Ordinary Marvelous: On Being a Student of Orlen
Even at the time, I knew how lucky I was.
Steve Orlen was my first professor in the overheated world of graduate-level writing, and his combination of zero bullshit with extreme kindness I’ve never seen before or since. Even Orlen’s handouts are friendly, funny, somehow self-deprecating, and precisely pertinent. I’m still learning from my cache of Orlen letters and marked-up poems, so elaborately inscribed with intersecting lines they resemble a map of the New York subway system, or assembly instructions for some mythical device. The more difficult his request (“Rewrite as one long sentence? Double the length of each sentence? Use no sentences at all?”), the gentler and more enthusiastic he is. No one can tell you your poem is crap while raising your spirits like Steve.
Nothing in the Orlen file is ungenerous. Everything in it urges me reach out in some way – to another student, a poet or poem, an insight. Orlen coddles his students like little eggs, all the while talking nonstop about his wife (whose gorgeous paintings appear on his book covers) and his son, in person and in letters, just as in his poems. Here’s my life, he says. Ordinary, marvelous, full of material. How could it be otherwise? And, always, How’s yours?
He pretends not to be as smart as he is, but he’s too smart to overdo it. He’s got a delicious bad-boy past and is not afraid to press it into service for his poems, yours, or anyone else’s. The man knows how to tell a story, and when not to.
Orlen embraces embarrassment. He puts everything into his long, talky poems, which are exquisitely controlled and constructed in their unfolding. They’re warm and broad and shockingly true, like a hug with a hypodermic in it. They risk. My very favorite of his poems (“Nature Rarely Confides in Me”), rife with beauty and grace and wisdom, also uses the phrase “the splatter of cum on her thighs.”
Do all of his students have an Orlen phase? In mine, my distant adolescence abruptly sharpened and started to look funny. Suddenly I was writing long-lined, loose-limbed poems about it. Then, without Orlen’s notes cheering me on, I stopped. It was a function of the nearness of his attention, the equivalent of writing on steroids. Could I do it again? To save my life? Of course not. But the poems remain, a fossil record of that magic semester. And afterward, what I got from Orlen lingered, seeping into the next set of poems, the next, and the next: a wilder image; a snippet of narrative; a bawdy joke; the odd, bold admission.
There must be someone who doesn’t love Orlen. What I’d learn from such a person. And what a poem it would make.