On the Novel: The Continuing Adventures…

I have been meaning to write something on my progress here for a few months, but for some reason I’m having a difficult time formulating what it is exactly I want to say.  Not that I usually know what I’m going to say before I sit down to write one of these blog posts, but usually I have an urge to say something or, more precisely, a question that rises to consciousness and requires answering.  When and if I start to write it’s because I know the question and suspect I have an answer somewhere in this old trunk which just needs fishing out.  I’m not sure what the trouble is this time, whether it’s that I don’t know the question yet or whether I know the question but can’t find the right trunk.  Anyway, the point of this, and maybe all my posts on novel writing, is to, if nothing else, find a language to describe the experience of the novel.

The novel itself is going well.  I’ve written many more pages than I can use, and I’ve got a working draft of about 115 finished pages, which means they are in order, more or less as I want them, with few significant problems.  The rest is like swiss cheese: it’s there, but there are holes, too.  Likely, I’ll have to revise or completely re-write a good portion of what remains to be written.  But it’s a different process now.  Now I know where I’m going and I’m not just generating material.  I’m no longer learning what the novel wants to be.  There are surprises still.  Many.  But the work I’ve done so far has provided answers to some of the biggest questions, things like: voice, structure, themes, character, etc.  I’m happy with the result, and have learned at least this about the novel.  I prefer revising long narrative fiction to revising lyric poems.

Here’s the difference.

When writing a lyric poem (at least, this is true for me), even a lyric poem part of a longer sequence, the discovery process, that is, the process of revision, happens in the act of composition.  That is, I learn the answer to the question in the act of writing.  Harold Bloom talks about overhearing yourself, when he talks about Shakespeare’s genius.  You don’t have to be highfalutin about it, though, and sketch out a theory of poetry to know what therapists and analysts have known since Freud.  Talk long enough and you’ll hear the source of your problem.  Poetry, which isn’t therapy, works in a similar way.  The revision that takes place, when it is truly a re-seeing, then, is a revision of the thing speaking and, finally, listening.  A poem, too, when it is good, offers an opportunity to do the same kind of listening the poet has done.  When Rilke says, “You must change your life,” he’s talking to himself, to you and to me.  A poet can fiddle and futz with a poem if she likes, and as long as it doesn’t fundamentally alter the original discovery, she’s doing no harm, but far more fruitful a practice, I’ve found, when revising a poem is to begin again.  Ask the question again, listen for the answer, which this time might be clearer or, ideally, more eloquently put.  Eloquence, finally, is the mastery of the art of poetry, where the discoveries are done, the theory of poetry made law, and what remains is, as Wallace Stevens puts it, plainly to propound.

Fiction, as far as I can tell, is different, or has been different for me, so far.  There are the same or similar kinds of discoveries while composing a chapter, a section, a scene, a line, but more often than not I find myself having to correct myself.  In a poem, this kind of second guessing would be death.  Poetry relies on the nerves, but with fiction the nerves are borrowed.  Memory is a liar, the imagination a coconspirator.  Therefore, it is in the revising process where the major discoveries are made.  It is in a more traditional understanding of revision, where I find the answers to the questions I want to ask and find answers for.

What I’m describing here may be a byproduct of narrative forms.  Tell a story and, to make reality more friendly to the storytelling, you fib, stretch the truth, lie.  The hope is that that lie serves some higher purpose.  This is why arguments about genre, whether a writer’s work should be sold as a novel, a memoir, an autobiographical novel are silly to any serious writer.  Each of these genres, or sub-genres depending on how you classify them, offer certain expectations to the readers and certain freedoms and restrictions to the writer.  Still the best works remain unclassifiable.  Some of the tug I feel while composing is toward genre expectations and away from originality.  That is to be expected, I guess.  The far more troubling pull, however, is the one which is the danger with any retelling.  Again, I’ll go back to the therapeutic model, where the truth is kept from the speaker until he overhears it.  Perhaps this is why the theater, especially Shakespeare’s plays, offer a vision of reality very close to the one we experience, maybe too close.  There the characters find themselves in the same predicament as us.  They act and speak and think in one world, while the real world, the fact of it, the truth, witnesses in horror.  Or maybe she laughs.  The hope for the speaker is that he discovers the truth.  Too often that truth comes too late, too often it breaks his heart.

What I appreciate most about this process is what happens over the long haul.  The more I engage the process of writing, the more willing I am to re-see what I’ve done, the closer I get to the truth.  It feels like the focusing of a lens, the cooking of a sauce.  The experience of the art object leads to a judgement.  Yes or no.  This is or is not the truth.  Maybe it’s more like that game we used to play as children.  What we seek is hidden.  We move around, at first blindly, searching, guided only by a friendly third party, who can only tell you whether you’re hot or cold.  The closer you get, the hotter.  The further away, the colder.  I feel hot right now.  But this is where the real work begins.  My ears must be pricked, my steps more careful, more deliberate.  When the game began, it didn’t matter which direction I moved as long as I moved.  Now that same attitude would bring me further from the prize.  Go slowly, pay attention, be calm, it’s near.  This is the best advice, the only advice.

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Upcoming Reading

I will be a featured reader (reading poems) Friday, May 6th at 7 PM at The Hampton Coffee Company, 749 County Rd. 39A (next to the BMW dealer), Southampton, NY 11968.  Thank you, Maggie Bloomfield for inviting me to read.

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Oh, Where, Oh, Where?

It’s been a while since I last reflected on my progress with the novel, so I thought I’d check in.  It’s a very different process, novel writing, from even writing long sequential poems with an implied narrative, which I’ve done before.  That’s what I’ve concluded, but maybe it shouldn’t be.  What makes the writing of fiction tedious for me (and what makes even reading fiction tedious for me) are those parts of narrative which are merely functional, that is, the parts which link, say, one scene to another, or carry a character from one place to another.  This is where there is the highest degrees of artificiality, and I find myself rolling my eyes when I read it but more especially when I write it.  And yet I appreciate, too, the reader’ predicament, when she is forced to stop and ask, “Wait?  Where are we now?”

It’s for this reason that I find a novel like As I Lay Dying so wonderful, and I’ve always been partial to Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude.  Even Knausgaard, who in many ways, especially compared to the two writers just mentioned, is a writer of traditional narrative, avoids its effects.  Mostly, he does this by inviting us to focus on personality rather than story.  But story can be intoxicating.  The Road and Disgrace, for instance, are examples of novels whose narratives are very traditional but also compelling.  These are the kinds of books which, when you read them, you don’t want to put them down, and not because they are curiosities, but because they are, well, good tales.  We root for the characters.  We feel for them.  The risk, then, of experimentation is, if it’s not done well, this doesn’t happen.  Our intellects may be engaged, but what about our hearts?

Voice, and therefore personality–because what is voice but a personality made manifest in language, that is, diction and syntax, but also intention, attitude–can engage our hearts, but how far is the question.  Berryman’s Dream Songs, which I’ve always read as a long dramatic poem, rather than a narrative one, fails to engage most of it’s readers beyond the effects of voice.  But what an interesting array of dictions and syntaxes!  Still, the poem tries us, and this leads people to call it a failure.  (I’m thinking particularly of one young person at AWP a few years back who announced to the audience during the Q&A that Dreams Songs was a failure.  It was this that led me to propose a panel the next year on the long poem.)  Obviously, Berryman’s masterpiece is a poem, a long poem, but it’s important to remember that his best work was influenced by Bellow’s The Adventure’s of Augie March.  What attracted Berryman to the novel was, among other things, personality, not story.

So what is story?  I keep thinking about this.  When I teach intro classes in literature, we talk about the elements of fiction, plot, image, character, setting, etc.  These, we say, are what make the story.  Plot alone, I have to point out more often than not, isn’t story.  What happens is not as important as to whom it all happens.  But is this true?  Can you divorce plot from it’s other elements and still make a compelling novel.  I mention As I Lay Dying above as an example of a novel which avoids the pitfalls of traditional narrative, but how can we separate what happens, that is, plot, from the book’s overall effect?  It can’t be done.  The narrative eye must focus on these people during this specific time, doing these precise things.  The plot runs through the spine of the tale, holding all these voices together, changing them even.  Cash is made different from what happens, even if what happens happened off stage.  So too with the other characters.  So too with all characters.

I’m writing all this because I’m at the point in the writing of the novel, where I have to begin to be concerned with some of these questions.  I’ve been writing the scenes out of order, attacking whichever parts interests me at the time, and finding my way to the story that way.  In some ways, I’ve done this because my aim is to make it possible for readers to open the book at any page and read without feeling like they’ve missed too much.  I want the book to be a personality.  When we meet a person, we don’t have the luxury to know everything about her beginning to end, and I don’t think we’d want to.  Even our children live a mysterious life floating in the womb wondered by who knows which dreams, and our very DNA composes so much of who we are that starting from the beginning, as a strategy, can only highlight how artificial such a strategy is.  No.  All stories must, of necessity, start in the middle of things.  We are always in the middle of things.

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On Eloquence*

I don’t subscribe entirely to the notion that there is nothing new to say under the sun.  Though the human predicament hasn’t changed much in the last ten thousand years – we suffer ourselves to be born, navigate through a world hostile both inwardly and outwardly, and face death at every turn – there is still the peculiar revolutions of an individual mind, and therefore the possibility for discovery.  Yet much of what we discover, and this is especially true for poets, has been said before and sometimes better.  And I have found the more I say the more I think, How familiar.  Then searching for the father of the newest revelation, I see that, indeed, it wasn’t some other who said it before, but that the other was me.  I know what Stevens means when he talks about a repetitiousness.  And so what troubles the poet isn’t that others have said what he has said before, but that he has said what he has said before.  And if he is to say it again, then he must say it better.

In other posts, I have touched on this subject, and at times I have thought of this repetitiousness as a failing.  My publisher and friend, Tim Miller, suggested it wasn’t a failing at all, but a kind of success.  Perhaps it is a reassurance that what Emerson called temperament does govern each of us more thoroughly than fate or happenstance, particularly when it comes to our inner lives and our reactions to the outer world.  The trouble then becomes, if you have set out, and found what you have set out to find – Jung found what he was looking for in his dreams, as he writes in his chapter on confrontations with the unconscious – then what is left to say?  The poet who has set out, come to the point, and now stands naked in the interval, must face this question.  Does he leap into the roiling or turn back for the house, which is but a little light in the trees?

Hart Crane leapt.  Berryman leapt, eventually.  Hamlet leapt, and instructed Horatio to absent himself from felicity awhile to draw his breath in this harsh world to tell Hamlet’s story.  The eloquence which follows this command every reader of Shakespeare remembers perhaps more vividly than Hamlet’s last words.  Though Hamlet, seeing into death’s heart, says, The rest is silence.  Horatio, grief stricken, pronounces that flights of angels sing Hamlet to his rest.  The noble heart that cracks is as much Horatio’s as it is Hamlet’s.  The trauma of the loss stirs in Horatio a new found sensibility.  Before he was antique Roman, a Stoic philosopher, but now, now he is a poet and his eloquence is what impresses itself upon us and not the truth of what he is saying, which after all contradicts Hamlet’s final revelation.

A similar transformation happens at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead,” when Gabriel, alone now, begins his journey westward.  The widening of his consciousness comes not from a blow coming from without, but one that comes from within and, like Elsinore’s impostume, inward breaks, but instead of sickness, what Gabriel finds is a new health.  A part of himself, which had been developing while he slept his life away, suddenly awakens.  His eyes fill with generous tears.  Finally, he is ready for a journey westward, where eyes wide open, he must conclude that this world will not be mastered and neither will those other souls which flicker into and then out of existence.  The eloquence of that last paragraph impresses itself upon us because, somewhere in the rhythms, we hear the truth and know it, as Gabriel knows it, as Horatio, former student, former philosopher knows it.

What is this truth?  No one can say it plainly and have it remembered.  A poet searches for it because he doesn’t know but when he finds it he says, Yes.  But this yes isn’t merely an affirmation of that which is.  It is instead a tension between that which is and that which is well said.  The end of McCarthy’s novel, The Road, is as inspired a piece of poetry as has been written in the last twenty years because though he talks of things which can’t be made right, can’t be put back, he also speaks of the deep glens where all things are older than man and hum of mystery.  This voice is the father’s as the son has inherited it.  McCarthy’s aim here at the end of the novel is as spiritual as it is literary.  God’s breath passes from man to man.  When Shakespeare says, “and this gives life to thee,” we are, for a moment as eloquent as the bard.  And when the boy talks to his father, or Horatio recites the lines of Hamlet’s life, he is that wind which starts the all of everything.

In most men’s souls, and in every poet’s soul, there are two voices, and each announces a piece of the truth.  It is true that that which lives dies.  If you have been born, it is a hard way.  But the truth, which tells us that and tells us so that, without lies or delusion, we say, Yes, well – that is the appropriate aim of poetry.  This poetry will help us live our lives, help us breathe in this harsh world awhile, and know there is something beyond these disappointments, beyond these failures to say what might transform, like a magic spell, our circumstances.  And if we stand on the precipice and look over the edge, this time we might say with ever-increasing eloquence not just what lies there but what we couldn’t say last time but hinted at vaguely, like a ghost.

*This post, saved as a draft, was written almost 5 years ago on March 5, 2011.

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Poem in Albatross #26

Thanks Richard Smyth for including “False Spring” in Albatross #26.

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The Newest Difference

This week started out slowly, that is, if I begin my week just after the last blog post.  Not the posting of the presentation I gave as part of the Faculty Association professional development panel, but the one called And And And.  I didn’t write anything more that day, and the day that followed found me constipated.  Two measly pages.  Still ideas were coming, and I was jotting them down.  I keep a MS Word document for just such a purpose.  Mostly it’s a list of cryptic messages only I can decipher, but it’s proven useful, especially when the well is dry.  I don’t necessarily use the prompts to get me going, but I know there’s a place where I can store my half-formed ideas, scraps of dialog, characters I’d like to explore, memories, etc.  Also, I keep there a list of notes on the writing of fiction, questions that keep arising for me which I hope to solve, eventually.

So the week started off slowly, but has since gained momentum.  I’ve written more pages this week than any other so far.  The last  two sessions yielded 8 plus pages each of good useable material.  I don’t exactly know what the change is, but it reminds me of the experience I had when I began to write poetry in earnest.  I was in therapy at the time, and I remember telling my therapist, with some surprise, that I’m a poet.  It was important for me then to identify as a poet, because to me poetry is a way of looking at the world.  It would be the same if you were a philosopher or a religious.  Saying, I’m a poet, declares a certain perspective on experience, that is, reality, which is different especially from those who take what is given to them without question.  It’s a more difficult route, one Frost questions in “The Road Not Taken,” wondering, I think ruefully but certainly ironically, is this “all” the difference?

For me the newest difference happened a couple of days into last week, when I wrote three separate chapters, each equaling about 3 or 4 pages.  Now, I began writing this novel about 20 years ago.  I don’t have any pages from that early draft, thank God, but I was in grad school then and thought I was going to be a novelist.  A bad experience with a mentor/workshop instructor and other personal matters led me in another direction, and I became a poet, both on paper and in action.  I’ve written about that false choice elsewhere, but suffice to say that while I wrote some short stories and a few longer pieces over the years, nothing quite approached a novel, and further, I didn’t work on fiction.  I worked on poetry, poems, and writing about poetry.  This blog is a testament to that life, the life of a poet.

But somewhere along the way, as I approached 40 (I’m 43 now) and after reading Marc McGurl’s book on fiction in the program era, I began to think about my earliest ambition to be a novelist.  That summer, 2013, I wrote about 90 pages.  I couldn’t even call it a novel then.  Instead, when I labeled the folder on my hard drive, I called it “Fiction Experiment.”  Only one other person has read those pages, Shannon, and she is the one who encouraged me to continue working on the book, when she read it in late 2013, early 2014.  It is worthwhile, she said, and I knew she meant it because given the choice to read anything else from a rather large library of books–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, philosophy, etc.–she picked up instead the half-complete, less-than-half complete manuscript which was then untitled.  Before this the only notion I got that the endeavor was successful was when I showed just one paragraph to another person I won’t name here, and she, who hadn’t ever shown much interest in my life as a novelist, who indeed flat out didn’t like my earliest attempts, started when she heard those sentences.  It was like she hadn’t seen me in forever and now, come upon me in some unfamiliar setting, perhaps bearded, older, she couldn’t believe the change, the difference.  She liked it.

My plan when contemplating this post was to examine a paragraph or two from the pages I mention above, but now it occurs to me the difference, if there is one, is likely to be imperceptible and to illustrate my point I’d have to examine many many pages, most of which are bad.  Like with so many changes, great and small, this one happened incrementally, and it’s likely I’m the last one to fathom the consequences, not the first.  So it dawned on me, even though I’ve already committed myself during this sabbatical to write a draft of a novel and I’ve taken workshops on the novel and read from the pages I’ve already written and the rest, it dawned on me that, yes, I am a novelist.  I am a novelist engaged in the writing of a novel, and it doesn’t feel like I am wearing my daddy’s shoes, shirt and tie, wielding his briefcase like I did when I was small, pretending to be an office manager.  I am not pretending to be a novelist.  I am a novelist.  This has nothing to do with the end product.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with writing pages or publishing manuscripts.  This has to do with a way of seeing the world.  The shift, then, hasn’t been away from poetry so much as it’s been an integration of what I am, what I was and what I still might be.  Joseph Campbell, when he talks about Jungian therapy, talks about this integration.  I used to think it was a flowering, but that metaphor seems not quite to fit anymore.  Who can talk about flowering when his hair is thinning, his middle expanding, and his eyes creasing, sprouting feet?

Next week will be a whole new story.  This feeling will pass, and then I’ll be left struggling again with the more concrete aspects of the problem.  I will be struggling with the actual writing, the putting of one word after another.  But I’ve been there before.  That is familiar territory.  I’ve disciplined myself to do that work.

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Yays & Nays: Making Love and Meaning Out of Nothing at All*

71_Francis-Bacon_Triptych_1991When SKG asked me to participate in this panel (or, rather, when I volunteered), I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to talk about. Early in my career here, at Suffolk, I was told there was no difference, in the eyes of the College, whether you served on Faculty Association committees or administrative-governance committees. For me, it made the most sense to work with the Faculty Association. I’m not sure why this is, but I felt more comfortable, philosophically, associating myself with the union. I can remember when I was a kid, my father, who was a teacher, took me to a political rally hosted and endorsed by NYSUT. He also served as union president for his local before making the leap, later in his career, to become an administrator. My dad isn’t an ambitious guy. I mean, he isn’t ambitious the way careerist are ambitious. My dad is an ideas man. He is also a man of principles. This meant, at least for him, that he could only go so far as an administrator. When he finally swallowed this truth, he retired, not out of resignation, I don’t think, but more from the notion that says leave Sodom to the Sodomites.

I share my father’s distaste for mere careerism. Maybe that’s why the Faculty Association felt, back then, like a better fit. There I was free to discover novel ways in which to serve the college and the community. I didn’t think I’d find the same opportunity chairing, say, the curriculum committee with all its yeas and nays and Robert’s Rules. Not that the FA doesn’t abide by these stuffy procedures. It’s just I found a place where, like a hermit in his shelter, they didn’t affect me. First, I became an EC rep, and very soon after—after the first EC meeting, in fact—I became co-chair of the community outreach committee. I learned very quickly that speaking in a meeting means chairing a committee. Before long, I was so full of ideas I became the community outreach chair. This was my first college-wide responsibility, and it promised to be fairly high profile. I was under the direct tutelage and, I might even say, patronage of one of my most favorite people in the world, Ellen Schuler Mauk. For whatever reason, she believed in me, my visions and my talents. She encouraged me to experiment, take risks, discover. Like my dad, I could be an ideas man. Like my dad, I could live by my principles.

I should back up a little here and say something about the role artists play in academia. I am, first and foremost, an artist. I didn’t get into this racket to teach and I didn’t do it to sit on panels like this. However good I am at either of these things and however much fun I have doing them, my aim, when I set off to study creative writing at the tender age of 25, wasn’t to be here. Truth is, I thought I would’ve been equally happy pumping gas during the day and writing through the night. Maybe I should’ve done that. But, as the saying goes, that ship has sailed and, being one traveler, as the poet says, means there is no turning back. Might as well make the best of it. And so I try. I do. But it wasn’t until I read Marc McGurl’s book, Fiction in the Program Era, that I really understood what being an artist in academia requires of me. It isn’t that I make great or even good art, it turns out, and it isn’t even that I should be an excellent teacher, producing excellent scholarship and serving on the most important and essential committees. Rather, McGurl points out, the artist’s role in academia is to fuck shit up.

Now that’s not exactly how he puts it. But that’s what he means, when he talks about the fresh perspectives artists can bring to a staid academia. McGurl cites the case of the early 20th Century novelist and author of Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe, who NYU hired to teach freshman how to write, though he wasn’t a scholar. McGurl contends that artists have found refuge in academia not only because the economic climate in America is hostel to their endeavors, but also because academia needs artist to tell them, among other things, to take more risks. The artist’s only criteria for success, despite all talk of theory, is simple. She asks herself: Does this work? American artists in particular are pragmatic that way. And pragmatism, to work, must be experimental. A pragmatist must take risks, not unnecessary ones, but necessary ones. An artist experiments in her own work because practice and patience only get you so far. Take the case of the British painter Francis Bacon. He was a master draftsman and a fabulous colorist. He could paint anything he pleased. But, for an artist, that isn’t enough. Doing what you set out to do, well, any craftsman can do that. When Bacon had taken a painting as far as it and he could go, he’d commit some act of violence against the canvas. He’d smear it with white paint or gouge it with his knife. This would open up things in his paintings he couldn’t have otherwise imagined. He saw, then, in his work not what he was capable of, but what he wasn’t capable of.

Risk taking, and the synthesis which follows, is a characteristic of creative thinking. You must be willing to fail to do more than what you promised. Careerists are afraid of failure, so they hide behind statistics and titles. I don’t mean to insult anyone here who cares about his career, by the way. I care about mine. I agreed to be here because, at the time this talk was first scheduled, I was still up for my final promotion. I’ve since been promoted to full-professor. So there is a careerist in me, too, though I’ve learned to make him listen to me and not me to him. There have been times, I think, when I might’ve been better off letting him do the talking. My father knew this trouble all too well. An artist’s role might be to fuck shit up, but all times aren’t the right times to fuck shit up. This is a valuable lesson and jives nicely with the morphology of organizations and leadership, which I first learned about at leadership camp (that’s what I called it) at Cornell University. The theory goes, that organizations, like all living things from stars and galaxies to humans and insects, develop according to certain predictable patterns. Organizations just beginning their lives require a transformational leader, just as a larva requires the release of a certain enzyme to become a pupa. Release the wrong enzyme or let there be an absence where that enzyme should be and all sorts of bad shit goes down for the organism. Organizations are no different. Later in the life cycle of an organization, when it reaches adulthood and really is firing on all cylinders, to mix my metaphors, it doesn’t require the kind of experimentation and risk taking the younger, less established version of itself did. What it requires is that the business of business gets done. There may be room for improvement and innovation, but not if it gets in the way of the day-to-day routine. Of course, no organism stays in peak condition forever. As the organization ossifies, as its bones and organs begin to grow brittle and malfunction, resurrection awaits but only if it heeds the signs and allows, again, for the risk taking and innovation that brought it to health and stability in the first place.

What made this all clear to me was applying this model to the Old English poem Beowulf.   For those of you who don’t know the story, essentially it tells of the adventures of the Anglo-Saxon warrior Beowulf. In the first two parts, Beowulf is a young man out to prove his worth. He travels across the sea to defeat the monster Grendel, a loping marshwalker, who wreaks havoc on a neighboring kingdom’s hall and kills its men while they lie sleeping and half-drunk on mead. Here, Beowulf’s courage and strength sustain him. He is victorious. The monster Grendel is slain, his mother is slain, and the king adopts Beowulf as his son. The story’s last part takes place many years later. Beowulf is back home, and his people have enjoyed a fairly stable reign with Beowulf as their ring-giver, that is, until a dragon emerges from the shadows and threatens the relative peace and harmony. To make a long story short (it is an epic poem, after all), there are no young men willing or able to fight this supernatural power. Only Beowulf, old as he is, can meet the challenge. And so he does, with a little help, after much handwringing, from a young warrior named Wiglaf. Unfortunately, this will be the last fight Beowulf fights. He and the dragon exchange mortal wounds. Beowulf dies, and in the aftermath, a keening woman prophesizes bad times ahead for Beowulf’s people. Now that their shield is dead, who will protect them?

The idea I’m driving at here is this. Beowulf ought to have been a wiser leader. It is the job of young warriors to defeat the threats that face a kingdom, not old men—even if that old man is Beowulf. Studying the morphology of organizations helps its members know when it’s time to innovate and take risks and when it’s time to give rings. The artist’s role, however, is always the same. No matter where the organization is in its lifecycle, the artist challenges, creates, takes risks. What I admired about Ellen was her willingness to listen. We didn’t always see eye to eye, and many times I thought she was being obtuse. Still, I learned a great deal about myself, the union, the college and the world from those years. I don’t work as closely with the FA as I used to. I’m no longer a EC rep, and I don’t chair the community outreach committee, but the lessons I learned when I was a junior faculty member have stayed with me and served me and the college well.

I’m supposed to talk about the service I’ve done that means the most to me, so I might as well get to it, since I’ve already eaten up a lot of time theorizing. Like I said above, when I promised SKG I would participate in the panel, I thought I knew what I was going to talk about. Even last semester, I thought that the most meaningful service I rendered the college was the creation of the very successful program you probably know as Professors on Wheels. I don’t speak much about my involvement in the creation of the POW program not because I’m not proud of my efforts, but because I kind of like the credit going elsewhere. I mean, I didn’t create the program alone. It didn’t leap out of my head fully formed like Athena or something. Rather, it took many years of asking some essential questions, which were finally answered during a rather long summer session at the Chair Academy Leadership training.

I was part of that first class, which required a two-year commitment and the promise of doing great things afterward. The promise was implicit, and the measurement of great things was largely left up to us. For me, I used that time to think and rethink about the role the community outreach committee could and should play. We had started our outreach by doing the things many outreach committees do. We participated in cancer walks, we collected food for food drives, and the like, only to conclude that while we were doing some good, we weren’t doing enough. The fruits of our labors were going unnoticed. Sure, the organizations and institutions were grateful, but how many thank you letters can you hang on your wall or, perhaps more relevant to this discussion, put on your A-Form? So we decided to ask larger questions. What problems was our community facing and how could we help? At the time, housing prices were skyrocketing. I’m sure many of you remember what that was like. One day, a house could be selling for $300,000 and the next a bidding war between two buyers could drive the price up by tens of thousands more. Poorer people were being driven out of their neighborhoods and young people, with limited income—like new hires, for instance—were finding it difficult to buy a home.

Charity requires abundance. It requires, not anonymity or altruism, but excess. You can’t give away what you don’t have to give. Even Francis could only give to the poor and the needy what he had in abundance. He had love. Many nights his followers, the Franciscans before such an order existed, starved and shivered for want of food and shelter, but then Francis would sing and they would be filled up again. I cite Francis now only to underscore the problem we faced. It wasn’t just doing good. We wanted to do good that mattered. There were selfish reasons for this, of course. The FA didn’t sponsor the outreach committee just because its heart is big. The outreach committee was formed as part of a PR effort to show the community that we professors benefit the community in more ways than one. I chaffed against this idea at first because I wanted our charity to be the kind of selfless charity I had read about in hagiographies. The problem was, I was doing this on someone else’s dime. And also, I’m not a saint. So back to the drawing board we went.

For a while, we focused on affordable housing. We branded ourselves, ordering more FA Affordable Housing mugs than was good or natural. We screened original T-shirts and wore them proudly. We raised money to sponsor Habitat for Humanity build days, where we could volunteer to help build a house. Pictures were taken. Hammers were swung and nails driven home. Everyone seemed happy. But after several successful HFH build days, we put down our hammers. For all our efforts we found ourselves in the same predicament as before. We were doing good, no doubt, but the reach of that good was limited. However handy a professor or a poet might be, what he has in excess certainly isn’t carpentry skills, or he’d be doing that. And each build cost around $3000, and despite rumors to the contrary, money isn’t something professors or poets have in excess either. So what do we have? That was the question that changed everything. That and the recent experience I had had with my late father-in-law.

I wrote a piece for The Word a while back that sketches out the Professors on Wheels origin story (Sept. 2009). I’m not going to rehash the contents or the sentiment of the article here. Follow the link if you want to read it. But the gist goes like this. My father-in-law had just died. He was a difficult person. He was also a sad person. A lonely person. I lived with him for about three years while his health declined. I spent many hours cooking for him, caring for him, binding his wounds, cleaning his sores, scrubbing his infected legs and washing his swollen feet. No matter what I did for him, still he was essentially alone. Luckily for him, he had had opportunities less fortunate people don’t get. He had been college educated, so he read. A lot. He had made quite a lot of money during his working years, so he lived in a beautiful place and wanted materially for almost nothing. His wife had died twenty years before him, and that was a terrible blow, but his children and grandchildren lived close. His daughter, my wife (we are nearly divorced now), and I lived with him, too. But his loneliness was existential. There was nothing or nothing much we could do to alleviate it.

After his death, I got to thinking. What are our responsibilities to the aging people in our lives? What do we owe them? What can we do? It is a good sign that you are working on a worthwhile project, when you see where your life intersects with your work. When Robert Frost talks about need and desire being one, I think this is what he means. The poem I’m talking about is called “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and it ends like this: “Only where love and need are one/ And the work is played for mortal stakes,/ is the deed ever really done/ for Heaven and the future’s sake.” For me, the joining of my guilt and grief over my father-in-law’s life and death and the need to find a new focus, a more relevant and necessary focus, for the community outreach committee led to the creation of Professors on Wheels, because what professors have in abundance isn’t money or time or muscle but this: what we teach. I didn’t realize the success of this idea until Dan Linker and I attended the first graduation of the first class of POW students at a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Farmingville. Newsday was there, and they did a feature story on the POW program. Some college administrators attended the ceremony and saw what we had been up to. And wept. But this was nothing compared to the outpouring of thanks and gratitude that came from the patients, their caregivers and their families. None of the POW grads had graduated from college. Most had never taken a college class. Ours was the first, and we had brought it to them.

Emerson says that charity means living fairly. I think that’s true. But I also think it’s true that it means giving away our talents. Milton says that God doesn’t need our work or our gifts, so we do this for some other reason. Perhaps the simplest reason is that what is best in us can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. It isn’t charity what I do everyday at work. I am paid for my efforts, and now that I’ve been here more than 15 years, I’m paid handsomely enough. It is the best part of me, then, that helped create Professors on Wheels. I know that. I also know where my talents lie. I’m an artist. I like to create. I left the POW program right after that graduation. Just when the college started to notice and praise, I stepped down as chair of the committee. I didn’t even mind when a colleague of mine was publicly given credit for its invention. I’d done what I set out to do. It wasn’t mine any longer. There were many reasons for leaving, but ultimately I realized I had given my one talent which, as Milton points out, it is death to hide.

I started out writing this piece hoping that I would transition, at some point, away from the POW to another project I’ve work to help create. This one is more timely and more contentious, I think, because while I was a junior faculty member and cared about avoiding the limelight, in more recent years, I thought I might better serve the college if I spent my talents working on those things, which the college deems important. I’m talking now about the ILOs. When the prospect of working on the ILOs was presented to me, it was sold as a chance to change significantly how the college does what it does. The members of that committee, I was told, would have a hand in shaping the future of the college. We were asked to consider what we wanted a SCCC student to look like when she graduates. We were told this would change things. I wonder if that’s even possible now. That’s sad. It’s sad not because it’s impossible to affect change, which is experimental and radical, on the institutional level. That probably has never been the case. It’s sad for me because I once believed we could. But maybe I exaggerate. Why did I involve myself in this or any other committee work? I’m an artist. I’m most comfortable taking risks. I’m most comfortable making nothing into something. What happens to it after that isn’t my business. Maybe that’s the lesson. I can live with that.

*This essay was presented as part of a professional development panel discussion on our favorite faculty service achievements.  The event was sponsored by the Faculty Association.

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