A Teaching Career (Coda: Zen)

I didn’t mention my relatively recent conversion1  to Zen in the previous parts of this account because, going back to the San Diego days at least, I knew a little bit about “cultural zen,” or “literary Zen” & had even tried to meditate a bit in order to address long-running problems with anxiety. But lacking a teacher or even a context, my approach to Zen remained theoretical.

But after I quit drinking a second time ten or eleven years ago, I still needed to deal with massive waves of anxiety. Funny thing about anxiety of this sort is that one is not anxious about anything in particular–that is, the anxiety is not a reaction to some particular event or situation; instead, the anxiety precedes particular events & simply attaches to this or that particular as necessary, though often enough it remains unattached to particulars, resulting in states of derealization. In my case, certain antidepressant medications helped to address this, but nothing was as effective as beginning a meditation practice that involved sitting up to two hours a day. At this point I was using Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness as guides. For a while, I thought I could be a solitary practitioner, but the more I read & the more I sat, the more it seemed I needed an institutional context. That’s when I began looking around on the internet for a Buddhist group to join.

In the background of this search was my knowledge, however intellectual, of Vietnamese Buddhism as lived & practiced by the people I had lived among off & on since the mid-1990s, when I first traveled to Vietnam. I was attracted to the aesthetics of the liturgy & ritual practices, which seemed deeply integrated into the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way that I had never seen with Christianity in the US. I had been raised by fundamentalists, but had happily & mostly without trauma left it behind when I graduated from high school & went off to college. Even though I had tried as a kid to “believe,” Christianity as I saw it practiced was never as real to me as the “foreign” religion I saw practiced in Vietnam.

It did not actually take me long to settle on long to settle on the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen, partly because it was reasonably close to home, partly because it seemed welcoming, but mostly because of the founder’s emphasis on the arts as an important part of Buddhist practice. This is not the place to go into detail about the Order where I have now been a formal student for four years, so I’ll just comment that the impact on my life & teaching were almost immediate. No doubt that for a while I exhibited the annoying habits of a recent convert among my friends & colleagues–another example of my hard-wired enthusiasm, I guess. As for teaching, I think the main shift that becoming a Buddhist precipitated was that it gave me a more spacious sense of time, especially in the classroom, where, I realized, there was always the right amount of time, if one could only find the right clock. I slowed down & fit more in. I forgot, even more than usual, the impression I was making & focused on the ten-thousand things of a particular class period.

That phenomenon in the classroom–of time expanding to encompass whatever really needs to be accomplished–can be generalized & applied anywhere. It is perhaps the practical essence of Zen. Surely, may final years in the classroom were made more spacious by my Zen practice, as my life continues to be. Indeed, I cannot think how I would go about understanding my current illness without my Zen practice–not Zen as an institution, just my day to day understanding of what presents itself before me, including even pain & boredom. To say nothing of the satisfactions I have been finding in my recent writing. My Zen practice needs to be big enough to encompass the whole spectrum, which only practice will accomplish. How’s that for a Zen tautology? I tell ya, I got a million of ’em!

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  1. It was nothing less than a conversion experiences & Zen is not mere philosophy, but religion.

A Teaching Career (Part III)

Those years in San Diego were a miracle, despite anxieties about money & the lack of a “real,” i.e., tenure track, teaching job–something I had not fully recognized until writing about it over the last couple of days. (The miraculousness of it, I mean, though perhaps I am romanticizing it in retrospect.) I published a lot & won awards & lived three blocks from the beach. I wish I could have kept it up. But we moved to cold country & my productivity certainly slowed down, hard to say exactly why (or not so hard, really, but I’m coming to that); it turns out I was confused for quite a long time about the differences between writing & a writing career–a fairly major philosophical & personal wrong turn from which I may only now be fully recovering.

The Clarkson job was not, I suppose, what I had been hoping for in some ideal sense of the perfect job, but it turned out to have a number of hidden advantages. I had seen myself working in a fairly traditional English Department rather than in a mixed Liberal Arts department serving the needs of the Engineering & Business schools, eventually, perhaps, teaching in an MFA program. That was not to be. And while Clarkson had, especially in the early days, a fairly heavy commitment to its own peculiar version of “Freshman English,” the overall teaching load was (& has remained) only two preps & three classes each semester. Many of the jobs I had been applying for, especially at state schools, had 4/4 loads with three preps. Again, I had found myself in a situation with lots of time to write. I took advantage of this, but not to the extent I might–or should–have.

Instead, I got involved with local (Clarkson) & poetry world (AWP) politics. Neither of these realms of activity were bad in themselves, but in retrospect I think they were bad for me. I was elected to the Board of the Associated Writing Programs (a fine organization of which I am still a member, though I haven’t, with one exception, gone to a conference in a long time). A little later I was elected to the Faculty Senate & not long after that became its Chair. I spent my 40th birthday at Yaddo. What could be better? The problem was that I began to see these sorts of things as a more or less essential part of being a writer & this was a mistake. It also involved increasing amounts of alcohol.

I had been a heavy drinker as an undergraduate & through grad school, but had given it up when I returned to Seattle & remained dry through the Bellingham & San Diego years. When I came to Clarkson, thinking myself now some kind of success story, I began using alcohol again. It was a time of fairly high anxiety (Would I get tenure? Would I win that grant?) & alcohol, as a psychiatrist later told me, is a very good anti-anxiety drug. Too bad about the bad side effects.

This is not a confessional essay & I’m not going to dwell on booze. In fact, I’ll glide over the whole thing by saying it did become a health problem for me, though it never interfered with my teaching, so a little more than ten years ago, I entered my second period of sobriety & did so without any particularly difficulties. It is possible that my current health difficulties are related to my past use of alcohol, but there is no way to establish causation in a single case.

But I taught well & continued to make poems & get them into magazines. I published a book titled Static with Owl Creek Press & am fortunate that it was so badly distributed it is now impossible to find a copy, for it was physically unattractive & the poems were not as strong as those in my first book. Though I edited a book (Dog Music) with a friend and wrote the text for a book of photographs (A Dog’s Book of Truths) it wasn’t until 2000 that I published another book of poetry, a good one, I think, called Magical Thinking. That was sixteen years ago! I’ve only just finished the follow-up to Magical Thinking, currently titled River with Birds & Trees, which I have just begun sending out to publishers, along with individual poems to journals & magazines. The title is intended to imitate the title of a painting, or a study for a painting: I think the poems lean heavily toward the visual for their effects, though I hope they sing & think as well.

I have another manuscript nearly complete, even more visual, that borrows its title for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings–it consists of fourteen-line syllabic stanzas in numbered sequences or “suites,” so the musical element is there at least metaphorically. I’ve always thought my own verse quite “musical” or at least concerned with sound, especially rhythm & especially at the level of the sentence, though I have never felt any attraction to contemporary formalism. I suppose my poems possess “the ghost of meter,” as someone has said of a certain kind of free verse & I am often befuddled by the flatness of much contemporary poetry.

I can’t blame teaching for my slow rate of production as a poet over the last couple of decades. Partly, I think, because of my mistake, I began to doubt the value of poetry–or that’s what I thought. What I really came to doubt, finally, was the value of all the trappings of being a writer, As I said, I had become confused about this important distinction, but I am confused no more. Perhaps it is this ongoing encounter with mortality, or perhaps just finally growing old enough to let all that drop away–all that ambition–so that I have been writing lucidly in recent months & at a pace I haven’t matched since San Diego. Of course I hope to publish this current work, but I finally cannot know what will become of it–whether any of it will “last,” as they say. Some degree of success, if not fame, was once important to me, but no longer. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care if the poems find readers–I hope they will. But beyond the usual sort of attempts at publishing, I have no control over this, so I’ve let it go.


A Teaching Career (Part I)

Though there was an 18 month gap after graduate school when I worked as a journalist, I have been a teacher from 1979 until four days ago. I resigned my 27 year professorship at Clarkson 18 months earlier than I had intended because of ill-health. It’s hard to generalize about such a long & varied period, but I think I can fairly say that I gave good value for the investments, intellectual & economic, students dedicated to my classes. There were plenty of days starting out that I didn’t know what I was doing, but that never stopped me from being . . . enthusiastic.

I was probably never the best teacher in my department–I never won a teaching award–but I always received among the highest teaching evaluation scores from students. (Maybe I was just “easy,” but I don’t think that’s the reason.) Early in my career, when colleagues made required visits to my classes from time to time, they always wrote me up in glowing terms. (And at Clarkson, where I spent 27 years, those visits were performed by teams of two in order to avoid eccentricity or bias.) I never worked particularly hard to make my students like me, though I think most of them who gave the matter any thought would have said I was personable & friendly. What I cared about was the subject of the day & trying to figure out ways to make undergraduates engage with it. Certainly, I failed more often than I succeeded, statistically; but in any given class on any given day, there must have been one or two who latched onto something I presented. (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett) One or two who took delight in a poem or an idea I introduced.

I started out as a graduate TA my second year in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. This appointment was competitive & coveted & was given to me based, I was told later, on my generally enthusiastic approach to grad school, even in the IWW hothouse. I didn’t wilt because I was oblivious to all the politics going on around me–at least at first. My first big clue was figuring out how important it was to go to all the parties, but even there I mostly just got drunk & shouted about poetry.

I was probably hungover for some of those class sessions & I began my long battle with grading & returning papers on time. I was barely older than many of my students & I remember fending off a couple of women in the spring semester, though this was in the days before strict ethical guidelines regarding such things. I also remember having to lean against the chalk rail & hang on with both hands on the first day I walked into a classroom because my knees were trembling so, though I soon became comfortable in front of the classroom & developed what would become, with variations, my basic mode of instruction for the next forty years: 1. look at a chunk of text, then 2. asking the students questions about the selection while trying to demonstrate ways of reading. I usually had some idea of where I wanted to go & in the early days had some notes of things to work toward.

It didn’t take long for me to give up on notes except when the material was new to me, or particularly complex. I became an adept improviser around themes from the text. This had to turn into something more like ensemble playing in creative writing workshops, though I think I tended to solo too much in that configuration. I almost always felt pregnant befor a class, with a great desire to give birth. The metaphor is perhaps not quite right. I wanted to make the class pregnant with me so that we could all give birth together, each walking out of the room after an hour with our own squalling babe in arms. Ideally, the babe in arms would soon begin asking its own questions of the student–and of me.

After getting my MFA in Iowa I returned to Seattle, where I had been an undergraduate & where most of my friends were. I applied to the PhD program in Lit at the UW and was accepted, though without any financial support, but wound up not pursuing the degree. I worked for a while as a journalist on an alternative paper, then got an offer of an adjunct teaching gig at Western Washington University in Bellingham, which I accepted . . . enthusiastically & prepared to move north. Both before & after this job, I remember being broke all the time & the grinding effect that has on one’s life. I really began dealing with severe bouts of anxiety around this time.

Friends & my own writing pulled me through, usually, because I’d given up my old friend alcohol, even attending AA meetings. At Bellingham, I met two people who had a powerful effect on my life, one of them famous even then, the other obscure, even now. Annie Dillard was very encouraging about my writing & treated me like a colleague even when the regular department faculty (with a few exceptions) treated me like a serf. And the philosopher / writer Stan Hodson (along with his wife Victoria) taught me to juggle–literally & with ideas. We were in a comic play performance group together, but mostly they just invited me & my then girlfriend to hang out at their house & talk. We talked endlessly about literature & philosophy & teaching & since Stan had read everything, this was better than any PhD program could have been. And the food was better. Seems like we were always eating. Still suffering from anxiety attacks, what I remember most vividly from those two years is gales of laughter. I think I began to come into my own as a teacher near the end of this period, but the pay was so awful I began to look around for a better job.

I should say that it was during those two years in Bellingham that I began to consolidate my personality as a poet–this was, indeed, my post-graduate period of synthesis. A happy, nervous time–and also the time I met my partner Carole, who is out there in the kitchen right now, cleaning up after bringing her semi-invalid husband his morning coffee in bed. How far we have come. [To be continued . . . ]


Necessary Limits

Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1

Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.

My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.

The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.

Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:

Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]

But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.

I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.

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  1. There are of course limitations that artists do not control, though they should be aware of them: economic conditions, certain forces of personal history, the politics of the state in which the artist lives / works, etc.

Best Three Dylan Albums?

I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1

I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.


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  1. I’d go so far as to suggest that Dylan’s best songs have been written at times when Dylan has conceived of himself, however awkwardly, as a poet—or, perhaps, self-consciously, as an artist.
  2. I don’t presume to teach “popular culture,” but only its “literature.”

Geoffrey H. Hartman, Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

Long associated with the Yale School of criticism, Professor Hartman examined a wide range of subjects, including Wordsworth, Judaica and trauma.

Source: Geoffrey H. Hartman, Scholar Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.