonderful writer, teacher, scholar and friend.

Max said...

Thanks for your comments Matt. I hadn't heard that he passed away. I never had any classes with him or knew him well though I do remember having the occasional pint with him and others and recall most vividly his introspective taciturnity. I'm sure many will appreciate your thoughts.

CateC said...

Thanks for this, Matt. He was a good friend of mine too, and I loved your tribute.

Michael McVey said...

This blog may long ago have gone dark, so I'll be brief.

I met John in September of 1976 when he taught my freshman class in poetry. He was a delight and I am only now learning of his passing, nine years after the fact.

Thank you for sharing your memories.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Hi Michael, the proprietor of this blog is still around, and I appreciate your comments very much! Thank you for reading! John Ditsky was a singular guy and I just wish I'd had the chance to say half the things I wrote to him in person while he was alive. Hard to believe it's been ten years since he left us.