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.


The Unofficial Hiatus / What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Hmmm. Seems like I haven’t been posting much during the recent dog days. We finally got some summer weather here after a couple of cool, wet months. I think if I looked back over my eight or nine years of blogging (who’s counting?), I would notice that I often take a short vacation from the blog about this time of year. It’s not really intentional, just a loss of motivation. And this year I’ve actually been occupied with a couple of projects and with making a couple of changes in the old “lifestyle” (hate that word). About a year ago I stopped drinking alcohol. I’d had a bad reaction to a sleep medication I had been prescribed and it seemed to be related to my evening beer consumption, so I stopped, without much difficulty. I also stopped the medication and ironically began sleeping better than I have in years. I did notice that I would have spikes of anxiety (that I would have in the past treated with a couple of drinks) and during those periods of anxiety I was given to repetitive, morbid thinking — I’ve been a secret hypochondriac since I was six years old, always imagining I have some fatal illness. About a month ago, though, I began meditation practice using the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s little book The Miracle of Mindfulness as a guide. I’d tried  meditation before, but for some reason this time it took and I have sat for half an hour or more every day since I began. It took a while, but I have noticed pretty dramatic shifts in my thinking and my internal dialogue / monologue over the last week or so. I am calmer and happier. Nothing dramatic, just a bit lighter in the head. And speaking of a light head, I have had, over the years, mild to moderate vestibular / balance problems that seem to come and go, perhaps related to stress. Several years ago a physical therapist gave me a set of exercises to do in which I look at a target (a large letter B) on the wall while walking toward it and moving my head back and forth. At first the B jumps around and I see a double image, but after doing the exercise for ten minutes twice a day for a couple of days, the target stabilizes. There is also an exercise in which one walks while throwing a ball up and catching it, following it with one’s eyes. The idea is to retrain the brain / ears / eyes to track together. It works. After I came back from Vietnam early this summer and had a bad chest cold with fever, I noticed I wasn’t balancing as well as I had been, so I’ve been doing these exercises very aggressively for the last two weeks, with noted improvement. I have even taken up juggling, which I used to be able to do, but so far without much success. I’ll certainly post video when I can keep three balls in the air! Finally, on the theory that if you don’t use it you lose it, I have begun memorizing poems. When I was a kid, I did this easily, getting long swatches of Kipling, Edna Milay, and Coleridge by heart in my early teens, but I didn’t keep it up. Over the last couple of weeks, I have memorized Jack Spicer’s “Berkeley in time of Plague,” Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (both brief, as warm ups), then I went on to Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” which I have always loved and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” ditto. I’m now working on Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt,” which is harder for me to get into my head because of its antique syntax and the fact that I had never encountered it before. This is a practice, like meditation, I hope to keep up indefinitely.

So, I don’t often write about my personal life here in this public space, but I wanted to mark what amounts to a fairly large change in my way of being in the world. I’ll return soon to grousing about politics and making notes on literary matters.