Remembering Jason Shinder
January 5, 2009
It's a strange and uncomfortable thing when you find out about an event months or even years after the fact. Over the weekend, a friend of mine in Los Angeles forwarded me a link from the New York Times. The link led to an obituary of Jason Shinder, (pictured left) who died last April at age of 52. I guess my friend had found out about his passing very belatedly too. I was aghast at the news, feeling an icky combination of belated mourning and annoyance at myself for finding out about his passing so late. So much for our networked world.
Most people know Shinder as a poet. He served as Allen Ginsberg's assistant and went on to author two volumes of poetry, Every Room We Ever Slept In (Sheep Meadow Press, 1993) and Among Women (Graywolf Press, 2001) as well as edit many anthologies including The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006).
Other people know Shinder as the director of arts and humanities for the Y.M.C.A. Shinder founded the Y's national arts and humanities program in the 1990s, including the Y.M.C.A. National Writer's Voice, one of the country's largest networks of literary-arts centers.
A small group of people, of which I am one, remember Jason in a third way -- as the head of the Sundance Arts Journalism Institute. As a recipient, from 2002 to 2004, of this terrific but sadly short-lived Sundance Institute program aimed at developing the skills of arts journalists on the west coast, I was frequently in contact with Jason. I never quite found out why this East Coast poetry guy was so interested in working with a bunch of arts journalists on the west coast. He was always rather evasive and never really answered my questions. He ate very little and seemed painfully shy. I had no clue about his life outside of the program, let alone that he was suffering from lymphoma and leukemia.
I owe Jason a great debt for exposing me to so many wonderful people, places and ideas. As a result of winning the Sundance Fellowship, I attended the Sundance Summer Film Lab (the other picture above is of my group at the Lab) the Sundance Festival (twice) and the Sun Valley Writers' Conference. I met and subsequently became friends with many brilliant writers. I found a couple of mentors. I expanded my ideas and goals. None of the above would have been possible without Jason.
I feel like an idiot discovering the news so late. To whom do I send flowers?
Postscript: A couple of days ago, I received an email from someone who found themselves in a similar predicament with regards to Jason's passing. Here's Barbara Hager's email message (thanks, Barbara, for agreeing to let me share your thoughts about Jason on my blog):
I just came across your blog after I googled the name of an old friend and colleague -- Jason Shinder -- and found out, like you, that he had passed away last year. What a disconcerting feeling you get when all you meant to do was see what people from your past lives have been up to all these years later, and then you find out they are gone.
I lived in New York from 1983 - 1989 and became friends with Jason when I took some writing classes at the Writer's Voice at the 63rd St. "Y". After going to readings, a group of us would go out for drinks and talk about writers and literature and poetry all night. Sometimes the authors who had read that evening would join us. It was an amazing era in my life, a hopeful writer from Canada who moved to New York to be around...well writers.
I'll always remember Jason coming to Lexington, a few years later when I was the director of The Writer's Voice of Central Kentucky and Jason was the national director. He wore his signature black pants, shoes and shirt. He also had this damn cell phone -- probably the first ever used in Kentucky -- and he walked around Lexington constantly talking to god knows who in New York. We got more than our share of odd looks from the locals. But I must have thought it was tres cool, because I bought a cell phone that year. It wasn't the slender black one he had, but an ugly grey model as big as a toaster that they called a car phone.
Eventually I returned to Canada with my husband and two American-born kids, but I often think about New York and Kentucky and life in the USA. Strangely, Jason Shinder was a big part of that experience.
All the best,