I taught at Goddard in the 1990s, and spent those years teaching poets, fiction writers, memoirists and even playwrights while trying to write poems and finishing a book about life on the racetrack. In those early days of what would amazingly become a decade, I was in love with the possibilities in the genres we were teaching because so many students were making manuscripts they couldn’t call one thing. Fiction kept turning into non-fiction, poems kept turning into essays. My fiction students, in particular, taught me a lot in those days because I was anxious to continue my experiment in writing something longer than a poem without abandoning the music I could hear in poems.
In 2002 I fell in love with a human being and left Goddard to explore my new life of someone else in it because I had a life that only had me in it for a very long time which is probably why I got so much writing done. Some of it was good, I think. I was writing poems here and there then but mostly, if I remember right, I was trying to write essays after having written a memoir. As far as output goes, I had finished one book, Track Conditions (Ballantine) about my life as groom to the Kentucky Derby winner (1984) Swale, and started working on what would become The End of Being Known (University of Wisconsin) a collection of linked essays about - for lack of a more pedagogical way to say it - sex and friendship. The two books are very different from each other and the book of poems I wrote in 1993, 1990 (Provincetown Arts Press), which is my first book, is even more different. That book was my MFA thesis (Vermont College, 1990) and since then I have a new manuscript of poems called, corollary-ly enough, 2001. It is still looking for a publisher and I take breaks from submitting it because every time I look at it I want to change things in it and there finally comes a time when you have to stop or you won’t ever write beyond what you wanted to change to something that has already been written. I’m also writing a book of non-fiction called When I was a Twin which is a meditation on the death of my twin brother and how the world fills with that absence at times that are surprising. It’s a memoir about him and about the life that sort of shattered around him.
In the time I’ve been away from Goddard, I’ve been teaching every summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Those classes have really kept me tethered to the dialogue I think writers have to have in order to write something truthful about the world. Everybody is an adult, but I always had someone who cried during the memoir class, and I always had someone who left in a huff in the poetry class. Does that give you an idea of how different these forms are? I’ve had private students from those classes as well and every once in a while I get in my car and drive up the Sawmill River Parkway to Katonah, New York to sit with two psychotherapists who want to write poems and talk about poems they didn’t write. They pay me! Imagine!
Teaching and writing for me are two activities that bless each other and dare each other. The way I “learned” to be a writer was to read and to listen (to language and the music of language, and also to the music of music: jazz, mostly). I tell students to read a lot of different kinds of books and find out what the obsessions of the writer are. In that way, they begin to find out what their own obsessions are and how they can write something that is both musical and authentic to how they see and feel.
To paraphrase e.e. cummings: “whenever we think, or know, or believe, we’re lots of other people. It’s only when we feel that we are no one but ourselves.” I think that’s what I would like to help the writer do in a time and in a world that resists that impulse every chance it gets. Writing is a daring and utterly radical enterprise and that’s the joy of it.