everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Sir Richard Wilbur the Kind-Hearted Poet vs. the Dizzy Blonde

It is extremely intimidating for me to edit a book by Richard Wilbur. He is Poet Laureate, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes, he has flawlessly translated Moliere from French to English (in verse, of course), and he teaches at Harvard (when he’s not teaching at Smith). Actually, editing his book is not the intimidating part. That part is easy. Truly a no-brainer. In fact, one afternoon after I get off the phone with him, having given him my small list of editorial changes and why I’d like this and that adjusted, I hang up and look out the window, puzzled. I ask myself, “What on Earth makes you think you know what changes Richard Wilbur should make in his poetry? Where do you get this certainty? You have not won a Pulitzer Prize. You are not Poet Laureate. You do not teach at Harvard. So where do you get off telling him how to fix his poems?

I do not know. It’s that editor thing.

Anyway, I am indeed editing a book by Richard Wilbur, and I know that eventually I must meet the man. You can’t edit somebody’s book without meeting him or her, at least I can’t. But I keep putting it off. And off. And off. At this point in my life, I have long blonde hair, I wear very short skirts, I’m married to a rock musician (guitar), and when I imagine what Richard WIlbur will think of me, the words that come to mind are “dumb blonde” and “airhead” and “cheerleader” and “another one of those vapid young editors who doesn’t know a thing about literature.”

I continue putting it off until we’ve spoken so many times, and I have so many letters from him on his small blue stationary (typed on an old-fashioned typewriter), that it’s starting to really bother me. Meanwhile, I’m working almost every day with Jimmy Buffett who, like Richard Wilbur, lives in Key West…. So I am in Key West a lot of the time, and there just isn’t any excuse for it. The guilt!

I’m staying at my favorite hotel down there, the Mariposa, so I finally get ready to face the music, and I iinvite him over for breakfast. Let me tell you, this is one breakfast I would love to miss. I feel stupid, stupid, stupid. And I get up and put on a dress, but I am dreading every minute.

Richard Wilbur comes by–and today he will become Dick Wilbur–wearing flip flops and baggy shorts and a faded Hawaiian shirt, and from the moment he walks up to the little table, he is the sweetest literary genius you can imagine. Absolutely lovely. And since I am stuffing this huge balloon of insecurity inside, I finally just pop. I tell him exactly how I feel–inadequate, poorly read, unintelligent…it all comes pouring out over coffee.

He smiles. “That’s the good thing about teaching at Harvard,” he tells me. “Because you teach the books, you have to read them. I’ve never read Anna Karenina.

I brighten considerably. “I have!” I pipe up with great enthusiasm. In fact, it is a novel I love, although you can imagine how pointless it would feel for me to discuss it with Dick, my new pal.

Over the next few years I will get together with him many times, both in Key West and in Western Massachusetts, his other residence. I will have drinks with him and Charlee, his wife. They will laugh and tell me how they love to jump naked in the snow and then hop into a hot jacuzzi. I am young enough that to me they seem like “old people,” so their antics are really precious, and they seem very open about their personal lives and an experience Dick had with depression–he’s talked about it in interviews, which is why I think it’s OK to mention it here–I admire that. Later in my life, when I have a bout of depression of my own, it will reassure me that even Dick Wilbur–who is very balanced and happily married for ages–has experienced depression, so I can’t be too unique about it. I even get to escort him to Writers and Poets a few times, where I watch nearly every great writer I’ve ever admired get completely drunk at the party at the 92nd Street Y, and during the part where they have to sit on the stage in bleachers, some of them keep sliding off the benches and onto the floor. (Not Dick.)

Dick and Charlee are funny and great company, humble, gracious, and  kind people who take great pains to make an insecure outsider like me feel completely at home.

So that is how I finally met Dick Wilbur–and what a chicken I was, and what a generous man he is, and how it sure helps you relax when you finally face your fears.

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