Posts Tagged ‘Michael Stillman’

Dana Gioia remembers a week with John Cheever at Stanford: “I was stunned by his voice.”

Monday, February 1st, 2021
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Cheever at Stanford, 1975 (Photo: Stanford News Service)

Poet Dana Gioia met John Cheever when the author was at a lowpoint of his literary reputation. His 1969 novel Bullet Park was received poorly, and a subsequent novel in 1973, The World of Apples, did not stop the decline. His work no longer appeared in The New Yorker. The occasion of the encounter was Stanford. Dana was a graduate student in Stanford’s Business School (he eventually became one of the few poets to have an MBA), and camped out in “FloMo,” more formally known as Florence Moore Hall. The occasion of Cheever’s arrival at campus was his son, who was thinking of enrolling at Stanford – and eventually did.

In his new book of recollections: Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoir’s from a Young Writer’s Life, the former National Endowments for the Arts chairman recalls his all-too-brief week with Cheever. “I was dazzled by his talk which could make a mortgage or a report card shimmer like a sacred script.”

The book, published by Paul Dry Books, has the distinction of being one of the few books ever to go into a third printing before it was officially out, thanks to pre-orders. 

A couple excerpts:

“Although Cheever looked exactly like his dust jacket photographs, three things surprised me. First, he was so small. For some reason, probably connected with my mental images of his fictional protagonists, I had expected a magisterially tall Yankee gentleman. Instead I met a slight, boyish man who stood only a few inches over five feet. Second, Cheever was the most perfectly poised man I had ever met. Every gesture was so graceful that he scarcely seemed part of the clumsy everyday world. Even the way he sat still seemed as carefully composed as a portrait. Not that his presence was dramatic; just the opposite was true. His manner was relaxed and understated. Nevertheless he had a style that captivated one’s attention the way a great actor can steal a scene without speaking a word. Finally, I was stunned by his voice.

“Cheever spoke a brand of patrician Massachusetts English that I know suspect he invented, for I have never heard anyone else speak quite like it. Nevertheless, he used this suave, fictive dialect so convincingly that in his voice it carried the force of ancient authority. I had talked to men funnier or wiser than Cheever, more inventive or intelligent, more perceptive or likeable, but I had never met anyone who possessed all these qualities so generously in such deft balance. His wasn’t the pedestrian balance of an earnest earthbound mind but the equilibrium of an acrobat.”

***

“He had never bothered to grow old. He still seemed more bright young man than sagacious patriarch. No one who met him that week would have guessed his full age.

“As his staff host, I expected to see little of Cheever after taking him to lunch the first day. To my astonishment, I spent most of the next week with him. He had arrived at Stanford with the best of intentions but the vaguest of plans. Since [his son] Fred was busy following his friends, his father had nothing to do except wait several days for a hastily arranged class visit and public reading. Cheever knew no one at Stanford, and the people who might have sought him out were mostly unaware he was on campus. He accepted his idleness and neglect without comment.

“For the next few days, Cheever just hung around Flo Mo, treating this large, spider-shaped complex like a resort hotel. He lingered over meals until the last student left and then sat in one of the run-down and usually deserted lounges. Whenever I returned from classes, I would find hi sitting by himself smoking in one of the huge Naugahyde chairs. He agreed to almost any suggestion I made – a walk, a drive, a visit. Eventually I gave him a key to my room so he could borrow books or listen to records when I was in class. …

So much about Cheever surprised me. First, I remember his modesty as a writer. He did not lack self-esteem, but it was tempered by his recognition of the immensity of the writer’s task. Having already met a few self-absorbed literary mediocrities, I found John’s humility before his vocation pure and unaffected. It was a kind of innocence. He was proud of what he had written but without pretension. He appeared unconcerned with posterity, which he claimed would take no note of him. What he valued was his relationship with his audience.

The book also includes a 21-page interview with Cheever, never before published in full. The Q&A was recorded by Michael Stillman, who died last month, with Stillman, Dana Gioia, and writer Millicent Dillon (formerly of the Stanford News Service) in conversation with Cheever. 

Postscript on 2/5: Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, comments on Facebook:   I was a freshman in college back in 1975, and got to have dinner with Saul Bellow and breakfast with John Cheever on the same weekend(!) This all happened because my older brother Dana, a grad student back at the time, was their informal host during their campus visits. I was 17 years old, and a freshman at Branner, while Dana was 23 and a first-year-student at the Stanford Business School. But Dana seemed to know everybody and be everywhere on the literary scene, even at that young age. He and I only had one class together, when we both took the same intermediate Italian language course. One day, Dana brought as his guest to the class Ezra Pound‘s daughter, the Princess Mary de Rachewiltz—how did he make these connections, and pull these things off? He’s just a student and he brings a princess to our class? It’s a grand mystery to me. I still don’t know he got me at the dinner table with Saul Bellow, when there were a thousand other people at Stanford who would have liked to have my seat. He just always seemed to be at the epicenter of everything and anything.

I can’t stress this too much: There is no substitute for seeing people up close who are operating at the highest levels of their vocation. And that’s true whether you are a poet, musician, novelist, painter, manager, cook, lawyer, or in any other profession. These experiences reveal possibilities in life you could not grasp in any other way.

 

Stanford poet, jazz saxophonist Michael Stillman: “Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work.”

Thursday, January 21st, 2021
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Mike Stillman and friend.

I learned of Michael Stillman’s long illness when Stanford Prof. Makota Ueda died last summer. The prominent haiku scholar was a critic and biographer of Japanese poets. But one link in the chain of connection leads to another: the Japanese professor was also a mentor and  inspiration for poet Michael Stillman, who died on Jan 12 at 80 years old, having survived the decade into 2021. Mike studied the haiku tradition under Ueda.

I had met Mike a dozen years ago at (of all places) Stanford’s  Archive of Recorded Sound. We quickly discovered we had a mutual friend in Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (and also a Stanford alum).  Mike was eager to show me his musical and literary preoccupations – as he wrote me: “not only the recordings project but the publications and activities associated with the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics [a.k.a. CCRMA]. You may not be aware that I have published about twenty poems in prominent journals and textbooks, including “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which now appears in about seven anthologies, one of them edited by Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy. Also I’ve been making recordings of soprano saxophone jazz and duo performances with piano that you might like to hear.” He had his fingers in a lot of pies, to put it mildly. Our long-ago acquaintance was all-too-brief.

Dana has written a short remembrance for a poet he thinks should stick in the public memory longer:

The poet Michael B. Stillman was one of the truly talented poets I knew at Stanford back in the 1970s, though he gradually wandered away from poetry.  He was also a terrific saxophonist and a doctoral candidate in English. He never finished his dissertation on Charles Tomlinson.

Mike played sax in a jazz duet around the Bay Area with a guitarist, Tuck Andress. One night Tuck met and fell in love with Patti Cathcart to form the famous Tuck and Patti duo. Mike ended up in Las Vegas playing back-up for rock bands. He had other jobs. He and his wife Sally helped run the Montalvo Arts Center and the Djerassi Foundation. They never stayed anywhere too long; they were bohemians. At the time of Mike’s death they were living in rural Washington. Mike was still playing music professionally. (He lived to see their sixtieth wedding anniversary.)

At Stanford Mike worked on a dissertation under Donald Davie. In the familiar manner of graduate students, he did everything but write it. He was house master of Branner Hall. He played jazz at Ironworks on El Camino. He recorded visiting speakers at Stanford.

His tapes are now in the Stanford Library. He even issued a series of superb long-playing records of poets and novelists reading their works. This series documents many of the best writers the Stanford community has produced– such as Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, J.V. Cunningham, and Donald Davie. He also captured visiting writers, including Adrienne Rich and John Hawkes. Each LP had a fine short essay about the writer on the back cover.

Many fingers, many pies. (Courtesy Sally Stillman)

He also recorded an interview I did with John Cheever that was published in a short form in Sequoia. The full version appears in my book of literary memoirs, Studying with Miss Bishop. I sent him an early copy.

At Stanford Mike studied with the haiku scholar Makoto Ueda. He used to carry Ueda’s anthology, Modern Japanese Haiku around with him as his personal vademecum. Mike began to write almost entirely in haiku for several years. He produced a remarkable book of haiku, An Eye of Minnows, which I actually reviewed for the Stanford Daily in 1976. He did something remarkable with the form.

He used the haiku as a stanza for lyric poems–keeping its imagistic structure but allowing it to form larger units of meaning. The book, now completely forgotten, was remarkable.

I have consistently anthologized one of Mike’s poems, which has been picked up by quite a few other editors over the years. Here is the sort of work that Stillman once did. Like so many multi-talented people, he couldn’t focus on one thing for too long. Each stanza is a haiku. I was glad to lodge one of his poems into public memory.

In Memoriam John Coltrane

Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the
turning of the wheels this night
black as coal dust, steel

steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.

Jazz duo Tuck & Patti (Photo: Thisisshun)

As a poet, Mike has been forgotten by the world. Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work. He wrote a great deal of fine poetry which has never been collected in books.

Postscript: Jazz scholar Ted Gioia also shared a story about Michael Stillman, elaborating on the jazz duo: “Michael was responsible for the famous husband-and-wife- jazz duo Tuck and Patti meeting—when he hired guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart for his band. Years later Tuck and Patti were not just a married couple but a hit musical act, with their debut album on the Windham Hill record label rising to the top of the jazz radio airplay chart. Mike might have shared in that success, because he wrote lyrics to a jazz song that they recorded for the album. But at the last minute the track had to be dropped from the album because the estate of the composer refused to give permission. Without rights to the song, Tuck and Patti couldn’t feature Mike’s lyrics. I can’t help thinking this was emblematic of Mike Stillman’s career—he was involved in so many seminal creative pursuits, but almost always behind the scenes, and getting very little credit himself.”