Brock Guthrie: English Instructor
Brock Guthrie grew up in the acutely hip Athens, Ohio, received his B.A. and M.A. in English from Ohio University and his M.F.A. in poetry from Louisiana State University. His poems have been published in Cimarron Review, Iron Horse, Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere, and his first book, Contemplative Man, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press. He’s an Instructor of English at the University of Alabama and is the founding faculty adviser to the UA Club Golf team, who in their first semester of NCCGA competition won both South Region tournaments and competed in the Fall National Championship on the Dye and Love courses at Barefoot Golf Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
As a professor, how do you relate to students and colleagues?
When I’m on campus during a normal day, I’m usually hyper-focused and doing a lot of things very quickly, so I must seem like a blur to my colleagues, although everyone seems to be moving really fast, too, particularly in Rowand-Johnson. One of the bittersweet things about teaching four college classes per semester is how quickly time passes. The weekdays, the semesters, they fly like the flipping wind. There’s always more to do and it’s never boring. For students, who are themselves very busy, but perhaps not always experts at handling their obligations, I try to project patience and calmness to balance their outward anxiety, even if inside I’m sometimes feeling just like them.
How was your college experience at Ohio University and LSU?
I grew up in Athens, Ohio, where Ohio University is located, so undergrad felt like an extension of high school. I was a townie, and I’d taken a few college classes in high school, so it all sort of blended together. I wasn’t really into my classes, couldn’t choose a major, and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. In my third or fourth year, I took a poetry class with Mark Halliday and discovered I liked writing poems. He helped me see how, through grad school and teaching, one could climb into a station that allowed you to focus your life on reading and writing. After graduation, I worked for a year as a newspaper reporter in Jackson, Ohio, and then I went back to OU for an M.A. in English to strengthen my literary chops. In 2004, I moved to Baton Rouge to do an M.F.A. at LSU, where I met my wife, Brooke Champagne, along with many of my best friends. So, overall, my college experience was bumpy but wonderful and highly fortuitous. It’s scary to think how easily it might have all gone differently.
If you could teach just one grade level and course within your content area, what would you choose? How come?
I’d like to teach an American or British literature survey for sophomore-level non-majors with a narrower focus and a creative writing component, to give them a chance to appreciate it from the inside. For me, at their age, that’s what made me love literature.
Who is your favorite poet to teach and why?
One of my favorite books is Raymond Carver’s collected poems, All of Us. I’ve taught individual poems to writers before, but not always successfully, because the subtlety of his technique is hard for unfamiliar readers to recognize and appreciate. His simplicity and seeming casualness; how he gets us to feel something more than we immediately understand. When I was in English classes in college and grad school, everyone knew Carver’s short stories, at least, but now I find very few undergrads have even heard of him. I’d like to spend a good chunk of a semester really delving into Carver’s poems. I think the younger generation of poets and fiction writers could learn a lot from him, as the older generations surely did.
Who are some of the people that greatly influenced your own education and decision to pursue a career in education?
The GTAs and instructors and professors during that crucial year or two in undergrad at OU when I realized I wanted to be a writer.
What is the most effective way to ensure a productive classroom discussion?
Number one is to show a genuine enthusiasm for the work, or for challenging the work. That, and to ask good questions.
How do you describe your own writing style?
“Discursive-boozybaffled-folk.” I like to tell vivid, self-reflexive stories in an intimate voice that’s loose and funny and vaguely sad.
Where did your title, Contemplative Man, originate from?
It was suggested by Megan Volpert, an Atlanta-based poet whose work I admire and whose advice I usually take. It’s a phrase that appears in the book’s first poem and it reflects my speaker pretty well, though somewhat ironically, because while he’s observant and thoughtful in the slow, deliberate way that “contemplative” implies, he doesn’t always make the smartest choices. Brooke and I laughed when Megan said it, so we figured why not. Also, the only other book we could find with that phrase in the title is Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler; Or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, a guide to fishing in prose and verse, published in 1653. Fishing is actually a motif in my book, so it seemed all the more fitting.
Do you base your personal writing on people you have encountered, or events in your own life? If so, how do you feel this contributes to your or any writer’s work?
My poems almost always start with real events and real people but almost never big important events. By the time a poem is finished, I’ve usually changed the facts and details so much to make the poem seem vivid and true that my friends usually don’t remember the triggering events. Occasionally, I don’t either. So maybe for poetry, in general, real people and real events are less important than they are for creative nonfiction, for instance, but for me they always provide the trigger.
What was your writing process while writing Contemplative Man?
Since I wrote the poems in spurts over many years, the hard parts were those stretches when I wasn’t writing new poems, or even revising the old ones, but nonetheless worrying constantly about not doing it. Whenever I get back to the writing and revising the worry and stress go away.
Do you feel as though you learned anything from writing Contemplative Man? If so, what did you take from this experience?
I think the voice is consistent throughout and the book coheres pretty well from poem to poem, so I hope I’ve retained some of what I’ll need to make that happen again.
Would you mind sharing a poem from Contemplative Man with us?
Sure, how about the book’s first poem, “Some Days,” where the title’s phrase comes from.
Some days more than others I’m willing to put my two-cents in—
say what I’m thinking if I’m thinking without
hesitation. Like when I’m paying for groceries or paying
for something else. Looking for an answer. Anywhere
people wait in line and I’m one of those people
and there’s a person in charge. Maybe I’m talking
about the clerk, totally jovial, whose employee manual
possibly includes “chat with the customer”
or something hopeful like that. When I’m in those lines
I’m often convinced these guys really mean it—
and the customers, too. Good for them. Because some days
I could mean it. But others I don’t and therefore
stay silent, even if, for instance, there’s a girl in front of me
at the hardware store buying furnace filters, wood glue, a keychain
flashlight she noticed, as I did, in that jar near the cash register,
and she’s pretty in a smart way, you know, a subtle way
that’s maddening, and she asks a non-hardware question
like directions to a restaurant, or if it’s any good.
And the clerk’s desperate to help, but he’s foreign
and lacks a native’s answer. But I, in my aloofness,
could be sitting on a good one, a two-to-eight-word answer
that says it all about that restaurant, an answer she’d appreciate
for its concision, the same one I wouldn’t give
that could persuade her to remember me later.
Am I the kind of contemplative man I never cared for as a boy?
I was a contemplative boy, but didn’t know it then. But now
I meet a clerk at the gas station who rings up my wine, my cigarettes,
my scratch-offs, and he’s got a friend behind the counter with him
who clearly doesn’t work here. A girl. Appealing.
Looks natural and appealing doing what she’s doing, which is
reading the clerk’s poem, one that he wrote, in front of him
while he says things interruptive like: I tried something there,
but I don’t know if it works. And I’m having
the kind of day . . . I’m feeling words are inadequate,
but here’s a guy with a friend who reads his poems in a gas station!
Something false inside me wants to spill out,
and I feel the need to express something definitive,
but instead it’s: So you like that shit, do you?
And the girl continues reading as though my comment couldn’t matter
but the clerk’s a tactful bastard. Tells me it’s OK. Tells me
I’d have to write them to “truly understand.” Tells me
he has intelligent friends who just don’t get poetry either.
I nod and grab my things, walk out like I want to walk back in
and say something. But what is there to say?