Tribute to Larry Rubin (1930 - 2018) (Jennifer Semple Siegel)

Larry Rubin, Poet and Scholar

Larry Rubin (February 14, 1930 - June 26, 2018)

The author read a slightly different version of this tribute at the College English Association (CEA) Conference in New Orleans, at Open Mic night, March 29, 2019.


I first met Larry Rubin in 1987, at the CEA conference.

I had wandered into his workshop, without a poem and intimidated.

Who was I to submit my clearly inferior poems to such an erstwhile poet?

After suffering graduate school angst and experiencing the wounds inherent in many creative writing programs, I was not anxious to put myself out there again.

I will just listen and learn, I thought.

Well. As I sat in on that session, I observed an accomplished poet working his wonders with poems in varying stages of drafting. First, he would read the participant’s poem, out loud, in his breathless poetic voice, giving heft to the words on the page, even if the poem itself was not quite ready for prime time.

Then he would ask the participants to read the poem silently – we all had copies.

Finally, he would ask the poet to read out loud the poem as he or she intended it to be read.

Larry would then compare his interpretation of the poem in his oral reading of it and the poet’s. He always felt that the out loud reading revealed much about the poet’s intent and whether that intent had been conveyed the way the poet intended.

Larry always started the critique on a positive note, discussing what he admired about the poem. He would probe for clarification, perhaps questioning – always gently – word and image choices. He would offer some suggestions for line breaks.

He opened up discussion to the group.

He was very deft at sidestepping snarky remarks by other participants, always returning to the positive aspects of the poem.

I loved it!

I was hooked. I vowed I would bring a poem next year.

And I did. And every year after that.

Often, it was the only poem I wrote all year. Even so, I became a better poet because of Larry’s workshop method. He encouraged risk and inspired confidence in the writing process.

In the mid-2000’s, as the poetry workshop numbers grew, I became his assistant, helping to distribute copies and keeping the workshop on track. For a short time, because of popular demand we even conducted an additional workshop.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but Larry, Jerry (my husband), and I became friends.

I’m quite certain it wasn’t because he saw great poetry in the two Siegels, but he must have seen something – what, I don’t know.

We started palling around during the conference.

We fell into a conference routine: the President’s Reception on Thursday night, dinner on Friday night, followed by a concert or play and, afterward, late-evening dessert. Sometimes, in lieu of outside entertainment, we attended the CEA Friday night event together.

Larry, always generous, paid for dinner, and we treated for dessert.

When I was reading my fiction or memoir at a session, Larry was always there, offering support.

We hung out at the book drawing, admiring the delightful books about to be given away and wishing for our names to be drawn early.

We sat together at the all-conference luncheon, where after the keynote speaker wrapped up, Larry would run off to catch a bus or train because he didn’t do airplanes.

Our friendship really cemented at the Memphis conference in 2001. Jerry had helped Larry find something important he had lost, and Larry was forever grateful.

That was also the year that the annual fruitcake started arriving. We didn’t have the heart to tell Larry that we both loathed fruitcake; fortunately, our friend Lily in Macedonia loved it, so we froze it and lugged it across the pond.

Every year.

Later, when the fruitcakes stopped, issues of The American Scholar started arriving, which we both loved. So, perhaps, Larry sensed that we were not altogether thrilled with the fruitcake.   

In-between conferences, he would call us, just to tell us his latest politically-incorrect joke. Despite ourselves, we would crack up laughing. Anyone else telling such jokes would be offensive, but we understood that Larry came from a different era and was still was very much part of the 1950’s and early 1960’s in attitude.

True story: After he retired from Georgia Tech, Larry volunteered to lead literature discussion groups at local senior centers and nursing homes. One day, after he told one of his famous jokes, one of the participants reported him, and he was called into the office, so to speak.

He was told to cease and desist.

He kind of laughed about it, and said, “I suppose I’d better tone it down a bit.”

I doubt if he ever did.

Larry eschewed technology – no word processing, internet, or email. His poems were typewritten on a manual typewriter with penciled-in edits and revisions.

He did carry a burner cell phone, rarely used, though.

If you wanted to contact Larry, you had to call or write a letter. Calling was a crapshoot because Larry was constantly on the go or out of town or on the town, often traveling to Europe.

And guess what? Larry didn’t own an answering machine.

Larry loved going on long walks and walked anywhere and everywhere. He was fearless, often walking through neighborhoods not conducive to rumpled elderly Jewish poets. I once asked him if he were ever robbed. He looked at me as if I had three heads and said, “Of course not. Why do you ask?”

I swear Larry had a guardian angel.

Due to his increasing poor health, Larry participated in his last CEA conference in 2014 (Baltimore), a loss for the organization and definitely for Jerry and me.

We last saw Larry in November 2015. That year, the Fulbright conference was in Atlanta, where he lived, so we met him at a Chinese restaurant near his home – Larry paid for dinner, of course. A bittersweet moment: part of me knew that this would be the last time we’d see him in person.

Still, we reminisced about the good times at CEA.

And, of course, he told one of his jokes.


(Edited and revised on April 11, 2019)

Dr. Rubin had been an avid CEA’er for over 33 years and had been facilitating his popular workshop since at least 1985. His last year as facilitator was in 2014 in Baltimore, MD.


Official Obituary (Source:

RUBIN, Larry “When they call you from the grave, you must swim upward, using a winding stroke.” These opening lines by Professor Larry J Rubin, poet and English professor for forty years, began his poem, “Instructions for Dying”, which won the Poetry Society of America’s Reynolds Lyric Award in 1961.

He died on June 26, 2018, at age 88 in Decatur, GA.

Reared in Miami Beach, he came to Atlanta in 1950 to attend Emory University where he earned his Ph.D. in 1956 and began his long academic career as an English professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Rubin had already published numerous poems when his first volume of poetry, The World’s Old Way, appeared in 1962 and won the Georgia Writers Association’s Literary Achievement Award. The Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists named him Georgia Poet of the Year in 1967 for his next volume, Lanced in Light and again in 1975 for All My Mirrors Lie, his third book, which includes “The Bachelor, as Professor,” for which Rubin received an annual lyric award from the Poetry Society of America in 1973.

Unanswered Calls, Rubin’s fourth book, appeared in 1997 and included an introduction by his friend and colleague, poet and novelist, James Dickey, who described him “as a powerful creative current running beneath the surface of American life and fortunate are those among us who have the intelligent sensibility to connect with him.”

He is survived by his niece, Lisa Popkin Loomis of Sandy Springs, GA (Steve Loomis, and children, David Welch and Lindsey Peterson), nephew, Michael Popkin, of Sandy Springs, GA (Melody Fulford Popkin, and children Megan Popkin Woolbright and Benjamin Popkin). Dr. Popkin, founder and president of Active Parenting Publishers, is also a writer and attributes much of his success to his uncle’s encouragement and feedback. “Larry loved teaching as much as he did writing,” said Dr. Popkin,

and he was awfully good at both. His other passion was travel, alternating between summer trips to Europe and across the US. He always came back with a stash of new poems that he kept crammed in his shirt pocket and shared for our enjoyment and feedback before sending them out to the literary journals. It was great having him as our “bachelor uncle” and he will be fondly remembered for the person he was, and the poetry that he wrote.

A memorial service, including the sharing of some of his best-loved poems, was held on Friday, September 21, 2018, in The Little Chapel at Emory.