Koan American

Koan Americana was published in 1992, when David Starkey was two years out of graduate school. Based in Bessemer, Alabama, Colonial Press was a two-person operation helmed by the late Bradley Twitty, who named the press after the insurance company for which he had worked his entire life. A generous enthusiast for the art of poetry, Mr. Twitty’s zeal for publishing young poets was not always matched by his ability to promote their work. He passed away not long after the publication of Koan Americana, which has since been included in Connecticut College’s American Poetry Archive, where it can be read online in full.

Decades later, I wrote this poem, a paen to Bradley Twitty:

First Book

I would not, after all, take home

the Yale Series of Younger Poets

award, nor would Farrar, Straus & Giroux

have the honor of welcoming a new voice

into print. Instead, Mr. Twitty,

whose tiny press I discovered

in Writer’s Market 1989,

would shepherd my grad school poems

into a world doing fine without them:

the one about cats in a Mexican prison,

and the one about raking leaves in the yard

of my rented house in Baton Rouge.

Tommy, a tutor in the writing center

of the obscure Southern college

where I’d found work, was “good

with computers” and designed

the simple cover. He also took

the author photograph: big glasses,

awkward smile, my chin nearly cut off.

Mr. Twitty asked how many copies

I wanted to buy. I told him I wanted

no part of a vanity press, but I bought

fifty of the inelegant things anyway.

No reviews. No distribution. I had always

hoped my poems would outlive me,

but apparently they’d been stillborn.

A year later, Mr. Twitty died.

A nephew called to say his uncle’s house

was spilling over with boxes of books

by young, unknown poets. Did I

want to buy mine before he threw them out?

Broke as usual, I declined. Thirty years later,

I still like some of those early poems—

the one about having afternoon tea

with Eudora Welty, and the one

set in the laundromat where my daughters

“dart after loose buttons and puffs

of lint,” and I “have nothing at all to give.”