To Befriend a Fox

Recently, PS Books asked me to edit a collection of poetry by Richard William Pearce and also to provide a foreword for that collection. Since a review would likely be somewhat biased, I will, instead, post the foreword that I wrote. Apologies in advance for the length of this post. The book is called To Befriend a Fox, and the foreword is titled “To Befriend a Poet.”

To Befriend A Poet

Richard Pearce hid his depression in plain view. On good days, his dreams and ambitions had no bounds. He’d dive headfirst into whatever captured his imagination: painting, boxing, strong man competitions, and, of course, poetry. His ambition with respect to the latter was to be anthologized, to have his work discussed and debated among poets and scholars, yet it was his interest in other fields that turned his public readings into events not to be missed.

In bookstores and art galleries throughout the Philadelphia area, a Richard Pearce reading meant a gathering of the most disparate elements of the poet’s life: his mother (a nursery school teacher) seated next to a body-builder seated next to the editor of Weird Tales, one of many journals that published his wide range of work. At these events, Rich would make us laugh not only with the content of his poetry (“The Frog” and “Repo Man,” reproduced in this volume, are shining examples of how whimsical he could be at the best of times) but also with his ebullient presence. That the man could work an audience with the ease of a standup comic concealed, or at least mitigated, the pain inherent in much of his work. He was a performer, but, more than that, he was a poet—one who loved his audience and wanted nothing more than to connect on the most human of levels.

One thing that always mystified Rich was the publishing industry. The decisions of editors to accept or reject his work never made sense to him. The first of his poems ever to reach a wide audience was the aforementioned “Repo Man,” and it was published in what was, at the time, a pretty big journal. Yet while “Repo Man” was a favorite for both Rich and his loyal coterie of fans, the poet in him knew that it wasn’t his “best” work. When he submitted subsequent, “better” poems to the journal in question, however, they were rejected outright. Pressed for an explanation, the editor simply replied that Rich’s later work didn’t rise to the quality of “Repo Man.” This, in Rich’s opinion, was idiotic, and he was quick to let the editor know it—and, over time, antagonizing those who held his poetic fate in their hands became one of his lesser hobbies.

In a letter dated June 2, 2003, Rich writes, Speaking of f—ing with people, another editor TOTALLY trashed some poems I sent her. She sent them back with red pen marks all over them, telling me how this was no good and that was no good… She also went to the trouble of schooling me on grammar and generally how to get the “meaning” of the poem across to the reader without the reader having to struggle to discern it for herself. I took the letter, wrote, “Jean, are you retarded?” then sent it back to her… Shortly thereafter, I sent her six absolutely RIDICULOUS poems (which I’ve included herein). Among the poems was one that opened with the couplet Stevie Wonder cannot see/Cannot see, oh me, oh me! Another consisted only of the word tuna centered on the page. And when Rich returned his attention to the editor who published “Repo Man,” he went so far as to tell her that he was dying, and sent along a somber poem, “Green Hillsides in Winter.” Again, Rich’s words say it best: All an attempt to make her feel like shit for writing what she wrote, but I think I actually managed to produce a halfway decent poem as a result.

As an editor, I can appreciate how aggravating Rich’s shenanigans may have been to his victims, but as a writer, I sympathize with his impulse to antagonize. He said the things I always wanted to say when, through gritted teeth and a forced smile, I would thank editors for taking the time to consider my work. But although Rich was a mercurial trickster, he was also plagued with second thoughts. At one point, he went so far as to wonder whether a harsh rejection from one editor was a form of cosmic payback for the hard time he’d given to another. I probably wouldn’t have given the letter I sent a second thought, wouldn’t have bothered wondering how badly I (possibly) hurt [the first editor’s] feelings, if my own feelings hadn’t been hurt by the [second editor], he writes in one of the last letters I received from him, underscoring the fact that beneath his devil-may-care attitude, Rich was, at heart, a sensitive soul.

Shortly before he took his own life, Rich called me to talk about—of all things—Son of Godzilla. What bothered him about the movie wasn’t so much that Godzilla had a son or even that the son knew how to speak, but that when the tropical island where Godzilla lived froze over at the end of the movie, the radioactive lizard went into hibernation. Lizards don’t hibernate, Rich insisted. If the weather gets too cold, they die.

In some ways, it was just like all of the other conversations we’d had over the years—part humorous, part serious, largely inconsequential. But when I learned some days later that he had died, the whole conversation, like everything else I knew about Rich, took on a whole new meaning: his jokes, his poetry, his love the first line of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground—“I am a sick man.”  All of these things suddenly and in hindsight revealed my friend to be far more sensitive, far more delicate than I ever imagined. Yet it’s Rich’s very sensitivity that makes the poems that follow so meaningful, so moving. Throughout this collection, my friend, the poet, bares his soul in ways that are sometimes playful, sometimes painful, and frequently both at once. He was a rare talent, a dedicated artist, and a caring friend. I only wish I’d known him better.

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