Swimming with Howard Moss

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THE FIRST FAMOUS PERSON I wrote to when I moved to New York in 1980 was Howard Moss, the long-time poetry editor of  The New Yorker.  He was the one person, it seemed, that every literary figure—from W. H. Auden to Elizabeth Bishop, Lillian Hellman, or John Updike—knew and liked as a friend. I told him in my note that throughout college I had admired his own poems and the writers he published in the magazine, though the idea of him and the life I thought he led particularly awed me.  Also, he had attended, but not graduated from, my alma mater, the University of Michigan, and I thought that our having shared the college would be further reason for him to notice my correspondence.

I had moved to New York a month after graduation and had soon secured a job as assistant to the managing editor of a major book-publishing house.  During my initial interview with the editor, she removed her contact lenses and sucked on them as if they were shards of hard candy, before popping them back into her eyes, a procedure I would come to witness every workday.  She was an alcoholic, though I didn’t know that during the months I had worked for her.  She would yell at me, and her other employees, with such vigor that, as she pounded her hand on her desk, entire manuscripts shifted to the edges before falling in a cascade of paper, reigniting her fury.

One day at five o’clock while at my job, I picked up the phone and Howard Moss introduced himself. “I received your note and would enjoy meeting you for a drink,” he said. “Let’s make a date.” He suggested the bar at the Algonquin, which was convenient for both of us. In college, an English professor of mine often invited me to dinners and cocktail parties at his house with visiting writers—Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Jane Kenyon, Robert Bly, among others—even loaning me his Volkswagen to pick them up at the Detroit airport. This, however, was the first time I had instigated a meeting with a writer and would be on my own.

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