Archive > Vol. 8 no. 1
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 magazine.
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 solitaries.
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 evenly—in that “so Bill” way—I’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 duality—with its accompanying cross—breezes—was “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.