Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Morning

Last night Emily and I attended the gala reading in honor of The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century—okay, just the first two-thirds of the reading, because we hadn't had any dinner (I'm used to one-hour poetry events that start on time; Chicago poetry events, so far, are a lot more like cocktail parties with extremely flexible start and end times) and by nine o' clock there were still five readers to go. But we did get to hear some exciting stuff (I was particularly blown away by Eric Elshtain's tour de force, closed-eye, cubist recital of one poem from innumerable angles) and this morning I'm feeling mournful about how little writing I've been able to do lately. This is of course the utterly unsurprising by-product of a new teaching job, but I'm still feeling the loss of what amounted to ten glorious years as a grad student. Consider:

- From 1997 to 1999, I was at the University of Montana. I was teaching for the first time and writing up a creative and scholarly storm as I pursued an MFA and MA simultaneously. This ought to have produced a nervous breakdown, but it was one of the richest times of my life, all the more so for being so concentrated after years of reading and writing without particular discipline or direction. I was also part of a close-knit creative community, which included professors as well as fellow grad students; and I was living in a truly magnificent environment that influenced my writing in indirect but, as it now appears, permanent ways. The manuscript that morphed into Selah and The Nature Theater of Oklahoma got its start here.

- From 1999 to 2001, I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. I've complained in the past about the aesthetic conservatism of that program, but from my present perspective that seems churlish: two years to write, just write, with no responsibilities beyond writing. I was a little surprised to find that I missed the discipline of scholarship, but my Montana training stood me in good stead as I read more widely than I ever have while putting together what became Fourier Series. I had some great friends there, though except for Brian Teare they weren't associated with Stanford. And I was living in the antechamber to paradise: my little room in Menlo Park was nothing to shout about, but every chance I had I was in the Berkeley hills, or wandering around the Presidio, or driving up through the wine country and down along the coast.

- From 2001 to what feels like five minutes ago, I was in the PhD program at Cornell. It was a little strange at first to be in an academic program with no official affiliation to creative writing, but this soon proved liberating: my poetry life became entirely a DIY affair, thanks largely to this blog and the SOON series that Aaron Tieger, Karen Leona Anderson, Theo Hummer, and I put together. PhD work is consuming, but as I'd first learned at Montana, the kind of focus and discipline that scholarly work demands can produce surprising dividends in those spare moments when it's just me and my notebook. So while I was finishing my coursework, writing my dissertation, and having a wonderful Ithaca life (falling in love, playing D&D, hiking in gorges, getting married), I somehow also managed to write Severance Songs, Compos(t)ition Marble, and the forthcoming Hope & Anchor. Not bad.

Now I'm in a new phase, with fatherhood just around the corner (we're at twenty-seven weeks and our midwife said she could feel the baby's head in an examination yesterday), working my ass off with three classes at Lake Forest. It's rewarding work, and I'm learning a lot about my students, the craft of teaching, and myself. But it's left no time for either focused attention on scholarship or the daydream believin' that together have produced my most creative hours. I've written almost nothing since we moved here, and you might have noticed that the blog has suffered, too. This situation is almost certainly temporary: everyone seems to have a similar experience when they first start teaching full-time, and then as they get their ducks and preps in a row things start to smooth out; plus there's always the summer to look forward to. It's true also that I have particularly demanding schedule for an academic: few professors teach every weekday as I do, and in the future I'm going to have a more enviable schedule. Still, I feel I've experienced a loss, and I register that loss here.

I chose Lake Forest because of an intuition that undergraduate teaching would challenge me not in a strongly intellectual way, but because it would put me in the way of growing my wisdom and compassion. I think I was right, and I think it's the right choice for me at this time in my life. But I do miss the rigorous stimulation that my Cornell life provided, and I'm wondering how I can get my mojo back while also fulfilling my responsibilities as a teacher. It's probably just a matter of time, and of getting to know my new environment better and the people of ideas who are here: as I found my true creative life was not at Stanford, but in the Bay Area at large, so too may I find my intellectual life flourishing in Chicago. But I may also have to face the fact that this next phase of my life is not about that kind of concentration and depth. Everyone says parenthood fragments your attention, and I don't see why I should be excepted from that. This may be a time of broadening my experience more than deepening it, and that could be okay. At Lake Forest, for example, I'm getting to know professors in various disciplines—music, Chinese, biology, anthropology—something that the culture of a larger university doesn't particularly encourage. It returns me in a way to the terrain of my adolescence, when I aspired above all to be a polymath—to learn something about everything—acutely conscious, of course, of all I didn't know, most especially about being human.

A second adolescence: mentally uncomfortable and awkward, casting about for identity, as a new world opens in unexpected directions. Sounds about right.

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