I Never Want to Go Back to Academia: An Interview with Sean Patrick Hill

sean patrick hill

You got an MFA at Warren Wilson after moving to Louisville, where you currently live. What made you decide to do so, and how do you think doing a low-residency program impacted your MFA experience and the writing you produced during those years?

At the time I decided to apply to Warren Wilson, I was actually in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. It was July 2010, and I had just completed a very difficult year teaching high school. My tenure there had drained most of my creative energy, and my time in Vermont, doing nothing but writing and the occasional hike, made me realize that this was the life I wanted to lead.

At the time, I was reading Heather McHugh’s poems, and also Joe Wenderoth who had studied at Warren Wilson. I wrote Joe to ask him what he had thought of the program, and he was nothing but positive. I also wrote Heather, and she asked me to send her some poems. Once she read them, she told me to apply, and that she’d help by writing a letter to put in my file. Before I left Vermont, I resigned from my public school job. At that point, I also began adjunct teaching at the community college in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. What I figured was no different from what a lot of people figured, which was: I’ll teach college. I’ll start by getting some experience, and work my way up to teaching creative writing somewhere. Such was my dream. By that point, I’d had my first book of poems published, and my second had been accepted—I worked on it in Vermont—and so I felt a kind of momentum. When I was given five classes to teach—a full-time load, essentially—I figured I was on my way. The fact that the entirety of my tuition was covered by scholarships and a couple of grants made it seem all the more propitious.

How was the low-residency different? For one thing, I had to do it that way. I was married with a daughter, and I had definitive work in Kentucky. I was also odd-jobbing there, freelance writing and some other part-time teaching gigs rounded out the bills. I was also under contract to write my hiking guide to the Red River Gorge. This made my life, as you can imagine, exceedingly difficult and stressful. I worked, essentially, all the time, whether teaching and grading papers or parenting or working on poems and essays for graduate school. I’m not sure how I managed it all. So on the one hand, it was nice to not have to be in class all the time, but on the other hand I had no close-at-hand community. The students were, of course, scattered across the country, and my advisers were not present in the way I would have liked. The residencies, too, were a huge commitment; I had to take time off from teaching in some cases, which meant getting someone to cover my classes, and it also meant bringing one of my daughter’s grandparents to Louisville to help my wife, who also worked full-time, with childcare.

Louisville is a small city with a pretty active literary community for its size. What do you consider some of the hubs for that community, and what do you think drives that activity?

Well, there are a lot of poets here, and I suppose it is, to a point, active, though I’ve not always found a deep community that hangs together for a significant amount of time. I do have one very close poet friend, Makalani Bandele, and once he and I met we hit it off immediately. For the past year, we’ve met to discuss our poems and what we’ve been reading, ideas about poetics, and so on. In general, lots of poets here have published, won awards and have MFAs from reputable schools. I’d like to see, frankly, more participation, more fraternity. In fact, I feel alone at times here, though I know a lot of poets in some fashion or other.

We have the ubiquitous reading series. Sometimes readings are packed, sometimes empty. You never know. These readings happen at the Axton Series at the University of Louisville, or Carmichael’s Books, or my friend John James’ Speak Social series, which is now at a great dive bar, Seidenfaden’s.

Sarabande Books is here. Typecast Publishing, who produce books and the cool journal The Lumberyard, is here. InKY is a nonprofit group which will soon be hosting the Writer’s Block Festival, with Nick Flynn as the keynote speaker.

What drives these activities is, above all, a general love of poetry, though, like many other cities, it hardly gets its due. The presses here, even the independent LEO Weekly, have rarely written about poetry unless someone like me does so—and I have, reviewing poetry and writing articles about Louisville’s literary culture. I think most of us here would like to see more recognition from the [national] poetry culture. Which is not to leave out fiction writers; we have those too.

In general, the one sure thing I can say about Louisville poetry is that it happens in my apartment. Mak and I meet, I write every morning, and I read a lot lately from Cid Corman, Besmilr Brigham, Joseph Ceravolo, and William Bronk, among others. I’ve made that my poetry center.

In another interview you mention living and teaching high school in various parts of Oregon for fourteen years. What were those years like in terms of your writing? Were you able to give your students opportunities to write? 

Oregon made me a poet, for sure. I could talk all day about this. For one, I discovered my voice there. Gary Snyder’s poetry was enormously important to me, and still is. Through him, the landscape of the Pacific Northwest became absolutely omnipresent in my life, my consciousness, and my poetry. I mean, I went and worked in the forest as he did; I did trail work, ran chainsaws, even drove a dump truck carrying rocks to use to restore heavily eroded lakeshores. I was very productive there, for sure, and Oregon was really where I began publishing, especially once I was in Portland and doing my MA at the university there. My first book is entirely comprised of Oregon poems, many of them written while in writing residencies in Oregon, one in Hell’s Canyon country, another in the Oregon Coast Range. I am entirely steeped in that landscape. I miss it dearly.

Before I taught high school, I was in the AmeriCorps, and part of my project was literary, which I could easily say involved literacy. I facilitated creative writing clubs in a high school and elementary school there, which was great. I taught two years at a writing festival, too, where I taught nature poetry to elementary and middle school students.

You worked as an adjunct instructor for several years in Kentucky and Indiana, and wrote a kind of primer on the plight of contingent faculty for LEO Weekly. In response to the question of why people accept positions that tend to be unsustainable at best and exploitative at worst, you venture that it’s “[F]or income, of course; because they cannot find any other available occupations.” But in the same essay, you talk about imagining that your first adjunct position was the start of your dream career as a university teacher. Many adjuncts, writers and others, find themselves in both positions – desperate for work, but staying close to the university because they harbor a dream of the tenure track. When you were adjuncting, how long did you want to “stick it out” in hopes of rising in academia? What changed your mind?

My circumstances were somewhat unique, as I had some life changes going on. After three years of adjunct teaching and two years of graduate work, my wife and I separated directly after my MFA graduation, and I was left a single parent of my then four-year-old daughter, Teagan.

A number of factors were at work. For one, I thought of myself as a teacher; after all, I’d done it for years before adjuncting. In fact, there was a very similar thing that happened to me in both [MFA and MA] programs, in that I entered with the idea that, as soon as I’d been awarded my degree, I’d get that dream job. It happened in neither case.

How much time did I plan to give myself? Really, I’d hoped that I would get a job at the time I completed my MFA, in time for the Fall 2013 semester. I can’t remember how many jobs I applied for the previous fall, both colleges and private high schools: 35 or 40. So I was discouraged, to put it mildly, when the Fall 2013 semester found me suddenly separated, on my own, and forced to work yet another term of adjunct teaching – my last.

I had the hope that experience as a college instructor would build my resume, but teaching composition accomplishes virtually nothing. I have no major books, no distinguished publishing career, at least as some of these university departments might define that.

So starting that fall, I just started sending out my resume to anyone I knew at all, and I started applying for any job that paid a real salary, benefits. I had my daughter to think about, who was in preschool and had state health care. I had no health care at all, and hadn’t for three years. In short, I was desperate. Finally, my editor at the Kentucky Monthly, where I’d written for a year, found me a gig as a copywriter. I started as a contractor, but now this is my full-time, salaried job.

And here’s the thing: I never want to go back to academia. As a writer, I constantly resented the work I had to take home, the hours I spent grading and prepping, for which I was not duly paid. And the commute times were outrageous; that fall, on certain days, I actually commuted 400 miles a day. I was working, after all, in two states. I know of adjuncts here who continue to do that.

Now I work downtown for decent money. I am secure and fairly stable. No bill goes unpaid. I take no work home, and my hours are good, leaving me plenty of time for parenting, yoga, meditation and, of course, reading and writing. I see no reason to go back. I know too much about the educational system, and I just don’t see it improving or getting better. I’ve appreciated the many articles published about and by adjuncts, and I’m grateful for the response to my articles, especially the one in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

You’ve also spoken about wanting to write a poetic history of the place you grew up, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and about your attraction to writing about Native American landscapes and folkways, in the tradition of Gary Snyder. Do you ever feel the pull of other disciplines when you’re researching a writing project – history, anthropology, psychology, journalism – and wish you were working with one of those frameworks? Or would you rather have a poet’s generalist perspective?

History, certainly. I have always been fascinated by history, which connects easily to anthropology. As a sidetrack, my father recently died, and during the course of his slow demise—he had been battling cancer for nearly two years—I wrote to keep myself sane. The project you describe above was somewhat altered, and in fact I incorporated all of those things—mythology, Eastern philosophy, yoga, linguistics—into a long, nearly 80-page poem in three parts, in which I try to collage any and all bits of wisdom I could accumulate in order to confront his death. It worked.

I’ve always been interested in psychology, as well as philosophy—recently I read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, which was a godsend at the time—and journalism is something I’ve done for years, too; one can use journalism to explore ideas, as when I recently wrote about Shelby Lee Adams, who himself is interested in Meatyard and the conception of consciousness, another large-scale idea incorporated into my own poem.

I’ve actually been looking more into photography in the past few months, especially southern and Kentucky photographers like Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Sally Mann. I’ve been taking photographs myself, and I’m interested in how those two can work together in a book project, even if it’s nonfiction. I’ve always been a visual person, so I’ve looked at paintings for most of my life.

All of these disciplines are necessary to me only because I want to establish, if not the “answers” to my questions, a clarification that allows me to articulate, to myself foremost, my own reality, and the greater reality beyond that.

In addition to three books of poetry, you’re the author of hiking guides to Kentucky and Oregon, and write regularly for Kentucky Monthly and other regional publications. How would you describe the relationship between this type of writing and your work as a poet?

People say my Kentucky hiking guide, which concerned the Red River Gorge, a marvelous place, was written poetically. I try, as best I can, to allow my freelance assignments to reflect my actual interests. I’ve written about longrifle artisans, chefs, and photographers, and in the courses of those conversations I’ve learned new and important perspectives on art in general. It’s helped my understanding of poetry and given me new conceptions to mull over. I also expand my experience—I get to see and learn the history of cemeteries from the 19th century, or learn about the Farm-to-Table movement, and in the case of my interview with Wendell Berry, the history of industrial farming in America. All of this feeds what I simply refer to as my sensibility, which gives me the “furniture” that Jack Spicer speaks of, the material the poet in me—whatever that is—will use to compose. In addition, frankly, it’s just good practice writing.

How has being a father changed your writing practice, your attitude toward work, and/ or your relationship to language? What advice do you have for writers who are also new parents? What have you learned from other parent-writers?

The first thing that jumps to mind is that time becomes all-important. When my daughter is with me, I write before she wakes up, and I read and write after she is in bed. As such, I’ve begun to try to clear out even more time for reading and writing, so I clear my evenings of anything extraneous. I am somewhat conservative with my time, I suppose.

I haven’t yet written a poem utterly about my daughter or being a father. I think my father’s dying and my ongoing divorce has so occupied my mind as to make me, if not selfish, rather self-absorbed. Yet, with my father’s passing, I’ve come to think far more deeply about what it means now that I am the father—THE father in my generational line. That simultaneously haunts and urges me.

To new parent writers, I’d say ignore all the negative talk that parenting wrecks writing. Joseph Ceravolo and Ted Berrigan were both parents and they often talked about that. And they looked, as well, to William Carlos Williams, who was a full-time—or more than full-time—doctor with two sons. William Stafford got up at 4 am for his whole writing life; he had several kids, and got all his writing done early, as I do now. Being a parent adds more “furniture” to your mind, and it certainly expands your experience and sensibility and, to me, makes you far more sensitive to a level of the world that a non-parent just couldn’t consider—just as death does. You’re richer for that. And let’s face it, being a parent is great. I love my daughter, and I’m lucky to have her. When you have a kid who paints and makes up the occasional poem, as mine does, that’s just wonderful.

The parent-writers I most learn from are those whose biographies I read, especially Williams and Stafford. I just follow their schedule—squeeze it in where you can. I think it was Lucille Clifton who would simply memorize the words she had pouring out of her while she was caring for her kids—she’d write them down later. She adapted. I’ll do that.

Where should we go hiking when we’re next in Kentucky?

The Red River Gorge is the most famous spot. Man, just buy my book! [Ed.: From an independent bookstore, plz.] There are so many places I’ve gone and gone on to write about. There are numerous sandstone arches, like Gray’s Arch and Natural Bridge and Sky Bridge. I like the Rough Trail, the Whittleton Branch Trail, the climb to Indian Steps and Indian Arch. I’ve hiked there in all seasons save spring, for some reason.

Kentucky is extremely diverse in terms of plants and animals, and my understanding is that it has more miles of waterway than any other state in the country, or perhaps the lower 48. Remember, this is where Lewis and Clark started their western journey, and it’s also Daniel Boone country—and if a poet with the stature of William Carlos Williams saw fit to write about Boone, then we can appreciate Boone’s good taste in wilderness.

*

Sean Patrick Hill is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, and a recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. He works as a freelance writer and copywriter in Louisville, Kentucky.

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