MORAGA -- Once upon a time -- Sept. 12, 2012, specifically -- a MacArthur genius, a onetime NBA All-Star and a packed-to-the-walls crowd of poetry lovers turned the staid, maroon Soda Center at Saint Mary's College into a surreal place.
U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and Golden State Warriors legend Tom Meschery, heralded by Master of Fine Arts Program Director Brenda Hillman as the "soft launch" to the Moraga college's sesquicentennial celebrations, set the 2012 Creative Writing Reading Series alight with spirited readings and an all-too-brief Q&A session.
The program began with Meschery, whose family history reads like a Russian novel. Born in China, his parents fled the 1917 October Revolution, survived a Japanese internment camp and eventually, made their way to San Francisco. A life of ferocity emerged from the drama: fighting to prove his "Americanism" in the basketball arena (he played in the NBA from 1961 until 1971), wrestling to resolve his relationship with his longshoreman father, battling cancer and teaching tough love in continuation high school classes while producing poetry.
Out of life's hard knocks, Meschery the Renaissance Man emerged. It's a miracle he hardly notes and attributes to no specific cause, but one that winds its way into his bittersweet poems, which manage to both surprise and meet expectations.
With musings on basketball and father/son explorations forming the bulk of the nine poems Meschery read, it was the clever, muscular language elicited laughter or bursts of applause.
Titled "Tom Meschery," an autobiographical poem began with a confession to his father ("I admit sleeping in late at the Hilton"), tipped the humor toward regret ("You died before I could explain"), before rebounding with ironic understatement ("Father, you would have been proud of me. I labored in the company of large men").
Raising his hat to Hass, Meschery said his life as an English teacher was made easier by "Language of Life," a series of conversations between Bill Moyers and great poets like Hass.
"For us teachers trying to teach contemporary American poetry. hearing poets explain their work made it possible for students to understand," he said.
Hass opened his portion of the evening by returning a compliment.
"When we were students, Saint Mary's was very small," he began, "but it dominated basketball of the time. One of my thrills was watching Tom Meschery play ball."
Unlike his co-presenter, most of Hass' humor came from stories he recounted; of the 6-foot-6 Meschery, spouting poetry while hanging from Dante Hall after a spiked punch reception; or the "deeply uncool" poetry he once posted in his room, before replacing it with an appropriately dark Sartre quote.
After reading his essay on what it's like to live with poetry, Hass launched into a shimmering trajectory of his poems. Illumination came from focusing the reader's mind on detail: the scent of plum tree blossoms or the sight of olive trees whitening in the March winds.
"The poet notices involuntarily," he read, autobiographically.
Instinctive attention to nuances tucked into the corners of more obvious observations cause the armpits of a certain woman or the scent of pine on a dark night to become primary.
"It started out to be a silly poem, and then it took another turn," he suggests.
Hass' work packs an unexpected heat; an incandescence fueled by his passion for nature, social justice and lifelong adoration of poetry. Asked by an audience member in the post-reading discussion why he began writing, he was sanguine.
"I guess I wrote because I could," he answered. "The (older) kids were in North Beach and on the Beat scene, so I got the idea that writing poetry was pretty cool."
Meschery stayed true to form with a surprising recollection of "my big guy father who fought bears in Russia," but astonished his son by reading Russian poems and weeping. Later in his life, poet Mark Strand invited him to sit in on a class.
"I finally learned what poetry was all about. At least, I thought I did," he joked.
About teaching, Hass said a "very clear perception that teachers got three months off every summer" and a desire to have a "life of study and intellectual engagement" led him into the field.
Meschery said leaving the sports world for the "real world" was a shock to his system. Teaching came the closest to athletic competition, with a constant reminder that if you weren't on your game, it was lousy.
"But there was always another game coming up -- there was second period!" he said.
Other questions required more serious consideration, especially a request to select their favorite words.
"I love the word 'crystal,' " Meschery announced, without explanation.
"Mine is probably 'Brenda,' " Hass said, earning appreciative sighs for selecting his spouse's name.
But the final advice, given for young writers by two devoted teachers: Go to class and read.