Sunday, March 22, 2009

Myself and Strangers?

Gertrude Stein says somewhere that she writes "for myself and strangers."

I need something more than that, I think.

Writing simply for myself--an essay, for example, written solely to advance my career--feels a bit unsatisfying, although now that I know the promotion demands it, I'll write a few this way. They won't be entirely "for myself" now, after all, but for my family, just as the pieces I wrote before tenure were. (Each essay, each book, had a job to do, then. Once I had tenure, that motivation vanished, and I flailed about for a very long time before finding something more that I cared enough to write.)

Writing for strangers? I've never done it. In theory I find it an intriguing idea: to write about something that I think is worth knowing, without any particular audience in mind. In practice, though, I don't think I'd be motivated to get the job done.

What I like, in the end, is writing for--and editing for, and organizing for--someone or something or some group of people that I actually care about.

The love poetry book wasn't just to get me tenure: it was everything I knew about love at the time, a portrait, however distanced, of the first years of my marriage. The Jewish American poetry book grew out of a couple of friendships; so did the Ron Johnson book, although that was also for Ron himself, a sweet man and a lovely poet, and for my father, who wanted me to finish it, so I did, eventually.

The Parnassus pieces? As the years have gone by, they've often been written for Herb, the editor there, who had faith in me across years of writer's block. The one about poets in novels was written to advance the romance project, in gratitude to the RWA for their support; my latest, about Taha Muhammad Ali and Mahmoud Darwish (and Samih al-Qasim) grew out of my meeting Taha years ago in Chicago, and has turned into a chance to spread the word to colleagues (at DePaul and in the Jewish community) about some books that matter, deeply, to me.

As I look ahead, the projects that draw me most keenly are the ones that I connect to groups of friends and colleagues, and nowadays that mostly means friends and colleagues in Romancelandia, where they abound. What I need to find, alongside these, are some poetry projects that I connect with specific readers (you know who you are) or poets for whom I feel the same personal affection I did for Ron. As I type this, I realize: this is one reason I've never tried to gather my stray essays into a collection, or hammer them into a monograph. The question that pops into my mind ("Who'd read it?") isn't a rhetorical one or a critique of the academic publishing industry. It's a practical one: whom among my friends, my colleagues, my family, would that book be for?

As I say, it may be that the pressure of the promotion will change these dynamics. Maybe I'll start churning out copy like a text machine (get on up!), simply to put those notches in my CV. Knowing this about myself, though, I suspect that I'm better off using this insight to sort out priorities. The pieces that aren't "for myself and strangers" are the ones I'll be most motivated to write, to finish, to publish, and with limited time, I might as well start there.

Friday, March 20, 2009

How Can I Use This?

How can I use this failure? That's the question on my mind tonight.

I'd like to think of this as some kind of opportunity. But for what? To do what?

Let's put it this way: what have I been doing in order to get this promotion that I no longer have to do?

Or, rather, what have I been doing thinking it would help me get this, that didn't, which I can scrap?

What have I been up to for other reasons--money, for example--that I can drop, now that I have a more important overall goal? (I.e., to get the thumbs-up next time.) What have I been avoiding, out of fear or laziness, that I now have the motivation to pursue?

And, conversely, what have I not been doing that I can use this setback as the opportunity to do, turn back to, work through, begin? Anything I've wanted to do in the past, and set aside, that now looks like a good idea again?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Well, I'm back, and with bad news, alas.

My application for promotion to Full Professor was turned down by the college committee at DePaul--and not just turned down, but soundly, firmly, grimly, unequivocally spanked. Not enough publishing in peer-reviewed venues, not enough leadership in committees and DePaul undertakings: come back, they said, when you've fixed those flaws, and you'll have a proper case.

Now, as you can imagine, I'm quite disappointed, and not a little humiliated. On the other hand, my hunch coming out of the interview was that things had gone awry, and everything the report ended up saying was something I'd feared that weekend. I had time, that is, to get used to this in advance.

The nice thing about missing out on a promotion, as opposed to tenure, is that nothing really changes. I still have my job, my benefits, my future in the profession. All my current projects will keep chugging along; if anything, they'll have a bit more steam. Had I known I was headed down the wrong path all these years, I'd have set some different priorities: less NEH work with teachers, fewer lesson plans online, more traditional publishing, more time in the trenches of some committee, etc. Clearly I'll have to set some of that aside until the promotion comes through, which is annoying, but there's plenty of time for it after.

After my son's Bar Mitzvah, two weeks ago, I had the odd feeling that something had come to a close, or maybe full circle. My father's death almost 8 years ago was keenly on my mind, and all the changes that came right after it, both personal and professional. (Four years of near total writer's block, for one thing.) This promotion was supposed to be based on the work I'd done in that time, and one message I take away from the no vote is that I took a bit of a detour back then, and it's time to get back on the main highway. I'm struck by how many new ideas for projects have popped into my head in the past 24 hours. Not new ones entirely, but spin-offs, expansions, and the like, of the sort I used to do quite routinely, just to be efficient. (In grad school, I never wrote a paper without submitting it somewhere, for example.)

If you're out there (and not many of you are), and you do work on modern / contemporary poetry, help a prof out. What recent articles or books would you recommend I look at to inspire me as I head back into the fray? (RECENT is the key word here. I'm always inspired by re-reading The Pound Era, but Hugh Kenner cuts no mustard nowadays. Need to relearn the idiom, as much as anything.

And, since one might as well have fun with such a moment, here's Chrissie Hynde with the song of the day. Wish me luck, folks, as I take what's coming to me.