My favorite memories of UNCG include the MFA poetry workshop taught by Robert Watson on the top floor of the university library in the spring of 1967. Because I already had graduate credit from UNC Chapel Hill I was able to complete the MFA in one year, and that class was the only one I took with Bob. But it was a memorable semester.
The two things I came to admire most about Bob’s approach to poetry were the range of his taste and the seriousness he brought to the discussions. He demonstrated a respect for young writers and their writing very different from the ironic belittlement I had seen in some classes before. In fact, one of the glories of the MFA program at UNCG was the respect the department showed to the writers. In a tradition going back to Randall Jarrell and Allen Tate, the department and the program there gave young writers a sense of dignity and commitment to their craft I have never forgotten. Bob Watson and other faculty members made us feel it was a privilege to write poetry and fiction, and to have readers who would discuss the craft.
Poems were submitted anonymously to the workshop, and Bob read each aloud. Though we often recognized the author of a poem by the style and voice, the anonymity encouraged a nonpersonal approach to the discussion. It was the poem that was important, not the author.
Because Bob was writing and publishing both poetry and fiction, he encouraged me to think of myself as both a poet and fiction writer. He had just published a novel, and was at work on another, as well as new poems. Neither he nor Fred Chappell thought a writer need specialize in one particular genre, and he also urged me to try different forms, different voices, and different points of view in my poems. He had a special affinity for the dramatic monologue, and influenced the way I later came to think of fiction as well as poetry.
Sometimes Bob invited us to his house for class and served us refreshments. On those occasions he would talk about the writers he had known. William Carlos Williams had been his family doctor when he was growing up in New Jersey. He had known Robert Lowell, whom he called Cal, for years and years. And he often referred to his late friend Randall Jarrell, who had died less than two years before. With his anecdotes Bob made us feel more a part of the contemporary world of poetry, not just at UNCG or North Carolina, but American poetry. He was familiar with Provincetown and the art scene in New York. It was through Bob that I felt the closest connection to the critical heritage of Jarrell.
One of the special things about the MFA program at UNCG was the requirement that all students take both the poetry and fiction workshops, regardless of their concentration. It was an idea I have recommended to other graduate programs in creative writing. Not only did attendance at both workshops create a greater sense of community among the students; it encouraged us to explore new voices and expand our vision of ourselves as writers. It also helped us to become better readers and critics, and later teachers. And it reinforced the example of both Bob and Fred Chappell as switch hitters between genres.
Bob Watson and the faculty at UNCG founded The Greensboro Review to publish and showcase the work of writers in the program. But since graduate students were on the editorial staff they also became more familiar with the world of contemporary writing, reading and commenting on the hundreds of manuscripts submitted from around the country. We learned that small magazines are crucial to a literary culture, especially for young writers, where the cutting edge of literary work usually occurs.
Of course all was not solemnity and seriousness at UNCG in those days. There were many parties at faculty houses and meetings at the bar called the Pickwick. Once Bob suggested to a student in the workshop that the poem he had brought for discussion should be submitted to The New Yorker.
“I didn’t bring the poem here to be insulted,” the student replied, and the room roared with laughter.
A student named George loved to smoke in class, and throughout the workshop he would toy with his nickel-plated lighter. One week he filled the lighter with gasoline, and when he flicked the flint a flame shot up more than a foot high, as the students around the table gasped with surprise.
Bob Watson brought an openness and air of confidence to his work with students that helped us commit ourselves to the craft of writing with a new assurance. His advice could be general, theoretical, or pointedly practical. One instance of his invaluable help I will never forget. I had written a poem about a bare yard that included the clumsy line, “Chicken droppings look like chalk in the yard.” He matter-of-factly suggested I change it to “Chicken droppings chalk the yard.” The economy and precision, the metrical exactness, of his version were a revelation to me. In such small revisions is the life of art.