By Mark Alpert
Thirty-one years ago I enrolled in the MFA creative writing program at Columbia University. I don’t have anything useful to say about whether such writing programs are worth the money. I was writing poetry at the time, so the MFA degree didn’t help me launch my career as a novelist (which didn’t start until a quarter-century later). But at least I got one tangible thing in exchange for those two years of tuition fees: a lifelong writing buddy.
I met Neil Davison at the first poetry workshop that September. The professor asked each of us to read one of our poems to the rest of the class. It was excruciating. No one offered any criticism during that first workshop, but the air in the room was thick with intellectual condescension. The only poem I remember from that morning was Neil’s. It was a surrealistic piece about a moose that had the face of Neil’s grandmother. You see, it’s kind of memorable, right?
We went to lunch together after the workshop, and we’ve been friends ever since. We laughed our way through grad school, coining nicknames for all our odd classmates (The Captain of the Thunderbirds, The Second-Story Man, The Spanish-Jewish Girl Who Is Neither Spanish Nor Jewish). After we got our master’s degrees, I became a newspaper reporter while Neil went on to get a Ph.D. and become an English prof at Oregon State University. And over the decades we’ve continued to read and enjoy each other’s writing. Neil’s an expert on James Joyce, and in 2004 he was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Dublin that commemorated the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, the pivotal day of Joyce’s Ulysses. He convinced me to come along, saying the conference was just an excuse for an epic pub-crawl. He was right.
This weekend I’m taking my family to Oregon to attend Neil’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. My kids asked me recently, “If you had to pick just one of your friends to be your companion in a post-apocalyptic zombie world, who would you choose?” (As you can see, the Alperts are mentally preparing themselves for the much-anticipated debut of Walking Dead season four.) The truth is, Neil wouldn’t be the best choice for a zombie-killing wingman. He’s too nice. But he’d feel right at home in a dystopia where the survivors dissect books instead of decapitating the undead.
Writing can be a lonely occupation. So it’s a true gift to have a literary pal, someone who’s eager to share his or her strong opinions about Philip Roth or Susan Sontag. I’m looking forward to seeing Neil again. Perhaps he’ll have another weird poem to show me.