Monday, April 7, 2014

My First Time: Heather Corbally Bryant

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Heather Corbally Bryant.  She's the author of How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War (non-fiction, University of Michigan Press), Through Your Hands (fiction, Rising Star), Cheap Grace (poems, Finishing Line Press), and most recently, Lottery Ticket (Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin).  Heather received her A.B. from Harvard, a PhD from the University of Michigan, and currently teaches writing at Penn State, University Park.  She has also taught at Harvard, Michigan, and Wellesley.  Click here to visit her website.

The Garden Party, or
How I Lost My Writing Virginity

It was May of my senior year in college and everything around me was sparkling, glittering.  Weeping cherry trees blossomed and the whole world appeared wide and open.  I put on a frilly dress and sauntered over to the nearby garden party.  My friends were laughing, dancing, and downing vodka and tonics.  It was hot for a May Cambridge evening.  We stayed up through the darkness, talking and drinking.  It was one of those nights that lives on forever in your mind and becomes longer and even more beautiful.

When I returned to my room, just before dawn, I sat down and wrote one of my first poems.  It was almost light outside and the tow trucks had already arrived, clanking, to remove the illegally parked cars outside my window.  I must have fallen asleep still in my tulle dress and awakened sometime around noon.  I looked at the onionskin sheet of paper I had placed next to my typewriter.  I barely remembered writing anything.  But there it was, a three-stanza poem, very loosely terza rima, but it was typed.  Usually I scribbled fragments of verse in my notebooks and squirreled them away.

Feeling brave, I slipped on my white stiletto sandals, grabbed my wallet, and walked several blocks to the post office.  I pulled open the Boston white pages and found the address for The Christian Science Monitor.  All I knew was that I was not a Christian Scientist, but that they published poems, sometimes.   I had once read one in a waiting room somewhere. I stood in line to buy an already-stamped envelope that was probably about ten cents, or some other similarly ridiculously small sum.  I wrote out the first line, “Attention Poetry Editor,” then the rest of the address, and before I could change my mind, I slipped the envelope in the mail slot.

A couple of weeks later, I received a handwritten note from the poetry editor saying she would be delighted to publish my poem the following week, and she had included a check for twenty dollars, my first official income from writing.  For a while, I didn’t want to turn the check into cash.  The whole experience had been magical.  After I graduated, I made a copy and took it to the bank.

Years later, I found the yellowed clipping during one of my many moves, probably just post-divorce.  I decided it was time to frame the poem for the red wall of my new room of my own.  As I looked up from my desk, I read the last line as if it had been written by someone else, my much younger self,
The end and the beginning of our tasks
Seem richly joined in the deserted
Cambridge streets.
I remembered then what I had forgotten.  I hadn’t told anyone about the poem.  A friend of my parents had seen it and sent them the clipping.  When my dad called me to congratulate me, I dared to say these words aloud for the first time: I want to be a poet.


  1. Thank you for the inspiration... you ARE a poet!

  2. Thank you for not only being a wonderful and encouraging teacher to me, but also how you have inspired me to be the very best writer I can be.