On Jim Simmerman

James Jay

When Gorsky Press prints Jim Simmerman’s posthumous New & Selected Poems this year, it will have been ten years since Simmerman’s death. And while ten seems like a well-measured and reasonable number by which to release a posthumous work, its numeric value is merely arbitrary. A decade, as it turns out, is merely coincidence, for it simply took that amount of time in order to put out the works.

As I prepare the final proofs to pass to the publishers, I have been thinking a bit about numbers, arbitrary and otherwise. Mostly how, for Simmerman, numbers become somewhat arbitrary too. Never one to be bullied by much of anything, Simmerman wrote in beats, in sounds. Early in his career, he’d write in syllabics some, influenced in large part by his teacher, who would later become his friend and contemporary, Phillip Levine, who wrote a good bit of his poetry in syllabics. But Simmerman reasoned that syllabics really didn’t measure much. He conjectured that it likely takes the same amount of time or duration to read a four-beat line that bears seven syllables as it does a four-beat line written in eleven syllables. So what are you measuring then? Not much. And not much was never a good answer for a Simmerman poem. In Simmerman’s best work everything much mattered. For Simmerman, the beats, the stressed syllables, made the musicality of the poem’s line. These were units by which he measured verse.

This past decade, in preparing Simmerman’s book, I’ve been reminded of this lesson fourfold:

The first beat: Transcription. Simmerman’s first book, Home, came out with Dragon Gate Press in 1983, and the typewriter on which the manuscript was composed sits, a heavy antique, in the corner of my office now. The act of transcribing Simmerman’s poems turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Reading one line from the original, typing that line into a computer; then, later in the process, reading that line from the original and proofing with the electronic text; and finally the proofing, one slow line at a time of the galley proofs, made me read anew poems I’ve known well (and as was often the case memorized). There was no cut and paste job to prepare his works, and the unique technological transfer of 1983 work to 2016 allowed me to feel and consider again the precision and duration of a Simmerman line.

The second beat: Enjambment. Early in Simmerman’s career, Raymond Carver contended, “Simmerman is clearly among the best poets of his generation.” In his high praise, Carver claimed, “Time and again I found myself stopping to draw breath, moved and sometimes startled at the aching rightness of the image, the felicity of the line.” While Simmerman’s beats drove the reader’s ear through the line, his masterful enjambment worked with the reader’s eyes and expectations. To look closely at the way Simmerman breaks lines is like watching Bruce Lee break boards, in choppy, jumping slow motion on an old film. The act is dazzling at full speed. It’s just as magical at 1/100th speed. No one breaks a line like Simmerman.

The third beat: The Cut. For all of his mastery and the singing of his praises, not everything Simmerman wrote was good. When he died, he left handwritten notes addressed to me and tucked into manuscripts in his house and at his office where he taught at Northern Arizona University. He wanted to make sure his last poems went to me to do with them what I would in keeping his legacy alive. After bouts with illnesses, both mental and physical, Simmerman committed suicide and his going was well prepared. While his mind and body were giving out, he poured his energy into controlling what he still could and taking care of what mattered most to him. First, to his brother, Jeff, and his family, whom he cared for greatly, he made sure to pass on his assets in an organized manner. Second, he donated $100,000 to the Humane Society, to help care for stray dogs, animals that were such a great part of the joy in his life. Third, he wanted to continue to teach and be a part of the world of poetry, even if his body wouldn’t carry on, and thus those notes in manuscripts. To that end, as his Estate Executor, generally, and now his Literary Executor, specifically, I have had the privilege of pressing forward.

While there were brilliant unpublished poems, there were many that just simply weren’t Simmerman at his best. In general, his shorter poems seemed less developed. They were clever, sharp, but didn’t contain the depth, the power and complexity of his longer, later poems. After his death, I gathered up those poems and manuscripts, but I didn’t exactly have the courage to open them up and read them critically. A few years went by and with that distance, I pulled the handwritten notes back out and the poems that came with them. I found some gorgeous poems. I found some poems that weren’t much more than notes. To help me in making these cuts, I tapped one of Simmerman’s former students and the director of Creative Writing program at the University of Nebraska Omaha, the talented poet Miles Waggener. Deciding what to keep and what to leave proved an invaluable way to hear Simmerman’s work at its best.

The fourth beat: The Dance. From an Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference years ago, Simmerman picked up a yellow button that read “Fuck Art. Let’s Dance.” He kept it pinned to a bulletin board above his desk at work, and in his lighter moments he’d crack a smile and make reference to it. For all his seriousness in approaching the composition of a poem, it was the joy, the playfulness, and the simple love of sound that drove the success of his poems. For all their technical merits, a goofiness, a zaniness danced about in the line; the work of those feet immeasurable and delightful still magically bops along on those beats.

Over the past decade much of Simmerman’s work has gone out of print, on to remainder bins or pulped to make way in the publishers’ storerooms for the books coming next. With the printing of the New and Selected Poems, Sean Carswell and the publishers at Gorsky Press will be working to keep some of Simmerman’s literary legacy alive and available to a next generation of poets to study and from which to learn. Thank you to the editors at Waxwing for reprinting some of Simmerman’s early works where readers can study the precision, rigor, energy, and joy by which Simmerman composes the line.

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