From the Introduction
I met Max when he already had achieved a certain notoriety. It was incongruous to me that the peaceful, soft-spoken man I beheld could be the cause of controversy. But it was exactly his peaceful nature that gave rise to offense.
Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. was Poet Laureate of Nassau Country, New York. This is the sort of honor that usually attracts little attention, outside the poetry community. But that’s not how things worked in Nassau County.
The County Legislature decided Max was not worthy to be Poet Laureate, because he had written a book about peace in a time of war.
Max’s nomination was rejected. This slight suggested that, not only did the bureaucrats know little about poetry, but they also had a poor understanding of poets.
The poetry community dismissed the dismissal. They crowned their laureate, who had earned his title through acclaim and accomplishment. Hence, Max, a quiet, slight figure with a steady gaze, became the center of controversy.
Max was my teacher. He led a group of Taproot writers. That’s what he called all of us, no matter our skill level: everyone was a poet and everyone was a writer. Over time, this proved true, to varying degrees, for those who persevered under his leadership.
Each voice in the group was given a moment in the spotlight, and each was respected. The only exceptions to this rule were when voices were raised in hatred or anger. Neither of these sentiments survived long in a group led by a man of peace.
Max held his sessions in the fall and spring. When time came to sign up for a session, I’d go down the first day I was allowed. His class was so popular that it might be oversubscribed and I’d be shut out. However, there was little danger of that. Though the door might be officially closed to late entrants, I can’t recall a time when Max turned someone away.
There was, for example, the day a distracted woman wandered into our room. None of us knew her. She was looking for another event and accidentally stumbled upon our class.
A chair was empty, so she sat down. She even joined in the discussion, as I recall. Max didn’t suggest that she was unwelcome, or in the wrong place. When she left, he didn’t chuckle derisively, as some might have been tempted to do. We took our lead from his behavior, as we always did.
That episode captured Max’s strength, and his character. He filled the room with grace, the grace of kindness and generosity. And he had the strength to enforce this environment, by example, and by instruction, when necessary.
I learned to write under Max’s tutelage. Before I entered his class, there was so much I didn’t know. He never let on, as I floundered in those early days. My confidence grew and his lessons took root. It is rare that I write a piece now, and Max’s hand is not on it.
There was a time when I had little patience for poetry. It seemed a self-indulgent art with little objective value. I still don’t write poetry, despite Max’s best efforts, but my ears, my eyes and my heart are open to it.
For the last few years I’ve been writing nonstop–books, blogs, reviews. There is a sense of time running out, but there’s more than that. Max helped me to find my voice and to develop the belief that I can do it, that my effort is valid.
Thank you, Max, for everything. You were an artist, a peacemaker and a teacher. You are missed.