There I am: seated on the other side of his orderly desk, the ground floor of Dwinelle Hall during his office hours. I need his signature. I may have read somewhere that he was a medievalist, which means he knows, El Libro de Buen Amor—an excerpt of which I’ll soon be laboring through in a survey of peninsular lit. But when Professor Walsh, a soft-spoken, handsome man in his late forties, casually utters “Federico García Lorca,” I straighten up, lean forward and ask a question, and then another.
I came to the University of California, Davis for a graduate degree in poetry with my identity as “poet” fully formed. I pictured the world of poetry—of publication, performance, acclaim, and accolades—as a giant wooden door shut in front of me. I felt it my job to kick that door in. Power for that kick, I knew, could come from studying with masters.
When I was seventeen, I was somewhat interested in literature—my interest was sparked after reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. Raskolnikov's anxiety reminded me of my own fear of being discovered as a queer boy in the conservative community in which I lived. The City of Bell was a lower working-class neighborhood; most families were Catholic or evangelical Christians. There was little opportunity and many of the kids I grew up with either dropped out of school to work or were indifferent to learning. Some joined gangs and others started families at young ages. There were many of us who stayed in school but mostly out of habit, or for the free meals, or for the friendships.
I didn’t know what graduate school was. I’d never known where professors came from. Never wondered. They all seemed like creatures of a different ilk: rich, clever people who sprouted full-blown from their comfortable, book-lined rooms. I couldn’t imagine myself becoming such a being. I’d spent summers digging ditches, nights washing dishes. I’d machined artificial hip joints in a factory, scooped ice cream for tourists, waited tables on people who saw me as a thing. Nursing my baby on demand, I saw myself in utilitarian ways.
I had spent the previous eight years working many jobs: grocery clerk, gas station attendant, water-well driller, carpenter’s helper. A few months before attending Purdue, I worked a 12-hour night shift in a factory, a job I held for five years. At school I had all this time on my hands, and I worried over how to survive beyond the first year on the $3,000 I had saved. There were moments of boredom, days when I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes I would begin to sweat, my stomach queasy as I experienced what must have been some kind of shame because for the first time I could do whatever I wanted.