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Paul J. Willis

My Date with Mary Oliver

A memorable evening in Santa Barbara.

So. The poet Mary Oliver was coming to town—or to the local university, rather—and the head of their arts and lectures series, Roman Baratiak, called me up and asked if I would introduce her at the reading. Would I ever. An honor, I told him. Her lithe and lovely stanzas of encounter with the natural world, stair-stepping down the page, were among my very favorite moments as a reader, moments in which I often forgot to envy her skill and simply sank into the words—words which made me more of the kind of grateful and attentive person I wanted to be. And that's what a good poem is for, right?

Roman told me to arrive a half hour early so that Mary Oliver and I could chat a bit before she went on. "To establish some rapport," he said. So I got to the lecture hall by 7:30 p.m., intro in hand, eager for my little chat. But the stage manager came out and told me that our guest poet was still at dinner, would get here soon—that I should have a seat in the house and someone would get me when she arrived. So I took a seat near the front as the large hall began to fill.

At a quarter of eight she still hadn't shown. Then ten to eight. Then five to eight. The lecture hall was full by now, ripe with the noise of expectation, and no one had yet come for me. What, in that moment, was I to do with my one wild and precious life? What I did, sans summons, was get out of my seat and find my way backstage to the green room, which was brightly lit but entirely empty. Eight o'clock now. I could still hear the buzz of the crowd. In the huge mirror that crossed one side of the room I practiced my three-minute introduction, punching the laugh lines, slowing down for the passages of earnest appreciation.

At five after eight, Roman Baratiak and Mary Oliver came sweeping through the back door from the parking lot. Roman graciously introduced us, and Mary was particularly warm and personable in the way she took my hand. This was a relief to me, for when ...

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