Essays and Comment: David Wojahn

                AT THAT URGE FOR MORE LIFE:   ADVENTURES IN LO-REZ (PART ONE)

                                                           

Let me start with a poem by the late Galway Kinnell, a figure much revered among readers of contemporary poetry, although he was a decidedly uneven writer. Kinnell is generally associated with the so-called Deep Image School, whose best known figures are Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Louis Simpson and James Wright. All of them penned their most influential verse in the 1960s and they had—for better or for worse–a substantial impact on the poetry of the next few decades. Their career paths are so similar as to be interchangeable. Although all came from working- or middle class backgrounds, they attended prestigious universities, usually as the first in their families to attain college degrees. All of them began writing in the tradition of academic formalism promulgated by the New Critics, and at least one of this group, James Wright, wrote some exceptional poems in this mode; the others did not. But all of them came to rebel against that tradition, primarily through exposure to European literary movements that before that time had little impact on American literature. Suddenly the Deep Image writers were experimenting with surrealism, expressionism, and other European avant-gardist methods, modes which by that time were already old-hat in their places of origin. They translated European and Latin American poets who worked in these styles, and for this we can be grateful: thanks to Bly I read Neruda and Transtromer for the first time; and thanks to Wright I came upon Trakl and Vallejo. The tenants of Deep Image writing are now quite familiar: rhyme and meter were replaced by a sometimes rather plodding free verse; narrative and argument were eschewed in favor of what Bly infamously called “leaping poetry”; revelation and epiphany were meant to be had via striking metaphors and a kind of vaguely Jungian notion that the unconscious could be a better writing instructor than the rational mind. Many of the most characteristic poems of the movement were published in Bly’s peripatetic literary journal, The Sixties, and Bly’s publishing house, which issued small individual collections of translations of the European and Latin American figures the Deep Imagists revered. The Sixties published one of the two or three most famous Deep Image poems, a dramatic monologue by Kinnell entitled “The Bear.” The speaker is an Inuit hunter who is trying to bag a polar bear. This process takes weeks, largely because the speaker’s means of slaying the bear is a rather inefficient one:

 

I take a wolf’s rib
And whittle it sharp at both ends
And coil it up
And freeze it in blubber and place it out
On the fairway of the bears.

 

“The fairway of the bears”: good thing the speaker knows where the bears play golf! The bear takes the bait, and over several pages of numbered vignettes, the bear is felled thanks to internal bleeding; the hunter can now slay the creature and gobble up some body parts. And then, to prevent himself from freezing, he hacks open the torso, and curls up to slumber and dream those oh-so-meaningful dreams that are a staple of Deep Image verse. He enters “the parabola of bear transcendence” and becomes the bear. I will spare you the descriptions of this process, as they are rather windy, as is the poem’s ending, in which—surprise!—it becomes a kind of ars poetica: “…the rest of my days I spend/wandering: wondering/what, anyway,/ was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry by which I lived?”  I suppose the point is that real verse must be written by manly men, who stalk their lines with the same dogged persistence of our hunter. Let the namby pamby Frank O’Haras and James Schuylers write about drinking cokes and malteds and listening to Billie Holliday. The real poets must be more like Leo Di Caprio in The Revenant, foaming at the mouth in search of revenge; or, worse yet, like Hannibal Lecter, for the eating of flesh and the writing of verse appear in “The Bear” to be regarded as almost one and the same.  Kinnell thought highly of the poem enough to have for many years closed his public readings with it, and would invariably recite the poem rather than follow it on the page. But let’s face it: at this point in literary history we can only read “The Bear” as a comic poem—salacious, rambling, over-wrought, and above all unintentionally absurd.

 

Why do I cite this poem? Because the subject of this essay is the teaching of poetry. And if you’ve taught poetry and poetry writing for a couple of generations, as I now have, you’re reminded repeatedly of the fickleness of literary fashion. Your students pick up the latest period styles as helplessly as kids in a preschool getting infected with the rhinovirus. So how does a teacher gently guide students away from the superficialities of literary fads, teach them the rudiments of poetic technique, and ways to discern writing that will last as opposed to writing that will be relegated to a footnote in literary history? And how can you, as a teacher, presume to know that such instruction is accurate?  And how does one develop that consummate diplomatic skill of balancing encouragement and frank critique? To teach poetry writing in a way that is earnest and serious is no easy task, and I say this from the position of one who for over thirty years been involved with one of the most challenging of all approaches to teaching poetry. Some readers will balk at the accuracy of this claim, so allow me, as I attempt to justify it, to discuss another poem of Galway Kinnell’s, one just as problematic as “The Bear,” but even more ambivalent and troubling. And, interestingly enough, it purports to be, at least in its opening stanzas, a comic poem—an intentionally comic one.

 

The Correspondence School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students

Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
Brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”: goodbye manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
of the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German, my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neatly scripted letters demolishing
the pre-Raphaelites.

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had
of trying to guess which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say what I thought was the truth
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, not any better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems keep smothering with words, the smell
of which, days later, would tingle
in your nostrils as new, God-given impulses to write.

Goodbye,
you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of shattered towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their loneliness
given away in poems, only their solitude kept.

 

“Correspondence School”—talk about a term relegated to the dustbin of history! It’s lingo redolent of the middle of the last century, piled on the refuse heap along with nouns like bobbysoxer or zootsuiter, with saying you’re going on a “Sunday drive” or calling the distant ancestor of your Widescreen a “TV set”—terms suitable for Scrabble or a John Ashbery poem, but little else. And of course the word has something of a bad odor. People who enrolled in “correspondence schools,” especially to exercise what they perceive as their talents for writing, have long  been viewed in the way the narrator of Kinnell’s poem sees them, as rubes, as suckers, as marks—a more touchingly altruistic version of the students who were taken in by Trump University, or the for-profit colleges that advertise late at night on basic cable, places like Corinthian College or the ubiquitous University of Phoenix, the ones the Feds have lately been cracking down on for making the pursuit of a college degree a form of entrapment and indentured servitude.

 

The correspondence schools of the pre-cable age did their share of advertising too. The most infamous one was called “The Famous Writers School,” an organization that took out full page ads in places like the back of Parade magazine, splashy affairs that suggested applicants would be able to work with the likes of Rod Serling and Earle Stanley Garner, the graphomaniac creator of the genius lawyer Perry Mason. The headline for the Famous Writers’ School ads, We’re Looking for People Who Can Write Well, became familiar enough to be parodied in The National Lampoon, whose send-up of the ad proclaimed We’re Looking for People Who Can Write Good! The School was the brainchild of Random House founder Bennett Cerf, who had devolved from being the heroic American publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses to playing the TV talk show circuit as a sort of “high-brow” guest of the Orson Welles ilk, the kind who’d plop on the couch of the Johnny Carson set toward the end of the night, after the appearances of the Soupy Sales’ and Suzanne Pleshettes’. An expose of The Famous Writers’ School published in The Atlantic by the brilliant muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford pretty much ended Cerf’s career. It turns out that no one actually read the submissions of the students, favoring instead an array of form letters slightly doctored so as to seem personalized. Cerf and his board, however, made millions on the Famous Writers’ School before the Mitford article effectively shut them down in 1971. (This was more money, I would guess, than his publishing firm had by that time made from the oeuvre of James Joyce.) The Famous Writers School saga is one of Mammon uber alles, but it is also a deeply melancholy one, something which, in its callous way, Kinnell’s poem understands.  Elizabeth Bishop, who briefly worked for a time in an ever-so-slightly more legit version of the Famous Writers School, called “The U.S.A School of Writing,” wrote a memoir about her experience that makes much of her students’ haplessness. But she also adds this:

 

Henry James once said that he who would aspire to be a writer must ascribe on his banner the one word “Loneliness.” But in the case of my students, their need was not to ward off society, but to get into it. Their problem was that on their banners “Loneliness” had been inscribed despite them, and so they aspired to be writers. Without exception the letters I received were from people suffering from terrible loneliness in all its better-known forms, and from some I had never even dreamed of. Writing, especially writing to Mr. Magolies [the head of the school, who Bishop impersonated in her letters] was a way of being less alone. To be printed, to be “famous,” would be an instant shortcut to identity, and an escape from solitude, because then other people would know one as admirers, friends, lovers, suitors, etc.

 

Bishop herself, it goes without saying, knew something about loneliness, and, unlike her students, she also knew that for loneliness there is no cure. Her poems insist, again and again, that one of the principal consolations of writing is that it interrogates and rarefies our loneliness through the powers of language, and through the assumption that there might—might—exist for some of us an audience, a solitary reader, whose loneliness is copacetic with our own. The odds are stacked against us all in this enterprise, but what troubles me about Kinnell’s poem is that his speaker contends that the odds are insurmountable, that the House Always Wins, at least if you hail from Xenia, Burnt Cabins, or Hornell. Or if you’re a prison inmate, a urologist, or a lady from Bangor. Your poems won’t interrogate or rarify your loneliness, says the instructor; your “urge for life” will instead be “smothered” by your very poems. Writing them will only magnify your despair, and you will be deserving of “pity.” Why? Well, because you come from Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Bangor or San Quentin, dead end places that your poetry—and a correspondence school course–will never help you to escape. I bristle at this contention in part because I too have been a “correspondence school” instructor, and I too have worked with poets who are urologists, prisoners, and inhabitants of Bangor. I also bristle against it because I know that some of the last two century’s greatest poets came from–and in many cases never left–places that are in every respect literary backwaters like Xenia or Burnt Cabins—Cavafy’s Alexandria, Dickinson’s Amherst, W.S. Graham’s St. Ives, Lorine Neidecker’s Black River Falls. I know this because the act of advising someone about her poetry through “correspondence” may well be one of the most fruitful and productive ways to teach the art, and I have taught it this way for over thirty years. Mind you, the teaching I do is not, exclusively, via “correspondence”: the more accurate term is “low-residency education,” in which students and faculty of the academic program meet on a university campus for a twice-annual (or sometimes annual) intensive short-term curriculum of classes, writing workshops, and one-to-one work between  students and their faculty advisors. These residencies generally last for about two weeks, and are structured somewhat like writers’ conferences and somewhat like intensive summer school regimens: you meet your classes daily, including weekends; you’re on the go from early in the morning until late in the evening. But whether you call it a “correspondence school” or a low-residency program, the claim that it provides an educational experience of the first order still sounds dubious to many of my colleagues who teach in traditional academic settings; and to those individuals (usually they are college administrators) who regard the future of higher education as primarily an online endeavor, my contention must sound incredibly quaint. Why write “correspondence” during a time of MOOCs and Skype-ing, or when the literary output of our current oval-office occupant is comprised exclusively of scurrilous and semi-literate tweets?  In an atmosphere such as this, say the lit professors and the very well paid administrative bean-counters, why in the world would one seek to be a “correspondence school teacher” –or a faculty member of a low residency MFA program?  Let me now tell my story, and in the process defend my art. And, yes, it is an art, and in a way that MOOCs and Tweets are never likely to be.

 

In the summer of 1983, when I was just short of my 30th birthday and had recently published my first book of poetry, I was asked by the director of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College to teach in its low-residency program. At the time, there were only two such programs in existence, and although I did not know it then, both were in shaky straights, partly because the low-residency teaching model remained unproven, and partly because both programs owed their existence to Goddard College, a small progressive liberal arts college in Plainfield, Vermont. Although Goddard had pioneered the distance learning model that became known as low-residency learning, the school seemed perpetually in a state of financial and administrative turmoil. In the mid-1970s, poet Ellen Bryant Voigt started the nation’s first low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Goddard, and the faculty she hired and the program’s initial crop of students suggests that the place was one of immense creative energy. Teachers included Robert Hass, Raymond Carver, Thomas Lux, Heather McHugh, and Voigt herself; many of the early crop of students, among them Mark Doty, Bill Knott, and Mary Karr, went on to distinguished literary careers. But by 1981 everything went South—literally, for the faculty resigned en mass and set themselves up in a new low residency program in Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. Apparently the cause of the mass exodus arose from a dispute over salaries, but there were probably other factors involved as well. Goddard then hired a new MFA director, poet Roger Weingarten, himself a Goddard graduate. Roger then assembled an entirely new faculty, and began to recruit students. The revamped program held its first on-campus residency in 1981. But Goddard by this time was in such a dire financial state that it needed to sell some assets in order to stay solvent, so the Goddard MFA program and three other distance learning degree programs were sold  to another college down the road, Norwich University. Norwich was, and remains, primarily a military school. But for a good many years it had operated a non-military branch campus called Vermont College, situated in Montpelier, the nation’s smallest state capital. This is where I found myself in the summer of 1983. Since one of the stipulations of the program’s sale to Norwich was that it could keep its Goddard label for a few years, thereby retaining its name recognition and cachet, I was officially an employee of The Goddard MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Norwich University. Vermont College was associated with Norwich, in a reliably congenial way, until the year 2000, during which the program was sold to the Union Institute, a Cincinnati-based organization that had offered distance learning teaching from several decades, and was hoping to expand its operations by buying our campus in Vermont. After working with the generals and colonels who occupied the upper levels of the Norwich administration, those of us who taught in the program were elated to now have the promise of working with administrators of like-minded temperament. Unfortunately, the Union folks, with some notable exceptions, were a venial and incompetent lot. We eventually broke with them, and in 2008, thanks to some herculean efforts on the part of many alumni, patrons, and the good citizens of Montpelier, Vermont College of Fine Arts, became an independent entity, eventually offering not only its MFA in Writing degree but MFAs in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Music Composition, Film Studies, Graphic Design and Visual Arts. The program’s survival, and its crucial role in helping giving birth to an entirely new university, testify to its great success as a pedagogical model.

 

When I arrived at my first residency, I quickly discovered two essential things about Vermont College that remain true to this day. First, the faculty and students are deeply bonded to one another; there were some sixty students in the program at that time, and it seemed that all of them knew one another closely, and took their roles as students and fellow writers seriously. The faculty nurtured a similar sense of community, not least because we were all housed together in the same dormitory, and socialized a great deal; partly because the writing workshops were team-taught by pairs of faculty, enabling you to find out a lot about your workshop co-leader’s teaching approach. Second, residencies were exhausting affairs, sometimes seeming like a kind of writerly boot camp. Workshops would meet almost every day of the twelve-day residency; each faculty member presented an hour-long lecture, and every graduating student was required to do the same. Faculty members also presented readings of their work, as did graduating students. The residencies went from morning to night, weekends and holidays included. Furthermore, there was an elaborate process for matching faculty (who were called “advisors”) with the six students (called “advisees”) who would correspond with them during the coming semester. Once a student and advisor had been paired, advisors conferred with students about their work, and helped students to devise a semester study plan, each one including an extensive reading list that had been tailored for that student alone. Conferences with individual students sometimes went on for hours, especially if the student was undertaking the critical and creative theses that they were required to write in their final two semesters of study. I left my first residency feeling exhausted but exhilarated, and a few weeks later, in a rented house looking out on the harbor of Provincetown, I turned on my IBM Selectric typewriter, and composed my first letter to a student about her poems and critical writing. When I was finished I’d written her seven single-spaced pages.

 

Many more letters followed, a staggering number, in fact, for in my 33 years of teaching in the program (all the while working full-time in various traditional creative writing programs), I have served as advisor to 237 Vermont College students. Assuming that a seven-page letter is about my standard length–letters about theses tend to be longer, though some letters end up being a bit shorter—each of my five students during a typical semester receives about 35 pages of my counsel. This means that over the course of the decades I’ve written approximately 4,345 pages of single-spaced letters. Considering page count only, this number beats A Remembrance of Things Past (3,031 pages in the Moncrieff translation) by quite a margin, as well as the magnum opus of scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the novel Mission Earth (3,992 pages). In terms of literary value, these letters fall far short of Proust, though they probably give L. Ron Hubbard a run for his money, and I say this even at the risk of having the Scientologists tap my phone. I have written these letters on my sturdy Selectric, on various other electric typewriters, on several desktop computers (including a Kay-Pro model I recently saw on display in a museum) and on an even larger number of laptops. They have been composed via the Selectic’s little metal ball incising an impression of a letter on a typewriter ribbon which it then displays it on a page, via MS DOS, WordStar, and Windows 7,8, 9 and 10. The letters have been mailed to my students from Massachusetts, Arkansas, Texas, Washington State, New York State, Indiana, Illinois, Vermont, Alabama and Virginia, not to mention Madrid, Havana and London. They have been sent via snail mail, via Fax, and as email attachments. And each letter generally contains an additional several (or more) pages of handwritten margin notes on student poems and critical writing. And let me emphasize that these communications are letters—not emails, not texts, not tweets. Do the letters follow a formula? Yes—and I will get to that momentarily.  But are they, therefore, formulaic? No. They can’t be, for the needs, and talents and stages of literary development of each student I have worked with is different from that of all the others, and my goal as their teacher is above all to recognize those individual needs and talents and offer my advice accordingly. The cut and paste function won’t generally cut it. And the “track changes” function in Word? I’ve used it on some rare occasions, but I find that the dialogue it fosters is creepily impersonal. I feel as though I am talking to Word and not to my student.

 

But what exactly is “correspondence”? It pains me to have to define the term in what I know to be a decidedly elementary fashion, but I have my reasons. It in an exchange (usually between two individuals) of information, self-disclosure, argument, small talk, gossip, and in the case of creative individuals it can also include dialogue regarding various elements of the creative process. The medium of such exchanges can be the cuneiform of the ancient Near East, the papyrus favored in Dynastic Egypt, or the wax-treated and inscribed tablets of Ancient Rome. But ever since the introduction of paper to the West from China, the medium for correspondence has been paper sheets folded into paper envelopes, conveyed by a postal service or its equivalent. By the mid-eighteenth century, Great Britain had invested enough money into its postal system so that a good percentage of letters could reach their recipients within two or three days—faster than first class mail in the contemporary U.S. It’s not for nothing that some of the earliest British novels, notably Richardson’s interminable Clarisa and Pamela, were written in epistolary form. Nor is it surprising that some of the greatest literary correspondences arise in 18th and 19th Century Britain—think of Bryon’s several hundred pages of garrulous and swaggering missives, and of Keats’ letters. And need it be added that perhaps the two most influential theories of literary composition of the 19th Century were set forth not in essays, but in letters to correspondents: Keats’ Negative Capability letter, written to his brothers George and Thomas in 1817, and Rimbaud’s famous seer letter, written  to his former teacher Georges Izambard in 1871.  We are still trying to wrap our heads around Keats’ mysteriously paradoxical contention that the poet must always be driven by “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And how many literary careers have been summoned to transcendence or self-destruction thanks to Rimbaud avowing to “become a visionary through a complete and systematic disordering of the senses”?  The tradition of impassioned literary correspondence continues into the 20th Century. Imagine T.S. Eliot’s consternation when he opened that parcel from Ezra Pound containing the latter’s brilliant and merciless edits of “The Wasteland,” (He famously crossed out a good chunk of the poem’s “Burnished Throne,” passage, writing on the margin that it was “too purdy.”) Then there are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a rather prissy affair, although Rilke’s triadic correspondence with Marina Tstevaeva and Boris Pasternak from the summer of 1926 offers some majestic writing on the part of all three. Rilke’s best correspondence is compelling in no small measure because he typically wrote several drafts of his letters, revised them more painstakingly than most of us revise our poems. By the mid-20th Century the great literary correspondences peter out, perhaps because the availability of cheap air and rail travel allowed writers to more frequently see their literary pals in person, or at the very least chat with them long distance. It’s telling that the last two truly great literary correspondences—I’m tempted to say the final two—exist in part because the geographic distances between the letter writers was too great to permit many one-on-one visits or phone chatter during a time when the rates for international phone calls were astronomical. I’m referring to the letters exchanged between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop collected in Words in Air, a volume beautifully edited by Saskia Hamilton, which owes its existence mainly to the fact that Bishop lived for much of her career in Brazil. I am also thinking of Air Mail, the letters written by the great Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and his friend and translator Robert Bly. I can think of no other book which explores the niceties of literary translation with such magnanimous detail and wit.  Of course, the Bishop/Lowell letters come to a halt with Lowell’s death in 1977, and the Bly/Transtromer correspondence is cut short in 1990, after the stroke that left the Swedish poet aphasic and partly paralyzed. I fear that we have to regard these two correspondences as a variety of elegy, for writerly exchanges of this sort simply do not exist any longer. We all know how email flattens, adulterates, and dumbs down most elements of literary style, mainly because it is essentially a form of conversation rather than a form of writing in the way it was understood half a century ago. And texts and tweets? They are no more literary than the lists of package ingredients and additives on the side of a cereal box, and they tend toward a guttural simplicity of language and thought that favors sloganeering over insight—Donald Trump’s addiction to truculent and belittling tweets regarding his opponents (and perceived opponents) appalls us on a daily basis. But his missives also remind us to be grateful that this technology was never available to Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. In one of her best essays, a 1939 screed about the sorry state of book-reviewing, Virginia Woolf unintentionally foretold what we would be stuck with in the digital era, bemoaning “the present discordant and distracted twitter.”

 

Mind you, dear reader, I am not by any means placing my vast number of pages of advice to my students in a category which approaches “literary” correspondence—though sometimes it does, as do my students letters to me. It’s mainly about pedagogy, but pedagogy can in some instances rise to the level of the literary, as we see from the brilliance of Nabokov’s lectures on the novel, originally composed for his students at Cornell. And the letters I exchange with my students also possess a component almost utterly absent from current modes of digital communication—let’s call it, for better or for worse, civility.   For some reason, the medium of letter writing generally forestalls any temptation on their part to start their epistles with “Hi David.” And our letters usually begin with relevant introductory material, if you will. Rather than immediately getting down to discussing poetry, students generally (and usually without my encouragement) talk a bit about what’s going on in their lives, especially as it might relate to their writing. Reports about family illnesses and bouts of depression, of struggles with getting your kids through the trial of middle school, or of the experience of spreading your mother’s ashes on a favorite mountainside may not have an inevitable impact on how I read my students’ poems, but often they do. Because our letters are exchanged only once a month, there’s always some catching up to do. (And because we write each other once a month, there’s time between our letters for reflection, something which subverts the expectation of immediate replies that so predominate when we use digital media. No examples of “Hi Professor Wojahn I emailed a question about our writing assignment over four hours ago and I still haven’t gotten a reply from you and why is it again that you don’t use Blackboard????”)  And, during our exchanges, I am often the sole reader of my students’ work, something which fosters a kind of familiarity, even an intimacy, that doesn’t always occur in a creative writing class. I always find myself amazed at the number of Vermont students who, unbidden by me, around the middle of a semester, send me photos of their studies or work rooms. How can you really know my work, they seem to say, if you don’t have a visual image of where I work? And let’s remember that students at Vermont College come from every age group and a plethora of professions, and thus have some interesting stories about recent events in their lives to tell.  I’ve had students in their twenties as well as students pushing eighty. Of course I’ve had my share of academics and teachers, often literature folks who realize they’d finally like to practice what they have for so long taught to their students. I’ve had plenty of lawyers, and people who work in politics, ranging from lobbyists to the advisor to a presidential candidate (not the one who sends those thuggish tweets.) And there have been numerous people in medicine: not just the aforementioned urologists, but neurologists, eye ear nose and throat people, a world-respected epidemiologist, speech therapists, several shrinks, and practitioners of various holistic medicines.  But not all of my students came from the privileged classes. When I worked with Mark Cox, who later went on to a distinguished career as a poet and professor of creative writing (not to mention a teacher in the Vermont College Program himself), he was a painter of Interstate bridges and ships in dry dock, among them a Trident submarine. One of my most gifted students was studying with me while working in a rural Vermont liquor store. Another gave up practicing medicine and became a lobsterwoman in Maine. Another, also immensely talented, was finally paroled from Sing Sing during the middle of the semester in which he worked with me. One student worked as a farm reclamation activist, another an ESL teacher in a camp in the Philippines for Vietnamese Boat People, another imported olive oil and yet another found herself moving to Sweden, where she befriended Tomas Transtromer, and began some magisterial translations of his work. The students have come from almost every state, and from not only the Philippines, but Canada, the UK, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. As a consequence of this variety, I learned a little something about a good many things, not only what it is like to work with students in a refugee camp, but also what it is like to be housebound for a week after the eruption of a volcano, and what it felt like to finally leave the prison yard after a decade in maximum security. Of course, interesting people who work in interesting professions do not necessarily become interesting writers. But many of them did. Scores of them have published books over the years, many of them exceptional collections.

 

 

David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry, FOR THE SCRIBE, was issued this year from the University of Pittsburgh Press. His previous collection, WORLD TREE, was published by Pitt in 2011, and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, as well as the Poets’ Prize. The University of Michigan Press released a new collection of his essays on poetry, FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING, in 2015. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the low residency MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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