Thursday, December 28, 2006

brief responses

I was asked recently by a magazine called BLOOM of Bloomington, IN to answer a couple of questions: How has my work been influenced by Bloomington and its surroundings? And, how have teaching and writing partnered up in my writing? Here's what I came up with (in less than 200,00 words):

I’ve always been influenced by place in my writing. It’s a trope in Romantic and post-Romantic writing to draw feelings out on the grid of what’s in front of you, particularly if it’s the natural world you’re looking at. I don’t know what that means exactly, but it feels to me as though the self and the place it’s in–even temporarily, as in travel–aren’t really separate. We are, in some way, part of the landscape. Of course, in a very big way, we’re not, as well. I’m continually stunned at how remote the world and the earth are from me. Anyway, to have lived for more than thirty years in southern Indiana, which is longer by far than I’ve lived anywhere else, has had an inevitable and, for me, a broadening effect on my writing. And, not just because I write about the region directly from time to time, but because it has been here and in its tones and imagery that I have learned to be the particular person I am. I left a message on an old friend’s voice machine a few weeks ago, one I hadn’t spoken with in years. She left one on mine in response: "Roger, you have a southern accent. Where did you get that?" Hm, I thought. I think I know.

Teaching, it seems, is not teaching unless it’s also learning. In my twenties, when I was deciding to be a poet, it seemed a logical thing for a writer to teach writing. I chose to get a Ph.D. instead of an M.F.A., but I always thought of my training in literature as training in writing. Who else can teach you better as a writer than a great writer him- or herself? Some might answer, "a great critic," and I have certainly learned much from the critics. They taught me how to read. They showed me what was going on in works I had difficulty with. At the same time, I think you can learn essential lessons from the writers of your own time, those who are struggling with the same issues, personal, public, and writerly, as you. This is what the critic, even the great critic, of literature can’t help you with. He or she is a student of the past, of a literature which is more or less completed, if not yet completely understood. The writer lives now, in the threat of the actual. He or she is drawing maps for the wilderness of the present, maps that later writers, most especially critics, will tidy up and use to "explain" the poet’s or the novelist’s rough charts. Charts that historians and philosophers sometimes turn to for help in their descriptions of existence. I think that’s what we mean when (and if) we say that artist’s are (when they are) the "antennae of the race."


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