Issue VIII, Volume V : April 2014
You spent most of your career as a writer teaching at Rockland Community College. Indeed, I was one of your students back in the eighties. It’s not the sort of job to which most poet/teachers aspire, yet it is exactly the sort of job most graduates of MFA programs find themselves staring in the face as creative writing positions at four year colleges and universities are almost impossible to get without a PhD and at least one book with a good press. What can you say about your teaching career at RCC? What advice might you have for folks who find themselves teaching at a community college?
I wandered into teaching at two-year colleges in the Syracuse area, where I had to stay while my wife Eileen Allman was finishing her PhD in Shakespeare and English Literature. I got two offers, one from Onandaga Community College, where the load was five courses a semester, and Cazenovia College, a private two-year college for women, where the course load was four courses a semester--and the pay $500 more for the first year. I didn’t realize at the time that I had stepped into an academic caste system that separated two-year from four-year schools and universities, and that after several years at a two-year school the only way to get a teaching job in the senior colleges would be if I won a Pulitzer. And maybe even not then. To be honest, I never gave much thought to this kind of upstairs/downstairs arrangement. When we moved back to the NYC area, I was lucky to get an appointment at Rockland Community College, thanks to a recommendation from a colleague at Cazenovia College who knew the academic dean at Rockland. I was beginning to publish with more frequency in journals, poetry and some short fiction, so my "credentials" were building. The most important thing about being hired by Rockland was that it put me in the area I needed to live in--my wife was teaching at Lehman College in the Bronx--and we could be close to our families. I mention all this background because these are significant factors that determine whether a job can be a good fit or not. It's no good teaching at a university or a four-year college if your life has to be in a shambles to do so. I found my colleagues at Rockland to be of university caliber, with their PhD's and publications. For example: Dan Masterson, now the Poet Laureate of Rockland County, published widely (and still does) in journals, was an AWP Finalist in Poetry, his first book published in the University of Illinois series, before going on to the University of Arkansas Series.; Suzanne Cleary published widely in journals, her books appearing now from Carnegie Mellon Press; Reamy Jansen, editor and creative nonfiction writer, whose collection of essays, Available Light, will soon be published; David Means's story collections are reviewed in the NY Times. Colleagues like these created a high-level literary environment in which I felt recognized and in which I could thrive. At Rockland there was a remarkable lack of envy and resentment among the writers, as we all pulled for each other. Just because you're at a community college doesn’t mean you have to aim lower in the goals for your work. You might even find a more conducive atmosphere for your publications than on the more competitive stages of four-year schools. I was able to design courses in science fiction, and one called Literature, Science and Film, that won me a Chancellor's award for excellence in teaching--which means that you don't have to teach down, just because you're at a two-year college. Do not buy into the presumptions of the caste system. Keep your writing ambitions high and pursue them--which you can do because you have an income. Wasn't that William Carlos Williams's advice to young writers asking how they should go about being a writer? "Get a job." Teaching at a public college came naturally to me because I got educated in New York City's tuition-free public colleges (Brooklyn and Hunter)-- after being kicked out of high school for truancy. If you're at a community college, teach hard. And write hard. Avoid MLA, but enjoy the AWP conference every once in a while. And get yourself on one of their panels.
You’ve published most of your collections of poetry and fiction with New Directions, yet it never seemed to me that you were the sort of writer they’ve tended to publish. What can you say of your relationship with New Directions, and with the publishing world in general? Obviously, we are in the midst of monumental changes in publishing. From your perspective, as someone who’s been in it for so many years, what are your thoughts about publishing in the contemporary arena?
I came to New Directions after my first book, Walking Four Ways in the Wind (1979) appeared in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets (the editor of the series at that time, David Wagoner, was very familiar with my work, since he had been publishing it for years in his journal Poetry Northwest). The co-editor of the annual anthology New Directions in Prose and Poetry, Peter Glassgold, and James Laughlin, who created New Directions, liked my work and began putting it in the anthology (altogether, my poems and a story appeared in seven anthologies). I was having trouble getting my second collection of poems, Clio's Children (based on historical subjects), accepted. The poetry editor at Princeton had changed, and didn't lean my way at all. And subsequent presses declined the book, e.g., Norton, Wesleyan, Viking. It was finally only natural that I submit the book to New Directions, since they were printing my work in their anthologies.
Well, Laughlin loved the work I did with history and the way I got at history through the lives of individuals. He told me how history was always an excellent subject for poetry, which of course he would say, having been a close friend and even part-time disciple and later the publisher of Ezra Pound. I heard that Laughlin had walked into an editor's office and proclaimed Clio's Children to be the best manuscript he'd seen at New Directions in ten years. Whatever the truth of that statement, from that time on New Directions would publish most of my subsequent books, including my first collection of stories, Descending Fire & Other Stories. Whether or not my work fits the New Direction profile's emphasis on experimentation. literature in translation, the work of Pound, Williams, Thomas, Tennessee Williams, etc., I can't speak to. The editors (and James Laughlin) were content to see that my work was contemporary and not simply (to use Laughlin's term of abuse) "creative writing." I've been described as an "odd regular" in the New Directions list. But I think a case can be made that the poems in Curve Away from Stillness: Science Poems and the stories in Descending Fire push beyond the usual limits of form and, though not conspicuously avant garde, they rub shoulders with things rare and strange.
My experience with publishing is that sooner or later one must find a congenial editor and stay with that person for as long as is possible. Likely, the journal will go down, or the publishing house will shrink or fail, so you can't count on lifetime support. At the same time you have to keep writing in a kind of Brechtian anstatt dass mode. In spite of [fill in the blank], you keep working. It's too much a Camus absurdity, to write without an audience, to write without getting into print, to write without anyone anywhere being interested in what you're doing. But that's the game, folks. Luckily, we now have online journals and a growing audience of online readers. That won't mean more books in print (well, okay, there's the kindle) or more contracts or royalties, but it does mean a thriving literary culture is out there and happening. And this means that these days a writer should be submitting to both print and online journals. Being in online journals is not the same as being able to pull your book off a shelf and wow your Aunt Lucille, but it's not a second-class event either. It's real literature in real time.
Few writers are able to move as effectively and fluently between poetry and fiction as you continue to do. In fact, I could name only a small handful of writers who can write both at the level you’ve managed to maintain. Can you speak to how the genres differ? I mean, to your mind, what ARE the significant differences between poetry and prose?
I think this question has to do with the kinds of subject and material you want to work with. And the effects you want to achieve. If you want to draw the body and the mind into a kind of trance, where ideas and the senses (maybe even narrative) electrify syntax and form a temporary but intense mental/emotional event, then you want to work in poetry. But if you want to tell stories, reveal character, twist lives about each other, engage in the history of local moments, work with dialogue, move about in space and time, then you want to write fiction--or creative nonfiction. The difference between the genres is the difference between states of mind, and just how compressed you want events to be. Poetry is the ultimate masher--it crushes everything into a pulp that gets transformed into images and linguistic maneuvers. Fiction is, by contrast, more casual, though certainly intense in its way, and the telling of a story (no matter by what devious, subterranean means) brings its own pleasures and seems to be, well, so much more social than poetry, which can pull the self into deeper and deeper recesses, as it reels among images and sometimes song. I gravitate toward fiction when I feel something about a person or an event that I'd like to understand, while also creating an experience. This can get complicated. One of the stories in my latest (as of yet unpublished) collection, A Fine Romance, uses a reversed myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to pattern the narrative of a woman who has killed her husband and now, in a coma herself, descends into the underworld to find him. This story, "Darlene Descending," was published in the online journal Storyglossia. No print journal would touch it. My point simply is that just because you're telling a story doesn’t mean you can't dip into complex allusions. It doesn’t mean you can't achieve poetic effects. But writing fiction can lose you some friends, since so many fiction writers use their friends and acquaintances as characters in their stories. But then fiction is a more social involvement and you need an active social life in which to find your "material." Think of all the dinner parties Henry James would attend. Then think of Rilke isolated in that castle, writing his elegies.
I like to argue—only half tongue-in-cheek—that poetry is a science, just another way of hypothesizing, trying to know the world. Science has been an area of interest in your writing, particularly in the 1989 poetry collection Curve Away from Stillness: Science Poems, but elsewhere as well. Can you speak to the intersections of poetry and science?
I've spent a lot of time in the space where poetry and science intersect, partly because I've never been able to abandon my first love, science, not even when poetry seemed to claim my working soul. In the Prolegomena to Curve Away from Stillness…, I tried to make the case that science and beauty have had a long and fruitful relationship, science making the world comprehensible, while beauty made it desirable. Each working toward a harmony of some kind, even when seeming most disruptive. Some years back, in the period that produced Curve Away from Stillness…., I became interested in what I was calling the cognitive lyric, the blending of serious thought with the traditional music of the personal self in its celebrations. This required the use of scientific terms, but in more or less lyric moments, and in lyrical contexts (love, awe, religious feeling, though without theology). Some of that work appeared in Scenarios for a Mixed Landscape, which preceded Curve Away from Stillness… . The long poems in Curve… open into meditations and narratives that suit a more speculative intent, with science and scientific "consciousness" at the heart of all experience. Curve Away from Stillness… continues to find its way into bibliographies concerning poetry and science, I'm happy to say. But my interest in science and poetry has not abated, as my very latest work demonstrates. I need an escape from autobiography and that is how I do it.
It seems to me that we’ve been moving, since the eighties, from a poetry dynamic that seemed to have Neo-formalism as one pole, LANGUAGE/”Experimental” poetry as the other, with most of the rest somewhere in the middle; and that middle continues to seem, to me, saddled with Confessionalism’s suspect, often solipsistic residue as its dominant mode. As you peruse the poetry landscape these days, what period trends strike you, either negatively or positively?
I've noticed in the younger poets an extraordinary vividness in the use of sensory detail that is different in its intensity from any past lyricism. It's almost clinical in its detail, but brilliant in syntax. I've been quite impressed. Take a look at Anna Journey's If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (Univ. of Georgia Press). I've also observed--and this might be where formalism and LANGUAGE poetry are marrying--a kind of flood effect of events, feelings, images, voice(s), that has a very prose-like look and feel, with no pretense to stanzaic ordering or even any necessary sense of a conclusion. It's a virtual stream-of-consciousness, and I don't know if that's new or just a freakish turn of the modernist form. Many of these twist and turns seem to me to be an avoidance of the old-fashioned confessional self, which I don't mind at all. It's like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt. But I can take only so much of that vertigo. Where is it all heading? As you suggest, there is this polarity of Neo-formalist and LANGUAGE poetry. I don't think that will go away. I just hope that the LANGUAGE poets don't get so cerebral that I have to start reading restaurant menus for any kind of meaning or sense of reality.
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