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Q&A: Reginald Gibbons on Writing and Teaching

Gibbons was named by the Chicago Tribune as Literature's Chicagoan of the Year

January 20, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold

Listen to Reginald Gibbons read his poem "In cold spring air"

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Reginald Gibbons is no stranger to literary accolades. Since arriving at Northwestern University in 1981 to edit TriQuarterly, the Northwestern professor of English and classics in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, has amassed many honors for his work as a writer, translator and editor. Those include being a 2008 finalist for the prestigious National Book Award for his book of poetry, "Creatures of a Day." But it is his recent selection by the Chicago Tribune as Literature's Chicagoan of the Year that Gibbons considers his happiest honor.

From 1981 to 1997 Gibbons edited TriQuarterly, the University's venerated literary magazine which, during his editorship, the New York Times called "perhaps the preeminent journal for literary fiction" in the nation. In those 16 years, he published the work of many writers - some for the first time - who went on to successful literary careers.  His "firsts" included Aleksandar Hemon, Amy Hempel, and others.

In April, the University of Chicago Press will publish Gibbons' newest book, "Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories." Gibbons, who directs Northwestern's Center for the Writing Arts and co-directs the School of Continuing Studies' graduate program in creative writing, the MA/MFA, talked to Wendy Leopold about writing, teaching, Chicago and Northwestern.

Why do you so value the Chicago Tribune honor?

I think of it as the most gratifying honor because it is so much more visible here where I live than other honors I have received. In the poetry world, being a finalist for the National Book Award is a tremendous honor, but for people outside the literary world, perhaps it's not. The Tribune award is also very timely for me because it comes on the eve of the publication of a collection of my Chicago poems - some old, some never published -- and short prose pieces set in or about Chicago. 

How is it that you're devoting an entire book to Chicago?

Until I left Houston to go to college in 1965, I had never been out of Texas except for a trip to northern Arizona. Houston was a provincial town that to me felt confining and disturbing. It was a place where some boys in my high school cheered when it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot. So it was later that as a writer I matured and found my mature projects in the rich, urban environment of Chicago.  Even now, every time I take the "el" downtown, it's like a research trip. Nonetheless, "Sweetbitter," my first and so far my only novel, is entirely set in Texas. There's a part of me that is absolutely Texan and always will be. But I have hundreds of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel that, if I can find time and inner resources to write it, will be set in Chicago.  

Is Chicago a good city for writers and writing?

I started hearing that question the minute I arrived here. Not long after, I did a book-length Chicago issue of TriQuarterly featuring photography, prose and poetry. Whether Chicago is a city of writers is still a perennial topic. Thirty years ago, I don't think there was much of a writing community, but there are so many more writers living here now.

In 1989, you co-founded the Guild Literary Complex, a not-for-profit literary organization. What was the Guild about? 

I'm still on the Guild's board. In the early years when there were few literary events in the city, the Guild Complex would hold weekly literary events. Many of us would go to the Guild not only for the events but also because we knew we would find others there we wanted to talk with. Today there are writing events everywhere. There's a much richer literary environment now, but it is unavoidably somewhat fragmented, simply because there are so many events. And people do literary things in 2010 that we never could have imagined in 1989, like writing and publishing and reading online. 

You've written, edited and translated more than 30 books. When do you find time for fiction writing between teaching, translating and literary criticism? 

I don't have a structured schedule. I've always been all over the place doing different things. At any moment, I'll have different works in progress and eventually I finish some of them. I get enthusiastic about something, and I start working on what eventually may turn into a book. 

You are known as someone who nurtures good writing and writers. Is that a fair description?

When I became editor of TriQuarterly at the age of 34, it was a new experience for me to be able to help other writers. I started a book publishing imprint, which is now part of Northwestern University Press. And I started two literary prizes for unpublished books -- this was before literary prizes began to proliferate across the country. It was incredibly gratifying to help writers reach an audience and to put what I thought were important ideas, in the form of fiction and poetry, into the public sphere. 

Some of your students have gone on to successful literary careers. Can you name a few?

Dan Chaon and Kate Walbert, both National Book Award finalists, were among my students. Others include Nick Reding -- who had a very well-received book last year about the methamphetamine epidemic called "Methland," and some wonderful poets, among them Josh Weiner, Anne-Marie Cusac and Evie Shockley. Cristina Henriquez, a young fiction writer who has published two books and was a student of mine, will be teaching here in the spring as a visiting writer. I have also had graduate students here in our relatively young program who I am certain are going to publish very good books.

Do you take a share of credit in their success?

I do not take credit for them. After all, my colleagues have been excellent teachers. However, I am happy that I had the chance to know them and work with them when they were very young.  And that's because our undergraduate creative writing program -- officially the English Major in Writing -- has had remarkable success at nurturing very young writers in a way that's led them to do terrific things. A skeptical person might say these people were incredibly talented and would have gone on to do something anywhere. But I do think -- and I believe that anyone who has ever taught here would agree -- that we have an exceptionally fine program. We've found not only a way to teach students a lot about writing and literature but also to work very closely with them, to take thorough care of them as students of writing.

Does it take a good writer to be a good teacher of writing? 

It's quite possible for a person who isn't a productive writer to be a wonderful writing teacher, just as it is possible for a wonderful writer to be a terrible teacher. At Northwestern, we have an extraordinary creative writing faculty who are both good writers and good teachers. We are trying to show students not only how to learn but also how to keep learning after they leave us.

Who are the writers who you read and find exciting?

I read the way I write. I read several books at a time -- some new fiction, some old, some literary criticism and some scholarship in classics. I probably finish one or two books a week. Lately I've been reading Katherine Mansfield again, Garry Wills' "Henry Adams and the Making of America" and Mavis Gallant's "Paris Stories." I just finished Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club" and Kate Walbert's "A Short History of Women." Several months ago, I read "Life and Fate" by Vasily Grossman, which is said to be one of the greatest Russian novels. It made a huge impression on me, and I'm still carrying it around in my head. 

Who are your literary influences?

As a poet and a fiction writer, I have what I call my committees. I tell students they, too, must have committees -- a small group of writers, whether living or dead, who are able to help them write their own work. When I wrote "Sweetbitter," my committee included the great Australian novelist Patrick White, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhardt, too, was on my fiction committee for a while. It's not that I write like any of the writers on my imagined committees, but they help me solve artistic problems. Such committees change over time. As for influences, someone else would have to figure out who got into my head so deeply that I couldn't get them out. That's what an influence is, I suppose. 

What do you try to convey to aspiring writers?

There's the craft of writing poetry or fiction, which can be taught and which talented people can learn. Then there's the inner process of thought and feeling, of exploring imagined possibilities, that's even more important. I try to teach the latter by modeling. That is, I don't ask students to read my work, but I show them how I would work on a story or a poem under discussion. Some students find that helpful. We also talk about things like sentences, adjectives, or the white space between the stanzas of a poem. But it's the deep process that is difficult to teach and hard to learn. 

Do you occasionally have the feeling that a particular student you are teaching has extraordinary talent?

Definitely. And I've had it about some students who later went on to do some really terrific work. And I've had it about some who didn't go on to publish anything at all. And I've also failed to see that spark for potential in some students who went on to do something great. Talent is not always easy to see, and it takes time to ripen. You also don't know how much stamina a person will develop. And stamina is extremely important to artistic success. So I'm sure there are former students who will reappear after a while as the authors of good books -- writers who are working alone and with will power or grace or both will produce their books.  But I don't try to convince anyone to become a writer. It's a difficult way to make a life and to make a living. It's solitary, isolating and consuming work, and you have to make a living at the same time. But I hope that students can see in me and in their other creative writing teachers that writing can be a deeply rewarding human experience that charges one's spirit with thought and feeling and gives one the opportunity to give something back to one's mother tongue.

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