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The Professor Is In: Charles North

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Pace Poet in Residence Charles North sat down with Opportunitas this month to discuss his time at the University, changes in poetry and technology over the decades, and offers tips for aspiring poets.

Dyson Professor and Pace Poet in Residence Charles North is an award-winning poet who has published some 20 books of poems, essays, and collaborations with artists and other poets. What It Is Like (2011) headed NPR’s list of Best Poetry Books of the Year, and his recent collection Everything and Other Poems (2020) was named a New York Times New and Noteworthy Book. The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, which has a copy of Elevenses, North's limited edition collaboration with the artist Trevor Winkfield, recently made a film of the book and posted it on YouTube.

North, who has been at Pace for several decades, sat down with Opportunitas this month to discuss his time at the University, changes in poetry and technology over the decades, and offers tips for aspiring Poets. 

When did you first realize poetry was for you? What made you muster up the courage to begin to write poetry?

It's interesting to me that you would think of courage as a prerequisite for poetry writing!  As it happens, it was for me, though a lot of people write poems, especially in adolescence, without thinking twice about it. 

My finding my way to poetry, which didn't happen till my mid-twenties, was a matter of fumbling (or stumbling)—followed by some good luck. I didn't particularly go for poetry in school, including graduate school, and for a time tried to write fiction. I got an MA in English from Columbia but decided not to go on for the PhD; entered law school (Harvard) but quickly decided it wasn't for me; got into a PhD program in philosophy but never enrolled. While working as a freelance copy editor for a publishing company, I showed a handful of poems I had done to my former Columbia advisor, himself a poet. They were pretty conventional, but he liked them and suggested I try a workshop taught by his colleague, the poet Kenneth Koch, who was moonlighting at The New School. I put it off for a year (lack of courage!) but finally enrolled, and the class changed my life.

You've been at Pace for a long time. What is your favorite thing about working at Pace? Can you talk a bit as to how the Pace experience has changed since you started teaching? 

Although I pretty much stumbled into teaching as I did with poetry, it was soon clear to me that I was meant to teach. To me, being in the classroom is always stimulating, sometimes exhilarating. I've felt the same in Zoom poetry classes. It's exciting to see students discover things they had no idea they were capable of, exciting when they win writing awards and get published or, as was the case with a former poetry student who went on to become an important figure in video game construction, exciting to think poetry at Pace had a hand in her success.

I can say a little about my own Pace experience. I was initially hired to teach remedial English in a program for students who hadn't qualified for regular admission. I had just begun to write poems, there were no poetry writing courses at Pace, and I taught four courses each semester, which left me with almost no time for anything else.

For the next 20 years, in addition to writing and publishing books, I taught a variety of courses as an adjunct; literature as well as writing—and eventually poetry. The longtime English Chair Sherman Raskin created the Poet-in-Residence position in the mid-1990s, initially half-time, and that changed my teaching life. I taught what most interested me, was advisor to Aphros (I had had experience running a small press) and invited poets to give readings at Pace.

As Pace's Poet in Residence, you created and continue to organize the Poets @ Pace series. Can you talk a little bit about how the series started, and how it has evolved?

I helped plan and run several reading series that were precursors to Poets @ Pace, among them the Dyson Lectures and the President's Writers Series, both of which brought well known writers here. With these as precedents, Poets @ Pace (I still get a kick out of the name!) began in fall 2008, one reading with two poets (usually) per term. From the start, my aim was to invite poets I admired who would also appeal to a general audience.

At first the readings were in the Schimmel Theater Lobby; then we moved to the Bianco Room at 1 Pace Plaza. In addition to the readings, we have a Q & A and refreshments. Not only have the audiences been a good deal bigger than the average audience for poetry (sometimes as many as 100); I've been gratified to hear from a number of the readers that they found the Pace audience particularly interesting.

As the series progressed, I included some group readings: An Evening of Federico Garcia Lorca with readings by his translators; An Evening of Frank O'Hara with readings by two poets who were close to him; A Celebration of Kenneth Koch with readers who had studied with him, including Ron Padgett, Tony Towle, Siri Hudstvedt, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Some other readers over the years: Sherman Alexie, John Ashbery, Ange Mlinko, James Tate, Dara Wier, Pablo Medina, August Kleinzahler, Anne Lauterbach, Mónica de la Torre, Robert Creeley, Eileen Myles, Aisha Sasha John, David Trinidad, Alice Notley, Jiwon Choi, Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Rosanne Wasserman, Paul Auster, Paul Violi, Wang Ping, Pace alumna Nadia Owusu. One other innovation: the Fall 2020 (Zoom) reading featured four Pace English faculty poets. Next up (Zoom, April 5): Wayne Koestenbaum, Patricia Spears Jones. 

Technology-wise, the world has changed quite a bit since you began your career. Do you think the future is bright for poetry; do you think the rise of social media and increased interconnectedness, for example, has helped or harmed the art form?

It's hard not to indulge in wishful thinking, but since you asked, I'll be as straightforward as I can. I myself don't see the future as particularly bright for poetry—I'm not sure I ever have done. When I began writing poems, in a vibrant community of young poets centered in the Poetry Project downtown, the sense was that the exciting poetry was underground and would stay there; I don't think much has changed.  Most of the well-known publications that take literature seriously scant poetry; what's published or reviewed is by and large conventional, often uninteresting at least to me; and I believe both, along with most people's experiences with poetry in school, are reasons so many essentially stay away from poetry. As for interconnectedness, there are different ways to be connected.  These days there are far fewer literature courses in English departments than when I began teaching, far fewer sentences going back and forth via text and Twitter than used to travel in paper envelopes, far too much lingering misinformation (in schools as well as in the air) about what poetry is, how to read it, and how to try to write it. 

What advice would you have to students who are interested in poetry?

To me the best advice it to read loads of good poetry—and not simply what's being written now, or what qualifies as "modern"—and to keep an open mind.  Neither of which is easy these days. When English departments routinely taught survey and period literature courses, students graduated with at least some sense of the rich history of poetry, and connections between, say, 17th-century poets and 20th-century ones. Imitation, both conscious and unconscious, has been the sincerest form of learning in all the arts pretty much since arts began; it's the way poets learn what makes poems effective and hence what to aim for, as well as what to avoid. And it's the best way to get a sense (vital, I believe) of what's possible, how surprisingly large the notion of poetry really is.

Another very useful thing is to have friends in the same game, people to exchange work with, go to readings with, talk to about poets, poems, readings, publishers, etc. One of the best reasons to take a poetry workshop, to me, is the chance to know other poets. As to writing classes, MFA programs and the like, they can be stimulating and helpful but aren't necessarily either, so it's important to do some research beforehand, try to learn which ones people have liked and profited from.

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