The afternoon I met Craig Arnold was a stressful one. It was my first day at the University of Utah (I’d just transferred from SLCC), and I was trying to pull a fast one. I had not taken the prerequisite for English 5520 (advanced poetry writing workshop), but regardless, had put myself on the waiting list. I’d been writing poetry for most of my life, and thought I had some skill. But that didn’t mean the professor was going to agree with me and allow me into the class.
Thirty one years old, Craig was a PhD candidate, the English department’s golden boy, about to have his first book published. He was the Yale Younger Poet of the Year for 1998, and from the very first moments, of our relationship I wanted his approval.
Craig asked me to email a writing sample, and if it wasn’t crap (his word), he’d sign off and let me stay in the class.
The workshop was small, 12 students, and my presence would kept no one else from joining the class, but I stressed over the writing sample for days. I highly doubt he gave it all that much thought, but he told me the poems were passable, that there was some potential.
“It’s not all bad,” he said.
In the workshop setting he was absolutely ruthless and absolutely always on point. Never before (or since) in my writing life have I felt like someone genuinely wanted my writing to be successful as when Craig was ripping apart my poetry.
It was never personal, and looking back it was in that class where I learned criticism had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the writing.
I am grateful for that.
Craig was also in a rock band called Iris. He played guitar and sang terrible songs with really odd lyrics. I saw them perform at a coffee shop in downtown Salt Lake City. Forty people were there, some of whom were likely annoyed that their late night coffee came with the added price of listening to live music.
And he had literary groupies who stood in front of the stage, sang all the songs, hung around after the set just because. Of course Craig soaked every moment of attention.
At the end of the semester, we gathered at the apartment of one of the members of our workshop to celebrate, drink beer, say goodbye. Craig’s book was coming out soon, but all he wanted was to talk about the female body builder roommate of our cohort (her photos from competitions were all over the walls), and how many times he’d had sex that day.
Three times in case you were wondering, and with a wink in my direction, he implied he was ready for a fourth.
But that was his personality- Brash, bold, confident to the extreme. And oh, how he could write. His poetry blew me away. My favorites were his narratives. One in particular was composed in couplets that flowed seamlessly from end rhymes to slants, rich and eye. His stories were precise, and his writing clean, tight.
That night at the class party, five or six beers into a twelve bottle night, after I spent fifteen minutes complaining about my lack of writing success, my envy at his, without the slightest guile he shook his head and said “your day is coming. Be patient.”
The most important thing he taught me about writing poetry- Form is the vehicle, not the destination, which altered the way I approached writing, changed how I used words.
I saw him sporadically after my graduation. He’d show up at the library where I worked, and we talk about what he was doing. He always asked about my writing, and I always lied, telling him it was going great.
A little over ten years after our first meeting, I learned he’d gone missing while hiking on the small volcanic island of Kuchinoerabu, Japan. Searchers found traces of him on a trail near a high cliff and it is presumed he fell to his death.
I had not spoke to him or seen him in at least 8 years, but losing someone I thought of as an important guide on my writing path was hard.
I don’t know what made me think of him today or why I felt like I needed to write down a few of my memories.
Craig could rub people the wrong way, and there are likely more stories about the awful things he did than the positive ones, but he was always good to me. I admired him for his fearlessness, his talent, his friendship.
He only gave us two collections of poetry, but they are powerful and worth your time. Check them out here–
All of us have people who influenced/impacted our lives, changed our direction for the better. I’m curious about yours.