Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dirty Rotten English Teachers

Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, by Debra Weinstein

Just kidding. All of my best friends are English teachers. But, you'll have to admit, they are a breed apart. And worse, of course, are the English-teacher types who teach writing. Worst of all, the lowest of the low, are creative writing teachers who teach poetry. As if.

Just kidding.

Years ago, in grad school, before I could be trusted to teach illiterate freshmen how to write five-paragraph essays about the kings of England, I was assigned a summer internship with an English professor. His "specialty" was popular culture (an oxymoron even then) and I was to assist him in his "work." Each morning that summer I would ride my bike from the grad-student ghetto, along the Connecticut River, through ripening green fields of tobacco, to Professor X's ramshackle house on the far northern edge of Amherst. X was recently tenured--a job for life!--and feeling his academic oats. My first job, as I recall, was shingling his house, then he had me repoint his chimney, dig up his garden, walk his dog, and paint his front door. After I'd finished what he referred to as the "mundane chores," X invited me into his library, sat me down at a small ancillary desk, handed me a stack of Donald Duck comic books, and told me to "read them and take notes." He was writing a book on Donald Duck, or perhaps on comic books, "from a Jungian perspective," and I was to be his apprentice, paid $3 an hour. I'm not kidding.

The book, so far as I know, never appeared. X went on to become a full professor someplace better. Maybe Yale. 

Astronomers, I imagine, spend their summers on Pacific Islands where there's no ambient light to interfere with their telescopic observations; botanists and ornithologists are of course in Costa Rica, historians at tbe Bodleian wading through archives, linguists lost among aboriginal peoples making notes on verb tenses, and all manner of social scientists are off doing field work in sub-Saharan Africa. Not English professors, and certainly not poetry-writing teachers. They're at Yaddo having affairs and eating organic kale, or summering at the Hamptons (they're only professors, but they've married financiers), in a Paris walk-up discovered in the classifieds of the New York Review, or, at worst, like my Professor X, lounging in a hammock, sipping iced tea, and reading Scandinavian mysteries so they can finally "relax;" relaxing is a big part of being an English professor. X liked to cook and eat--de riguer for English profs--and he was having an affair with a comely third-year Chaucerian. This is what an English professor means when he says "he's busy." Office hours: 1-2 pm, Wednesdays.

I don't normally read cheerful books, but it's February, and it was cloudy here one day last week, so to perk myself up I read Debra Weinstein's delightful Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, a dead-on, only slightly hyperbolic account of a young woman's relationship with a famous poet who never reads or even writes poetry, who plagiarizes shamelessly, sleeps around, and spends more time on her wardrobe and campus politics than with her students or her "work." If you went to grad school in English, or took a few courses in the subject, you'll recognize Z at once. Preening, narcissistic, lazy, imperious, incurious, and ignorant. Weinstein has a blast with Z, and her ingĂ©nue narrator Annabelle is a delight: a young woman who images a life in poetry as a thing precious and beautiful, but who finds instead that poetry, like politics, is really about image and power and the caprice of fashion. Annabelle's lover Harry is a Joyce-besotted aspiring novelist who teaches Annabelle a thing or two about sex and life.  Harry leaves Annabelle boxes of gloves, has her recite lines that Nora wrote to Jimmy during their courtship, drags her off to the home of a deceased writer where, after a bit of breaking and entering, they act out the lives of real writers. And that's the nature of Weinstein's smart satire: Annabelle, the undergrad, is the real writer among a cast of phonies--Z and her wacky husband Lars (a memorist who thinks his life transcendent) and pretentious daughter; Harry with his Joycean fantasies; and Braun Brown, Z's oversexed poetic rival. Only Annabelle truly loves poetry, and by novel's end she's learned that if you want to write, the last thing you'd better do is apprentice yourself to a poet. One of the running gags in the novel is Annabelle's persistent desire to get Z to look at one her (Annabelle's) poems. Of course, Z can't be bothered: "Annabelle, could you do some research on male flowers?" "Are there male flowers?" "There must be..."  Quack quack.

All of this, of course, is in good fun. And, as the disclaimers always say, any resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z was published a while back by Random House. Ms. Weinstein is a poet herself. Her poetry book is called Rodent Angel, which sounds promising.

George Ovitt (2/15/15)

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