Writer in Residence

Who Do You Think YOU Are?: A Shady Love Letter

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I think that, perhaps, my last post here was a bit too hard on universities. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still angry as all hell at the larger structures of the academy. In these pandemic times, the academy has shown itself to be what we’ve always known it was: a corporation that functions like most others, caring very little about the complex needs of its vulnerable populations (young students, mature students, underpaid and undervalued staff, and precariously-employed faculty). But, in my teaching during these days of self-isolation, I also ended up connecting on much more personal and meaningful levels with several of my students because I made the effort to meet them halfway, to get to know their unique circumstances, to accommodate them wherever possible, and to work to dismantle some of the barriers to access between them and their coursework. This was possible only because I’ve worked long enough as an adjunct to get the same courses multiple times and to be able to reduce my workload term by term until it is manageable enough that I can devote the time and the effort to connecting with students the way that they deserve.

My time at school, studying English literature in whatever way they’d let me, was not typically marked by a supportive connection to faculty and to research. Those things seemed absolutely unreachable to me for a long time. I grew up in a house and a place that did not care too much about poetry save for an intergenerational love of Ogden Nash (shout out to Custard the Dragon, my main man). We didn’t read poetry, and we didn’t write poetry, and we certainly didn’t publish poetry. Being a person who reads and writes and studies poetry for a living seemed, where I grew up, to be ridiculous, a futile waste of time (maybe) but also, and perhaps more importantly, a luxury my parents and their parents bought for me with decades of post-immigration hard work and bootstraps. It took me a long time to get fluent in the pretentious language of literary study so I could at once impress new friends and alienate everything and everyone I associated with being back home, suburban, Ogden Nash. God, when I think back on how hard I tried … seems like such a waste. Worst of all, it made me stop reading Ogden Nash, which is sad because that motherfucker is hilarious.

It was probably two-thirds of the way through the first year of my doctorate when that tough Pound-reading exterior had to start giving way to a real person. To do that, I had to stop seeing my classmates, colleagues, and the faculty as the pretentious Ivory Tower elbow-patch crowd I’d kept imagining they were. And I didn’t do this on my own. I did this because of Andy Weaver who refused to occupy that pretentious position. Is that a read? Yeah, maybe a little. But, that’s only because for over a decade Andy and I have had to mediate our friendship and its difficulties (how do you become friends with your supervisor? how do you stay friends when someone lives all the way in Burlington? And then one tiny little incident with some cops which we won’t talk about) by being cruel to each other. I like to think it’s how we show our love: with cruelty.

What was it about Andy that made me feel like the world of poetry and academic study wasn’t closed off for me? I think part of it was the Bruce Campbell figurine in his office (oh! professors can like stupid shit, too!). And part of it, too, was his willingness—even early on—to call me on my bullshit, like his very vocal disappointment in the middle of a crowded campus bar when I told him my favourite Beatles song was “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”  Or when he’d comment on my dissertation with: “This sounds lovely, but I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” Sure, Andy read the fancy poetry, and when he talked about it, he sounded like he’d read so much more than I had. But, he sounded, still, even at his smartest, like a real person. Like a person who might have come from the same kind of suburban blandness that I had.

It’s not that the ideas were suburban (is this the shadiest love letter you’ve ever read?!). They weren’t. Andy moves deftly from Fuller to Lyotard, can extrapolate Duncan’s allusions on a dime, and is prone to lecturing about Pound and Foreigner alike when he’s a few beers deep. It’s just that Andy talked about poetry like he was talking about the Boston Bruins: with passion and interest, with a desire to communicate, to meet you halfway, with a willingness to be wrong and an even greater willingness to show you that you’re wrong, and with just a little slurring (okay okay, we drink a lot). And this ability to move from fancy to silly, to demonstrate his fluency with both of these worlds, is all over his poetry, too.

In Gangson, today’s way back playback from 2011, Andy’s poetics best exemplifies this movement. One of my favourite poems from the collection, “They both cover the letting of blood,” does this back and forth dance revealing schism (and not synthesis) in between. I’m going to reproduce the whole first page here:

               what if michael jackson really was
               bad? whose to blame
               for this mess? dude, where’s
               my caravaggio? how’s that
               carbon-based life form
               treating you? where’s your parade?
               what the hell? what the fuck? did anyone
               ever find that beef? are you talking
               to me? will you still respect me
               when the poem’s over? where have
               all the flowers gone? when can I
               go into the whorehouse and buy
               what I need with my good looks? how’s
               that objective correlative treating you?
               who do you think you are? when
               wasn’t our concept of historical past
               a simulacrum? how is a ballot like a scab?

Oh, child. That postmodern part of me wants to say “collapse the divide between high and low art.” Wants to say “breaks down barriers between genres and schools.” But, no, neither of those are right.

The thing I love about the poetics here is that Andy uses the same language to talk about shitty commercials and sly Ginsberg references and Eliot bashing (is it bashing? a little) and those good good anarchist politics. He uses the same language because those things all need the same language. It’s a love language. A love of all those things: Ginsberg and Eliot, old music and dad jokes about old music, Baudrillardian skepticism, Italian Baroque painters, and a good seasoning of profanity. That language is the love of it, and that’s what my pretentious teenage (okay, fine, I’ll admit it, I did this poetry snob bullshit well into my twenties) self couldn’t understand. You’ve gotta love the suburban stuff, too. You’ve gotta love your work and your teaching and your students and your colleagues. That doesn’t mean like. You don’t have to like it all (goodness knows). But you do need to approach all the teaching and reading and writing from a place of love. Don’t collapse the divide; show ‘em that it wasn’t there in the first goddamn place. And we need a little more of that in our classrooms, these days especially.

So, I guess, in a way, Andy taught me that if I can’t love my suburban self, how in the hell … ah, bitch, you know the rest. Which is weird, because we haven’t said a nice thing to each other in over a decade. and I sure as hell am not gonna start now.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.