Edelman Takes Readers to the ‘Empty Rooms’ of Sept. 11

Michael J. Arvizu
El Vaquero Staff Writer

When Bart Edelman woke up on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to the sounds of his radio anxiously describing an explosion at the World Trade Center he thought it was an accident.

But when he got out of bed and turned on the television, he saw the nearly incomprehensible images of an airplane hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center.

“We are now out of accidents,” he remembers thinking after the second plane struck. The GCC English professor, like so many people around the world, could scarcely believe the images that flashed before him.
A few weeks later, Edelman received a letter from poet William Heyen. In the letter, Heyen invited Edelman to join other writers in writing about their reactions to Sept. 11 in an anthology that was to be titled “September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond” (Etruscan Press, 2002).

Edelman’s poem, “Coat of Sorrow” was published along with more than 100 poems and essays from writers as Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Kimiko Hahn, John Updike and Naomi Shihab Nye.

“I started thinking, I haven’t written anything about this, I wonder how it would be like to sit down and try,” Edelman said. “I think the title of it [“Coat of Sorrow”] and the symbolic image of the coat . you’d like to take it off. It doesn’t matter how many times you attempt to take it off, it’s there. It’s almost underneath your skin.”
The sorrow that we experience is that of an emotion Edelman believes is the most important emotion that people have.

“Even above happiness,” said Edelman, “all people feel a certain amount of sorrow in their lives. Sorrow is a difficult thing because it stays with you. In this case, it is not something that you can just relieve yourself of – this coat being cloaked, not being able to take it off.”

To visit empty rooms/Where yesterday’s clothing hung./Long before they vanished./ The image of clothes on the victims’ bodies gives rise to a haunting image, said Edelman. Most of the bodies found after the attacks were beyond recognition; however, in most cases, their clothes were left intact.

And like many people, the events of that September day are just sinking in. There is no explanation for the horror that America and the world witnessed, and there is no peace of mind for those who lost family and friends.

“You’re still not quite sure you believe it,” said Edelman. “It’s almost like losing someone. It takes days for it to sink in. This really isn’t just a nightmare that you’re just going awaken from.”

“Coat of Sorrow” was particularly difficult for Edelman to write since he is not used to writing poetry on deadline. For this anthology, time was of the essence, as Heyen wanted to get the raw emotions of some of the country’s best writers.

“I wasn’t used to doing that, just trying to reign in or marshal all your thoughts about something and to try to make something literary out of those thoughts in such a short period of time,” said Edelman, adding that he now feels more empathetic to students who have to go through the rigors of turning in a research paper on time.

Following Sept. 11, it did not even occur to Edelman to write something, much less a poem. As he puts it, the feelings were “too immediate, too raw, too emotional.”

“Many writers felt speechless and couldn’t contribute,” said Heyen. “Some said they would try, did try, but couldn’t locate anything.”

“It’s difficult,” Edelman says. “You want the emotion in the poem but you want it to flow out artistically.
According to Edelman, a poet cannot immediately sit down to write about an emotional experience – that makes the poem too maudlin. Instead, the poet must sit down and write about the experience in a new light, one in which emotions will not overwhelmingly take center stage.

For some poets this process can take weeks, months, or even years to complete. However, in Edelman’s case, he just had a matter of days to come up with something. Though Heyen’s strategy in compiling material for the anthology is contradictory to the way poetry is written, Edelman says that Heyen wanted to get the “best out of a super-charged situation.”

“I wanted to catch our first, naked reaction to events, even if reacting so fast makes writers uncomfortable,” said Heyen. “As James Longenbach from New York says, `Art traffics in risk.'”

And the risk that Heyen took in catching these reactions paid off in the form of the 400-page anthology published in July.

“Many writers didn’t know whether they’d have something . and then they did, they’d seized something that at the same time had seized them, sometimes in the middle of the night,” said Heyen.