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Let the Mystery Be: Steve Orlen (1942-2010)

There’s a song that my husband likes to sing to our son at bedtime.  It’s not a traditional bedtime song, by any means, but sung slowly and softly, it’s sweeter than any lullaby I know.  And few things are quite as delicious as hearing a two-year old sing lines such as

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where
They all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go
When the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be

with both great expression and the lisps and omissions characteristic of toddler speech.  I thought of this song when I heard the sad news that poet Steve Orlen had suddenly passed away.  During a class in Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, Steve once concluded an insightful discussion of Anthony Hecht’s “A Hill”—a poem that grapples with the mysterious workings of memory—by saying something like, Once in a while, something jumps out from your unconscious mind and scares the s**t out of you.

While I didn’t have the chance to work closely with Steve, meeting him, attending his classes, and hearing him read his poems became part of my larger experience of attending graduate school for creative writing, part of the weirdness and wonder of gathering with 120 writers for 10 intense days of non-stop seminars and workshops.  In the low-residency structure of the writing program that I attended, faculty members and students had opportunities daily to hang out, talk shop, or shoot the breeze.  In worn dormitory lounges, in libraries, in local coffee shops, around bonfires.  On patios with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Instructors addressed us over the podium but also chatted during lunch or rocked out when our resident poet-DJ helped to turn the nearby barn into a dance floor.  We came to know the faculty not just as esteemed mentors and writers, but also as human beings.  Which is to say: complex, multifaceted, vulnerable.

The atmosphere during the residencies was always charged with a certain electricity.  While the official schedule of lectures, workshops, seminars, and readings ran from 8 a.m. to around 9 p.m., the evenings typically revolved around social activities with and without our faculty mentors.  After the intense cerebral activity of the day, we were eager to enjoy some down time.  With drinks, or without.  With guitars, or violins, or harmonicas. With bonfires and dances.  The only thing more bizarre and wonderful than talking strictly with writers for ten days is, perhaps, dancing with them at the end of the day.

The electricity stemmed, in part, from the chance to immerse ourselves in writing, far from the obligations of work and family, even the obligations about which we cared most deeply.  Here were fiction writers and poets who, during the other 345 calendar days, held down jobs in and/or outside the home, fulfilling the daily or lifetime commitments that often take precedence over what can seem, to the budding writer, to be a rather ridiculous pursuit.  Twice a year, during these 10-day stretches, we entered a safe but rigorous space in which the sometimes mysterious work of writing was brought into broad daylight and examined with nearly-scientific scrutiny.

Of the friends and mentors I encountered during my graduate studies, among the ones I hold dearest are those who possess what I like to think of as “Big Love.”  These were people who exhibited a spirit of generosity in the workshop and beyond.  Whose presence in a room could generate a kind of magnetism and warmth.  Like so many of our fellow students attending the residencies, these writers were not detached or self-centered.  They were not sullen hipsters, nor were they beret-wearing Poets.  These writers were not only industrious people who wrote fiction and poetry in the midst of working as teachers, waitresses, administrators, parents, and tour guides, they were old souls.

Steve Orlen possessed this Big Love.  Affable, often smiling, laughing loudly and wholeheartedly.  A considerable mane of hair framing his face,  he would peer through his glasses with a mischievous look.  His posture during class was so relaxed we could imagine that we were still sitting on logs around a bonfire at Snake Lake even while his discussion of “The Structuring of Memory” remained intently focused on Anthony Hecht’s “A Hill,” a poem in which a busy Italian marketplace is briefly, inexplicably interrupted by a bleak and chilling vision of a barren hill from the speaker’s youth.

In some ways, Steve reminded me of a friend from adolescence whose disarming, nearly goofy manner seemed to disguise his talent and intelligence, a friend who would dependably share an unedited version of what was on his mind.  Someone unafraid to ask the questions others might shy away from.  Over the last week, the posts filling my Facebook news feed—written by saddened friends, colleagues, and students—have reflected Steve’s unique personality.

Our Steve, who art in heaven, has been assigned to hang out with God, who also smokes, to help make the clouds. So if you look up into the sky and think you see outrageously funny things happening and more erotic formations than usual, it’s not you.
-Amy Grimm

Thinking about you and [Nick] Fox doing dueling Orlen impersonations.
-Matthew Simmons to Tim Cook

With Steve gone, the world needs a little more kindness, a little more tolerance, and someone willing to ask all the inappropriate questions.
-Pete Turchi

Steve was a person of great warmth and humor who lived close to the core, seemingly stripped of the kinds of norms or inhibitions that—for most of us—tend to keep the truths of human experience at bay.  As you can read here, here, and here, interactions with Steve were nothing less than historic.

Rest in peace, Steve.  Your acts of kindness and your remarkable poems live on.  But know that those of us who chanced to meet you—over lunch or dinner during our days in the mountains, in a class, or after a reading—will miss you, your belly laugh, and your Big Love.

*Thanks to Amy, Matthew, Tim, and Pete for giving permission to include their comments.

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