How I Became a Poet
I never meant to be a poet. I wanted
to be the great American novelist, or so I thought
in college. But one day in January, 1979,
I had an appointment with my advisor
when I overheard him on the phone, saying
he wanted “to nail that man’s balls to the wall.”
“Whose balls?” I asked when he hung up.
“David Lehman’s balls,” he said. “Whatever you do,
never take a class with David Lehman.”
Who is David Lehman? I wondered. Afterwards,
I wandered up the stairs in the English
Department, and turned right into what
I thought was a bathroom. And there he was!
The man whose balls were in question.
“May I help you?” David Lehman asked. I paused
and checked out the books on his shelf, including
an Encyclopedia of Angels. Or was it saints?
And a Frank O’Hara collection with a nude
man on the cover. I told him my advisor had just
suggested I take an independent study with him.
David looked at me, startled, half-smiling,
as if he knew I was lying or joking, and I knew
he knew I knew he knew,
but I blinked innocently and added, “He says
only you can teach me what I need to know.”
“How could I refuse?” David grinned, but I could tell
he wanted to when he added, “I don’t usually do
independent studies. I’m a very busy man.”
Then he paused, pushed his wire-rimmed glasses
up his nose, and asked, “Are you a poet?”
“Of course,” I lied as I looked out the window
at the snow falling, students with their heads
tucked deep in their down jackets,
and breathed in hard to suppress a laugh,
afraid that if I burst out, the spell would break,
and I would not be David’s only solo student,
and my future as a poet would never come to pass.
“You know he slept with Sheila McCullough?” my advisor said,
meaning that's why I shouldn't study with David Lehman.
“Sheila McCullough?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
“How else could she get an A in poetry?” he asked,
waving his hand dismissively.
“By writing good poems?” I suggested, then added
I was pretty sure I was the only one
sleeping with Sheila McCullough.
He flushed a little and got up from his desk,
and I left with my forms signed, sighing,
“You know, Sheila McCullough is the best!”
It was true. Even her name sang on my tongue,
Sheila, She-la-la, She-la McCullough . . .
She looked like a runway model with her long
slender legs in hotpants. Although I didn't
know her, I admired her from afar and often
wondered what it would be like to be so lovely
that even my professors assumed I was an idiot
and wondered who I was sleeping with on the sly.
was the year my advisor threw me out of his class
for being what he called “an unsavory element.”
“If savory is salty, does that mean I’m sweet?”
I asked. He didn’t laugh. He told me to grab my books
and leave. ASAP. I had written two stories in his class,
the first a fairy tale about a princess who despised
all the princes in the land. Princes,
she told her dad, just weren’t her thing.
He told me to write what I knew instead. So I wrote
a true story about Joey Crutchfield who entered my room
at midnight after I had gone to the bathroom
and forgotten to lock the door to my dorm room
when I went back to bed. His intentions,
he said, were honorable, and then he told me
how pretty I was. Neither statements were true.
I managed to get him to leave and write about it
afterwards, only I renamed him Crotchforth,
and when I read the story aloud, everyone knew
who I was talking about and they laughed and clapped
and word spread—it escalated into a minor campus event
until Joey called me on the phone to threaten
me. He said his daddy would sue me for libel.
Yes, his daddy was a hotshot New York lawyer
who always had his son’s best interests at heart.
Needless to say, I was quivering in my LL Bean
boots. This was years before the #MeToo
movement—not long after a freshwoman
called Diz was spoon-raped at a frat party
by six men—whom she accused later, though
she was so drunk, how could she be sure?
That was the frat boys’ excuse, and the dean
nodded his assent. So did the college president.
Everyone whispered about Diz, and the boys
waved spoons when she walked past in the cafeteria
as if she were a joke until the day she left school
and never came back. “Imagine it,” we whispered.
“Waking up to a man eating orange sherbet
out of your crotch.” Did they really do that?
I still think about her sometimes
when I see the names of those frat boys,
now in their sixties with their wives and children
and Facebook posts of sunny, white-fenced lives,
all of them lawyers or doctors or hedge fund managers.
The worst is in Congress. Of course he is.
And Diz? Who knows? Like many women who are victims,
she changed her name, her address, her hair color,
her history. She cut off her college contacts,
stopped answering letters and phone calls.
“I’m not here. Don’t bother leaving a message,”
the voice on her answering machine said.
She learned how to be as invisible as a mouse
in a field with a red-tailed hawk overhead.
But these days I imagine her coming back
as Superwoman with a fork or knife in hand,
a smile on her crimson lips—ready at last to pay back
those creeps, the ones who fucked up her life
and mine. And yours, too, I bet. I keep thinking
they need to have their balls forked—just once. Maybe twice.
Not too much—nothing we’d truly regret.
The author of 7 chapbooks and 7 full-length poetry collections, Nin Andrews (she/her) has won two Ohio individual artist grants, the Pearl Chapbook Contest, the Kent State University chapbook contest, the Gerald Cable Poetry Award, and the 2016 Ohioana Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in many literary reviews and anthologies including Agni, The Paris Review, The Best of the Prose Poem, and four volumes of Best American Poetry. Her book, The Last Orgasm, was published by Etruscan Press in 2020.