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The Professor Is In: Deborah Poe

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Dyson Professor Deborah Poe, PhD, talks student engagement, her not-so-secret alter ego, her love of Mr. Robot, and more in this month’s Professor Is In.

Dyson Professor Deborah Poe, PhD, has a remarkable way with words. Having written dozens of publications ranging from journals, to fiction and poetry anthologies, to scholarly books, poetry books, and more, Poe is curious and passionate about creating and sharing her craft. In this month’s The Professor Is In, Poe shares her love of writing, the importance in keeping students engaged in their communities and work, and why France will always have a piece of her heart.

What was one thing or person that made you passionate about your current career?
My mother imbued me with a fierce curiosity. Dr. Bruce Beasley, professor at Western Washington University, equipped me with the language to succeed. He is the best teacher I ever had and an excellent poet who provided me with tools to deepen my particular strengths and challenge my weaknesses. I endeavor to be precisely this kind of teacher.

What quality do you most value in your students?

What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
You have the opportunity during this four-year stretch to be involved and connected to so much through peers, faculty, and ideas. Engage. To engage is to connect and extend your professional and personal community. A more engaged reader is a stronger analytical thinker. A stronger analytical thinker is a stronger global citizen. A stronger global citizen is a more valuable employee or business owner.

If you had to do it all over again and take another path, what profession would you choose?
I loved chemistry in high school and college, and for many years I joked about my alter ego as a chemist in a lab. One day I realized I could play chemist in a lab by writing a poetry collection based on the periodic table. That book is Elements (Stockport Flats Press 2010). At this moment in my life though, I would say a photojournalist working in climate/environment/ecology, especially with photography that engages historically under-represented communities, including communities of color and immigrant and refugee communities.
What profession would you not choose?
Given my curious nature, there are few professions I would not choose to explore. But I do not think I would be a good banker.

What is your favorite word? Least favorite word?
I am a writer with so many favorite words. Two that come up frequently in my work are infrastructure and architecture. I love the actual words, but I also love their spatial nature. To me they feel like what they mean. Given my upbringing as a military brat and moving around a lot, I am very place- and space-oriented. I have always been fixated on place, home, and belonging.

What is your guilty pleasure TV show or mobile app?
At the moment, House of Cards. My favorite TV show right now though is Mr. Robot, but I do not consider it a guilty pleasure. It is too well done.

What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
My least favorite class was economics. I just could not get my head wrapped around what seemed to me very abstract concepts. My favorite classes were my French classes. In fact, Dr. Richard Golsan at Texas A&M University might have been one of the few professors that truly got through to me. He introduced me to so many exciting things: French language, the writing of Marguerite Duras and Samuel Beckett, the French Resistance during World War II—just to name a few. After graduating from college, I left for Paris with two suitcases, no job, and no place to live, wanting to immerse myself in the language. Within a few days, I had both a job and residence. I know this entire experience was fueled by studying with Dr. Golsan. And Dr. Golsan’s classes were with me too no doubt as I wrote Hélène, my novella in verse (Furniture Press 2012).

If you were a Pace student, what class would you like to take with another Pace professor?
The year before last I served on the committee for professors’ tenure and promotion. I became acquainted with so much cool stuff faculty do at Pace. So where to begin? If I had the time, I would get a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies, taking classes with professors like Dr. Melanie Dupuis whose work seems to draw as much on social and political history as it does the history of science and popular culture. I would take a poetry class with Charles North on the New York City Campus. And I would love to work with Dr. Eve Andrée Laramée, since we share preoccupations with art and science.

What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
Without a doubt I would use that hour to create: to write more books, to make more handmade books and book objects, to take a photography class.

What is your favorite professional or personal journey/experience?
After my undergraduate studies, I worked for almost 10 years in businesses including hostel clerk and bartender in Paris, environmental activist in Austin, a waitress in Taos, engineering assistant at Oregon Steel Mill in Portland, marketing coordinator at a civil engineering firm, and lastly as editor and then international/localization program manager in Seattle at Microsoft. While I was doing well in my four years at Microsoft, I would visit local art exhibits and attend readings and performances and be plagued by the feeling I wasn't doing enough to make a difference. Then September 11th happened. I got to work very early in the morning on the west coast, so I was one of the first to hear the news. I decided within the next month that life was too short and applied to Western Washington’s Master of Arts program in English. I thought I would see how I felt if I got in. I got in and felt like going. Thus began my career in academe.

What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
What is the difference between ambition and aspiration? One lets you breathe. This comes from my first published book of poetry, Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords 2008).

If you could have any five people living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
Only five? This dinner’s curation seems an impossible task! I would invite Buddha for his grounded wisdom. One of the many things I admire about the brilliant Native American writer Sherman Alexie is his sense of humor. Alexie inspires learning and compassion but also makes people laugh. I like the idea of his presence for that reason. Scottish songwriter and singer Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins, my all-time favorite band, would be another guest. She is terribly shy, but I think we could convince her to sing for Buddha. Edward Said was a professor at Columbia and founder of postcolonial studies. He has been an extremely important thinker for me and could play piano beautifully. African American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde would be an exciting conversationalist, with great insights into race in the United States. As a woman scholar, she might challenge Said too in interesting ways. What I would do too to hear her read poetry live and in person! Collectively this concert of minds would make for an incredibly stimulating evening.

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