CURRICULA ME VITA
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I liked readin’ writin’ n’ arithmetic, but I never liked school and its silly rules. I never wanted to be around shitty-assed, snot nosed, dirty finks and bullies all day. I was never a joiner nor a team player. I was spared “kindergarten” invented by some German guy to make teachers the gardeners of the state and give their parents more time for industry. I was a loner, forever suspect to society and industry.
We were living in Yucaipa, California and luckily kindergarten was not the law yet, so I spent that year in “Paradise.” In the late 30's up to WWII, Southern California was indeed a paradise, ruined only by population. Earthquakes and forest fires were negligible by comparison. I’d spend all day in my aunt’s orange groves with the smell of orange blossoms and huge navels ripening until they fell from the trees. My education was developing in a brook in back of the house where pure sparkling water bubbled down the hill over beautifully colored pebbles, creating a vibrant reality, impressionistic like a mescal high. There was no smog from the basin then, only a gentle breeze of the cool mountain air that invaded the pores of the body. I explored the brook, watched the insects, frogs and snakes all day. The sun made everything glisten in suspense. My sisters, all in school, set up a “Yucaipa Valley Basement” school at which they taught me ABC’s, and tried to scare me by saying there were bodies in the bags hanging in the basement next door they made me to peek into. We argued over kid-things like whether it was Bob Crosby, Bing’s brother, who stopped along the road in a Buick convertible. We used illogical deductive reasoning that it couldn’t have been because he had on the wrong socks. My mother sang and played traditional songs like “We’ll Never Grow Old” when she wasn’t driving the load of oranges in the field in a truck with no doors that I could watch the shiny blacktop roll by and drag a stick along the pavement to annoy her.
My attitude toward school must have been formulated in those early years of empiricism, experience, and curiosity. When we moved back to the farm in Kansas, I and my sisters went to a one room school house three miles from our house. We got to school however we could, riding in our wheat truck (the family car), hitching a ride with farmers, ‘riding old paint’ or running through the green wheat fields. One time my sister chased me with a carcass of a small animal saying it died of rabies and I would get it if it touched me. The teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, also cooked lunch, which was usually baked beans. She was in the Temperance Movement, so we had to sing every morning: “What’s the matter with wine sir? Alcohol. (Repeat) Alcohol is a drug you see/ leaving a trail of misery. So what’s the matter....” I don’t know if that affected me, but I was never much of a drinker. I now sit in our over-taxed New York village watching the kids’ heads bouncing in the bus, having awakened at six a.m., sitting numbed staring out the window of $100,000 bus, fully equipped vehicle of the “transportation industry” of the local school education complex. Fattened by their fructose, everything stops for them to get off and on. One can’t be too safe, but I often wonder if their own awareness of what’s around them is numbed as well.
My parents had divorced and my father was traveling around North and South America looking for a perfect ranch like the one he grew up one but never found. For his headquarters, he bought a beautiful brick ranch house in Wichita that had a backyard on the river bank of the Little Arkansas where my sisters took care of me. He paid ten thousand cash for the house. I used that figure later as a teacher to show students how one could add a zero on to all items from those years to show current prices. Except for wages. Many of my lectures were made from scratch, relating to my own experiences. I completed the 5th grade within walking distance of our house. On the playground was a metal pole with rope and metal rings for kids to swing around, a maypole of sorts. I sat in agonizing boredom in my classroom trying not to fall asleep while the far-away peal of the rings hitting the pole as the breeze blew became my yearning tool.
My Jr. High school was firmly fashioned in the fateful Horace Mann tradition dividing and subdividing subjects into shorter periods punctuated by the anxiety alarm or bell or buzzer. Kids fidgeted away the approaching minutes in Pavlovian response, any self-motivation or thought interrupted. Most of the Jr. High schools carried the proud names of the Prussian system’s mold: Horace Mann, John Marshall, John Dewey to whom self-reliant people, defined by their individual accomplishments, did not have the correct social associations for good order of the specialists in education. Unknowingly, I was counter productive to the collective society of future orders and couldn’t wait until after school to fight some kid who was a born-again tattletale to the system. Dewey did away with phonetics that helped me memorize poetry when I had to stand in the corner in the one-room school house for misbehaving.
I never thought I’d grow up to teach in the digitized whole-word world of etymology challenged lead -head - bus exhaust- fumed attention distracted students. If I had gone to school with Dewey, I’d have to fight him after school too. The reasons were never known in after school fights. We just hated each other. Dewey didn’t want the likes of me, who could read and write cursive in the country school before the kids in town. He would know I was dangerous because I read too early. I might know too much, and what I didn’t know I’d find out without consulting the experts. I was a threat to his system. I wanted to define myself by my own accomplishments, likes and hopes, visions and dreams not by my associations with to other conformists, Even if I failed, we’d have to fight after school. He’d be the reason New York State would have more administrators and superintendents than anywhere else. He’s be the reason that our village ran the superintendent out of town, and I chased the principal down the hall. There was one tenured teacher we were unable to get rid of, despite the well known anecdotes of him diddling students. The authority of the system was stronger and the specialists’ rights superseded a few ruined minds. Yeah, we’d have to fight one of those kid fights of unknown provocations.
I had had my first encounter with race when I got a summer job peddling ice cream bars on a three wheeled bicycle. When loading up with dry ice and ice cream, other kids started picking on the black kid and didn’t want him to have the job, I guess. I told them it was foolish because he probably went to neighborhoods we didn’t anyway, and to leave him alone. It was a stupid job that netted a little over a dollar a day, so I quit. But I liked Jr. High School and showed off to my Syrian girlfriend by performing “Ragmop,” the hit of the day, with pre-Elvis gyrations and shaking my head when the teacher wasn’t looking. The neighborhood was very peaceful and tree-lined along the river. Other hit parade songs accompanied students in assembly: “The Old Lamplighter” and “Oh Mien Papa”. I was busy feeling up girls when the lights went down or going to the balcony filling rubbers with water until they stretched down to someone’s head below and bounced back up.
Before my last year in Jr. High, the principal asked me if I had mowed lawns all summer, etc. No, I told him I was driving a Caterpillar D8 on my father’s land in Dakota. He gave me a Prussian frown. He didn’t like me because he couldn’t grasp what I was talking about. I learned how flax grew and how to fly a Piper Cub and helped drive my dad’s Reo truck back to Wichita. He didn’t like me, but I never caused any problem and never learned a damn thing. The teacher admonished me to pay attention or I’d be digging ditches the rest of my life. That didn’t sound too bad, since I could operate a backhoe.
I hated baseball. I didn’t want some idiot throwing a ball at me. I was not a team player and it bored me. But I excelled in track and was I was made captain of the team. Another kid, Richard, cried because he had almost as many points as I did and wanted to be captain. I handed all the records and materials to him and told the coach I didn’t want to be the captain and he wanted it really bad. The coach thought that was queer. I wasn’t competitive, a trait that would later cost me dearly in a competitive, greedy society. I had my dad’s car to run around in, so I hung out with some of the mature kids. One would take his father’s pickup and we’d go see Emily, stop somewhere and play the pinball machines. He was a letterman, so he had the girls. Another friend had a knuckle-headed Harley with left hand shift he rode to school from the outskirts of town. We’d go riding on that. Socially we got along well but was never into the system except for the girls. I made a nice end table in shop that I still have.
I completed one year of high school in a military academy. I took Spanish, the school was located in San Antonio. We read Lorca and Coleridge and studied the classics. Our teachers were retired officers who had served as submariners, infantrymen, pilots, etc. in the theaters of World War II, so there was no lack of experiences that fueled interesting discussions in everything from ethics to geography to little things like a lesson in etiquette that has stayed with me at the best of dining. When items are passed to me on a tray or plate, I politely help hold the dish with one hand while taking an item with the other. If one didn’t do that at mess hall dining with officer at the head of table, the plate would be dropped by the server. We had a three hour compulsory study hall every night. If we looked up from our studies, the Officer of The Day would thump our heads with his class ring he wore on his thumb for that purpose. There was little need for discipline in the classrooms. Bad behavior was unthought of. At night, I saw a blow job given to disciplinarian officer by those who weren’t as straight and starched, or by a foreign student in a new situation conforming to a universal event in the services, asking or telling, aside.
I liked military school, but my father bought me a new 1951 Chevrolet to drive back home to Kansas, and I tried public education the next year and quickly thought it a waste of time, and for the most part, another failed system, so I dropped out in the first weeks of my sophomore year at North High school in Wichita and drove my Chevy to the Levy, so to speak. I liked the social aspect of high school, and that particular one had beautiful buildings on the Arkansas River. It and the Bridge had a Plains Indians motif, and they had a wonderful river festival. The gymnasium was almost Olympian. None of this could exist today in our devalued culture.
The next summer I went to work on my father’s land in South Dakota. His friend had a Piper Cub to fly to his various farms and had cars at every airport near his farms in the western states. He told me new cars was a fad anyway, and he could have older ones at the landing fields. He nodded off once and I took the stick to fly the Piper. It was a lovely machine. Later I would help some crop dusters in old double winged aircraft with larch mother that could maintain enough speed for lift while flying close to the ground. I rode between the wings sometimes for the fun of it. He had a 48 Dodge business coupe that I drove back to Texas one summer and joined my mother who was working on a daredevil thrill show in Oklahoma.
My father had married a woman from Costa Rica and was living in the upper suite of the St. Charles Hotel in Pierre S. D. At that time, there was no such thing as a driver’s license in South Dakota so with those license plates I drove everywhere and befuddled the cops when stopped. I returned to Wichita from time to time to live in our lovely brick home on the river, but my second home was the road. I found gas at 15 cents a gallon in New Mexico. Later I would drive to Tijuana with a friend and score some weed to smoke and get happy and drive to Bunker Hill in downtown L. A. with outcast Indians and Mexicans for no reason when I drove out Highway 66 in my 1950 Olds 88 Convertible listening to the likes of Johnny Ray and Hank Ballard on the car radio. I remember how my dad, who loved music invited the railroad section gang and their families to come to our house to play music and sing when we lived on our farm. Their children were bright-eyed and well behaved. They lived in tar paper shacks and boxcars. They grew weed along the railroad tracks track and it was part of the family commodity. Today it would be considered endangerment by social workers and would likely have to have their kids institutionalized.
I worked on the pipeline in Arizona and lived with my father who had some cotton land in Blythe, CA. I went to Hollywood for a while and bought a new 53 Roadmaster Riviera and went to Oregon to visit my sister. We traveled the wide open cowboy and rail towns of gambling and prostitution famous in rounder song and story in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. She seemed to know a madam in every town. During that time, she married a sophisticated lumberman from Northern New Jersey, who had moved his lumber moving business to Central Oregon. After working on a rock crusher in Crater Lake, and the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River while listening to the likes of Johnny Ace or Rose Maddox on the car radio, I drove my Roadmaster back to Kansas and matriculated at Wichita U., mainly to keep out of jail. I worked at Boeing building B17's. Did I read blueprints? Yeah, I looked at the next plane on the assembly line to see how the part fit. My friend, “Barbitol Bob” wanted to learn more about art. He drew cartoons in the dingy dives of combos all night long and invented the term, “lounge lizard” that was in one of his drawings. We read Pound and Henry Miller and went to jazz clubs across the tracks and took Benzedrine. I had learned about people and how things worked through experiences and empiricism; There weren’t that many guilds or good trade schools. College was the only game in town and has been ever since if one wanted to keep off the street and conform to social objectives administered by PhD’s of the Prussian tradition and get a factory job disconnected from our radical history and radical thinking in general.
I got an evening job as an in-house printer. Did I know offset Printing? Yeah, where’s the manual. In a few days I had the shop up and running, straightened out from the mess the former printer left. The cost of higher education was nominal then; it would be less than entertainment and beer money of an upper middle class family today. It certainly wasn’t the social scam of today, so it made sense to spend a few bucks to see what was going on at the U. Fortunately, unlike most of my contemporaries, I didn’t like to sit in bars, so I did get a good taste for higher learning and met a few good professors who knew as a self educated person thus far that I had no need for pretense. It was a time of the old canons and new discoveries like those of Crick & Watson or Bucky Fuller who worked in Wichita during the war.
I was a natural in Metaphysics, so I became a tutor for the Philosophy Dept. I befriended Professor Walpole, a brilliant semanticist and drunk who served as an agent during the war, pre-James Bond, and wrote the book, Semantics The Nature of Words and Their Meaning. As fate would have it, the semanticist in the Bible Belt became more and more obsessed with the word that he claimed was the first learned in any language. Today is it spoken legally and acceptable as the “F word”, a peculiarity that demands re-reference or double-reference for its unacceptable connotative meanings, and I can see how this universal noun-verb symbol would madden him and his theories on the receding referent. I had to personally intervene when he was at a bar owned by equally obsessed banjo player, who had a huge sign posted behind his bar that the word would not be tolerated. Professor Walpole, in proper British accent, began something like, I noticed your sign, and I have spent most of my life studying words... and so on upsetting the equally mad left-handed banjo picker with the Christian morality of a Bill Monroe. This was happening in a vortex of obsessions far away from British Isles. His social and professional situations worsened, and he was eventually dismissed from his position at the university. The last position I saw him in was on the floor in another college bar, yelling at his wife, “ Now you’ve done it! Now you’ve fucked me up!” No one could get him off the floor except another lifelong friend, Roxie Powell who never came to class and boasted of more F’s than anyone, but could keep in school by out-talking anyone who would rather keep him on the rolls than be driven mad.
Professor LePell began a university publication titled “Microkosmos” He was an obsessive aesthete and would guide my appreciation of classic music and art as well as a film I contributed to that his friend made. He was a Professor in art but preferred to be called “painter.” I surmised that in his studio he was painter and in the class room he was professor. Jackson Pollack, a painter from lower class white trash was just becoming an American Master and was referred to as “painter.” I think he also coined the word, “work.” which became the only word it seemed an art professor needed to vaguely critique his students. “Does this or that work, or not work.” I bought the LP classics he recommended and went home and took Peyote and listened to them with my head between the speakers until I appreciated all of them from Bach to Bartok.
Microkosmos was a success, designed to carry forward a “radical” course Professor Lepell got approved, called “Inter-related Arts.” Another painter friend, Mary Joan Waid, was responsible for the issue of the magazine the following year. I told her I knew a good printer, who would print the magazine at low cost for the sake of art. That would be me slipping it in on my evening job running the Multilith press. Everything came out fine until I had to bind it. The technologies in perfect binding were very complicated in the 50's and had to be planned in the overall printing process on a much larger sheet to be folded and trimmed with galleys for the spine to run through a binding machine. I had a paper shear, so I assembled and cut the pages even and boiled up a pot of horse hide glue and stacked the magazine with glued covers around them at my house with weights on them. I delivered the job and got the money, (about $200 bucks which would cover next year’s tuition). Everyone was pleased with the magazine, and I pulled of my enterprising venture until I sat next to a professor who said he really liked the magazine, but after the first reading, it came apart and the pages fell out. I laughed and said very loud, so everyone at the table could hear: Didn’t you know this was supposed to be the DADA issue!
I dropped out again without a degree, and went back to San Francisco to live with my sister, who was trying to go straight, and her new husband, who was the offspring of a Black madam and the local sheriff in Deadwood, South Dakota. He was older and wiser and everybody loved him, and soon he got me in the union to work on the docks In San Francisco. Bob Branaman had already moved to San Francisco, and he knew Bruce Connors and Michael McClure and Dave Haselwood, who had gone to Wichita U. before my group of friends and were already involved in painting, poetry, and publishing. I made San Francisco my home as did many strays, and I knew the city from when my father and I visited his sister who had lived there most of her life. When I came to live there this time, I stayed with friends who had been students of Professor LePell at Wichita U. They had rented an apartment two houses up on Ashbury Street off Haight Street in a quiet Russian neighborhood. A poet from Wichita who had been published in the “Dada university magazine” also moved to S. F. ( I saw recently that the magazine survived and had William S. Burroughs listed as a contributor) Alan Russo had come to my house near Wichita U and shared a lifestyle of art, music, sex, and the peyote that he would write to Texas for. His dad was in psychology at the university and had tested him at genius level.
I moved in with him on various apartments on most every street in S.F. it seemed. Alan continued to write Sandoz laboratories for pure LSD and Light laboratories for pure mescaline. Richard Brautigan came to the Haight to write and gave me a poem he had written, but I moved out of the Haight when I found a huge flat at 1403 Gough St. which had been previously occupied by kids from Wichita involved with Meth that was also popular at that time. I rented the flat for a hundred a month. It had many bedrooms and others from Wichita lived upstairs. Dave Haselwood had published some of the beat writers and wanted to publish a book of mine. He lived at the flat a while also.
In 1963 Neal Cassidy and Allen Ginsberg moved in and shared the flat with me. We were there when Kennedy got shot. I remember Neal running into my room saying, Charley, turn on the T.V. the President has been shot!” We had a large Thanksgiving dinner there that included my sister and her husband, Frank, Allen and Neal and their Beat Generation friends and traditionally a stranger off the street. Allen wrote his Thanksgiving poem about the people living there including my girlfriend, Ann. Neal also had a girlfriend named Ann. My Ann was later selected as one of Andy Warhol’s Ten Most Beautiful and at this writing, Gerard Malanga brought me a blow-up of her screen test with them in NYC. The Gough St. address became infamous and a lot of famous people like Timothy Leary, “coach Leary” from Harvard visited there. Lawrence Ferlinghetti brought Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu there to meet Ginsberg and Cassady. Later, I married Pamela Beach, Mary’s daughter from an earlier marriage to a WW2 hero under Eisenhower, who had parachuted behind enemy lines into North Africa to prepare for the invasion.
I worked on the docks, the best job I was to ever have in my life, but my future as a poet that merged into teaching was just beginning, and I was going to quit that great union job where I worked six hours at night and got paid the extra two hours double time. I could find the best dentist in San Francisco and get anything done and leave his office with a bill that read zero. All eye care and glasses were paid for. If I became ill, I would go to Kaiser Hospital and leave with a bill that was zero. All prescriptions were paid. I didn’t work on my birthday and got paid for it. Best of all, I could call in when I didn’t want to work and then call in when I wanted to. I took time off to avoid higher tax bracket. I liked the work because it gave me enough exercise and physical activity to keep healthy. This was the golden age for the union and a golden job. I thought this was the norm for the country.
But the reverse happened, I gave up a good job for a free education I didn’t maximize. In addition, my poetry publications and merits worked against me if I didn’t play the academic role of pretense and mediocrity that identified the poetry of the academe. One of the last holdouts of a literary America in the academe was The Writing Seminars at Hopkins. It was the last of a kind in a field soon overrun by creative writings programs turning out workshop poets by the thousands who could then recycle themselves in the hundreds of creative writing programs proliferating by contests and state and local fellowships in the name of creativity.
Again, I saw it as mainly a cover for commerce and social engineering of the Prussian model in a politically correct citizenry that all thought alike. They were “a good thing” and I was a “bad thing” in the following era that was noted as “dumbing down” by many observers. I was visited on two occasions by students from The Johns Hopkins University who came to recruit me to for the Writing Seminars. I had to choose what would become a phrase I would hear the rest of my life...a “career choice”, so I decided to get into higher education since that was regarded as the great future. Though my wife, Pam was pregnant and she was at the same time accepted at Berkeley with a scholarship, it seemed like we were still in a “man’s” world. I decided to give up my good union job for higher education and step into that dumbed down world as a teacher.
To a westerner, Baltimore was vast, one of the last real cities in the country. We set up home again in a student ghetto near the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. The first book I read as a child was “The Boxcar Children”, and it seemed my itinerant lifestyle was going to be modeled upon that. Hopkins seemed a product of the gentile south though it was on the Mason-Dixon Line. I marveled at the miles and miles of brick structures and imagined the labor that migrated into that city. There was no stupid forms to fill out, no run-around. I showed up and told someone I was there, and they said we had been expecting you Mr. Plymell and directed me graciously to The Seminars. Mr. Elliott Coleman was the founder and director, and he and his secretary ran the whole department. He was from the old school and became a dear friend. He the wisdom to set up the Writing Seminars as just that. No emphasis on the creative writing industry; all writing was a creative act anyway, and he wanted to turn out good writers in any field. Of course literary writing was the most sexy, so that dominated the seminars. He asked me to begin the course by reading some poetry, so that set the tone. P. J. O’Rourke was in the class and seemed polite and quite as a church mouse. Another classmate was Josh Norton, who became a life-long friend and later a publisher with us. He had been crippled since birth and used a cane. I encouraged him to rap it on the huge conference table when conversations became trivial. When Robert Penn Warren came to read his new book of poetry based on Native Americans (called UGH poems by Robert Peters) I nudged Josh and said it was stuffy in the room. And Josh tapped his cane and held up the performance until someone opened a window. Allen Ginsberg had at following at the Maryland Art Institute who invited him every year. He wanted to visit longer to study Blake. Pam and I asked Mr. Coleman to give him the F. Scott Fitzgerald room if he’d visit our class. He asked me to introduce him and I said, “Drop your socks and grab your cocks, here’s Allen Ginsberg.” Allen was obviously flustered and looked embarrassed and I reminded him afterwards that he was the one who stripped naked at Columbia to gain attention. I was just carrying on the tradition. We later got him a room by the week at the New Albion Hotel in Baltimore to study Blake.
My deal at Hopkins was all paid and included a small stipend. .I had given up my insurance at Kaiser in San Francisco and Pam had our daughter, Elizabeth, in a city hospital in Baltimore. In those days, I was not permitted in the delivery room. My deal was to teach a course, “Words and Ideas” to freshmen students, I liked that name. It was probably Mr., Coleman who thought that up, or maybe historically the university didn’t want to call it English 101, since Harvard had “stolen” the first English Department professor and had instituted English Departments at Harvard in the early days and created that department for all universities to follow. By the end of my teaching career, I was convinced that one of the first things a university should do is abolish the English Department as such. Having worked in many of them, I saw first hand their waning importance. They were the Prussian system whose methods conformed to a social order fragmenting whole ideas into subjects easily fit into 50 minutes punctuated by a bell or hideous buzzer. Gone forever was the early historical American character to prepare the individual to think for himself and to be self-reliant. I didn’t know at the time just how much the system was designed to turn out obedient workers, servants to government, clerks to industry, and citizens who think alike while learning how to be correctly subordinate, and if all else fails, recycle themselves into the institution and pass along their methodology to new crops of unsuspecting students.
It was the last year of the all-male institution at Hopkins. I reported to my supervisor who was from the English Department but had supervisory authority over Writing Seminar Fellows who taught the agreed upon Freshman course ‘Words and Ideas” instead of English Composition. I was late for our first meeting for which he reprimanded me. He then piled his required books on my lap: The Old Man of the Sea, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in The Rye, a couple other of his favorites and his required handbook, all of which I had looked at but never really read in my college Freshman days at Wichita University. Maybe “The Old Man..” it was easy reading. I said I didn’t expect students to buy all these. If they wanted to read, they could go to the library. If they needed a handbook, the used book stores were full of them. I stood up and placed them back on his desk. He became flustered and red-faced and threatened to tell Professor Coleman of my behavior and get me fired. I told him to go ahead and that Coleman would probably slap his knee and laugh. Then I decided to call his bluff and became serious. I said, “I don’t know what your game is mister, but I just had a hard trip here and am having a hard time anyway. I just come from working on the docks, and we carried longshoremen hooks in our belts partly to make sure some fool doesn’t try to make life more miserable than it is. My boss there had a deep scar in the corner of his mouth from such a hook. It was a reminder for men to respect other men.” I turned and left.
A couple of weeks later I had heard that he was no longer at the university. I never knew what happened, but I met my first class. I asked all the young and nervous kids what their biggest fear was about being there. They said their biggest fear was keeping up their grade average so they wouldn’t be drafted and couldn’t become doctors. It was during the Viet Nam war and the draft was heavy. I mimicked the line from the “Treasure of Sierra Madre” and said grades? We don’t need no stinking grades! I told them I didn’t believe in the grading system and had just come off the docks and that they were probably more formally educated than I. They appeared shocked so I said I reserved the right to grade, but I didn’t care for the grading system.. The institution requires grades, but I’m quite happy to give you all A’s if that’s what you need to continue your studies and keep out of the draft. But you have to always examine your fear as if you had been conscripted into combat to kill another, like the kids your age did under Eisenhower’s brother, and respect them. I expect you now to think. Think about everything. Come to our meetings or else I will think you’re playing me for a fool. I want to see the effort, and I want it to be correct and professional. I don’t like trouble, so this doesn’t have to get to Ike’s brother. They looked puzzled. You know, he’s the president of the University, but did you know that when I was a kid in college back in Kansas, a “raisin” by the name of Welch (you’ve probably drunk his juice) said Ike and his brother were communists. What do you think about that? There is always a war of ignorance. I want to see that you are winning that war. Unlike many in my field, I am only interested in empirical evidence, experience, thought and primary source material or well documented secondary source. No stealing! Remember that. I know you are trying to “read” you instructor and thinking whether you should drop out now or not. So I have prepared a quiz for our next meeting. Since this is the first assignment, I will grade you on your answer, They groaned and I wrote the question on the board: “What are You doing here?” The next meeting the answers ranged from the practical to the philosophical as I excepted. One was finally brave enough to ask what the grade was on his essay. Oh that, I replied.. I have to defer to ancient Chinese philosopher who said: “They have all answered correctly. That is; each in his own nature.” None dropped the course.
During my time at Hopkins, I taught a class at Federal City College in D.C. A position of poet-in-residence at Carnegie-Mellon was in the works for me. I almost accepted the tenured track position which led to Chair, but along came a classmate and gave me a sob story of how much he would liked that job. Like the track field years ago in Jr. High when I was made captain of the team and a teammate cried because he wanted it so badly, I said go take it. As I write this in old age with only $740 a month from Social Security to live on. I realized that I should have taken the poetry job at Carnegie-Mellon. This country respects promotion and greed. To give up things is to be a fool. It was a difficult lesson for me. I had Indian blood that in the stream of consciousness never gives up things entirely but rather shares them and waits for them or something better to come back. “Indian giver” was the white man’s vernacular for expecting something back. It was not normal. Another classmate wrote me that the person I handed it off to is still there building an empire of academic poetry publishing.
I found part-time jobs in the area to supplement my stipend from Hopkins. One was at St. Mary’s college at the first capital of Maryland, a beautiful place where I taught an English Composition course. I went back to St. Mary’s after I graduated where they gave me a full time assistant professorship. Robert Bly came down for a few days and read some poetry, and I started a little poetry fest of cook outs and swimming in the bay. I taught regular college English courses. I surprised one student who wanted to compare Shakespeare and Hank Williams. I told him that I often thought about the similarities of idiomatic expression in the sonnets and in some of Hank Williams’ lyrics and that would be a good study. In another mistake, I quit that job at the year’s end and the chairman said he had 300 applicants for it! At my graduation from Hopkins I heard a parent of one of the students grumble that there were no jobs for such a costly education. Mine was free, but at that, I had given up my job on the docks, which was always my favorite. Plus my field was being purged of old white men. P. J. O’Rourke was in pretty good shape. He had come from a well-to-do family and this was just a step for him as he went on to Harvard and the Lampoon to further his funny business. I was ashamed I let down Mr. Coleman and the institution that gave me a free ride. But he was a real poet with real class and could understand the ways of the outcast.
Once again the Prussian influence of state and central education institutions came to the rescue. This time in the form of the creative writing industry. My old friend from Wichita U, who never came to class and later shipped out when we and others from Wichita lived San Francisco, docked in Baltimore to visit and I introduced him to Professor Coleman. He enrolled in the Seminars and became a confidant of Mr. Coleman’s and stayed with him until his death. One of Professor Coleman’s students, John Barth, took over the Seminars and quickly ushered in the fateful industry of NEA-MFA-PhD -classes of subsidized creative society and academic fiction, his specialty. I got labeled as a Beat poet, but tried to separate myself from it when I taught in colleges. I learned that the curricula couldn’t exist without categories and labels, so I had to juggle my professional needs and expectations to meet others’ interpretations. After not taking the “career choice” path at Carnegie-Mellon, my life became a series of teaching jobs, while my wife worked to help support the family. We ended up staying with friends from the St. Mark’s on the Bowery Poetry Project, who lived in upper Harlem, when in a rundown tenement building, one of my old students from the Words and Ideas course spotted me. He was at Columbia studying journalism and was taking a course that had works by Allen Ginsberg. I had mentioned to him when he was my student that a friend was going to read from his works at professor Coleman’s Seminar class and said I’d make room for him if he wanted to attend. He, of course didn’t, but remembered those years later in our conversation and said, “hey you didn’t tell me that Allen Ginsberg was going to be there.” I said, “You didn’t ask.”
Later we moved down to the Bowery and stayed with our friends in a loft. At that time, lofts were restricted spaces ostensibly for artists, but we managed to have our daughter there. Pam worked downtown and we put our daughter in day care in the Lower Eastside. There were no clinics or doctors in SoHo at the time and when she had crying fits, I would soothe her with wet cloths and watch Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. While in DC, lo and behold, Lady Aberlin from Mr. Rogers came to visit and stay overnight. She had married a poet (Seaborn Jones) from Georgia and was on her way there. I commuted to Stamford Connecticut to teach High School. It was a well paying job, but I got an insight into compulsive state profitable monopoly rewarding non-performance enforced by police powers that I never forgot. It was a well-paying job and they waived my certification because of my graduate degree and my on-the-job experience as a printer (and they could find no one else to take such a position). It was a huge high-school complex larger than many colleges. They hired me to teach “Graphic Arts”.
The class was huge, composed of the many gangs in the great urban area thrown in the mix of compulsory education. I was to teach the ancient exacting trade of letterpress as well as the newer techniques and training of offset printing. They had plenty of machines bought with a huge budget somehow thinking that the impressive quantity of machinery would look good. It only meant more distraction to me. The training is highly technical and exacting on both letterpress and offset. Plus there were only two or three kids out of about 40 who had the slightest interest in it. It was a “shop” course designed for those not academically gifted. In other words, troublemakers. There were also rival gangs in the same room and the rows of type faces became perfect lead projectiles. In the ancient printing guild, they would have been sorted exactly as to their typeface. In the other area were new offset presses, a different technology altogether. They immediately became a game of who could stick another’s hands in and crank them to the highest rpms. The power shear paper cutter was a guillotine of most dangerous application. I also had a darkroom across the hall that I was to teach the press camera process in. I saw that it was a hopeless situation and the three or so kids who were interested realized the situation as well, so I told them to learn on their own and just ask me when I wasn’t busy saving life and limb.
I had been the first printer of my life-long friend S. Clay Wilson’s cartoons. Many of his cartoons reminded me of the real composition of my class. I was lucky in that I had worked on the docks in a fairly dangerous situation with all races and kinds of people with their drugs and alcohol that prepared me to establish a workable relationship with the young students. Essentially, it was big pay for the responsibility to hold an unworkable situation together. I “proved” myself to the kids by adventures such as six of them being grouped in the darkroom smoking pot. I had to hang about a hundred meaningless keys on my belt to show authority and made up silly rules like I required no more than four (4) students in the darkroom at one time. So when a kid came to my desk and said he smelled something funny emanating from the darkroom, I rapped on the door. Came the reply that they were developing negatives and couldn’t open the door or they would ruin them by letting light in. So, I rapped again and heard the plea to wait. I began pounding and said I had the key and could open the door if they didn’t. (I would have to sort through the many keys I didn’t use that hung on my belt to find the right one.) Finally, as they turned on the fan and hid their stash, they opened the door. I turned on the light and they were paralyzed in fear that I had caught them smoking pot. I pretended I didn’t smell anything or knew anything, but in a very angry voice reprimanded them for breaking my rule! There were six in the room instead of four! I raged about the four in the room rule as we went across the hall and back to their seats. From then on, I was O.K., or the dumbest square they’d seen, but under the circumstances I got along fairly well negotiating their stupid grades more important than the course as hundreds of thousands of taxpayer monies in machinery sat idle.
There’s always a troublemaker. A black kid about seven feet tall with enormous lips hated me. Most all the kids had their own problems they worked out, but when he wasn’t causing trouble for me he went missing. I would get a call on my “police” radio that they had identified one of my students in the gym shooting baskets when he was suppose to be in my class. After about the third time he did this, I was ordered to come and get him, which I refused to do because I couldn’t leave my class. I was amazed at the “high school swat team” who returned him to my class. About six very sharply dressed men equipped with radios and who knows what else, central casting from a godfather movie, brought him back to my class telling me not to let him out again! At the end of the school year. They said I did a wonderful job and wanted to raise my pay, which was the biggest money I’d seen since I left the docks, but I politely declined. They pleaded that they would consider any of my recommendations. One suggestion was that the letterpress belonged to a guild of antiquity and a lifetime of experience and that there weren’t that many jobs for it compared to the offset press. It was something taught one-on- one and very exacting and couldn’t really be adapted to the numbers in a course. It probably looked better to list on their brochure, and they resisted change. When asked again if I would consider coming back the next term, I wanted to blurt out “Not on your life!” but instead made the excuse that we were re-locating, which is always a polite way to terminate the job.
After returning to rural Upstate N.Y. and no jobs during the recession, I went back to teaching Graphic Arts in another well-paying job in New Jersey, which was another failure. I rented a small cottage in Bruce Springsteen country and spent my day walking near the deserted boardwalks and scenes that were to become populated again in his songs. I liked driving in the fire lanes and though how fun it would be to race in the deserted landscape of concrete roads and sand. It would be a few years before he would sing about it, revving up my memories of making a hot rod “straight out of scratch behind a 7-11 store,” an eastern version to my western roads of youth. It was when McGovern was running against Nixon and It seemed like I was the only one supporting him. The administrators of the school were state wealth politicos of the education system and they soon realized I was not of their ilk. The students didn’t want to do anything except brag about which one’s family was best connected to the mob, the real governance of the area. One girl delighted herself (and me) by sitting exactly in my line of sight with her legs spread and her snatch exposed. It was on the Nazi end of the Prussian scale and when the loudspeaker blurted out noisy useless information just to keep the Orwellian mind control at its correct anxiety levels, I turned around and gave it the finger One of the proper mob family students went to the authorities to inform about my behavior. Meanwhile they had gotten a copy of my semi-autobiographical collage novel published by City Lights in San Francisco and summoned me to their offices to question me on what part of it was fiction. Meanwhile I had come down ill with walking pneumonia because I probably didn’t have an immunity to their chemical laden air, so I was happy they fired me.
After trying more jobs upstate, even applying for gravedigger for the village, we decided to sell our beautiful home and barn and four acres in the village to an artist friend of the person in the Art Dept at W.U. many years ago who had become a successful artist in NYC. It was especially difficult for me, because I had thought my creative writing might save me financially in the form of a fellowship at least and we could keep our house. After all, both of my friends, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg got one as did several other couples and friend of friends in the hierarchy of NEA funding. We sold our house for about the figure of one fellowship; it taught me again that I should have counted on the union instead of a government subsidy. We packed up and moved to outskirts of D.C. and lived in Silver Spring, MD with our two kids and put them in better schools we thought, than rural upstate. Since I had graduated from an institution in the area and had part-time teaching experience in area colleges it was easy for me to find part-time instructor and lecturer positions at the many colleges. One was through a faculty member at the University of Maryland who had become a Dean at Southwestern downtown D.C. whose students were foreign students. There were many Africans and Mideastern students. I got along well with the Nigerians, who couldn’t speak or write much English, but had a sense of humor I could naturally tap into. I remember a very dark ebony beauty who was from a Muslim country in Africa that was very strict with the their students who couldn’t visit their families until the four-year term was complete. I felt sorry for her and accommodated her in every way I could. She emitted such sexual energy, I couldn’t stand close to her in class discussing her writing without being embarrassed by a rise other students picked up on instantly.
A student from another strict country maybe Iraq or Iran gave me a bit of trouble in that I could see he was having all his papers written for him and brought newspapers to class with written assignment that might fit any generic in-class assignment. I didn’t particularly care that he played the game well, but by the time of the mid-term report, he came into my office and exclaimed. “Professor Plymell, I need my A” They were all after the letter “A’” in the system which it generally obscured or made the instruction more difficult. I said to him that he really hadn’t done anything in completing assignments and tried to beat the game by slipping in bogus assignments, etc. which didn’t surprise him. He calmly asked for my address to send an expensive gift. I told him all mail should go to my office and that in this country the university would consider the offer a conflict of interest or a bribe. I had learned that it was the costume with some foreign students to bring gifts to their teachers and one had knitted me a scarf during her course, so I didn’t want to offend them either. Also, it was following the Nixon-Agnew years and I could imagine him in his country over coffee reading the translated papers and concluding that bribery was the normal means of doing business here as it was elsewhere in the world. So there was the philosophical nuance as well. There was no point at getting angry with him as he described the hand-painted sets of China he wanted to give me, so I resorted to humor and asked him if he had any Persian rugs. He didn’t get my joke, but raised the argument to another level exclaiming that his folks, they will be killed if he doesn’t have his “A”. I can forever hear the special inflection of the pronunciation of their flat A’s. I resorted to the western linear argument, building the case of grades per institution, which was difficult for me because I thought the system of grading had more to do with achieving a false and highly ambiguous goal rather than an education of the subject. Anyway, his argument was cyclical, raising the pitch, desperation, and stakes each time against my linear logic. The East-West minds in action. I worked out a system with him based on his other grades and future effort to save his family and assured him we would make them safe and that it was all pretty much bullshit anyway. He was puzzled by the expression as I could see him mentally trying to translate it.
I became friends with a person through poetry circles who read in little newspapers about Huncke and Bremser an I reading at a famous punk club on the corner in D.C. I also read at the Shakespeare Library and then introduced Ginsberg at a larger reading he gave in the Shakespeare Library. I had applied for a NEA fellowship in poetry that year for the work that would eventually be published by Kulchur Foundation, NYC, in my book titled: Trashing of America. About a year later, I received a phone call from the NEA and thought I had finally got my grant after applying all these years. But the person on the other end asked me if I wanted to introduce William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg for their upcoming appearance in D C. I politely declined. The friend knew Washington inside and out and bet me he could write a press release about me that could get into both the NY Times and Washington Post any time I wanted. So I bet him ten bucks. It was about the time Reagan was getting settled in office. I began seeing the cowboy hats from California Ranchero cowboys and their legions of blue blazers an khaki pants, even a bumper sticker on an SUV that read; ”Neutralize Mondale.” The cars with Georgia plates were packed up with blues genes and denim work shirts with ties. Sure enough there appeared little byline in both papers about a poet in Silver Springs belonging to a group, “Poets for Reagan” that appeared in the NY Times, “Washington Talk.” I thought it would be taken as a joke, but the poetry grants factions that handed government money to their friends found a new excuse to keep me out of their ranks. And the program to which Reagan rebuilt his arts giveaway was strictly academic and having handed my offer of a poetry job at Carnegie Mellon to a begging classmate, I had no prestige as the kind of poet that would receive grants from the Reagan administration. The local newspaper came to interview me in Silver Springs, so hungry were the area papers, but they wouldn’t understand it as a joke, so I played along.
It caught the eye of a professor at the University of Maryland who turned out to be a friend of its president. He said they were having a posthumous birthday party for Katherine Ann Porter who gave the university her archives if they would have a birthday party for her every year. I told him the story of her visit to Wichita U. Hart Crane was one of my major influences and she told the story of the time they shared a place in Mexico and he was always wanting to commit suicide. He got on the roof of their little house and declared his intention when she said, “Come on down Hart. It isn’t high enough. You’ll only hurt yourself.” The anecdote was a good ticket to her party where her friends and acquaintances shared stories about her. I applied as adjunct professor teaching advanced composition in their Junior Writing Program. I suggested they change the name to professional writing or advanced professional writing as it required completing freshman and sophomore English courses to get in it. I thought the connotation was wrong and they later changed it to something like the Professional Writing course I would later teach at George Washington University downtown D.C. But for the time being, I was very satisfied teaching a course which finally had some real usefulness, and besides the Chair was on top of her game. She used the proposal as the model for writing, developing rhetorical parts, such as argument and definition to develop the whole paper which was evaluated towards the end of the semester by two of us, finally using the letter grade in a sensible way. She brought in someone from R. P.I., who was an authority on the “figure” and had published work on the Trope. The analogy and metaphor was my specialty, too. Pam was working at the Wall Street Journal, and I asked writers from there to visit my class. So the students got their money’s worth in that course.
I can’t say the same for their poetry program which was a typical sham. I applied to it for a prestigious opening in poetry, but they brought in their own hack undoubtedly to return grant and awards or guest appearance favors. There was no shame in the English Departments. I protested and took my case before an arbitrator. My poetry credentials and publications where far superior to those of the other candidate. The arbiter was a Black woman, and it was during the purge of old white men, so I had no special appeal in my favor. She ruled on a technicality that the candidate’s tenured faculty supporters brought up. The other candidate had a terminal degree holding an M.F.A., and I only had an M. A., instead of the terminal PHD. So that was a new twist to the proliferation MFA writing workshop programs that were to dominate American Poetry. That’s probably why Professor Coleman at the prestigious Writing Seminars frowned upon them and their new publication: Poets & Writers. I’ve never read a copy nor published in it out of respect for him. I failed to use politics in the poetry biz as usual, so I remained an adjunct but was given courses pretty much as I wanted in addition to the advanced writing course, which I liked. I picked up an evening course. The American Short Story in which I enjoyed the readings since I never cared that much about fiction and was not that well read except for Katherine Ann Porter and a few other short story writers, but I enjoyed the genre and read many literary works for the first time.
The damnable grades were still a problem of course. What used to be parlor-talk appreciation and critical conversations in the educated elite of the 19th Century was now something I had to create some gimmick to determine a grade for. It was a large class size and the students were all women, so I could at least fantasize while teaching. The large evening class had to meet in the Physics/ Engineering building . I had already befriended the Chair of Physics, an Indian fellow who offered good conversation about his theories of the begin of life. My class of the Short Story was in session one night when a male student walked by. The building was busy with males mostly foreigners coming to study engineering. He was puzzled by an all-woman class and asked as we were dismissing,” What Courses is this?” I replied, “Oh, this is a course in Women Studies.” He continued on with a puzzled expression.
The next semester I taught a course through a Community college’s Prison Program. This took place in a huge 1930's building between Baltimore and Washington known as “The Cut.” It’s denotation may have been of geographic origin, but it’s connotation was certainly nefarious. I approached as a buzzing, guttural cacophonic sound grew louder from the iron barred windows like pissing in a stool amplified over a hundred decibels punctuated by territorial throaty shouts and groans. It was my first image of a hell on earth as each of a series of steel doors was slammed and locked while in the tiers above filth spit and sweat stirred and fell like a dust devil of confetti reflected in the light shards. Rarely did I see someone of my race until I met the white man who was the college program director in a room stuck back into the bowels of the gray concrete, brick and steel. The guards who escorted me weren’t armed for obvious reasons. After a introduction, I sat behind my desk and laid out the syllabus to be gathered and stapled.. The students were curious. Some came up to the desk to look at the papers, then more wanted theirs. My idea of efficient collating was to pile each page and have each student take a sheet as they walked in front of the desk and then staple them. I made a mental note to make sure I put the stapler back into my briefcase. It seemed the natural order they wanted was to come up to the desk and each handle the papers and circulate them among themselves asking each other if they got he right pagination, and so on. It was a curious process more rooted in social interaction than efficiency. What was I to do, punish them? To my amazement, they all got the right order and returned to their seats promptly awaiting a discussion in less time than my method of arranging order. It was a bit alarming at first, for me to witness a “rush,” but I reflected on how stupid it would be of me to demand discipline and make them do a simple task my way. I thought of what I had seen in public schools where teachers would spend valuable time and stress sternly organizing a behavior their way at the fear of losing control and concocting reprimands for those who didn’t follow directions! Maybe teachers could learn something in a place their reprimands would be foolish. I reflected on what a time study in efficiency might prove removing all emotions in the daily habits of brainwashing. I imagined such a subtlety being the behavioristic germ of what might contribute to the prison population.
Plagiarism was another topic that was big in my other writing courses. I was a big problem of the day. Thinking, reflecting, or original ideas, if the possibility indeed exists, was unknown to most students. We called the problem “patchwork plagiarism” and it was difficult for students to develop a thesis without incorporating another’s words. Many writing teachers were concerned with this complex problem, some didn’t know or care. Only the most of famous literary lions could use it, one without disguise as I was to find out. I began lecturing my students in prison about it as did my other composition classes calling it stealing another’s words until self-editing kicked in and I quickly moved to another topic. The moral and ethical considerations seemed anachronistic while lecturing murderers and felons. Besides, we wrote a lot of papers about experiences that fit the “authentic voice” period outlined in the Bedford History of Composition and Rhetoric. Stories and discussions became the better way to introduce writing to those who had a wealth of experience and then concentrate on documenting a thesis in further papers. Ironically, it was the only place I could use the word “nigger” when joining the discussion. The word was commonly used in many contexts. Its useful connotations seemed universally accepted; for example, in the open discussion of the movie “The Burning Bed” with Farah Fawcett students described her as that “welfare nigger bitch”, or “niggah” welfare bitch in the vernacular. I made my philosophy clear at the onset of any such course that I wasn’t there to try to change anyone’s idiomatic language. There was a big public discussion of Eubonics at the time. On my syllabus I always quoted Bacon’s words about reading makes a full man, speech makes a quick man, and writing makes and exact man, and my goal and purpose was to teach the standard correct language of commerce and society for the benefit of the student. They understood completely and there was no problem. They wanted to learn.
Many times we discussed music while brainstorming topics. Some knew the lyrics of the L.A. group, Sly and the Family stones: “Don’t call me niggah, whitey/ don’t call me whitey. niggah”, and so on. Significantly, our state controlled education system has almost made the word synonymous with a hate crime. And the media has made the old problems in speech much more volatile. For their first paper these particular students were rich in stories of personal experiences. One story of an old lifer began in the Carolinas. As a boy he would go around to pop machines with a crowbar. One time he couldn’t comprehend why the police was behind him one day and cuffed him to take him to jail. He thought that’s what the machines were for, that’s where the money came from, like we would think of ATM machines. That started his life of crime. Years later, I saw him on T.V. shaking hands with President Clinton instituting a program for elderly criminals to be set free on the premise they were too old to do any harm. The course wasn’t all that rosy. We were brainstorming topics for one guy to write about and I asked him to write about his experiences at night on his job cleaning the cafeteria. He was a lifer, looked down sadly and said “you never want to hear about what goes on there.” Another student who had an noticeably small head and was diminutive in mind and body disagreed with a murderer discussing a topic. The murderer nodded for him to go into the bathroom with him. It was obvious to everyone what was expected but in Sodom decorum, we paid no attention. The next semester, I taught at the correctional facility next door. I liked the poetry of one of the prisoners, Victor Dove, and published his poems through Cherry Valley Editions with no institutional aid, and the Program Director upon seeing his book shook my hand in gratitude.
A position for tenure-track professor in poetry opened at the University of Maryland, for which I applied. There was already a poet in the English Dept. who was aware I was there teaching courses as an adjunct. I forget his name, but had seen it in a publication we were in. He knew another poet he wanted to give the job to for various reasons. I had published more than both of them but was turned down, so I demanded a hearing. We all presented our cases to an arbiter, a Black woman. The purging of old white men English departments had been going on for a while, anyway, so I had no sex appeal. It turns out I was beaten on a technicality. The English Dept. poet said his applicant had a terminal degree, an M.F.A.. and I had only a Masters. The arbiter had no reason to favor the individual over the institution and her comrades. I thought of the foreboding complaint I had heard from the parents behind me at my graduation: that there weren’t jobs for their son who had to pay the great cost of attending a prestigious university. It wasn’t long before MFA programs proliferated and recycled their creative profession. At the time of this writing I have been sent an ad for Poets& Writers with a cover story “The Top 50 MFA Programs,” which led me to wonder how many were out there! I had avoided the publication since its inception out of respect for Mr. Coleman who at the time must have seen its encroaching mediocrity better than I. Nevertheless, they keep my name on their mailer through the years, and it has been impossible to remove. Like the literary Politburo numbers look good to the State. My poet/professor had again become a hindrance and Amerikan culture succeeded in making poetry a “product-absolute” of the academe.
I began picking up all the part-time work I wanted in the many Community colleges and Universities in the area. I taught a professional writing course at George Washington University. I never got adjusted there because I had to find a place to park and find the damn class room that seem hidden in a labyrinth of downtown D.C. buildings. Further, I had no office space of my own to confer with individual students as the position required because Maya Angelou had her spread of two rooms, one adjacent her office to conduct her promotions and publicity for her Hallmark Queen poetry enterprise. As a part-timer, I had to meet with students wherever I could. I had nothing whatsoever to do with poetry there anyway. No one knew I was a poet, and I kept it quite. I had enough trouble finding the classroom. Then one day, I parked for a moment to run in to deliver my grades. I came out to see a huge piece of medieval iron locked to the front wheel of my car, known as “The Boot”. I tried to find out how to get it removed, but the ones to set me free only came by at certain hours. In addition, I had to present a hundred dollars cash at the proper office in the city building in another part of town. Luckily, Pam was working nearby at The Wall Street Journal, a good place then, who treated their employees nice and invited them to all their parties and we were able to put together the required cash of one hundred dollars. The I got in line for to pay the clerk in the downtown office and then another line to have the police issue the order to unclamp. I then took that document to the a policeman near my car to call the boot release patrol on their next round. I came there only to finish up my course and never went back.
I picked up some pretty good courses at another George, George Mason though a Chair, who wanted to be a poet (I’ve forgotten his name, too). At the same time, I was offered two courses in Poetry at American University. Why they need two courses, I don’t know, but they were willing to let me meet them casually or arrange them about any way I wanted. Even with this somewhat endearing offer, I was already committed to the two courses at George Mason and to juggle schedules and drive the Beltway was too much. It turns out a poet I had gone to Hopkins with was at American University teaching poetry. Unfortunately at that time she was excited about having invited the “great” English “writer” D. M. Thomas to read at the university and visit her classes. I leafed through his celebrated book that was just published and lines about the Nazi poking his bayonet around in the pile of bodies in the mass grave into a survivor’s privates was quite compelling. It reminded me of the horrors when the Methodist Minister’s party raided Black Kettle Band tromped babies under their horse hoofs and cut out the women’s pubis to decorate their saddle horns and cut off their breasts to sew together to sell as novelty purses on the train and on Turk St. In San Francisco ...leaving the mutilated beings screaming to death on the prairie.
Fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust never interested me anyway. To document it in writing was one thing, but I didn’t understand the appeal of horror. I found the real account of D.M. Thomas’s story in Babi Yar, and soon critics were proving he plagiarized the whole book.. I had two courses at George Mason and my prison course, so I turned down the poetry courses at American. The person in the English Dept. At George Mason, who wanted to be a poet, had heard that D.M. Thomas was appearing at American and invited him to George Mason. I attended his reading, which was almost word for word Babi Yar. After his reading a group made up of mostly faculty and literati gathered around him and I said loudly,” this guy’s a phony”. Susan Sontag looked down her big nose at me. Everyone was embarrassed, but I was proved correct. None of them admitted to their ignorance at having got hoodwinked by literary fame. I was to see later what the power of tenure that pretentious professors can bring upon an institution and get away with it.
I made up my syllabus for a regular English course that I had never taught: World Literature. Since a lot of the students were from nearby CIA , I told them they could have an extra copy for their office. I was not that well-read myself in World Literature, so I’d have to pull something out of my hat. Pam had just bought me a large paperback titled THE TIMETABLES OF HISTORY A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. It had lists across its pages: History; Politics; Literature; Theater; Philosophy; Music; and so on. With the dates vertically in a column. As I leafed trough its pages I was fascination by the full pages of the ancient Greek Period and the crowded entrees in that time as well as the modern era and the almost blank pages of the Dark Ages. It was a fascinating opportunity to flesh out the bits of knowledge throughout history. All the categories had a common denominator of literature, so I was safe. I told the students they didn’t have to purchase a hundred dollars worth of textbooks because I was going to make a copy of several pages and use the cut-up method to slice dates and events and historical figures of copied strips in a “hat” for each student to chose an assignment. If they didn’t like the chosen, they could pick another. The idea was to take a person, event, movement and write about everything during its time that surrounded it in historical context. Nowadays, I think the book it’s on line, so it’s simpler than that. The students loved to connect information on the scraps of paper to everything around their lingual archeology to become an authority of a body of knowledge built around a particular bare-boned fact. It was a hit! Their papers enlightened me and they could use the library for it’s intended purpose and didn’t have to purchase a hundred dollars worth of books from the textbook scam to lug around. I didn’t know until much later, as if through ghosts or metempsychosis in Gilman Hall, that I had had carried the predilections of Hopkins first professor, Basil Gildersleeve. I had just read an article on him in my Alumni Magazine, which helped motivate me to write this reflective memoir of my past teaching experience and found a juicy quote from him. “Scrap knowledge is the bane of many scholars. Not to see a thing in it’s connections is not to see it at all.” He had gone to Berlin to visit August Boeckh whose own pedagogy stressed using a minutiae of particularized knowledge as a springboard to an overall understanding of and entire subject. All of a sudden I felt I didn’t always things against the grain, after all. In 1896 Gildersleeve noted that “ the teacher who does not rise from the particular to the universal does not live up to the measure of his prophetic office.” (To Understand Ourselves, Michael Dirda, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Fall 2009) Finally I was liberated and was to see when I visited “grammar” schools and high schools how compulsory education became such a failure. When visiting a class asking a question, seeing the kids waving their hands to the question the teacher had gone over with them earlier as to when an event took place was just game show pedagogy. When I asked why such-and-such event took place, the students were blank. Not only was their training counter to thinking in relationship to larger components, they lacked the syntactic ability to connect their thoughts in a rhetorically recognized fashion.
Even their textbooks seemed wrong. Their “Language Arts” texts would teach them games of comparison as a substitute for a more extended rhetorical devise, the analogy, and so on. I was beginning to see a pattern that dated back Gildersleeve’s time when Harvard created the first Professorship in English to steal him from Hopkins. Childs was determined to “turn the study of English from rhetoric to literature.” He delegated correcting his students compositions to faculty underlings so he could lecture in literature to his large captive audiences and develop the English curricula for Harvard that all institutions would follow forever, eventually giving us the pompous publish or perish English professor, and the beginning lecturer with their ten pound anthologies and favorite author’s books, required though study might use just a few pages. In Prussia, the specialist knew best. This mimetic methodology led to grad students themselves creating worthless workshop publications for credentials. The study of literature seem a good turn in the Harvard influence of the Nineteenth-Century America, but the model would soon become derivative to the extent of damaging the real asset of thinking and writing. I saw this in the many universities and colleges I taught at, and saw it in primary and secondary schools when I visited the as a poet or substitute. I realized that English departments in a particular physical place might become a thing of the past the virtual world and there would be no need for the Harvard model at all.
Meanwhile I had to get my own progeny through this bamboozled system of education especially evident in the field into which I had befallen. I picked up my son from his Freshman year at the University of Montana, which he enjoyed, and it was on the other side of the U.S. As we traveled back, I naturally asked him about his studies and grades, particularly his English course. It was of course the German model of the 19th Century from Harvard based on literature. It was in the 1990's which Bedford listed as “The Challenge of Diversity” in which feminism and multiculturalism were at their zenith. He said he had written a paper on Sylvia Plath, one of whom they were required to read. His teacher said she had given him an “A” for the course as she was hastily leaving for a women’s poetry workshop. I asked what his thesis was in his paper, and he said something like he took issue with Sylvia Plath and her spineless attitude towards her father. He said after he got his grade report he received “B” though she had assured him he would get an A and would keep the students’ papers to make sure of the grades. He said he didn’t know who to go to with the complaint that he was lied to. I told him grades are sacrosanct to the instructor and that she had compiled them quickly before she left campus. They are the only leverage they have against students and that she couldn’t care less about your paper and is at her conference forgetting all about you and the course, except, that you said something against Sylvia Plath.
We were driving through my home state of Kansas when I suggested we visit long- time friends, William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz. After dinner, Mr. Burroughs signed a copy of his book for my son and asked him about Missoula and talked about how his father used to take him fishing up there. I told him I had gotten the dorm bug when against my better judgment we had stayed at the dorm that was emptying, and I had come down ill. After he signed the book, he said, “and I have something for you” and went to his medicine cabinet and got me two one-shot plastic cups of his medicine. I asked if I needed them both, and he looked perturbed and said that I knew my own system. I drank one, but hesitated to leave a bit in the other saying that I had the bug and didn’t want him to catch it. He said he wouldn’t. We were from the older generation who helped friends and was expected to “know thyself.” My son drove and Mr. Burroughs said the medicine would kick in after we got passed Kansas City. It did, and by the time we got to Kentucky, I was cured of the bug. I asked my son why he didn’t engage more in conversation with the famous author abut his fishing in Montana, and he said he couldn’t think of anything to say! I hoped his seeing altruism in action would make up for the grade in his English class and the lame treatment by his professor.
Some faculty at any institution that hired me seemed to have had suspicions of me and my impressive publications, and thought I might jeopardize their jobs in some way, and didn’t care for my direct approach toward students. As far as I was concerned discussion of literature could have stayed in the parlors of the 19 century and students could study the rhetorical values of the changing language in speech and writing. I would be seen as old fashioned. They could read all the books they want. I just didn’t require my students to buy the 4lb anthologies and readers. They purposely change a bit ever year to keep the requirement of a new edition, plus a handbook and usually a favorite author(s) that they utilized only a few pages from. That was the norm and when the students went to the bookstore to buy books for my class there were none on the shelves. The college bookstores didn’t like that because it didn’t make them money and the students were frustrated by thinking an armload of books would automatically make them intelligent. When they arrived in class puzzled and empty handed, I told them I had a different approach to writing that began with a clean slate and involved thought and using the vast library systems. I told them handbooks were plentiful around English departments, gathering dust until they are thrown out or they sold for usually less than a dollar at used book stores or library sales. Their contents vary by a little, since grammar and syntax are old and if they learn everything in whatever book they find, they will know a great deal more than they did to begin with. I told them it was good to have a reference book for grammar and that most of it should have been learned in what we used to call “Grammar School.” In that sense most of it would be remedial anyway. A few brighter students blessed with good teachers in the past, caught the drift and others saw the light after much unnecessary work freeing their minds of the damage they had accrued arriving at college essentially illiterate having come through primary and secondary education system.
When I substituted in high school I saw how the teachers had begun to mimic university English departments to discuss stories instead of learning to write. It was much easier to calm a disruptive class by story telling and fuzzy romantic shared sympathy with various protagonists and events. Teachers had to be popular. But by the time students got to college their complete rhetorical thinking could be expressed as “bad thing or “good thing” and their main vocabulary was “stuff,” “like” and “y’know.” or if they adopted a more professional vocabulary the added the universal euphuisms, “positive” and “negative” which were limited to battery terminals in my unschooled youth. Sometimes I became so tired of theses clichés in class, I would begin signing the old Andrew Sisters tune: “You got to accentuate the positive/ eliminate the negative / latch on to the affirmative/ and don’t mess with Mr. In-between. They were puzzled and giggled. I found that teachers didn’t teach grammar in “grammar schools” because most of them didn’t know it themselves and they couldn’t maintain popularity with bored disruptive students who hated the thought of it. I presented tricks to illustrate how English grammar and usage could become complicated and told them I it was impossible to write a sentence exactly as I said it. They promptly put pen to paper at the ready and I dictated the sentence (using the number two here as symbol) “There are three 2's in the English language.” I reminded them how difficult it is to heed Bacon’s words that ‘Writing maketh an exact man,” to remind them that writing is work.
I began teaching in the late 1960's when I left the docks in San Francisco. I had tutored a bit in Metaphysics at Wichita U. To help out my professor. It came natural to me when others couldn’t seem to get it. I later required all my students to read Bedford “A Brief History of Rhetoric and Composition”. Students were always perplexed about the expectations of English instructors, whose pedagogy varied as much as the person, so I thought what the hell, if sociology and other disciplines made them learn concepts in their field they should know that history. That would also prepare them for the varied expectations of their professors and could ask them what period they identified with. Unless the professor became pretentious thinking the student pretended to know more than they, it should serve both parties. Bedford denoted “The 1960s: Classical Rhetoric, Writing Process. And Authentic voice.” The writing process was a valuable part of my teaching The Proposal at the University of Maryland. My Program Director I mention as being on top of her game, but whose name escapes me, had written a book on the subject of rhetoric and writing. I found some dedicated teachers, too in what Bedford lists in the 70's as ”Cognitive Process, Basic Writing and Writing across the Curriculum which became popular and easy for me since I favored science and could use that as well as the more philosophical rhetoric of argumentation I had mastered in philosophy long ago and was an essential part of the proposal.
I learned that I was naturally teaching the classifications listed in the Bedford history, so I had a great deal of confidence knowing I was doing something right. I had no trouble with “Authentic Voice” with my students in prison. They certainly had enough experience and the rhetorical ability to identify lies and ethics. We discussed the obvious class and criminality differences of them going to jail for using smack when walking down Georgia Ave., while a doctor with MD plates could drive in Georgetown using smack and not be stopped. They could have talked to Aristotle all day. And there was always the enormous topic of drugs, so there was no end to the authentic voice about a universal problem. In the 80's cocaine was the drug of the lions of finance and politics. Pam and I were invited to chili parties with recognizable names inside the beltway. Once, I would be guided away from the rooms of pot and lines of coke because it was assumed I was old and square. It seemed each decade highlighted different drugs, the scourge of society which worsens today obviously because it’s lucrative.
In many way the incarcerated students desire to learn made them the better students. I made it clear that there is a standard, correct language that they needed to master if they wanted, and they did want to. I also made it clear that there is their personal language that is as important in expression and understanding. The two just had different purposes. Their personal idiom was rich in the figure, the analogy, the nuances at times important as it was needed for immediate survival. The standard and exact language they were learning was also important for survival. There were no problems once we understood that the freedoms in language were not to be controlled, but learned for specific purposes. That was generally my philosophy in later years when we moved back to New York and I taught in prisons there. Gradually the prison population changed and that philosophy gave way to attitudes in language that stressed conflict. The old society that cons had set up gave way to younger, more dangerous students who didn’t care about the distinctive purposes of language and wanted to force their idiom into the mainstream or use it for self gratification without regard to differences in perception.
During the period of multiculturalism and feminism, the prison population grew and were younger, desperate and hardened by the unfair, racist, Rockefeller laws of the state. That created more problems in attitude, and not much interest in learning standard English. I taught in Upstate prisons through various community colleges. One had a female teacher in the program that I shared a ride with. I remember once when the guards escorted us through the halls at the end of the period they told me to get at the back of the line and put her in front. She took it personally and said it was offensive to her and that she deserved equal consideration. I told her to let them do their thing. Obviously an old man hostage is more expendable than a pretty woman hostage. I taught at other prisons for Community College programs along the Hudson. It was gradually getting worse. My class was interrupted once by someone who had bashed out another’s brains. The guards said it was a “lover’s quarrel” One offender gave me a history of his pedophile offenses starting with his time the orphanage and all the throw-away kids in cities up and down the Hudson. The numbers and activities stunned me, the pitiful new normal of a culture now built on greed and political corruption set the tone for morality. When I taught in the youthful offenders program, a guard had to be in class with me. That was Mike Tyson’s alma mater. A murderess was a fine student until she went into a rage during class over what someone said to her. Two guards pulled another kid from class whose ass was bleeding and sneered “AIDS”.
I began teaching in regular community college 45 minutes from our village in Upstate New York. I like the community college teaching. The Chair was Indian and was in physics, so we had a polite relationship. I could do what I wanted and design my own courses. I rarely saw any other faculty other than when I taught the night course. The only other times I was on campus was to turn in my grades and collect my paycheck. Community colleges seem to have a lot more to offer students individually. There were rooms full of computers and it was the time they would be prominent in writing, so I just moved my classes into computer rooms and let them have at it. Student staff were always available help them with computers problems and many helped each other. I knew very little. Most students from foreign countries lived in the dorm. There were many students from Japan. Somehow I had in mind that kids from Japan knew all about computers, but I learned from them that was not the case. They said in their pre-college schooling that they had no computers at all. Their education officials thought it was wiser to have students interact and learn social skills and to help each other in lessons until the all felt equal in the basics. They figured that students could learn computers on the job in their professional life when the time came. I don’t know if that philosophy continued. I learned that they had no knowledge of pre WW2 history. It wasn’t taught in their schools, so I never brought it up. The majority were agnostic or apostate. Some were Buddhist or Shinto while most of the regular students were Christian.. I did assign papers for them to explore politics and used quotes from Koestler which they liked very much. Since Writing Across The Curriculum was popular in Composition courses at that time, many assignments included science.
One of my favorites was an exploration of process and analogy of the much studied T4 Bacteriophage. It became such a popular assignment, I used it at any level taking it in grade schools and high schools in the Poets-in- the -School Programs which were usually two week residencies. It’s components of process from virus to bacteriophage was perfect for teaching. What did its head look like? Its legs, its body, its hypodermic needle and how did it work its nefarious process was fascinating to all students. I think the poet, Kenneth Koch started the Poets-in-the-Schools Program by taking authentic poetry of the masters into the classroom and uses imagination and words that knew no boundaries or theories, no rules, no guidelines in the mimetic process of students writing their own poetry. “Words and Ideas” again that liberated students and gave them freedom of words. That in itself was revolutionary to compulsory education. The authority for this probably came from the poet, Archibald Macleish, who said a poem doesn’t have to mean, but be. This was a concept more difficult for teachers rather than students. I could hear the ghost of Horace Mann and the King of Prussia exclaim from their graves: “What, no meaning?” Remnants of this program exist today, but it he 70's there were federal monies in the arts given to the states to hire poets to visit schools, usually in two week residencies. The idea was to bring a real poet into the classroom and give him or her free reign in students making poetry.
The more money that was put into it, the greater it was politicized. It was lucrative for the poet, around a hundred dollars a day visiting two or three classes during the school day. I worked in Delaware, Virginia. Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. At the time my schedule didn’t fit that well in Maryland, so I just to visited with another poet to get the hang of it. This was in Montgomery County Maryland in whose college programs I taught in prisons. They seemed very thorough with Federal and state monies in the arts programs. At one time our daughter went to the same grade school as did Senator Sarbanes’ kid. It was predominantly Black as in a handful of White kids, representative of the district and there were no problems. I was run very well by a good principal. As I visited schools all around the Northeast, I began to sense what kind of school it was by meeting the principal, who set the tone and going to the teachers room to feel the vibes. If the principal was phony, the whole school had problems. Simple as that. There was no such thing, nor ever has been a “standard” in compulsory education. There is only a standard in propaganda.
I have kept on my shelf through the years a little chapbook published by the Maryland Arts Council of kid’s poems in the program while I was there because it contains some of my favorite poems, The first would probably not be allowed now because it would cause a problem in political correctness:
The Italian people’s socks are quick to sing
Italian socks are quick to sing for people
Italian people sing on high squeaky quick socks
Italian people sing quick sock songs....
Roz, grade 4
Finally the skyscrapers
are my mountains
And the neon signs
once I left No Hopeville
Sheri, grade 7
It’s like a wheel barrow
that carries people around
the middle of town
for me who is left a beep
and gave a kiss to a car
Steven, grade 5
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Generally 3, 4, 5 graders were natural poets and their minds were still free from numbing down and what a few commentators would to call dumbing down. But with kids in those grades, I could fill volumes with poetry as fresh as some of the best lines history whether in be the didactic homey phrases of Egyptian poetry, the island poets of ancient Greece, Italian Provencal Poets. It was lively compared to the poetry that was to be written in the proliferating academic workshops. Some dada by fifth grade and some sentimental love folk singer stuff by high school. I could see how “creativity” would be forced out of them by the 5th grade and become a word with no meaning. Many teachers saw a the program as a threat, while others were just happy to get away from the little monsters for the period. My experiences were diverse enough. I taught in Willington, Delaware that included 2nd graders playing Vivaldi and was entertained in the homes of DuPont executives. In Virginia, they all said, “yes sir”, in Oswego NY, snowed in. I had a friend who taught in a Catholic high school in the ghettos of Philly. I was free to rap or dis the system and with the kids also who liked KISS in the public schools. Generally the Catholic schools had better education. I saw the whole gamut of kids in schools in the Northeast. Pennsylvania had a huge program and there were regional directors who taught poetry themselves plus made extra money administrating the program. Knowing that poets tend to be whore and pimps, I acted on a hunch that a woman I knew got a lot of programs by screwing the regional administrator, so I dropped some hearsay that got me all the work I needed. Of course the poet-politicos moved in and took over. There were meetings on how to spend all the arts money. Gerald Stern was from Pennsylvania and became administrator for all the state moneys for the program. He was and is involved in the poetry politics of money during the best times of federal and state awards to poets. Now I see his name at the Poetry Foundation site. He had a knack for politics in that program. There were greedy poets as always. One had the top paying professorial job in California P.A. and acted like he knew me well to Mr. Stern and said we had hung out together in San Francisco. I met him for the first time at the program meeting in Pennsylvania. He took time out from his college job to work in some of the lucrative poets-in -the-schools jobs. He later burned me and others by publishing us and selling our work to special collectors.
I taught at a Quaker school near Philly and one in Upper Darby on old Highway 1. The English teacher there never quite understood the purpose of the program. He insisted on lionizing me, telling this high school kids now they can meet a real poet in the flesh...ect and made them sit on the floor around me to listen to my poetry. I told him that they were going to write poetry themselves and would be more comfortable at their desk. It was a very posh high school. I saw a T.V. documentary years later about a high school teacher involved in a student/murder wherein the teacher looked all too familiar. I enjoyed the students in all the schools, and in one school far into rural Pennsylvania beyond the Susquehanna Chesapeake watershed, I was moved to write a book of poetry by a third grader. She was playing at recess with our class on a beautiful spring day. The grass was high and the kids were picking clumps of it and throwing it on others and rolling in it. I thought it irresistible poetic play, so I rolled in the grass and put a bunch of it in my hair. When I stood up, the little girl approached me with a puzzled look, eyes squinting in the sunshine and asked in an very inquisitive tone trying to determine a grown-up and asked simply, “Are you a kid?” I titled my book that. I found many poetic phrases and words and sometimes I couldn’t resist “borrowing.” I would use various techniques and materials with kids that other teachers soon adapted. Sometimes with lower grades, Instead of my T4 analogy experiment, I would use a book of Magritte plates I had separated to pass around. These were already visual juxtapositions so any descriptive words came out poetry. The philosophical founder of the program, Kenneth Koch had published his popular book, “Wishes Lies and Dreams” each of those words were used to stimulate the concepts and ideas of children that launched the programs.
At a school in Westchester County, the superintendent asked my honest assessment to his question. Could his teachers could do the same thing I did? I told him yes, at this particular school the teachers were certainly sharp enough to use my tricks or others to motivate and excite the students and let them freely create and most importantly see their creations for the treasures they were. But I told him that his school was the exception and that probably monetary rewards do attract the best teachers. But in most cases, even if the teacher is naturally motivated and an experienced educator, he or she will most probably be at odds with the superintendent and other faculty and the historical pedagogy of the compulsory education system. I visited so many different schools, and centers, it would be difficult to remember them all. In visited a class in our own village where by the late 80's the government was pushing consolidation. Gone were the days a parent or grandparent could walk a child to school, or the high school kids could walk into the village on lunch break and visit the soda shop. A flim-flam man came to town wearing a yellow tie that was popular that year and schmoozed most of the villagers into building a gigantic prison-looking building on good farmland between our village and the next on the premise of offering more programs with larger state funding. Most visitors upon seeing it from the road thought it was a prison complex. I thought that the state might have had that as a long range interest when the student population declined. When it opened, he ordered an American flag so large it touched the ground from the top of the flag pole. It was made for huge car lot or franchise openings and its material couldn’t withstand the elements. Someone stole it. They put in interlocking bricks front area that was never used. Today the are digging down four feet to fill it all in concrete. Their water and sewer system and transportation industry housing it is more vast than a town complex. The machines working there today look as expansive and larger that those that built the Boulder dam.
At its beginning, the Superintendent voted on his salary in excess of a hundred grand in closed-door session which was big money then when the average villager’s income was around 15 thousand a year. The entrance was on a blind hill and his wife had a car accident turning out of it. The villagers finally ran him off. Because it was far from towns in a field, a transportation industry had to be created. There haven been one or two huge buses wrecked since its doors opened. I see a little head bob up and down going past on one of the fifty thousand dollar busses that plucked the numb kid from his home in the early morning. When they come home I see the same faces bounce past. A perfect Prussian state picture of compulsion and order. Once I visited a class when the carpet was still new. There was the smell of fumes and half the school was home with flue-like symptoms. When I mentioned the smell to the teachers they begged me to say something to the principal because they were afraid to. He was in his room and rarely came out. He was an idiot installed by members of the village board who was obsessed with discipline. They regularly hired idiots for principals if they thought they could maintain order. I later chased the first one down the hall into his office on another matter related to my own kid’s behavior that improved just on the embarrassing premise that I would come there to straighten things out if he got in trouble. They are busy to this day spending taxpayer monies. Their bus garage is as large as a football field they never got around to building. There are new, yellow buses in rows spanning across the entire building with engines running and kids breathing their exhausts and teachers trying to cope with ADD or whatever the season’s problems. I remember how lucky we were to run through the wheat field, hitch a ride with a farmer, or ride our horses to our one-room school house even if we had to eat Mrs. Reynolds baked beans every day.
After some courses in the Community College I liked very much, I taught a summer program at Cornell and then was hired at Oneonta at a State University College that specialized in turning out teachers. The Writing Program Director came from a top school and knew the score like the director of the Professional Writing program at Maryland. I had used her book as a textbook at some of my colleges through the years, though her names escapes me. I was hired in the Writing Center as a Tutor, a job I liked because I could sit in my cubicle and have students come to me. They were expected, as future teachers and so forth to write a correct essay. I finally found a good job, working the hours and days of my choosing. They pay was good, approximately that of two lecture courses; I supplemented that income by driving a small milk truck from a dairy across the road that did their own bottling. Two days a week, I left early in the morning with fresh milk, delivered to premium markets from the bottom on Manhattan to the top and returned to home all in one day. The other days I made up my schedule to teach. Passing the writing test was the first of its kind I had seen. The reasoning was to insure competency of graduating teachers. The tutoring faculty usually ended up writing letters for the students to prospective school superintendents anyway just to make things run smoothly. Most of the students had too many syntactical, punctuation, and grammatical errors that might seem embarrassing for a graduate. Most of it was merely proofreading and scoring the students essays and tutoring them to learn how to write a simple essay. Though it was an exit exam, it harkened back to the nineteenth century German model adopted by Harvard in is 1874 entrance requirement in English composition, i.e. a short English composition, correct spelling, punctuation, grammar and expression of ideas on a list of chosen topics. I and my co-workers jobs were to pass the student out of tutoring or schedule hours to work with them to be able to write the acceptable composition. The concept made as much sense as anything I guess, and it gave me and others jobs. Some of the others were faculty wives, two of department heads, who couldn’t make a living on their own or just wanted more. But greed seemed always acceptable in the academe even if it knock some other needy soul out of the benefits the part-time job offered. I had found a place in the program probably on gender basis. My director, who had good wit and schooling made a wry comment at one of our meetings when discussing the importance of our program that our last line of defense was the comma splice.
Ironically, it was the first I had known of the error. That and sentence fragments seemed to be the most significant items for my colleagues in correct compositions, so I happily became an expert on these errors. After that job when I returned to writing I fell back into my old habits of writing in fragments, etc.. One of my colleagues who liked to throw her weight around, whose husband was the Chair in physics, was very adamant about using the Prentice -Hall handbook and tried to make it the official handbook. I began calling it the “Pretentious-hall “ handbook, and at our weekly faculty conference pointed out an error in the handbook. I told my own students they could get at handbook in our own writing lab room where shelves were stacked with old complimentary copies. None of them took one. They could also learn about their errors with handouts I made up for them individually, if they wanted. After all, I was getting paid for my time. They were always confused as to what their English professors expected of them. I showed them the Bedford’s Brief History of Rhetoric and Composition and told them their professor’s approach would probably be found among the periods delineated in the text.
I was getting to the age where heaving milk cartons was taking its toll, as well as driving to Manhattan and back in one day, so I trained a younger guy to drive the truck into NYC and took on an English composition courses as a Lecturer, which was pretty much the same in all colleges. I preferred tutoring but teaching a course was easier than driving a truck and unloading milk in NYC. With two courses, I could fill out my part-time income to a decent salary, Teaching a course was a position other tutors always wanted as a status role, but I took them when offered because we couldn’t work full time as a tutor because of policy. There were other poets at the university who gradually got wind that I was working as a tutor, sometimes teaching a course as well. I think there were two tenure track poets there who had paltry publications compared to me. One had a wife to taught at Hartwick, a private college near the university. I eventually met them both and they who both had tenured positions in poetry. Their name was Frost, most suited name for the poetry industry. My wife was involved in publishing, so we went to a State Arts Council meeting to learn about publishing funds. The behavior of the two poet/professors we had just met in front of the representatives of the public funding was so shocking, we thereafter avoided them. They both were awarded lucrative fellowships to write poetry though, so their behavior must have paid off. It was around twenty thousand each at the time. Robert Frost’s student wanted me to come to his students’ poetry reading, so I did. He usually had 4 to 5 students in his class, when my Composition and tutoring courses were overflowing because the college couldn’t afford more teachers. He was tenured, so he could do or not do what he wanted. Meeting him and his students was unpleasant for me. That was apparent. One of the duties of a tutor was to work with students who were having difficulty writing a paper for their professors in other courses. We would schedule a time to meet with them. He sent his students to me in the Writing Center indicating their problem. His instructions were that they needed help correcting comma spices in their poetry! There was the occasional dedicated teacher, but in English departments the ratio seemed to be one dedicated teacher for every hundred or so assholes. They have been dinosaurs for years and universities should eliminate them altogether in the computer age.
I was dedicated to my students and could understand how the suicide rate was high among those trying to adjust their new social, financial’ and intellectual life while facing, in many cases a hostile learning environment, usually from teachers who had nothing to offer like the case of fixing comma splices in poetry. I heard many horror stories from students who came to me for help in writing their papers and I hope I relieved some of their pressure and anxieties. I remember one very frustrated student who was sent to the Writing Center for tutorial help. I could see he was at the end of his rope and ready to give up. I made him at ease with a few silly jokes and remarks and asked to see his assignment, which was usual procedure, but he said the professor just gave a verbal assignment to write a paper on something from his textbook. I asked if they went over any possible topics in class. No. I asked for his syllabus. It made no sense. He kept saying he didn’t know what he instructor wanted and he couldn’t understand what was in the book after reading the assigned pages over and over. I asked to see his book. It was a course in a soft subject, something like sociology courses I remembered from the 50's but had catchy names in these times. I quickly scanned the book and its topics which seem vague and unrelated to anything. I tried some close reading at various places in the book, trying to find a thesis statement on the subject. I asked again about his assignment and it was vaguely to write about something from the book he said he couldn’t understand. He couldn’t get started. He didn’t know what to write. etc. I realized that his teacher knew nothing and the subject matter was nothing. I leaned back and told him to relax and that there is no wonder he couldn’t understand anything in his book. I told him it was all gobbledygook. He looked puzzled. I said there is nothing here. It is all secondary source material patchworked into simulating subject matter. I tried several times to find a thesis, a primary discourse. I looked at the publication and told him it looked like a grad student had cleverly printed and bound his own work and there is very little to it. I told him it was recycled material, so all he has to do is recycle it some more. He was enlightened and said, “Oh, I can do that!” I said fine. And told him not to quote me and to keep it low so that my other colleagues wouldn’t hear, but this is all bullshit and obviously your instructor doesn’t care about the subject or much of anything else. It’s too dense to try to understand. Don’t waste your time, just add some of your words and cite and document from the text and pretend you know something buy stimulating discourse in class. They like that. He came back at the end of the semester beaming and said he had gotten an A on all his work and in the course. I laughed and said let’s have a high-five for bullshit. He was happy. I told him its important in the academe to meet stupidity with stupidity and brilliance with brilliance. In college life you only have to determine the difference. He became a good student and dropped in from time to time to see me.
I was offered a Creative Writing course much to the chagrin of those other tutors who would very much like to teach such a course. I hated it but needed the money. I had taught such a course before at other colleges, so prepared myself for the grind. There were two black students who sat in front and were aggressive feminists. They immediately got into a discussion about the grading system and wanted to insure fairness. It was difficult enough to invent grades for such a course but the universities policy insisted that grading was clarified because there were always disputes. I couldn’t tell them I didn’t give a shit about grades myself, so I had to work out some meaningful arrangement for all parties. There was another black girl who sat between them, who was quite innocent. I could see they were playing her too. I usually assigned a couple of “getting acquainted” papers to write in class and another to amplify and open discussions so we could all get to know each other. Having experienced this situation before, I could usually tell at that point who would be good writers and who would never quite catch on. I could have probably graded them all at that point and it would have matched what they would end up with anyway. The innocent girl would need extra help. It was obvious she would always need and expect instruction in place of self-motivation. The other two aggressive girls lobbied for her and badgered me to give her a grade equal to theirs and some of the other sharper students. The ‘ringleader” would come to my tutoring office ostensibly to work on her papers fingering her straw in paper cup suggestively and wanted to got to lunch with me. I didn’t. A friend in Black Studies came by the class and hugged me, so I thought I sent the right message. It didn’t . And my aggressive student asked me into an office with three other women of color one day and they started grilling me about my course. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, so I didn’t bring in my supervisor or pay the meeting any attention. It was very odd.. She brought up the fact that I would mention this fellow, Orwell, and they all questioned me about that. A weird institutional meeting I’ve never figured out. Maybe it was to help purge old white men.
I was pretty safe in my tutoring cubicle, hidden from the politics of a state campus for a while, until my poetry past brought trouble again. Reflecting on it, I think I raised suspicion in other professors because I wasn’t keeping strictly to my discipline that they perceived as poetry. I didn’t want to think that any institution was that petty, but they must have been. I taught a summer course at Cornell in Philosophy and needed to pick up another course in Oneonta. They offered me a college course in beginning Algebra. They seem like I should automatically want the job and said there was nothing to it, so I took it. I remembered fifth grade arithmetic and liked it and may have had math in Jr. High but didn’t remember any. I had no courses in Algebra and didn’t know what it was, so like the printing press job, I accepted it. I had to learn algebra before each class. I thought is was the most boring thing in the world while at the same time, the most fantastic. I had been to visit the Chair of the Math Department where I was tutoring and he showed me how he was growing algebraic designs in chaos theory, so I was intrigued. I had substituted in math at our local high school where I didn’t have to know anything just for a day or so and suspected they just emphasized algebra to keep students in order. I learned it was invented by the Arabs while the Greco-Roman civilizations were busy killing each other. I envisioned someone sitting in the sand with a long stick adding one item to one end and removing one at the other to make it come out right. It was fascinating enough to me that I learned the lessons just before I taught them and had the answers, and to prove the equations was the basis of the course, so I didn’t need much else. If I couldn’t explain it, there was usually a student much sharper than I in algebra. One time I did run into a problem that I nor the students could solve, so I took it to a professional who used algebra all the time. It puzzled him as well. Finally, I inferred the answer, or what to do to get the answer and we were able to prove it out. I thought It was wonderful that I learned algebra, but after the year of teaching it, I forgot everything I ever knew about it. I’d be at a loss to understand a basic equation. I still don’t understand what it’s for, but I realize it’s a measurement in everything. I began to think it is more a state of mind.
A student in one of the poetry classes found out I was a tutor at the college. Many of the students at SUCO were from the city. It was affiliated with a design school there as well as being an Education school. David Greenspan was to become a good friend. He came to meet me with an idea. An idea I had exploited in the 1950's at W.U. and ended with the exploding magazine but was needed again. He didn’t know that. He wanted to do a university literary magazine and invite poets to the university to read their poems, and he had an English professor to sponsor him who also knew I was at the college. He said the Student Union had turned him down and they spend thousands to bring Long Island comedy acts and all sorts of trash to students for entertainment. I ask him why come to me. I’m the lowest man on the totem pole. I’m merely a tutor. He persisted. I told him. ok, here’s what you do.(I had no notion he would do it.) Go to the president of the college and tell him the student union has huge budget to bring lame entertainment to the university while they refused him money to bring legitimate authors to visit for educational purposes. He did so, and the university gave him a budget to bring people in the field. He brought some poets I knew and some his sponsor, Professor Meanor knew about in the Beat Industry. Gale Research publication of The Dictionary of Literary Biography had an entry about me and reproductions some of the magazines I published and printed: The Beats & Literary Bohemians Post War America. Part 2 M-Z. Which began with Mailer. David invited the editor, Anne Charters, to speak, who was merging the Beat industry into the academic mainstream, and who obviously had the word to ex communicate me from both, but he invited my wife to his party we met her and her well-regard husband in music history, Sam Charters.
David also invited Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published my first prose book at his City Lights. He commanded a big honoraria of several thousand dollars and to be flown from San Francisco. David and his father were from Brooklyn and had enjoyed his famous Coney Island of The Mind. He had told David not to introduce him as “Beat” but as “Doctor” and began to read what I thought the worst academic trot I’d heard. It was obvious he wanted to get back into the academic mainstream now that the Beats were gone. That’s where the money was after the Nixon & Reagan administrations who both expanded the arts with money but wanted to make sure there were no Communists or funny business, so the trend was to the trusted Prussian-born institutions. Lawrence was a Navy officer n WW2, so he was respected. I had told David I would attend the poetry reading just for support, which wasn’t needed as he had a big turnout anyway. I told him I’d like to remain in the background because I’ve never had much to say to Mr. Ferlinghetti to whom Allen Ginsberg introduced me many years ago at his house in San Francisco. David had a seat for me on front row of entrance isle and they came past me on the way to the podium. And here we have Charles Plymell, and blah blah, all the niceties, cordial handshakes and where had we seen each other last, whose where, etc. I had my big blonde Lab, Bebop with me who after a while of the poetry and at the end of one of the most dreadful ones let out a great yawn.
That gave me a good excuse to take him outside and wait for the others in my party, Laki Vasakas and Grant Hart, punk singing star formerly with Husker Du. David asked us to his house for a party after the reading and I re-iterated that I had never really anything to say to Mr. Ferlinghetti, so I didn’t want to get stuck in an awkward setting with just the two of us. He came out of the reading and said something like, we finally sold out your book. And I wanted to say yeah, I could have used some royalties. In addition I had split an advance with him from the Austrian publisher of my book because they go through the publisher. But he was old, though smartly dressed from a recent appearance in Italy where he has many literary connections, and I didn’t say anything.. Sure enough at David’s house I found just the two of us in a room together, silent. Grant Hart, always full of mischief and knowing the circumstance walked in and Dr. Meanor followed. Grant bent over and started sniffing Ferlinghetti’s ass and he turned around shocked. Grant said, “That’s the way dogs get to know each other, so I thought we might do the same.”
I went back to my tutorial chair at the college at the Writers Center helping students with their papers and helping them write letters to their prospective employers for teachers, and sometimes just writing the letters for them. I was getting along without incident until I learned through flyers plaster in every corner of the campus and throughout the school and city newspapers that the University had invited Maya Angelou to speak. I had seen her name at George Washington University on two rooms, but never her person when I taught there and had to find an unoccupied cubicle or corner of the library to confer privately with my students.. I learned another prestigious university gave her a salary well over a hundred grand just to have her name associated with them, so I don’t know if she ever taught a class. I saw a video of her appearance at a poetry center in the city where women oddly were offering to do her wash and scrub her floors. This self proclaimed e-x whore had ridden the system to new heights during the Mutliculturalism and Feminist influence that was written about in the Bedford History of rhetoric. I wasn’t teaching, but working on the docks when the Watts riots ushered in that period where a few Blacks figured out how to game the system and probably the funds meant for the poor folk at Watts today. Ferlinghetti’s hustle was small potatoes compared to May Angelou, who was on the cover of Forbes Magazine as multi millionaire worth close to a half -billion dollars. It was if the Pope, or at least Mother Mary was coming to town! The Albany news was full of her landing. She was on TV news bringing a little girl from the audience who came up to read her innocent ‘Rose are red” poem next the “great poet” said she could grow up and do the same. Unlikely, but poetry scams do exhibit longevity for they are in the “good” column in the social order.
I had traveled with my older sister who had worked for many a madam in the Northwest. Her last partner, the one who helped me get into the union was the offspring of a madam and her man, the sheriff of Deadwood S.D. My sister was found dead on the streets of San Francisco, a victim of what we never knew, but I knew poetry and I knew hustle, so I wasn’t that enthused about the great poet’s visit. I learned that the university had given her $50,000 for her to read poetry. Her contract stated that she would not entertain questions from the audience or would not sign books. I was tired of seeing so much waste and arrogance towards students. I retired early at a percent of my retirement. Another mistake. But I announced it to the local in protest of her visit and its conditions and honoraria for what I considered less “quality” verse than one could find on a Hallmark card.
I knew the word “quality” was the government code to hand down money to state art organizations and no one could argue it. It was a device to hand money through the peer (friends) system which as always stacked and served the social order. But of course the public is far removed from poetry itself, let alone the scam. Even the local newspaper owned by Dow Jones had to come to the defense of someone who had her mug, and I do mean mug, on the cover of Forbes Magazine. In timidity and guilt from a mere tutor’s criticism, they gave her a big spread and published a flurry of letters to her defense. One was from a teacher from a nearby town who brought her “English class of young women” to see the famous poet. I wondered if the public school suddenly became gender specific, but all the letters contained some sort of fallacy. There was one letter of support for me with the address of a known trailer camp prominently printed at the bottom. A spokesman for the university finally issued a statement to the paper, the half-truth cleverly disguised by saying that the university only paid her a $25,000 honorarium. There was no mention that the university’s Student Union paid the other $25,000. That of course was never reported so the one who criticized the great ex-whore cum poet cum multi-millionaire who was paid 50 thousand and didn’t take questions from students, was in the “bad” column. That ended my career as a teacher. My “discipline” my specialty was never declarative and my role as a poet seemed to interfere and present an anomaly to the system. In the newspaper article I used my designation as Academic Tutor.” As I also taught courses and could have used “lecturer” “”teacher” or “adjunct Professor” which would have had more status. My only regret was that my son was in the vulnerable Junior high school age in the Prussian system in our village. That of course lent itself to other kids saying that his father was just a tutor. The labels in the Prussian system are necessary for understanding social order from a perspective other than the individual. Afterwards, I was asked by someone in the English Department to come back a teach a course. I could make up my own course, anything I wanted. I said sorry, It’s too late.
The very day I write this, I see a discussion on the news about “place specific education” and mainly due to the internet the campus as no longer necessary. One defense was directly connected to the Prussian goals. Statistics showed that university graduates earn more money. I saw the Chancellor of The University of Pennsylvania defending the “place.” I should think so as much as was invested in that name. I recalled my poetry discussion with Loren Eiseley, who was over the Museum and the Anthropology Department at the campus in Philadelphia and wondered if he had the problem of discipline. Though his awards would compile many pages, he was never mention as a poet either. The university will change, simply because it isn’t worth the money. It’s stacked against the Ted Turners of the world, but gradually the young will awaken and see what alternatives there can be for individual thinkers of the kind that began the country. Certainly many departments in Sociology, English, Black Studies and many other will become dinosaurs and “place” universities won’t be able to support them. The job market will change radically a well. There will still be a case made for education in the sciences, but industry will have to take care of itself. The sooner political studies are dropped and real history is taught, the better. The sooner people become literate on their own and the M.F.A. degree is dropped, the better, and so on. The piece of paper eventually wont be of value. If I were to begin again and was a math head. I would stick with science and engineering and perhaps let chaos theory reveal itself on its own. I wouldn’t waste any time in an English Department. I would buy a good etymological dictionary and read literature on my own. I would have no need for the Film Department to hear some weary professor profess what movies he liked or didn’t like. I would study all foreign languages as much as I could and practice playing a musical instrument. My own parents made sure I had a violin just in case but I let them down. They gave me a slide guitar. I didn’t take to that. I once had a piano briefly and took one lesson from the famous keyboard artists, Paul Bley, who said what I thought: Just learn it as if you are learning to ride a bicycle. I would have, but we had to sell our house and move to where the jobs were. The poetry grant I was hoping for never came. I never played the right game either The rest, as they say, is history. One can study that for oneself, too. It doesn’t cost a dime. Maybe a couple of bucks if you hit the library sales, or more if you invest in a computer. It’s all there.
Remember the Prussian influence that the writer, John Taylor Gatto promised would deliver: Obedient soldiers to the army; obedient workers to the mines; well subordinated civil servants to government, well subordinated clerks to industry, citizens who think alike about major issues, etc, The system has proven itself over and over. It has given us Carter, Clinton Bush et.al. who were all products of the educational system and supported it in some way. If one wants to renew the traditional American purpose and think for oneself and prepare oneself to be self-reliant, be careful of what you buy into. It not a “bad” thing (in today’s vernacular) to stand alone against obvious hypocrisies even if it seems the deck is stacked against you.
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