Thursday, March 5, 2020

"Erin Pringle will leave you dazzled": Noyes on Hezada! I Miss You, and Why We Called Him Noyes

"With the cool-minded skill of a funambulist, the foolhardy courage of a human cannonball, and the secretive, poignant wisdom of a melancholy clown, Erin Pringle will leave you dazzled and bleary-eyed with Hezada! I Miss You. Your lesser half will want to keep this book to yourself. Your better half will want to share its wonders with the world." 
—Tom Noyes, author of Come by Here: A Novella and Stories
Tom Noyes

We Called Him Noyes

I've known Noyes as long as I've been working on Hezada! A little longer. I only know this because the last time I saw him in person, about six years ago with a baby strapped to my chest, I told him I was working on a circus novel. He said, Erin, you've been working on the circus novel since Indiana State University. 

So, it's only because of Noyes that I have a timeline for the book. 

I call him Noyes because he was my creative writing professor. Well, I never took a workshop with him because, at the time, I had another creative writing professor named Howard, and Howard's feelings were hurt if any of his students took workshops with the new professor. So, I respected that, but then Noyes brought with him a short fiction class--one that was maybe required for the Creative Writing Minor. My best friend Alexa and I took it.

Yes, that Alexa. That best friend. The one who is always dead in the stories I tell of her, but this is a story of when she was alive and we were students and ran up and down the hallways of the English Department saying hello to professors in their offices, stopping to chat with the secretaries for long hours, and scooping up the free books that sometimes appeared in boxes outside an office--these wonderful breadcrumbs left for us to follow the best we could into the literature world our teachers were already deep inside.

If Alexa was sick then, nobody but her body knew it. 

It's Noyes's short fiction class where I read contemporary writers for really the first time, outside of what would appear at my hometown library.

The books we read were Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry. Here I read George Saunders for the first tie, a tragic story of drowning. I encountered Ian MacMillan's story about a barn, two children, a rural strange place that felt stunningly familiar. It was the edition of BAP in which Anne Carson's town poems appeared in. The poem by Daniel Halpern that I can only find now after multiple google searches, about how his wife, in never arguing, now has a hole in her heart. Lines that are sealed into me the number of times I've read over them. 

- Noyes is the one who told me to read Susan Steinberg.
- Noyes is the one who read my story "Remember Ella" and said to submit it to Quarter After Eight.
- Noyes is the one who had a child, age three, named Josie, who said things like this at a faculty picnic, "Oh, no thank you, Pete," upon being asked if she would care for more cottage cheese.

When Alexa, a handful of years later, would have twin daughters, she would name one of them Josie. 
We thought Noyes's Josie was a fascinating person. We would take turns baby-sitting for her. I spent a good time on the floor beside Josie, staring at the ceiling and imagining what clouds were drifting above us. 

Noyes would calmly and with amused expression sit at his desk, setting down his pen as Alexa and I once more interrupted him, and I would go on impassioned soliloques about the trouble with traditional fiction, masculinity, patterns of story that were, in my view, getting in my way. Alexa would nod, laugh, roll her eyes, Oh, Erin. Oh, Erin, you're such a toad, she'd say, when I was lost again in my indignance.

His office, you see, was well positioned by an intersection of hallways. Just by the Writing Center where I worked. Just across from Nell's office--Nell who lived in Paris, Illinois and was not amused by anything unless you looked closely at her eyes and worked hard to make them glimmer. Alexa and I would sit between Nell's office and Noyes's office, in our too-large plaid trousers we'd brought home from Goodwill. 

Have I delayed sharing with you Noyes's blurb because he is so intricately tied to my love for my best friend Alexa? I miss her, friends. I miss her so much. I miss that time, before she was sick, or at least, before we knew it. Before I moved too far away, to follow the writer's path to an MFA program, to Texas. Before I knew I was queer, but she did, somehow, in the way we sense people we love but have no language to tell them how deeply we can see them. 

It's because of Alexa that I thought all English departments were like the one at Indiana State. I thought all professors set down their pens to listen to two best friends, two English majors, practice tirades about the lack of women in the canon, about the few women we were given, about all the things that the professors themselves were showing us to care about.

Of course, at that time, Howard was failing. He was past retirement but his life was teaching and his dogs, and he could not leave his office. His dogs were old. He'd buried one, but the rain kept unearthing it, and he kept having to bury it deeper. He was having small strokes, but we didn't know it. He would have one when he came to Chicago probably, when he was trying to tie his shoe but could not feel his feet and fell into the bathtub--telling me what happened when my boyfriend and I woke up later. 

Rumor was people had tried to tell Howard in the gentlest of ways that he was not well. And, of course, Howard had likely told them to go to hell. 

Howard's office was two doors down from Noyes's. So Alexa and I always made sure to visit Howard, or make sure he wasn't in his office, before we talked to Noyes. Because Howard knew what everyone knew, but he had only his office, had the sudden laughter that his students would bring him, had his method of teaching creative writing that he'd learned in the 1960s when he was a kid from Kansas attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop, when Vonnegut was his teacher. 

To tell you the story of Noyes and our friendship is to tell you of Alexa. Of Howard. 

Howard gone now, too. I would inherit his pocket watch, a dozen of the TV guides he'd had articles in, polaroids of him with friends in the faded yellows of that era of photography. 

It was Howard who would be alive and who I would meet in my first creative writing workshop a few months after my father died. I was 17. It was Howard who would underline places in my stories and write, GOOD IMAGE!

To tell you about Noyes is to tell you about Howard, about my father, about the era they shared of men born in 1935 who grew up to become young men who bet on horses, who chased women and were endeared for it, who would in the middle of silence burst out cursing. 

GODDAMMIT! Howard would yell from his office because somebody in admissions was trying to fuck over one of his advisees. Some asshole in admissions who didn't know a goddamn thing about credits was trying to say that Howard's advisee could not transfer course credits from there to here. And now, goddammit, Howard McMillen was going to have to call up that asshole or walk himself over there in the same gray jogging pants he wore yesterday and his purple K-state sweatshirt, and tell them why they would not fuck over one of his advisees, you better believe it. 

Because maybe Viking fucked him over with his book The Many Mansions of Sam Peeples in 1972, but he would not let anyone fuck over the filing cabinet of undergrads whose course of studies he helped ensure would lead to graduation.

It was Howard who saw creative writing as a team sport, who saw himself as the coach and manager of the ISU program. Howard was a recruiter. He grew the program, he said. He had proof. He'd found former students in bars and enrolled them the next day. He found this one and that one. He ran into Sarah in an aisle of Wal-Mart and they'd gotten to talking and NOW she was a minor in creative writing. (Sarah who, after Howard died, would send me a photograph of Howard that she'd taken.)

Howard with his monthly poetry reading at Pizza City. Howard and his friend Steve Cash who was working on a novel. 

But Howard can be a different story I'll tell you later. 

Noyes wrote one of the recommendation letters that would go to all the MFA programs I applied to. I applied only to programs in the South. Where it would not be like where I'd grown up. Where it would be like the place I'd visited with boyfriend Mark, like the place I'd visited with Alexa in the shadows of New Orleans. 

It was Noyes who, when I had my first workshop in graduate school, sent me an assuring email, one attempting to boost my confidence.

- And when Alexa became sick, I told Noyes.
- And when Alexa died, I called Noyes from Texas, where I'd gotten the call about her death, and I stood barefoot on the sidewalk outside my house where the tree in the front yard was perpetually dying.
- He didn't know what to say. 
- But what does one say?
- While I'd moved to Texas, Alexa had stayed in Terre Haute, moving into the masters program in English literature. She'd gotten married, had children, been diagnosed with Pulmonary Hypertension, moved home to Indianapolis as her body began fighting with the air, to take in enough, to stay steady.

Of course he'd lost track of her. He'd returned to the East with his family, settled into a new job in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Of course I'd not lost track of either of them, with my small-town ways, my tendency to keep everyone I meet in my address book for annual Christmas cards, just as my mother still does--crossing off old addresses and writing the new ones in the margins.

I can't remember whether Noyes read my first book when I defended it in graduate school, but he would later write a blurb for it when it was published. The stories in Erin Pringle’s first collection possess the charm of fairy tales, the wisdom of poems, the hope of prayers, the weight of eulogies, and the intimacy of letters home. 

He'd write a blurb for my second book. Erin Pringle’s stories leave you no choice. They sing so gorgeously, break your heart so perfectly, that you’re forced to revise your understanding of loss, luck, and love.

All the while, he would hear from me suddenly and then not, continue to write recommendation letters required of fellowships I'd apply for and only once win.

He'd publish more books, win prizes, now and then post pictures of Josie as a young teenager, now older, now with blue hair, now with a guitar. And a new child with a face reminiscent of the Josie I once knew.  

And now, here we are, I've asked him again, and he said okay, and even when the press was late getting the book to him and it was the chaotic beginning of a semester, he read the book, and he sent in the blurb--that one you see, above.

But under the blurb, he added a note that means more than anything. It's a wonderful novel, Erin. I'm proud and more than a little jealous of its brilliance.

So, the story of my friendship with Noyes is one of finding a person who will fight in your corner. And the corner where people fight for me is a pretty lonely place, I think. Which makes it really important to have him stay in it these past twenty years.

Thanks, Noyes.


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