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.


Health Care

I always like these occasional features in the NY Times Sunday Magazine about a mysterious medical diagnosis. This account, though, seemed particularly relevant at a time when the country is debating health care reform. [Spoiler alert] The patient, a sixty-four year old woman who is pretty clearly from the working class, loses her ability to walk because of weakness in her legs: she is suffering from a copper deficiency. It turns out that her dentures don’t fit properly and she has been piling on the denture cream, which contains zinc, which reduces the minute amounts of copper needed by the body. At the end of the piece we are informed that, while she “still cannot afford new dentures,” she has switched the brand of denture adhesive she uses and is going to physical therapy, though the nerve damage might me irreversable. So: an aging woman’s false teeth don’t fit and she can’t afford new ones — no insurance, you know — and as a consequence she unknowingly poisons herself and causes severe nerve damage in her legs. Still, in the end, she’s got the same old ill-fitting dentures. No insurance, you know. And the various mouthpieces of the medical-industrial complex and their political defenders are making up shit about a very modest healt care reform proposal creating “death panels” so as to quietly dispose of grandma on the cheap. One would like to ask them what they propose to do for people like the woman in the Times story, since they have such deep concern for the weak and unprotected.

They Should Be Happy

. . . because most of the crackers [more here] who live in Alabama think that government is the problem. This is the end result of radical right-wing-attacks on government and civic life in general, in favor of a kind of he-man individualism. Well, at least most of them are armed so they will be able to settle their own disputes the old fashioned way. So close the jail and the schools and the DMV, bro, and don’t forget the fire department.

In Which I Remember Richard Nixon

He really was as bad as we thought at the time. And Reagan comes across in these recent tapes as a bland and lawless vacuity without a shred of integrity of allegiance to anything but power. And Nixon and Reagan gave birth to George W. Bush. All the characteristics are the same. The idea that the executive is above the law; a world view built on the worst of 19th century social Darwinism; and utter incuriosity about other people and other places. I have a such a visceral reaction to these creeps, perhaps, because my step father was a sort of cheap knock-off version of the same cluster of attitudes. I take these sons of bitches personally. Which is why it’s such a relief to have Barack Obama as president, despite the fact that he has deeply disappointed me on civil liberties issues, particularly the half-measures he’s taken to do away with torturing people in my name. With Obama, I at least get the impression that he has thought through the issue and made a conscious decision based on what he believes to be the good of the country. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Obama works through health care reform. I fear that he will compromise away significant change and wind up serving narrow interests; whereas venality drove Nixon and Reagan and Bush, a dangerous idealism may turn out to be Obama’s weakness.

Liberation Lit

Following a link from A Practical Policy, I read this story, “Segundo’s Revenge,” by Joe Emersberger, a writer unknown to me. I had read some other things at Liberation Lit, but nothing that carried out the LL  mission to combine the political and the artistic quite so deftly. It’s a terrific story, though I wish it were not quite reticent — I could do with a bit more characterization and description, but I kind of see why Emersberger keeps it simple, with a powerful through-line. I’ll be keeping this piece in mind as I work out how to make poems and stories of my own out of “political” material. When I was beginning as a writer many hears ago there was a strong bias in the classroom against the didactic and the political in literature and I absorbed that vibe even while having strong political convictions. I mean, I’ve already written plenty of political poems, but I don’t really know how to do it — I have no systematic understanding, though the frank admission in the Liberation Lit writers’ guidelines that there is some strongly perceived division between the political and the aesthetic is a healthy admission, I think. Perhaps at this moment in the West we are without a synthesis of the political and the aesthetic with the result that we have to make up a new method for each piece of work.

I’m trying to gather material impressions while I’m here in Vietnam that I’ll be able to turn into poems and stories — the story ideas I’ve had so far each take on the political situation of the sympathetic foreigner encountering the people and places and institutions of Vietnam. Nothing has gelled, but then I haven’t taken time to sit down and fill out my brief notes, which is how things usually begin for me.

Pakistan and Vietnam (VN Diary No. 20)

Isn’t it just time to quarantine Pakistan? Clearly, the country has not yet figured out what it wants to be and I don’t think the US can really have much effect on that process. Pakistan has the bomb, of course, which makes things more complicated — the world does not need a radical Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons — but I think the current meltdown actually offers the US an opportunity to take a hard look at reality. The Obama administration has shown a real willingness to make pragmatic policy decisions and perhaps they will take a good look at Pakistan and tell themselves the truth. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Hanoi Vietnam as I write this and I’m thinking how American history might have been different had Lyndon Johnson taken a cold-eyed look at the Indochina war and decided to step back. Barack Obama has an opportunity for making a clear-eyed judgment that the US cannot effectively intervene in Pakistan or Afghanistan; that the best we can do is set a fence around those who would do us injury. That fence can be both diplomatic and military — I am not a pacifist — but it must not involve the escalation of the number of American soldiers. The administration ought to let it be known that Pakistan must decide its own direction, but that if one light is turned on in a nuclear facility, it will be instantly destroyed. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan must all be confronted with existential choices — their choices, not ours. Had the US taken such an existential position during Vietnam’s civil war — for that’s what it was until the US and the Soviets made it a proxy war — Vietnam would probably be a much more democratic place today. Had the US not backed French intervention in 1945, but instead had acceded to Ho Chi Minh’s pleas for a guarantee of Vietnamese sovereignty, Ho Chi Minh might never have turned to the Soviets, whom he distrusted even while admiring Lenin’s treatise on colonialism. If the US had not supported the French return to Indochina in 1945, the Vietnamese would have had to work out for themselves what their political destiny would be. I heard no less an authority than the old revolutionary and compatriot of Ho Chi Minh Huu Ngoc say just today in a lecture that had the French not been allowed back in — with the blessing of the US — that Vietnam would have taken a “capitalist,” Western route, that that was Ho Chi Minh’s preference. As it happens, I think there is a huge dose of revisionist history in that statement, but it is certain that things would not only have been different, but better, had Truman simply told the French to back off after World War II. Now the US needs to tell itself to back off, with the realization that there is literally nothing we can do to determine what sort of society the Pakistanis and the Afghans want to have. Morally it’s none of our business; practically, it’s a hopeless quagmire. All we can do is protect ourselves, which we ought to do vigorously, publicly, and transparently. The Vietnamese posed no threat to the US, except in out imaginations; the Afghans and the Pakistanis pose no threat, except in the case of the Pakistanis’ nuclear arsenal, which ought to stand under the constant threat of annihilation should it be activated.