Read your work in public. You will be surprised what may come of that experience.
Robert E. Lee has given his students this advice for the past twenty-one years. He was first told these words by a friend who was trying to convince him to read his poems in public. Although he had write poetry throughout his twenties and thirties, at forty years old he had never published anything or shared in public. His friend Margaret told him about an open-mic reading hosted by MFA students at the Chimney Corner (a U.M. hangout) and encouraged him to read.
“I was so nervous I drank a stranger’s Coca-Cola just so my voice would work,” recalls Lee.
After that first reading, Lee was urged by MFA students to return to the University and pursue writing. He did, partly because he thought that writing might be in his blood. Before he was born, his mother had penned a novel, at age nineteen, that an agent had expressed interest in. Unfortunately, the novel was lost in a family move, and his mother never became a novelist. Lee returned to University of Montana to seize the opportunity his mother had lost. While getting his MFA he picked up a second guiding maxim from mentor and friend, William Kittredge:
Publish a poem or story; that is good. Publish a book and it will change your life.
By the end of graduate school, Lee had a draft of his first novel—Guiding Elliot—a raucous story of Donny Phillips, “a real fly-fishing guide” from Montana. A year later, in 1997, Lyon Press published the book (in 2015 it was re-published by Mountain Press in paperback.)
With his first book under his belt, Lee’s life did begin to change. Interested in teaching, he reached out to MWC artistic director Sheryl Noethe. Noethe hired him and immediately sent him off to Salmon, Idaho with a copy of her teaching book Poetry Everywhere and some more advice:
When in Idaho, don’t say anything good about wolves.
In Salmon, Lee taught every grade from first grade through high school:
“I vividly recall spending two hours introducing some hard-core alternative students to sonnets and then, ten minutes later, gazing at the expectant faces of thirty first-graders.Talk about changing dance steps!”
After two years in Salmon, Lee returned to Missoula, where he taught for the next ten years at Lowell Elementary. It was at Lowell, working with their outstanding teachers, that Lee says he developed his teaching style. But then came Hydaburg, Alaska where everything he thought he knew about teaching, and writing, would be challenged.
Who the (expletive) are you and what are you doing in my school?
This was the greeting Lee received when he arrived in Hydaburg, a small Haida village on Prince of Wales Island. Immediately, Lee went to work gaining the respect of the local community:
“I believe I gained more respect from students and staff in Hydaburg from the fact that I’d take my (silly) fly rod out after work and actually come home with a limit of salmon, than I did through writing or teaching skills.”
Lee made it through that first three-month residency and returned for two more stints in 2009 and 2010. By the third year, his persistent, subtle charm was paying off and he could write home that “even the dogs aren’t barking at me anymore.”
Lee’s experiences in a remote Alaska village led him to the publishing of his first book of poetry in 2013, Black Bear Holds a Hole in His Paws. In 2018, he published his second book of poems, Breath. In the last decade, Lee has taught for MWC in Arlee, Bonner, Ovando, Potomac and Seeley Lake. He continues to love teaching poetry, especially form poetry.
“I find that form poems teach us a sense of the long oral history of poetry as well as that poetry is still evolving and changing. I believe that when we concentrate on the complexity of form, the truth we may be hiding from might slip out onto the page and surprise us while we are counting syllables.”