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'Community poet' Inman dies at 86; he had unique style
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 10.06.2009
Tucson poet Will Inman's freestyle verse spoke of everyday struggles, social injustices and his own emotional pain.
Over six decades, Inman committed to paper words both tender and nurturing, as well as thought-provoking and spiritual. Yet it was pragmatism more so than poetry that infused his final prose — the obituary he penned for himself earlier this year. Inman died Saturday after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. He was 86.
Inman, born William Archibald McGirt Jr. in Wilmington, N.C., began writing and publishing in the mid-1950s, using his mother's maiden name.
In his autobiography, "Memoirs of an Activist Poet," Inman reflected on his diverse experiences: growing up in the South, seeing racism firsthand; his activities as a union organizer and a member of the Communist Party; working as a writer, editor, publisher and teacher; and candid reminiscences of his college experiences and his bisexuality.
Inman earned a bachelor's degree in English from Duke University. He taught at Montgomery College in Maryland and at American University in Washington, D.C., where he was poet in residence.
Though he didn't consider himself part of "the norm," Inman wasn't anti-establishment, either.
"People who set out to be anti-establishment end up as the other side of the establishment — as part of a shadow establishment," he said in a 1985 Arizona Daily Star article. "I'm more interested in a new affirmation that doesn't just pick up its energy from protest. I'm not interested in making separations but in ways of being that set in motion the building of bridges. It's so easy to polarize."
Inman moved to Tucson in 1973, hoping the arid climate would improve the health of his then-wife. Because poetry wasn't going to pay the bills, he took a job with a state training program for the developmentally disabled. It was in Tucson that he began facilitating poetry workshops at the Arizona State Prison and for Tucson's homeless.
"He was a community poet," said Gail Browne, executive director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. "He really cared about poetry that was both produced and performed in Tucson."
Inman, who was estranged from his only child — a son — published his final collection of poetry in 2008. The poems in "I Read You Green, Mother" span the decades of his career. It was recently reviewed by Poetry Center library specialist Wendy Burk. One line, in particular, exemplified Inman's writing style and charmed Burk. It read: "i never knew this man but he ancestors me yet."
"The syntax is unusual," Burk said. "He changes verbs into nouns and he changes nouns into adjectives. I really appreciate that play with language.
"Some of his poetry is quite personal, and it's about his own life, but what always comes across is his caring about the conditions in which others live. It's very socially engaged and very committed to social justice. He writes about the struggles that other people experience in their lives and about the struggle to make a difference. That's a theme through all of his work.
"It's very human. It's very passionate," Burk said.
Inman has two poetry awards named for him, one part of a statewide writing contest and another for students of the Poetry Center.
"It's something he felt very strongly about, that we should all do whatever we can to keep writers writing no matter what their circumstances," Browne said.
It was part of his cynicism-with-a-sunny-side philosophy.
"We live in a time of broken sprits," he said in a 1992 Star article. "We live in a Lazarus age. We're all partly dead, and we need to learn how to raise each other from the dead — without pretending to be Jesus in the process.
"Everybody is broken, but everybody has the capacity to help each other."
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at email@example.com or at 573-4191.