Introduction: In Memory of Bill Winfield
I am dedicating this issue to Bill Winfield, my colleague, friend,
and fellow-poet, who died of AIDS-related diseases on August 5,
1995. The cover photograph, titled Bill's Backyard, was taken
from his Greenwich Village apartment, and a portrait of him follows
this preface. Not least of all, four of his poems appear in the
I want to tell you stories about Bill, stories
that will touch you. Stories so characteristic that his friends
are beginning to say, "Yes, that was Bill" or, with a
mixture of amusement and amazement, "That was so Bill."
For in his quiet way, he was a real presence.
That presence was somehow intensified by his leanness,
a sign of his monastic discipline and of the disease he lived
with for so long. It was characteristic of him, too, that disease
and discipline were so curiously intermingled. And also that a number
of friends and colleagues, including me, were unaware or only half-aware
of his medical problems. In a thoroughly paradoxical way, he was
a solitary who had many friends and who made them into a crowd of
But, yes, his heroic discipline. In retrospect,
it seems even more remarkable and was certainly the quality that
made him a long-term survivor. Bill shaped his day around the hour
or two of writing that he did each evening. And he allowed nothing
to alter this plan. As a free-lancer in the educational publishing
business, he often had to fend off demands on his precious time.
I remember him once saying, in that firm and slightly cranky way
of his, that a boss actually expected him to spend all these extra
hours on a project. I'm going to tell her, he said, that I have
my own priorities.
I should add that if ever Kafka's famous saying
applied to anyone, it did to Bill: "Writing is a form of prayer."
I want to tell you how Bill's very presence was a testimony
to individual worth. It was also a rebuke to such late 20th century
pleasures as networking, or any form of self-promotion. Often I
met Bill at Poets House, where he served as a devoted volunteer.
During receptions, he would always stand in "his" place,
and when I once joked with him about networking, he replied very
evenlyin that "so Bill" wayI'm just here and
whoever wants to can come and see me. He was rarely alone.
I want to explain how Bill was both aesthetic and spiritual.
His apartment in the village, so much like a grown-up's tree-house,
embodied these two qualities. It was in some ways spare like a monk's
cell. However, it also had wonderful touches and adornments, delicate
tiles and suspended crystals. It occurs to me too that Bill's life
was crystalline, the smallest part echoing the whole.
From one window of his apartment you could see the
Empire State Building and feel you were in the Empire City. But
from another window you looked out on the backs of houses and what
seemed to be a country lane. And that puzzling and pleasing dualitywith
its accompanying crossbreezeswas "so Bill."
I want to go on remembering him, but all the while
you might be thinking that he was another victim of our plague.
And you might be recalling recent controversies about the role of
art in portraying victims. And preparing to read his poems through
the screen of pro or con. If so, I must tell you that in his own
vital, uncompromising words, Bill is no victim.
If his poems are confessional, they are only so in
the largest possible sense. What they "confess" is the
soul's knowledge of its own perilous road, the way that leads from
the front door to the farthest galaxies. It was this knowledge that
pressed itself on Bill and which he met with the full resources
of his image-making power.
I would like to replace the misleading term confessional
with another, more unfamiliar word: liminal. For these are
poems of the boundary, of the threshold between this earthly life
and . . . whatever we can imagine beyond. If Bill closely guarded
the boundaries of his daily life, it was because he was taking such
risks in his work. Each poem is like a door courageously thrown
open "to a high wind / that is coming in from past the planets."
This is the wind that ceaselessly breathes in these poems, stirring
all the dark syllables. And the poet no longer contemplates the
mysterious road beyond, but "the dark road wakes up sweating."
Bill's sister, Rosemary, has written a lovely tribute
to him. In it she describes a Tibetan belief concerning the moment
of death: The soul rises up and, for a moment, turns to look back
at earthly existence before traveling onward. I would apply this
same image to Bill's act of creation in his final poems. For an
incalculable "moment," his soul rose above his own body
and saw and forgave everything with merciless objectivity.