Ben: Thank you, Chris, for agreeing to be interviewed on Luminations. To start
off, I'd simply like to ask you to tell me (and everyone reading) about
yourself. Although a well-worn adage, I'm curious about what you choose to
include in your brief bio and what direction that will take us in this
Chris: I teach writing and theories about literacy and culture, in the English Department at University of Texas, Arlington: courses in rhetoric/composition, literature, and creative writing. I’ve been teaching college level writing for eleven years. Here, I’m also Director of the Writing Center, which is a very busy place at UTA, because this is a big campus. Through the Writing Center I employ and keep 25 or so fine tutors trained and busy, one grad student for an assistant, and one or two lab tech sys-admins for the Writing Center computer lab. We see about 9,000 students per school year over their writing--of all kinds of course work--and also maintain our own computer lab. It’s quite a little hive, actually, so between it, the teaching (one course per semester), and a homelife as a single parent, I stay kinda busy.
As for my views on writing, basically I am fascinated by all kinds and aspects of literacy, reading, writing, art, and cultural interchanges with the political, both present and past. That is not unusual, of course, just the way thinking evolves when studying eclectically with a focus on what happens with the literary as literacy, a cultural and historical phenomenon. My PhD areas fall under the umbrella of a study area called history of rhetoric--a broad scholastic-disciplinary region where all kinds of basically hard-to- categorize stuff is packed in so that universities can still make a buck off student needs and interests (although universities hardly profit at all... but that’s another matter. Creative writing is one area easily housed under history of rhetoric, as well as are other less readily innovative, or more traditional, genres such as rhet/comp. I also teach literature courses, and lately my most fulfilling area there is American studies. I guess I either am spread too thin or just nicely eclectic. I am fortunate either way, as I see it, since I do have work I like and I am able to give something back to community through my work. I’m pretty simple about it that way. I worked in service jobs much of my life before returning to college, and I much prefer this work to serving coffee. Most days, anyway! But I guess that must be why I paid all that money in student loans so I could reach a certain level of competency and acquire professional degrees in literary areas of knowledge so I could serve something a little more substantial than coffee. In creative writing and other areas, I teach courses, sponsor or assist with student groups and activities. Mostly I teach upper level courses right now, eg., advanced expository writing, or history of American literature. In the spring, an advanced creative writing-poetry-seminar. If I had a tenured position where I felt more secure or assured of a job (as many academics do have), I think I would devote my teaching more to entry level courses so to focus on the teaching of writing as a way of knowing--via literacy studies-- courses like freshman composition and intro to lit or creative writing. That’s where a decent teacher can still come out feeling like the work was worth it both for teacher and student. That is not to say it doesn’t happen in other levels of teaching, it’s just a little more necessary and yet less stocked with experienced teachers, so perhaps more vital. On the other hand, universities tend to overload those who teach such courses, because those are harder or more time-consuming courses to teach and few with tenure prefer to teach them, so in effect it can be a lot more work for what then amounts to less pay.
As for my devotion to poetry, which is a primary motivator for me, I came to understand how central is poetry to western literacy only after discovering how poetry influences so many other ways that reading and writing can be thought about or conceptualized in relation to community. Although in education I range through many interrelated areas of literacy and literary study, I am and have always been a poetry writer first--been writing since I was 14 or so, published a little at 18-19, then stopped sending things out until fairly recently. When at college I determined that I also like to think about literary matters in meta ways, as well via traversals of multiple genres, then a wide sweep on rhetorical studies seemed the best available category of study for me. But if I had to claim a favorite of only one, it would be poetry--the reading, writing, singing, playing, drawing, dancing, painting, darning, weaving, funning, living, composing in all ways, and then the studying of, poetry. It has a special position of influence in every culture; it’s also the master genre of the western history of rhetoric, the genre (along with drama) from which all others evolved. Those are reasons for its significance in relation to tradition, history, and community. For individuals, poetry is significant because it is of breath, and breadth of music, of rhythm and melody of vocalizing--very much a material development, then. Voice is not expressionistic, it is dynamic, interrelational instrumentation (thus not instrument or strictly tool, either). Instrumentation, as in voice as dialogic and in concert with others, symphonic, choral, musical in the literal and then in the more widely disseminating symbolic senses. It is the one source and route that can be taken personally so to attend and to commit community as an action, to be tapping into thus maintaining tradition, to be a part of the on-going, everyday aspects of life in art, art in life--all very fluid matters and concepts. Nothing to do with taxonomies right now. And even machine generated poetry has its interrelations, spontaneous grammars and syntaxes, its music. We have not yet made the categories that could adequately be used for this wondrous thing, poetry, though yeah, sure, we try, and adjust, and fine tune, and lose pitch, and carry on, trying to find or create adequate categories. That’s part of it all too. So that’s my answer about myself: just trying to be a part of something fluid, * quick * musical, and wondrous as in: *quickening.*
Ben: I have this faint memory of you writing somewhere that you are not Texan, but have been in the Lone Star state for around 10 years, is that right? I am actually not Texan by the strict standards Texans tend to apply ( I was born in Tulsa, but my vote still goes to Harris County); however, having spent the first 11 years of my life there, the longest I've ever lived in any one place, I have an odd connection to the place. For example, I recall crying and feeling homesick after watching Lone Star in a Piccadilly theater many years after I'd even visited. Could you tell me about your relationship with Texas?
Chris: My relationship with/ to Texas as a place is that I am often ambivalent about it, mostly due to environmental hazards like severely neglected civic problems such as air pollution in a community mindset full of excessive reliance on and ignorance about motor vehicles, and what I perceive as negatively different from other places I have lived, such as New York (upstate, Rochester), Arizona (Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona-Verde Valley, Navajo Reservation-Tsaile), and California (long time ago!--Death Valley, Long Beach, Napa Valley), in terms of ideologically driven civic management. But given a choice, I would not live in New York again, either, for some of the same reasons. In short, Texas is a top-down kind of place, ideologically, that in governing seems very bullying to me--the public schools are one big example I may one day write a novel about through the voices of my 3 children. And all this is true of my experiences here, let alone that politically this region’s oil henchmen have now taken over the rest of the country. It’s such a cliche! And I don’t like it. My vote in the last prez election?--how could it have counted? But I will add with some sense of relief that Texas has almost nothing to do with my writing and other life and/or professional interests. I am from New York and Arizona. I came to Texas because that’s where the work was--I’m nomadic academic at this point: 16 years of wandering and lucky to have been able to do so--another long story, raising children while getting successive degrees to be able to support them. On the whole, it was the best opportunity that occured when I had need for opportunity. I wrote well before I did all this, and I still write well (um, well, when I pay attention, that is!).
If I were ever to try to write about or from a focus on place, it would only be Texas if I were here at the time and if the events in my life seemed over-drawn in my Texas account, if you kno what I mean: if there were too many “Don’t Mess With Texas” signs on my taxpayer funded freeway. Not that people should litter, just that an mere conceptual sense of region, or an instutional state apparatus, such as what is called Texas, should be a little less bullying about addressing the warm beings who created it lock stock & etc. Look at New Mexico, which borders Texas on one side, so you end up going across the state line, for instance, and find road signs that say “Please” on any given issue. I prefer that sensibility. I’m kind of old fashioned that way.
Associate Editor of the Iowa Review Web - NOT the Iowa Review - and currently editing the upcoming issue on Sound (art). I live in, but can't wait to leave, Iowa.
I should also mention that the opinions expressed in luminations do not reflect those of the Iowa Review Web or, necessarily, of the editorial decisions I make for the web publication.