Shoulda Woulda Coulda: Remembering Peter Stitt

Rebecca McClanahan
I first met Peter Stitt in the pages of the Georgia Review, where his critical reviews of contemporary poetry served as a mentorship, guiding me to books I would not have discovered on my own. Years later I met him on the masthead of the Gettysburg Review, and, a few years later, after I’d racked up an impressive stack of rejection notes, we connected through a series of acceptance letters typed on the Review’s stationery and scrawled with his inimitable signature.
    My poetry manuscripts survived nearly intact; the prose was another story. When the first essay manuscript arrived riddled with edits, I wondered if the man might have some personal vendetta against apostrophes. But, no, on closer examination I saw that Editor Stitt was fine with possessives; it was my liberal use of contractions that was driving him over the edge.
    Truth be told, I admire a good contraction now and then: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try.”  But I could see Stitt’s point, so I thanked him for the edits and vowed to try to control my contractions in future submissions.
    Future became present, present became past. And over the two decades that he edited my work, Stitt became Peter, Peter became colleague, and colleague became friend. Our friendship seemed to flummox several of my colleagues and students, some of whom had gone head-to-head with Peter or interpreted his ironic quips as forms of cruelty. As for me, having been raised among uncles and a brother who often employed irony and sarcasm as forms of teasing affection, I’d learned early on how to dodge the slings and arrows of barbed wit. “Try to ignore the outward crust,” I suggested to the summer workshop participants who emerged from Peter’s office after a critique session wearing blanched faces or tear-streaked cheeks. “Just listen to the advice beneath.”
    Most people possessed of a tough crust are hiding something tender inside. Thus I have concluded. Peter’s exoskeleton was rigid at times, but never, in my experience, impenetrable. The otherwise hidden tenderness revealed itself in his writing, especially in the lyric essays of his fourth and final book, The Perfect Life. In these varied, inventive essays, alternately edgy and openhearted, he claims kinship with “all the lonely dead” who haunt his memories and dreams. Unashamedly, he grieves for them on the page, admitting the “hole in my heart” and the “ache in my exile and my emptiness.”
    Peter’s hard shell broke open in phone calls as well, and in his generous personal letters and e-mails. He sent messages of support when my mother was critically ill. He corresponded not only before my cancer surgery but also several times afterward, asking how my recovery was going and prescribing rum raisin ice cream to help put the weight back on. Years later, when his own post-illness weight loss concerned me, I would remind him of his ice-cream advice, which, as he would later tell me, he had gratefully taken.
    As for Peter’s sound editorial advice, I almost always took it. Peter surgically excised colons and semicolons, reset broken paragraph breaks, and patiently untangled my loopy syntax. (“There should be a syn-tax on such sins as these,” I imagine him saying, enamored as he was with the occasionally well-placed pun.) Still, we continued to wrestle over contractions. Once, shortly after accepting another essay, he wrote a brisk e-mail, chiding me for my profligate apostrophes: “Have we not discussed this problem before?”
    I replied that yes we had, and that I was indeed working on the challenge, but that sometimes I get carried away. “For purposes of rhythm,” I wrote. “Emphasis.” He suggested another phone conference, which I happily arranged, signing off with my new moniker: “Shoulda Woulda Coulda.”
    When the phone rang that morning, I opened my copy of the edited manuscript and greeted him as I always did, with a contraction. “How’s it going?” I said.
    “Hmm” was his only reply. The conversation proceeded something like this:
    “Please turn to page thirteen.”
    I turned to the page. “Wow,” I said. “You’re right. I count seven on this page alone.”
    “Eight,” he said.
    “Right, right. I see what you mean. You know,” I continued, gaining steam, “for a woman who’s never given birth I certainly have a lot of contractions.”
    Wait, I thought. Did I just hear a smile? Of course that’s impossible. One cannot hear a smile. One can hear a laugh, but it occurs to me now, as I write these words, that in all our time together—on panels, co-teaching workshops, during phone conversations, at post-reading receptions or summer conference cookouts or faculty dinners at the Blue Parrot—I never heard Peter laugh. But that can’t be right. I must have heard him laugh, but for some inexplicable reason the laugh does not echo in memory. I can see his smile, though, a slight, sidewise lift of his mouth.
    During the phone call that day, he handily absolved my grammatical transgressions, leaving time for one of my favorite pastimes: verbal sparring with Peter, a master at the craft. And since today’s theme was contractions, I opened with the “Imagine” quote, followed by Jagger, who, as we all know, “can’t get no satisfaction.” 
    Peter replied that I was not playing by the rules. “Those are song lyrics.”
    “Okay,” I said, challenging him to imagine how many great poems would have died from failure to contract: “Buffalo Bill is defunct.” “The art of losing is not too hard to master.” “Something there is that does not love a wall.”
    Peter, always quick on the trigger, defended the opposite argument: “Don’t go gentle into that good night.”   “Because I couldn’t stop for death . . . .”  And several other examples I cannot recall.
    “You win,” I said. “Yet again.”
    Though we continued our banter whenever we met at summer conferences or MFA residencies, I finally admitted the wisdom of his argument. After all, I had long admired Peter’s prose style, each sentence clean as a freshly mown lawn and almost always devoid of contractions.
    In the spring of 2013, Peter wrote asking if I would read galleys of The Perfect Life. I never guessed it would be his final book. I’d read his previous three books, but The Perfect Life became my instant favorite, shape-shifting as it does so deftly among the several literary modes Peter had mastered: criticism, memoir, history, and essay. The narrator guides us through time and space—across America, down to Mexico, and over to France, through the internal landscape of poems and into the hidden territories of childhood and adolescence. And though the title suggests that we will be reading about the living, the book begins and ends with the subject of death. Ghosts drift in and out of the pages—poets, editors, friends, a mother and father, aunts and uncles, drowned children, beloved dogs, soldiers lost on the battlefields of Gettysburg or France, mentors lost to suicide and despair. At times, the narrator’s grief is so palpable, so present, that a reader might assume that he is ready to join “all the lonely dead.” But, no, as he concludes at the end of one essay, “Whatever life I may be living now or at any time in the past or future is bound to be better than the alternative, which is no life at all.”
    But what if a third alternative presented itself: life after life. Hardly an alternative that the crusty editor I once thought I knew might contemplate. Yet there it is, on the page for all to see. After spending several days in Paradise, as the narrator names the spot in Sonora where he is “living the perfect life,” he decides that in his next life he will return as either a pelican or a dolphin. He admires them both—dolphins for their disciplined, serious play (one of Peter’s dictums for the writing life) and pelicans for their skill in skimming across the water’s surface and then “landing deftly and gracefully . . . without a splash.”
    These words might just as well describe Peter’s graceful flights of prose and his skill in landing words so effortlessly on the page. Still, something there is that does not love a landing, that wants the flight to continue. Thus, on the final page of the final essay of his final book, Peter pauses a moment to reconsider his earlier metaphor of loss and grief. “Perhaps that hole in my heart is actually a tunnel . . . a tunnel through which passes a highway, the highway traversed by the dead. Maybe that is where they are driving now, or riding, on their way to somewhere or nowhere.”
    Four months past Peter’s death, it now occurs to me that contractions, like holes and tunnels, are formed out of absence. Perfectly good words narrow and shrink. Letters go missing. Why hurry to reduce, restrict, decrease, compress, constrict, confine?  Life will do that to us soon enough—and death, which I imagine as the ultimate contraction. These are my thoughts, not Peter’s. I shoulda woulda coulda thought of this sooner, before my last phone call with him; it might have sparked a lively conversation.
    If I could reach Peter today—in his pelican or dolphin afterlife or on the highway where he is driving with the others on his way to somewhere or nowhere—I would ask him if he agrees. But I imagine that the answer lies in the work itself, which survives for us, his lucky readers. In Peter’s prose, each letter has its own say, its own day. And each word, singular and distinct, occupies its own space, however briefly, before landing on the page without a splash.

Rebecca McClanahan has published ten books, most recently The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change. Her work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, the Sun, and numerous anthologies, such as Best American Essays and Best American Poetry. Recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, the Carter Prize for the Essay, and the Glasgow Award in Nonfiction for her suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, she teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University and Rainier Writing Workshop. Red Hen Press will publish her memoir-in-essays, In the Key of New York City, in 2020.

"Shoulda Woulda Coulda: Remembering Peter Stitt" appears in our Winter 2018 issue.