14 August 2023

Write for Pete’s sake

Around six or seven years ago, a first year student of the Faculty of Art, University of Peradeniya, wrote to me seeking some advice on writing poetry. It so happened that I was planning to visit Kandy and therefore I arranged to meet him.

It was late one evening when I got to Peradeniya. He was waiting for me on the parapet wall outside the Arts Theatre. We talked about all kinds of things, but what I remember most is what he told me about writing poetry. Something along the following lines:

‘I want to write everything, every little thing.’

In poetic form, of course.

He was referring to someone who had captured his fancy. Claimed he was in love. If I remember right his love was not reciprocated. I could relate to the sentiments and the desire to write. It would be cathartic, I felt, but didn’t tell him that. He wouldn’t have thought of the exercise in those terms, I felt. I did tell him that he wouldn’t have any time left to do anything else if he wanted to jot down each and every moment, in poetic or other form. I may have suggested a slightly different course of action, but if I did I just cannot remember it now.

I remembered this young man a few days ago when I was speaking with a friend, Pete Meyers, his work, his accomplishments, the people he has inspired and so on at the intersection of North Cayuga Street and East Seneca Street in Ithaca, NY.

People in Ithaca, especially those who have lived there for a long time, know Pete. I am sure almost all workers in all establishments who feel they’ve got a raw deal have heard of him considering the hours and years he’s put into the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, the organisation he helped set up in 2003. Indeed, his work in Ithaca and neighbouring towns has inspired others to replicate such initiatives in other parts of the USA and probably take these to a different level altogether.

Bits and pieces of his bio can be found on the internet. Obviously they can’t be pieced together and the aggregated expected to give even a halfway decent picture of the man. Doesn’t happen that way. Not in Pete’s case and not in anyone else’s either.

I’ve always felt that every life is an epic. Not all epics get written. Not everyone writes or expresses in other forms the chapters that make up their lives. Some write, some sing. Others dance, paint, sculpt, design cities, maintain the peace, sweep the streets and are silent. In vocations, lifestyles, life choices and being do their epics find expression. All, without exception, excellent reads, I’m sure.

It’s just that I had a long conversation with Pete and was fascinated by the stories he had to tell. So naturally I told him, ‘write.’ Write, because there are things that don’t get written by others; write because there are always back stories that preamble, back stories that precipitate certain choices and produce certain results. Back stories inspire.

‘Not necessarily a chronology,’ I told him. It is of course possible to break down a life into decades or phases (for example, Maxim Gorky sliced his as ‘My Childhood,’ ‘My Apprenticeship’ and ‘My Universities’). There are other ways of cutting it. Turning points came to mind — ‘something you saw, something you heard, something you read, an event, some thought that crossed your mind.’

The things that informed certain decisions and made certain actions non-negotiable aren’t always written into outcome-story. Indeed, one can even forget what really prompted a stand, a turn previously not considered, a journey along a path whose existence wasn’t even known or noted.

‘You don’t have to sit down and write your biography; just jot down critical points and after a while you’ll get used to writing down things you remember from other times,’ I told Pete. We do remember but memory has a way of rising and then disappearing; writing little notes to oneself helps trap remembrance strains. 

‘After a while you’ll have 250 “points” which you can elaborate,’ I told him. ‘Writing also helps you clarify things, make sense of what would otherwise seem to be a series of disjointed incidents and it can tell you how threads are made, how threads come together to make tapestries,’ I didn’t tell him.

Now, thinking of Pete and the matter of writing memoirs, it occurs to me that many people who’ve left their mark in fields of their choosing were probably inspired by those who came before. Biographies teach people so much.  

Maybe that’s how ancestor worship began; how people whose footprints came to define ways of being in particular societies were deified. It’s not just veneration, which would be at the low end of engagement, but being inspired to emulate and go further.

Biographies can teach, but before learning can happen, biographies have to be written. You can’t write everything down, like that young poet wanted to do, but there’s ample time to sift through moments, phases, people, encounters etc and obtain a handful of salience. Whether or not you transcribe it all, it’s probably going to be insights which are less vague for having been coated with words and therefore eminently usable.

As for the first year student, by the time he was a final year student, he had developed into a rather diffident poet who was wont to preamble at length the poems he read (good ones, I must add) and a couple of years later published a good collection. Not ‘every moment of every single day and every thought about everything,’ but a salience-capture certainly.

I wouldn’t know the names of anyone who happens to read this, but there’s a Pete Meyers in all of them, an epic that can be written.


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is 195th article in the new series. Links to previous articles are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road