Introduction to MFA Reading by Robert Hass and Tom Meschery

By Chris Sindt

It is my great pleasure to introduce Tom Meschery and Robert Hass, two of Saint Mary’s most distinguished alumni, on this first night of the Creative Writing Reading Series and during this Sesquicentennial year of the College.

I am going to introduce both readers now, and believe me, I realize that neither of them really need an introduction to this audience, and then Tom will read first.  After both readings have completed, I will moderate a brief discussion before opening it to the audience for questions.

So, Robert Hass. Robert Hass graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1963, although I understand he is claimed also by the class of ’62. Since then he has published seven collections of poetry, numerous translations, and three books of essays, including the recently published, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World.

Along the way, he has been awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, among many others. And, he served from the 1995 to 1997 as the Poet Laureate of the United States.

Robert Hass is a poet of nature, environment and place; he is a poet of love and other emotions; he is a poet of history; and he is poet of politics and religion. In other words, there is very little his capacious imagination and intellect will not invite in. He approaches his subjects at times with plain speech and imagery; at other times, he is a meditative poet, willing to transform ideas through deep inquiry and exploration of language.

What I think I admire most about Robert Hass is the way he reminds us both of the vital purpose writing and literature play in our culture, and also that the work of poetry can be fun, natural, even routine. He has famously said that “poetry is a way of living… a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball.”

That leads me to Tom Meschery. Tom Meschery graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1961 after having already lived an extraordinary life. He was born in Harbin, China. His parents were Russian emigrants who fled from the October Revolution in 1917 and the family was later relocated to a Japanese internment camp near Tokyo during World War II. After the war, Meschery and his parents emigrated to San Francisco, where he was later recruited by Saint Mary’s as a high school basketball star. Meschery graduated from Saint Mary’s as a two-time all American in basketball and entered the NBA that same year, playing for 10 seasons for the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors and Seattle Supersonics. He published his first book of poetry while still playing basketball, and then after retirement received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, Some Men.  For much of his post-NBA life, he was a high school English teacher in Reno, Nevada.

In Meschery’s eloquent and moving 2011 SMC Commencement speech, he said that he “was an excellent basketball player, a lousy coach, a terrible bookstore owner, an uninspired house painter, a disorganized administrator, a damn good teacher, and an adequate poet.”

I have a quarrel with that last adjective. Meschery’s deeply engaging and empathetic poetry addresses personal and national history in unique ways, particularly the way his childhood and Russian heritage form the man he is today.  And he writes about what he knows: basketball, teaching and the quotidian details of daily life in the early part of the 21st century. His honest and self-deprecating portrayals speak beautifully and elegiacally of aging, regret, and the acknowledgement about the human condition that is so hard for most writers to make: “words are never enough.”