Friday, October 30, 2009

Bill Cowee

[Below is a moving tribute to Bill Cowee by fellow Nevada writer Shaun Griffin.]

Bill Cowee—Friend to Poets, Libraries, and Readers
by Shaun T. Griffin

Northern Nevada lost a literary champion on Friday, October 16. Born in Wisconsin and raised in Montana, Bill Cowee came to this region to attend undergraduate school at UNR, and later finished his accounting degree at USC. He worked as a comptroller for the Arden-Mayfair grocery chain in Southern California before once again, relocating to northern Nevada. For the next two decades he worked as an accountant with his brother, John, in Dayton.

It was during this time that Bill resurrected his love of poetry. Quite unobtrusively, he started Ash Canyon Poets with John Garmon in 1987. They have continued to meet every Friday of the year since that time—except Christmas Eve. And he began to study the art form in earnest, acquiring books from all periods of poetic history. Equally important, he began to work as a teacher and colleague with so many of his peers, people who came to him for advice, for suggestions on revision. In the middle of all this effort, he wrote his poems, some of which leave me breathless. After several years he gathered them in his first volume, Bones Set Against the Drift, published by Black Rock Press in 1997.

Publishing a poem has been described as pushing a leaf over the Grand Canyon wall and waiting to hear its echo. But Bill’s volume did leave a mark—the poems rang true to this landscape and the people who make the Great Basin home. He articulated a clear vision of the West—something like Gary Snyder’s vision of this place, and he did it with careful attention to detail, to sound, to imagery. No poet comes upon his or her craft with ease. Bill worked tirelessly at revision and at making each word count. What he wanted from a poem was nothing less than awe. He wanted the reader to set it down like fire at the feet.

His reading taught him so much and he relied on the vast history of poets and poetry for instruction, for ways to enrich each separate effort. Although I have written of his work before, I am besieged with regret that this must come after his valiant effort “to stay alive,” as the poet Denise Levertov wrote. Late in life Bill moved into the Evergreen Mountain View Convalescent home. He told me that he would never write again, that he “was all through” because to write in that place would be usury and he could not bring himself to do so. I listened to him but did not believe him. I told him he had everything to write about, that life “was now/ and never was/ before or after,” like our friend the poet Toby Lurie wrote. It was a difficult adjustment for Bill, living in a place without wheels and where sickness and the loss of life were part of his existence.

Soon Bill did several things that struck me as nothing short of amazing. Upon moving into the facility—whose many loving staff kept Bill thriving—and with the tireless help of his guardian angel, Terry Ford, he donated his 1,200-plus volumes of poetry to Western Nevada College. Six months ago, after just getting out of the hospital, he attended the dedication ceremony at the college. The volumes are in a sunlit corner of the library, all with a small sticker on them: The Bill Cowee Poetry Collection. Similarly, upon urging from Terry Breeden, he submitted his poems—yes, he did start writing again—to the Nevada Arts Council. In May, 2009, he learned he was the recipient of this year’s artist fellowship in literature. This was his second fellowship award from the Nevada Arts Council. These poems were the very poems he told me he could never write. They are among the most humane of all that he has left us.

I wish I could recount the number of days Bill and I talked about poetry on the steps of his brother’s accounting office, or mornings spent at the Piñon Poetry Festival teaching young students about the art form, or the evenings in classes or workshops or libraries bringing new readers and writers to poetry. Bill never tired of giving his gift away and he never expected the gift of recognition to come in return. He regretted not being in the Nevada Writer’s Hall of Fame—a regret that may yet change—but he was thrilled to receive the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2001. He served as the poetry editor for Bristlecone and co-director of the Western Mountain Writer’s conference. Perhaps most unknown about Bill, he labored to support the poets in the prison poetry workshop I have taught at Northern Nevada Correctional Center for many years. In fact, one year they elected to put a painting of him on the cover of their journal, Razor Wire.

Bill had three sons, all grown, a former spouse, a mother, sister, and two brothers who live on. Gratefully, they were able to be with him in his last week of life. Words mean very little to someone in a time of grief and I imagine if Bill were here, he would have written a poem to say good-bye. It was only through the grace of Denise and so many more of the staff at Evergreen that he could share his words at all. But when we gathered to read his poems on that Friday evening, everyone knew that they had been shaken by a man whose love of poetry was unbridled, had no boundaries, and would never accept a world without art.

Bill would have wanted you to know this most of all and so I will end with his words.

Do Not Resuscitate

Much like Tutankhamen,
we must record the wishes
of our passing
the Advanced Directive,
not the killing of slaves
with their baskets of wheat and dates,
but the absence of feeding tubes
or hands pumping our breasts.
Only the sipping of drugs
to ease the journey.
Let me go
into the great lake,
into my own time, my soul
wrapped in its swaddling
with the spices of my life.
My body like a reed
of its own papyrus
ink still wet with the blessing
of having written.

1 comment:

Emily said...

Thank you for this lovely remembrance. I knew Bill a bit some years ago and am sorry to know he's gone. He wrote a poem for me many years ago called Revisiting Dunraven, I think he called it that in the end. It was so very eloquent, I still tear up to think of it. Rest in Peace, friend.