Michael Broek interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Michael, you teach at a community college, Brookdale Community College in eastern New Jersey. I was lucky to have had, while a student at Rockland Community College in New York, two outstanding poets as teachers, Dan Masterson and John Allman. Yet, sadly, it has historically been not that common for a community college to have serious poets on the faculty. I think of Frank Gaspar, of course, and the late Len Roberts. Al Maginnes is at Wake Tech in Raleigh, NC, but I’m pressed to think of any others off the top of my head. But it is now clear to me that the majority of teaching jobs that will be available to my creative writing students in the years to come will in fact be at community colleges. Do you see creative writing as playing a more pronounced role in the community college with this influx, or is the simultaneous (economically-stimulated) insistence by politicians and business owners of the community college as a producer not of liberally-educated thinkers but rather of blue collar-type workers likely to overshadow (or even negate) that possibility?
A few other well-known poets come to mind who have taught at community colleges—Don Share, Kay Ryan, and Gerald Stern—but you’re right in that it’s not the norm. And when such poets publish, they tend to not mention that they have taught at community colleges, erasing the fact from their CVs. But what is the “norm” today? In many cases, you simply have MFA grads who piece together adjunct gigs at several different colleges and who never land a permanent academic job. (Of course, this is a problem for PhD grads as well.)
But poets can make a difference at the community-college level where, at Brookdale for instance, we have three publishing poets on faculty (Laura McCullough, Suzanne Parker and I). Laura has developed a Creative Writing option in our AA program that now articulates with several four-year colleges; Suzanne directs our top-notch Visiting Writers Series; and I’m working with our Creative Writing Club. We now have students who started with us, have finished their MFAs, and are now back teaching at Brookdale. So it is possible to develop a vibrant and satisfying program at this level, and I think it’s important to do so, given the burgeoning community college population. It’s actually because such colleges are often focusing on “practical” or “vocational” programs that poetry becomes even more important. It may be a challenge to “sell” a creative writing program at some community colleges, but a passionate poet/teacher will go a long way toward creating the necessary synergy.
You are right in that more and more of our MFA grads are going to have to “settle,” if they want to be in academia, for teaching composition at the community-college level, but they can make a difference. They’ll just have to work harder to make their presence felt.
Community Colleges are not typically noteworthy as places where one’s research and creative production are highly valued; rather, and perhaps rightfully so, it is teaching that is almost solely valued, with five course per semester being the norm. Yet, you have been tremendously productive as a writer, editor and critic (I might note here that your wife, BCC colleague, and Congeries contributor, Laura McCullough, has similarly been a whirlwind of creative and scholarly productivity). How do you manage it? I mean, you have kids, and a lot of classes, and still you are active as a scholar, publishing articles in heavy duty journals such as American Literature Compass, the Journal of American Studies, European Journal of American Studies, the International Journal of the Humanities. You are an editor for Mead: The Magazine of Literature & Libations and the Founding Editor and Chief Curator of Trans-Portal: The Hub of Transformation Studies.
This is a question related to your first one. I normally overload and teach seven classes per semester (New Jersey is a costly state in which to live), and I teach all summer long as well, so time is indeed my biggest problem, but the fact that my wife, Laura McCullough, is also a poet (and a great one at that) and that we both teach in the same department is actually a big part of the reason that I can get so much done. We are each other’s first readers and critics. We don’t go on vacation; we go to writing conferences together. We don’t take the kids to Disney; we take them to poetry readings. Many of our friends are poets. We understand when the other one needs time to write or grade papers. Nevertheless, it’s still a major challenge.
I focused on a lot of scholarly work while I was finishing up my doctorate in 2010, and I’ve shifted toward publishing essays on poetry in journals like APR and on writing reviews. I choose to edit Mead and Trans-Portal because I think that they are important publications, but they are a strain. In addition, I’m writing new poems all the time. I try to write almost every night, after the kids have gone to bed. Through the Bread Loaf Writers Conference I found a group of poets who push each other to write a poem-a-day every month, and that community has been very helpful to me.
It is certainly true that the community college professor sees a lot of students every week, but to be fair, I’m not sure that it’s any harder than for a junior professor teaching a 3-3 load at a state college who may be advising upper-level theses and whose job may depend on whether or not she/he is publishing that next book. The community college does not support my writing and publishing, but then I’m not going to lose my job if I can’t get my next poem or essay published, either. There is a certain freedom that can’t be overlooked. I love to teach. I don’t have to publish if I don’t want to.
You had a chapbook, The Logic of Yoo, issued by Beloit Poetry Journal last year. Can you tell us some about that?
The Logic of Yoo was largely written while I was working with the writing group that I just mentioned in the question above. I wrote a poem a night for about three months, and that was the first draft. It’s a series of connected poems in the voice of an unethical speaker—a man who hires himself out to write papers for students willing to pay him top dollar—who is hired by a student to write a paper about John C. Yoo, the former Bush Administration lawyer who wrote the so-called “torture memos.” As the poems developed, they began to include research from the actual memos (available now in the public domain), information from John Yoo’s life, such as quotes from newspaper articles that he wrote as a student at Harvard, as well as work from Hobbes, Arendt, and transcripts from the Nuremburg trials. The thread throughout is the story of this unethical actor who abuses language (the speaker) coming to terms with an unethical actor who abuses language (Yoo).
I sent just a few of the poems to Beloit which, to my amazement, ended up taking about 30 pages of the entire Yoo manuscript and devoting its Fall 2011 issue to their publication. The editors at Beloit, in particular Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald, were just wonderful to work with, and they have really championed the publication. It has been described as political, which I suppose it is, but that was not my intention when I began. I was interested in how language can be used to distort reality and to cause violence.
I’m assuming that you either have, or are close to having a full-length volume of poetry on your desk. How’s that coming along? Are the poems represented in this month’s Congeries a part of a particular collection you’re working on?
The full manuscript of The Logic of Yoo is currently looking for a book publisher, so let me know if you have any suggestions, but I am also working on a new manuscript, and the poems in the Congeries are from this new manuscript, tentatively titled Trans-Martini. In these pieces, there are three characters or speakers who are correlatives of each other: the biblical Adam, the philosopher Adam Smith, and a contemporary Adam who lives in New Jersey and works on Wall Street. The relationship between the second two Adams may seem obvious in that what draws them together is economics, but biblical Adam is similarly concerned with issues of control, conquest, and power. In all three cases, time is porous, so that Adam Smith finds himself at an Occupy Wall Street protest, and biblical Adam argues with Eve over whether she’s going down to the Blue Note to listen to some jazz. These are wide-ranging pieces, but as perhaps the title Trans-Martini suggests, the concern here is about personal and social transformation, which indeed knows no single time. A couple of these pieces are appearing in The Literary Review later this year, and I’m thrilled that the Congeries will be publishing these five. Hopefully, this means that the manuscript is off to a good start.
I might say, if I were thinking
like a first-wave French feminist
but I am not, though he did burn his wife's
last journal and I am nothing
but an open book.
No, in my heart I accuse Him
who made me, who named me
then left me to name the names of all
the things He made.
Once there was a grammar
there was no turning away.
The words just keep piling up like flotsam
rising on the mane of a great dirge,
the stories and the words
like Hughes' translations of Ovid—
just rubbing my face in it.
I will name this one with the funny leer
and I will name that one with the arm that regrows
Just to get ahead of the game:
“Lover. Serpent. Murderer. Fox.”
There are not enough words for all the ways
I hate you. Also for all the ways I
love. He made love to me like
a cold stranger begging for a meal. I told Him
I wasn't gay, though I had friends.
Go figure. The mute, mellifluous, cataract
language of sin.
Night of yackers, screamers, & tight-lipped men
loose in their joints, their wet shadows
merging with the old shadows
etched in the sidewalk where Romans have bathed
and rheumatically eyed monks
rubbed away their sleep—the membrane
between centuries, between sexes
thin as cobwebs:
nothing is in its place in a foreign city.
I imagine the jib and jab of voices out the open
balcony window are not about me
saying, “You don't know love joys or cries,
the peace treaty or hall of mirrors of friendship,”
though less coherently.
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. To glorify God and enjoy Him forever!
(The Westminster Catechism)
I'll never live that down. The church
where my father had vacuumed the dust
between Sanctuary and Fellowship
(not the same place).
Dawn of limp-eyed yellow tea,
tight-limbed men bedded next to their girlfriends
I think I'll have another night
of the gendered city,
short-sleeved men playing bass, dancing
about they don't know what since it hasn't
come to pass
and already has, many times.
I've dreamt men strutting down wet night-lit street
preened as ponies,
hard-ons raging in their change pockets.
I've dreamt women sleep-faced wearing pajamas
nestled on their sides,
pregnant, pendant, moving inside.
I've dreamt nightmares of wounds and made moans
so loud I woke myself.
I somehow know what is coming—everything that follows
after the first Word
is what has to follow. I hear a man in a bar say,
and because he speaks I know just why I will die.
I've dreamt he dapples me with whiskey kisses then makes
me sit on the Judas chair.
Tonight I'll dream a long dream of witness.
Even the Mother of God
shows her curves in the Louvre,
the artist only a Man.
Across the street in the dim
shines the plaque “School for Jews”
marking the deportation of boys drowned
in the tars of Europe,
while at the Pompidou, the night guard
watches the scarification film over and over,
Sigalit Landau's video Barbed Hula (2001),
wondering whether his son at home feels
anything like this hurt.
Adam and Eve Commuting
They connected her Apple to his
Apple, via Skype,
and sometimes they would masturbate
for the other, the window's glare
sometimes obscuring his screen
and she would complain that he was
back-lit, silhouetted against
Manhattan, while in the flat laptop glass
he watched the hawk roosting on the ledge
behind him. The door was closed.
She wore, usually,
her work-out clothes, outlining
all the spaces he would have placed
his hands, which while watching
meant he couldn't see her eyes
his gaze down, while the camera
lens peered at his forehead
Superimposed over her crotch
was the hawk's sharp beak
mouthing what it had caught—
a bit of rat, a bit of burger, some twine.