Remembering Margo LaGattuta

My eyes like old glass windows, dusted with lost days, are ready to hold the new light.” — Margo LaGattuta, from “Pretending to Be a Barn”


IMG_0051I found the e-mail from another writer-friend early this morning. It wasn’t unexpected, though I’d learned only two days ago that Margo LaGattuta was suddenly terminally ill.

“Margo died peacefully tonight, surrounded by her sons and sisters and friends….It was quite beautiful and I just know she’s writing a poem about it….”

It’s never easy to lose a mentor or a friend, and the best we can hope for is one last chance to say thank you. Which is why I am grateful to writer Carolyn Walker for contacting me this week — just in time to make it to the hospital to see Margo yesterday morning.

Over the years, Margo became a treasured friend. Whenever we were speaking at the same writers’ conferences, or attending literary events around town, I loved spotting her smiling face and wild bohemian outfits in the crowds of more conservatively dressed journalists and writers who were attending the programs. She always looked every inch the poet — the unbridled creative spirit — that she was.

She interviewed me for her radio show (“Art in the Air”/ WPON) after my first book was published in 1994, and in the process, I learned a thing or two from Margo about book promotion. Later on, it meant the world to me when she agreed to be the keynote speaker at the banquet when my second book, Writing Home, was awarded “Book of the Year” by Think Club Publications in 2006. There was also a time when the two of us wrote columns for the same newspaper, so we’d often chat on the phone when we had trouble navigating the ever-changing seas of print journalism.

But our relationship began as teacher and student. It seems that whenever I was going through a dry spell, or felt lost and blocked, Margo happened to be offering a local creative writing workshop that would shake me out of myself and inspire me to start writing again. In particular, I remember a weekend workshop at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, about 18 years ago, which I attended a month after my father died. That same year, the travel magazine I’d been editing for five years suddenly folded — and I had no idea what to do next. I was blocked and sad.

But after that weekend workshop at Cranbrook, I felt as if the fog had magically lifted. Margo helped me find new ways to express my grief, and best of all, I got back on my proverbial horse and rode off to one of the most productive periods of my writing life.

I know I’m only one of hundreds (or thousands) claiming to be moved and changed by Margo’s “Inventing the Invisible” workshops, not to mention all the students she inspired in her college English classes over the years. Her encouragement launched countless writing careers. And, of course, we all deeply admired her poetry, newspaper columns, and essays. Shocked by her sudden passing, many of us are asking: Where will we find another Margo?

I am going through another rough period now, as my widowed mother is slowing drifting down the foggy river of dementia, and requiring much of my time and care. Once again, I’m at a creative impasse. When I arrived at Margo’s bedside at the hospital yesterday, I desperately wanted to say: “Margo, I need your advice again.” Instead, I simply thanked her for everything — for introducing me to some of my favorite poets, including Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and Margo LaGattuta. I told her I was grateful for all the times she helped rescue and refuel my creative soul. I also told her that Billy Collins had just come out with a new book of poems, and that I didn’t think they were as good as his earlier stuff. She was unable to speak, but she smiled.

Tonight I’ll pull down Margo’s books of poetry from my shelves and reread my favorites. Here is one from The Dream Givers (Lake Shore Publishing; 1990). It’s an early poem that, for me, conjures the light and spirit Margo brought to her work, her students, her creative life:

I CAME BY A RIVER
and the journey flashed
through me like a light
year.  Some electric sound
got me moving from
the original place over
mountains and dusty
windows outside of time.

I became a small shadow,
something anyone might have
missed. I began spinning
deep in tomorrow’s orchard.

I came by a river
and the water keeps rising.
I came to begin something wild.

(By Margo LaGattuta; 1990; Lake Shore Press.) 

— Top photo: “Morning in Vinsetta Park” by Cindy La Ferle; 2010 —

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MEMORIAL POETRY READING

Celebrate Margo and her poetry Wednesday, August 31, 7 – 10pm, at the Lido Gallery in Birmingham. Bring ONE of your favorite Margo poems to read aloud to honor her memory. This event is free to the public.


COMMUNITY LIFESTYLES REMEMBERS MARGO 

The September 5 issue of Community Lifestyles, where Margo published her popular “Word in Edgewise” columns, will be devoted to her memory. This issue will include a new piece I wrote, detailing Margo’s influence and impact on the metro-Detroit writing community. Watch for the issue online or in your mailbox if you live in the area.