Tag Archives: poet

Writing Time and the Ph.D. Poet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from poet friends inquiring as to my digital and 3-D whereabouts. I’ve been teaching a compressed-semester writing course. That means I’ve had exactly zero time for anything else. Unfortunately, “anything” includes my own studies and writing.

All those poets who warn that the Ph.D. kills poetry are correct, in the sense that the Ph.D. demands so much time and headspace for so many things that are not conducive to producing new work. Envision the unholy marriage of repeating your MFA workshop without the fun of making the reading circuit, while simultaneously adjuncting, writing two major proposals a year, and being hazed regularly for five to seven years, and you’ll get some idea of what a creative writing Ph.D. is like.

Is it all bad? No, not unless you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex that is teaching in the 21st-century university. I finally got to take Spenser and Old English, courses which never were available to me in programs past. I got to pick up a few goodies on the side: ed psych, screenwriting, technical writing, Spanish, historic preservation, a scholarship for a research trip to Cuba.

Every semester, I learn something more about myself, about the students I work with, about building and delivering a solid course, about some great book or study I might not have sought out on my own. I learn what’s worth putting precious time into. I also learn how to say no–to time-wasters, to manipulations, to worthy causes, to counterproductivity, to saboteurs, to bad energy. I learn to say yes–to my research, to my writing in all genres, to my life beyond the university.

Meanwhile, I regroup for the next exam, the next conference panel, the next course syllabus, and Whatever’s Next.

Whatever’s Next is serious business for doctoral students in the liberal arts these days. All options are open.

In my twenties, with no degree and lots of raw talent, I wrote for a living. In my forties, with 2.85 degrees, one small-press book, and lots of experience and education, I grade papers for a living. Projects on hold include two nonfiction books, the dissertation and book to follow, and my freelance writing business.

I would much rather be writing any one of those books. Or producing a documentary. Or filing stories from any number of datelines. I have reached the stage of Ph.D.-dom at which many grad students throw up their hands and say, “I’m going back to work!”

Each day, I remind myself that I’m almost there. Others counsel that the decision to quit the Ph.D. is highly personal, that quitting is not a sign of failure to follow through, that quitting is the best course of action for all those laboring in non-Ivy programs, that the economy and student loan repayments don’t mix, that far too many Ph.Ds compete for far too few tenure-track openings, and any number of suggestions specious or sensible.

My solution: What do I have to do today? Of course, I don’t have to do any of it. So I rephrase: Am I committed to doing this today? Like an alcoholic chasing the sober life, I deal only with today.

Do I write a poem every day? I do not. Do I commit to working on a poem every day? I do.

It’s that simple.

Any project, any problem, I tell my students, is doable if you figure out how long you have to finish it, count backwards, and divide the work into small, doable parts.

This basic time-management principle is a revelation to many of them, especially the younger ones who get caught up in their own anxiety and mistake high stress for hard work. To protect my own sanity, I have had to learn–the hard way–to meet their Velcro with Teflon. (I’m still learning.) All graduate students who teach must learn the fine art of setting and maintaining boundaries between themselves and their students. For poets doing the Ph.D., protecting that space can be extremely challenging. Lately, I think a lot about what I did to finish my B.A. while working full-time at CNN. I read photocopies at lunch and index cards in the ladies’ room. I listened to French tapes in my Walkman between CNN Center and Georgia State. And I refused to deliver updates on the Gulf War when I walked into poetry workshop.

The grades are in. My parents wants me to move my things out of the basement they’re having remodeled. My dog flings himself down in the middle of the living room and bicycles his back legs, begging for belly rubs. My partner is exhausted and needs me to pick up my end of all things neglected. I had planned all year that I would use this time to drive out of town and work on the dissertation–in the field, away from people and in the marsh, on the coast, under the surface.

Will I say yes? Will I say no?

Bear with me.

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OUTRAGEOUS: Police abuse of poet-professors of color

UPDATE: The prof is lawyering up. Here’s the latest from Jennifer–didn’t want to bury the lead.


He was released after the night watchman from the university positively IDed him. The police never asked Armando for his ID (not giving him a chance by thrusting a gun in his face and ordering him to the floor), nor did they give him any explanation for their actions. Supposedly they were responding to a report of a break in. Armando is very upset about the incident and unfortunately had to leave for Spain today. He will be back on the 27th and is working with a lawyer.

Armando had just read in Juárez, I was concerned for his safety
there…never did I imagine that this could happen in a U.S. Institution

Thanks for your support!


* * *

First, I’d like to pass along an e-mail forwarded from my publisher and friend, Palmer Hall:

My friends,

Juan Armando Rojas Joo, whose book (Rio Vertebral/Vertebral River) was
published late last year by Pecan Grove Press
was recently removed at
gunpoint from his office by university police at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Juan Armando was arrested, essentially, for being Latino and working late in
his office. No charges were brought against him. Jennifer Rathbun, who
translated Juan Armando’s work for us forwarded this letter to me.

When I hear more from Jennifer or from Juan Armando, I’ll write again. I
suspect letters to Ohio Wesleyan’s president (I’ll get the address) about
the outrageous actions of the university’s police will be asked for.

Thanks for listening,

*Juan Armando’s letter:*

Dear colleagues,

I just came back from an international poetry festival in Ciudad Juarez,
Mexico, where no more than forty invited poets from all over the world,
including Ledo Ivo (Brasil), Claudine Helft (France), Torgeir Rebolledo
Peddersson (Norway), Juan Gelman (Argentina), were convocated to read
from their own work as well as to denounce violence. I was among
one of the invited poets, representing Mexico and Ohio Wesleyan

Last night, at midnight, I was working in my office, UN 201 [Juan
Armando Rojas] like I have been doing many nights for the past five
years (many professors at OWU do). I was working, among other academic
issues, on my self report, when I perceived the door knob of my office
moving, I also heard a dog bark and a few seconds latter I heard voices.
Would you like to know my first reaction? I was, of course scared, also
confused, and immediately I said “give me a second, I’ll be there”. When
I opened the door, thinking that it was probably the janitor, maybe a
security officer, maybe even Helmut or Conrad (both of them love/ed
working late at night as well at UN) and for my surprise the first thing
I saw was the gun of a police officer pointing directly at my face.
(Five police officers, one gun twelve inches away, I’m “Ordered” to go
to the floor and I get handcuffed)

Currently I will not go into details but I will ask you if this is part
of our academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge and professional
passions, or is this the new and efficient way of approaching people at
OWU? Is this how OWU approaches diversity and multiculturalism? Is this
how OWU treats the few members of an international faculty? Did I brake
a curfew and I was not aware? Is this really how OWU wants to approach
its dedicated faculty who stay up long night preparing classes,
preparing publications and research, grading papers and organizing
student activities? Maybe not all of you are aware that on May I was the
recipient of The Bishop Francis Emner Kearns Award for faithful witness
to the ethical, spiritual and missional values of Ohio Wesleyan
University as delineated in the University’s Charter and Statement of
Aims (Juan Armando Rojas, Ph.D., who also serves as assistant professor
of modern foreign languages and director of OWU’s study abroad program
in Salamanca, Spain). I hope that you, dear faculty, are concerned and
will raise your voice in the denouncement of this violent act.

Thank you very much,

Juan Armando Rojas Joo

Jennifer Rathbun, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages
212 Bixler Hall
Ashland University

[I thought I would add one of Juan Armando’s poems (as translated by

NOTE: The subject of this poem, or the occasion, is perhaps more obvious tothose of us who live near the border with Mexico than it might be to
others. For too many years now, women in Juarez, Mexico, across the river
from El Paso, have been disappeared, murdered and raped. The government of Mexico has done little about the tragedy, Juan Armando is from Juarez and has been described as THE poet of the northern Mexico desert lands.

Repercussions of a City Named Juárez
To those broken women

Dirt storms of a white dust that transpires
whiteness of a society
rhythms that inject themselves into the bricks

City lost amongst its houses
so alone so entirely alone
so far from Jerusalem
due to the earth’s circumference

Let us pray for the city that bleeds
for the woman that waits for a job in the maquila
let us tear out the cables and chew
the almond sulfur of the cars

We will arrive trembling
today the job ended at the factory
there are three pair of eyes that observe me
they are hungry

We pray for the migration of the wetbacks
upon realizing that we find ourselves alone
between the mercury stains on the mirror
the memory of the bridge vanishes

Let us talk about this city to our children
that does not appear on the map
let us crucify the arms of this sky
with more right than the neighbor

Let us look for the missing
between the waters
and its dunes
where there will always be abundant trash

Let us look for the raped
in the geographical construction of our homes
between the bland dunes and its fresh sand
and the calcium of its bones

Let us talk about the heartbeats of the bridge
of the little oxygen that you breathe
in the minute and a half of silence
that the bridge deserves every night

We make a circle and we cross
our hands praying for alcohol and polygamy
we scratch the asphalt’s burning ice
this battle in the desert

The shadows of the lynched
pray for us!
for the fragility and the high price of subsidized housing
listen to us!

For the second that separates one millennium from another
we remember the border line
the box car in which the wet backs die
the custom of silence
where the río bravo ends
where the río grande begins

We initiate the prayer
to reach the kingdom of the flies
for the dreams
of the dreams
of the days
now and forever

As if this were not outrageous enough, so is the news of poet-professor Ravi Shankar’s false arrest in July:


Shankar, a U.S.-born citizen of Indian descent, told NPR that the arresting officer called him a “sand nigger.” Shankar’s alleged crime? Driving while brown.

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