[Note: This article was written for the 75th Anniversary celebration of Prairie Schooner held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln October 11-13, 2001.]
Hugh Luke, former Editor of Prairie Schooner, was teaching an undergraduate course in Poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when I first met him. I remember being astonished by Hugh’s passion for the written word and his influence and inspiration have steeped deep within me for 15 odd years or so.
Hugh was extremely ill at the time with heart disease. His large, wonderful heart beat free verse while his body demanded iambic pentameter. Each lame heartbeat failed him line by line each day. He knew he didn’t have much time left but he vowed to keep a regular schedule as long as his irregular heart would allow. He came to class ashen and drawn but never without a sparkling light in his eyes. He shuffled as he walked but each step tried demonstrate some spring. The entire course consisted of him sitting on the edge of a table at the head of the class and reading to us. We didn’t ask questions. We didn’t write papers. We simply sat there and listened while Hugh recited his favorite poems in a deep, twangy, sweet Southern drawl that always make us cheer and smile back.
Hugh explained to us – before, during and after his recitation – why each poem was important and how each word influenced the word that followed until the end when the transformation stopped on the page and morphed a little part of you as the reader. “The mark of a good poem,” Hugh would say, “is the difference it makes within you. The trick is being able to recognize the change and let it work in your favor.” Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion was a Hugh Luke favorite. I’ve moved 11 times since that course and They Feed They Lion still stands from my bookshelf recalling the passion and sweat of its original discovery.
One day after class, when Hugh was looking particularly careworn and chalky, I offered to help him carry his pile of books back to his office on the second floor of Andrews Hall. He nodded his permission. As we left the classroom, he told me he wanted to take the elevator instead of hiking up the crowded stairs because he didn’t feel he could move his knees high enough to conquer the flight. During the private ride in the elevator I asked him about his role as editor of Prairie Schooner and what it meant to him. He knew I was a writer and he had previously encouraged my poetry. He told me: “Editors are momentary salutes while the words they honor are everlasting monuments.” I nodded my understanding but didn’t speak. I wanted to thank him, but I couldn’t. As a fledgling author, I was overwhelmed with his respect for his role and the mission of the writer. That quiet moment with Hugh was a keystone that still inspires me every day to try to build facades that can be transformed into something everlasting by a simple editorial salute.
As Hugh and I entered the English Department office, he introduced me to Hilda Raz (who would take over full editorship of Prairie Schooner). He suggested to Hilda that I work with her. She immediately put her arm around me and welcomed the help. Later, she made me an Editorial Assistant. My life would never be the same.
I looked over my shoulder as Hugh turned the corner to head into his cubbyhole office. He gave me a knowing wink and a smile as wide as Texas. I knew then the word wasn’t the thing for Hugh Luke. The word was everything and it was always bound in flesh first. I never saw Hugh Luke alive again after that day but it wasn’t the last time he lived within me. Each day as I manage my life as an editor, teacher, playwright, publisher, author and critic, I remember to be true to the editorial tenet Hugh Luke sparked before me in a lonely elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska. For 15 years I’ve tried to match his stoking ideal by building the fire of monuments born of flesh and fragile as a failing heartbeat.