Poet and University of Arizona English professor Steve Orlen died at his central Tucson home Tuesday. The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, the artist Gail Marcus-Orlen. He was 68.
The cancer, discovered just three weeks ago, had originated in his lungs but spread throughout his body.
Orlen, who was born and raised in Holyoke, Mass., had worked in the UA's creative writing department since 1967. He came here after he received his master's from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His undergraduate degree was from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
He has six books of poetry, and his works have been featured in several anthologies. Among the awards he has received: a Guggenheim Fellowship, three grants from National Endowment for the Arts, and the George Dillon Memorial Award for Poetry.
Orlen is survived by Marcus-Orlen, his wife of 42 years, and their son, Cozi, of Los Angles. There will be a private family service. The UA Poetry Center is planning a tribute to him; details have yet to be released.
Marcus-Orlen asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the UA Poetry Center (UA Foundation/Poetry Center, P.O. Box 210109, Tucson, 85721.)
Orlen, to the last, was poetic. His final words, said Marcus-Orlen, were "Never mind."
In the weekend before his death, former creative-writing students from around the country came to see him, said Marcus-Orlen, one traveling from Spain. One of those students, Tucsonan Barbara Allen, wrote the accompanying tribute to Orlen.
My wife is a wise woman.
When somebody dies she skips the funeral
And writes them a personal letter
In perfectly slanted Palmer Method cursive style
And buries it in the backyard.
- From Steve Orlen's "I Want to be a Girl"
It's that line about the Palmer Method that gets me. Surprises me.
After all, we already do know that Gail, your lovely wife, is a wise woman. And let's admit it, a saint. Steve, she was married to you, more than 40 years. You with your extravagances; your giant appetites, insatiable curiosity. One of your friends told me that shortly after your diagnosis of cancer, just three weeks ago, you still needed to know from the hospital orderly: What is your name? Where are your people from? Why did they come here? When? And, are you happy? Are they, your family, happy?
But a love of the Palmer Method, it surprises me. As a teacher, you wanted us to be expansive, wild even. You wanted us to imagine what was not possible - to have that guide us. Palmer Method implies control, steadiness, neatness. Weren't you against that?
But because you demanded that we your students question, really question our assumptions, I am wondering why I question your affection for the Palmer Method? That is what you would want us, me, your obedient student to do. Try to find out what is going on with the Palmer Method.
This is what I learned about the Palmer Method. (This is your fault Steve, I am researching the Palmer Method. It is Wednesday night. You died yesterday. I want to take a warm bath, read your poems and cry. But here I am, researching the Palmer Method. You did it again. You made me curious.)
You know what is interesting about the Palmer Method? It depends on the rhythmic motion. That is why it is so pretty. The letters swoop up or down. Because of the well-timed dips and heights of the letters, this penmanship is never boring.
But guess what? If you are doing the Palmer Method correctly, you are not using your fingers but your muscle. Your shoulder muscle, mostly, but also the arm. Rhythm and muscle, that is what you wanted for us. It did not matter if we were attempting to write meaningful poems or live a meaningful life; you wanted us to do so with rhythm and muscle.
There is that line in the poem about admiring your wife's burial of letters she wrote to the dead. Ironic, you did not ever bury, cover-up, conceal.
Now I am thinking of how you fathered. How one could not know you without knowing about your son, his talent, his wife, his latest jokes, where and how they were delivered, how many laughs they received. You did not bury any of that, Steve. Nor will any of us ever bury what you so generously gave.
I am forever your student, forever a member of your audience.
Poet Barbara Allen received her master's in creative writing from the University of Arizona. She is the sister of Star reporter Kathleen Allen.