When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I don't think I thought so much of a career; I thought more of what classes I liked in high school, and from a very early age I had great English and history teachers. I wasn't very practical about my college education and what I wanted to be. I didn't quite envision a college education as a transition into a job. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer, which I considered, but I guess I just always privileged doing what I wanted to do and studying what I wanted to study more than how that would slide into to a job.
At 16 or 17, I just thought, “Oh, I want to read this stuff and write this stuff.” I thought the AP tests were fun, and I wasn't really considering a career. I was very romantic I guess in the sense that I liked poetry, so I wanted to take poetry classes, and just approached it in that way.
How did you decide to attend John Carroll University?
Most of my mother's family is from Cleveland, so I knew about the college from visiting them. It’s Jesuit and I was Catholic at the time/kind of still am. I was a runner and I wanted somewhere where I could be a varsity athlete and still get a really good education. I knew I wanted a small, liberal arts college with a lot of personal attention; I wanted mentorship. Once I visited, I really liked the campus. For me, there's something about a well-manicured campus that allows one to romanticize oneself as a student, and you get excited about learning in that way. I guess part of what was important to me was to be able to fantasize myself as a person of that place.
How did you choose your major?
I went in as a history major and then ended up really enjoying my English classes more, particularly creative writing, so I ended up doing a history minor and an English major. Honestly, it was easier to be a creative writing major, there was less rigorous research and work. I kind of took the easy way out in that regard. I love both disciplines, but it was important to me to guard my personal time for writing what I wanted to write.
I wrote poetry mostly - oh man, I could show you some terrible poems. I guess I would use the term romantic again in the sense that I would have been the student out in the quad on a blanket playing the guitar, but I am not musically inclined. So I would sit out on a blanket and write poems about the trees and about girls, and I guess I was invested in the image of being a writer. Maybe that's how all people come to writing is through fantasizing about the Bohemian poverty lifestyle (I'm like the least Bohemian person I know), but there's something seductive and alluring about it. So I guess that's how I came to writing, just imagining myself in that role of the writer. This is why I'm not a business major, because English and history just speak to me in a vocational sense, to use a word the Jesuits would be proud of.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I applied widely to a lot of different graduate schools in both MFA programs in creative writing and MA/PhD's in English, but I had no clue about anything. I didn't know what the top programs were, I didn't know what graduate school looked like, I was just kind of going into it blind and without a sense really of what I wanted my career to be. I liked creative writing, but I also liked literature and writing critically about literature. I got very lucky, and I got into the MFA program at Cornell which changed my life.
Most MFA's are based around a workshop course, so you take workshop and then you take a couple other courses in literature. Workshop is basically where you sit around and talk about each other's poems and critique them, and it's horrible because everybody thinks they're the greatest poet in the world. The ultimate goal of an MFA program is to produce a collection of poetry that hopefully you can publish somewhere. But it’s also about drinking in bars and arguing about poetry.
A lot of people think that creative writing can't be taught, but I don't believe that at all. I had very good teachers in college and in my MFA program who taught me the craft of writing, how to wrangle self-expression into form, how to order thought, order emotions. I gained a greater fluency in things as banal as variation of sentence length, and how rhythm in a poem, as in any kind of writing, can affect emotion. When to use figurative language and when to be more discursive or statement driven, very technical aspects of writing. I think I became better able to master and wrestle feeling into form, for lack of a better term.
After my MFA, I applied to PhD programs in literature. At that time, I thought of myself as a Shakespeare scholar for some reason. At Cornell I had taken a bunch of Shakespeare classes and had great Renaissance teachers, and their passion and mentorship got me into it. But I ended up only going to Rutgers for one year before then I left. Shakespeare was too far afield from poetry, and Rutgers is not a beautiful place. I ultimately wasn't happy there and wasn't studying what I wanted to study.
So I went home to live with my parents for a year, which was instructive, I guess, hard but edifying. It was a scary time because I didn't know what I was going to do, and I had dropped out of this path that I had been on. I was adjunct teaching at a small college in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then one night, I got a call from Eavan Boland at Stanford, telling me I had been admitted to the Stegner Fellowship (a two-year fellowship in fiction or poetry, housed in the Creative Writing Department of Stanford University). It was another one of those things that I just kind of lucked into, and it changed my life.
One of my distinct memories of that night is going on the Internet and looking at a map of San Francisco, which to somebody from the Midwest was like something I never thought I would see. Proust had this great line about how there's this romance or mystique that place names have if we've never been there, and I remember San Francisco being charged with this 19th century charm. The whole time I was out in California, I felt like I was living in a story or in the kind of a place that you've heard about it but can't quite be real. I've never been able to separate California the myth from California the place. The light is golden there in a way it's not anywhere else.
After Stanford, I applied to PhD programs again. I felt like my chances of getting a job in academia were increased after doing the Stegner Fellowship. I've always been interested in writing critically about literature, and I thought this would set me apart in a very competitive job market since most poets do creative PhD’s, not critical PhD's. And I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I could do it after having dropped out of Rutgers. It remains to be seen whether I can, but so far, so good. I’m in my third year at University of Chicago, working on my dissertation proposal right now.
I took a year off from my PhD program to go to Gettysburg College, which has a prestigious, one-year teaching fellowship for emerging writers. A friend of mine from Stanford had it before I did and my wife had it after him, so I got to know Gettysburg, the town and the college, a little bit through them, and it's just a magical town. Another place that's very mythic. I applied because I wanted more teaching experience in creative writing, and it's another thing that really changed my life because I became obsessed with Gettysburg, with the place and the battle. Similar to the way I felt in California, it's a place where you're always in the past, and the past is always very much present.
I remember the first night I came to Gettysburg, I stood at the spot where Pickett's Charge was turned back, and there's arguably no more important ground in American history, and I cried. And I'm not proud or embarrassed to say that, it was just a fact. My second book wasn't going to be about Gettysburg, but it kind of took over my imagination and now it's almost entirely about Gettysburg, and thinking about that place in the context of ongoing racial and regional strife in this country. So it was fortunate that I got that job, because I think it really changed my writing and reoriented my subject matter a little bit.
My first book is called Late in the Empire of Men, and it's a collection of poems, mostly about moving from Ohio to California and layering that westward trajectory on top of the westward trajectory of American history, using my own coming of age as a way to explore manifest destiny. It’s about becoming an adult and what it means for a country to become adult, to reckon with its violent past. So much of the book is set in these famous San Francisco places, and it ends in California with me seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
It's been nice to have it done, because there's something about hoarding it as an object, and once it was done, it was a kind of unburdening of oneself. It came out last year and it was reviewed in The New York Times, which is the most fun, but it feels so long ago and I’m excited to be on to the next thing.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I've been in school for 30 years, and I think one of the reasons I've stayed in school is because it's been a kind of patronage and shelter from jobs that might require more time. I read submissions for a couple of literary journals, and I see a lot of cover letters from people who are retired and finally doing the things they like, and I think that's great, but I also wonder why we, as a culture, see the arts as a recreational or leisure pursuit rather than a way of life.
I would want "young Chris" to know that pursuing the things that interested me—reading, writing, etc.—was a noble and worthwhile pursuit, and that one need not always justify one's academic or career choices by the bottom line. So my advice for people at the beginning of their careers would be quite similar—trust your heart rather than what you "should" be doing or what someone else says you should be doing. The most important contributions to Western society, I think, the things that make life worth living, that help us live the good life, aren't things that corporations produce or that money buys. They're Beethoven. They're Emily Dickinson and James Baldwin and Joan Didion. Be that contribution to the culture of our species.