I don’t know if I was destined to become a writer, but I was blessed to grow up in a home full of books, with a mother who taught me to read and write at an early age. I was four when I wrote and illustrated my first stories—imitative of Babar—and I remember walking the two blocks from Brockway Library, arms and pockets stuffed with the likes of Beatrix Potter and Bill Peet, more tucked inside my waistband. Visiting with my mother her Canadian relatives, on entering one house I whispered, “Mommy, where are the books?” Even today in anyone’s home I take note of the books, or lack thereof.
But from probably kindergarten on, if asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a doctor. And why not? You helped people, and you made a lot of money. Whether the idea was my own, or inculcated by my parents, I can’t say. But such was my aspiration throughout those formative years. Meanwhile, I published my first poem. “The Baseball Game,” written at ten, didn’t appear in the children’s magazine, Highlights, for another two years. Influenced by “Casey at the Bat” (would I ever write anything original?), the poem foretold a lifelong love of sports, and taught me early, valuable lessons about patience.
Soon I was on to limericks, and earnest poems of noble sentiment with titles like “The Quality of Determination” (about a Wimbledon champion). Then, throughout high school, writing of another kind emerged: scientific, immersed in years-long research into a disease killing the palm trees of my native South Florida. All of which seemed to bode well for my future in medicine.
I arrived at Amherst College pre-med, and flush with recognition for my research. But before long I found myself distracted by the first-time freedoms of life away from home. I couldn’t concentrate on my intensive curriculum—chemistry and advanced calculus. I was falling behind in my classes. It seemed I could find motivation only in Armour Craig’s freshman English. Craig, who’d been a colleague of Robert Frost, exposed our tender, impressionable minds to the challenges of modern poetry. When I read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” I thought, This poem is written in English—yet it seems another language. But it feels like something important is being said: what is it? I wanted to translate that language, and then I wanted to write serious poems of my own.
These developments did not go over well back home—to say the least. I remember hours-long, acrimonious phone calls from the booth at the end of my dormitory hall, sometimes keeping my floormates waiting. To my parents, I was taking the easy way out, and abandoning my promising future. Why had they sent me to Amherst if I was just going to waste my time? I needed to buckle down and get to business. My father was particularly vocal. The son of a surgeon himself, he had long regretted not pursuing medicine as his father had implored him to do, ending up running a food processing plant. Now my dad saw me repeating what he felt to be the same mistake.
All I knew was that I wasn’t happy. If I really wanted to be a doctor, I reasoned, I would be working hard for it. By the end of my first semester I was on academic probation. I switched to an English major, got a job on the school’s landscaping crew. And started taking writing workshops where I could find them, at area colleges and local libraries. Poems of mine began appearing in campus literary magazines, and I won the College’s poetry prizes my junior and senior years. As a senior, I was fortunate to be admitted to Richard Wilbur’s writing seminar at Smith College. In Wilbur, and the legendary Amherst professors David Sofield and Bill Pritchard, I found the models for the teacher/writer I wanted to become.
Nonetheless, when I aspired to grad school at The University of Iowa—I wanted to work with Donald Justice—my parents remained unconvinced: I would have to pay my own way. So I took a gap year, teaching tennis in Miami and substituting in the public schools.
But it wasn’t until several years later, when I started teaching fulltime, and my first book came out—with a wonderful blurb from Richard Wilbur—that my parents conceded I could probably make a go of this literary life. I would never make much money, or enjoy a doctor’s job security, but as more books and recognition came, they were proud of my accomplishments, and grateful for my happiness. I followed my heart, and don’t regret it.
The poet Barry Goldensohn, my workshop instructor at Hampshire College, asked us—and answered—this question: “Why do we write poems? Because we need to say something urgent, and we want to say it beautifully.” Those imperatives have never left me: in everything I write, I try to meet that standard. All these years later, I can still think of nothing harder—or more necessary (for me, that is), than to write—and to try to write well.
My new collection, Goodbye, Apostrophe, is lovingly dedicated to the memory of my mother, who instilled in me from very early on, the rapture of books.
Peter Schmitt is the author of five previous collections of poems: Renewing the Vows (David Robert Books); Hazard Duty, and Country Airport (Copper Beech Press); and two chapbooks, Incident in an Apartment Complex: A Suite of Voices, and To Disappear (Pudding House). He has received The Lavan Award from The Academy of American Poets (selected by Richard Wilbur); The “Discovery”/The Nation Prize (judged by Anthony Hecht, Mary Jo Salter, and Nicholas Christopher); The Julia Peterkin Award (Converse College); is a two-time recipient of grants from The Florida Arts Council; and was awarded a Fellowship from The Ingram Merrill Foundation. His poems have been featured several times on National Public Radio’s Writers Almanac, and his poem, “Packing Plant,” won The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival open competition. His work has appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Nation, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Southern Review, and has been widely anthologized. He has also reviewed poetry and fiction for The Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. A native Miamian, a Westinghouse National Science Talent Search Top 40 selection in high school, he graduated with honors from Amherst, and from The Writers Workshop at The University of Iowa. His part-time jobs have included janitor, forklift operator, freelance journalist and editor, and he started his own business treating disease-susceptible palm trees. Since 1986, he has taught creative writing and literature at The University of Miami.