The Conversation: An Appreciation of Paul Kameen

 

 

So much of what delights and troubles youPaul Kameen
Happens on a surface

You take for ground.

 

John O’Donohue, “For the Unknown Self”

 

 

Paul Kameen’s best teaching, he says, comes from lingering. Instead of a one-off transaction where a student gives the answer the instructor wants, Paul probes deeper, stays right there to dialogue with the student about an idea while the rest of the class looks on. He makes each of us feel like partners in an evolving conversation.

 

Mentor

I first met Paul ten years ago, when he visited my Seminar in Pedagogy class at Pitt. We were reading his award-winning book, Writing/Teaching: Essays Toward a Rhetoric of Pedagogy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), and he walked into 501, sat down, slung one arm around his chair, and told us to fire away, ask him anything. He was thrilled to be with us. Whether it was in his team-teaching with Toi Derricotte, which he writes about in Writing/Teaching, or his ability to engage students, I was struck by his willingness to try new things, his self-reflexivity, his curiosity about what makes others tick.

At the end of the class, he invited us to come and see him, so I did. He greeted me in his office in 609 Cathedral, its walls adorned with artwork from his two accomplished adult children, Bridget and Joe. I was only in my second year of grad school, teaching composition for the first time, but he talked to me like a trusted colleague.

 

Now, after decades of teaching, Paul has decided to head West. His daughter lives in Olympia, Washington, so that’s where he’s going first, and then? He’s ready for anything. And that’s what I take away from him the most—not to overscript. You might miss what arises right in front of you. After my first semester of teaching, I debriefed with Paul in his office again, sharing all the moments when things went wrong, when the AV cord didn’t work so I couldn’t play the Bob Dylan tune, or the student workshop veered off the rails and I had to improvise.

Did you enjoy calling those audibles? he asked.

Yes, I said.

Then keep doing what you want to do in the classroom, he said. Don't look back. If something doesn't go well, don't keep re-living it. It's over, he said. Move on. Every class is new.

Meaningful conversations take work. Paul shows up 15 minutes before his classes begin so that he can greet students as they arrive, get to know them. Often, I’ve spotted him sitting on a wooden bench in the Cathedral of Learning, humming to himself, waiting for the previous class to end so that he can walk into his classroom. He’s shown me how silence can be generative. No one’s saying anything? Give students a chance to write out what they’re thinking instead and then turn it in right there, and suddenly, he points out, you have a discussion. Then you can say to a student, why did you decide to write that?

Paul has listened to me. He’s kept me human. These days, he visits my office. I’ll be hunched over my desk, trying to think up something profound, and I’ll hear this knock and welcome Paul in. In just a phrase or gesture, he’ll lift my head up and remind me that teaching and writing are not solo acts—they’re about relationship. We’ll chew over art, jobs, family, frustrations, breakthroughs. Through the conversations I’ll gain wisdom, either from my own words or his—it’s hard to know where mine begin and his end. To “teach,” he writes in Writing/Teaching, “is to change”; I think Paul would also say that to teach is to respect what we can’t see. “So much of what delights and troubles you,” Celtic poet John O’Donohue writes, “Happens on a surface / You take for ground.”

 

Walker

Paul is a walker. He walks in Boyce Park. He’s been walking in the woods there for years. He took me once. We saw no one. We climbed up and down hills, stopping to notice trees that were more like friends to Paul. We pressed up close against the bark. We gazed up into their leaves. Paul shifts your lens just by his presence. He forces you to slow down, which is what writing—and living and loving and teaching—are all about. In “#15: 9/4/16,” from Li Po-ems (2017), his collection of conversations in verse with Chinese poet Li Po, he writes:

All I know is this: Nothing

in this world is fake: love,

hate, rage: just decide

day by day which

your knife will carve in bark.

Nine months after his wife Carol died, Paul carved his name and date in a dead, downed tree hidden in the woods. He was walking a path, and suddenly it was as if whatever weight was pressing down on him suddenly lifted: “My stopped clock starting to tick again to my astonishment,” he writes in his latest essay collection, Last Spring. He wanted to mark his unexpected rebirth, pay homage to things unseen.

 

Fearless

Paul’s a fearless writer. He’ll go there, wherever “there” is. In another of his essay collections, This Fall (2016), he describes “Free,” the part of himself who doesn’t care what you think about him.

“We have to clean toilets, want to eat ice cream, crave blank-faced distraction, we rage and despair,” he writes. “Free, as I said, is not those mes. He is the one I get to be with, near, walking through the solemn space those trees make for me. And the one I can carry in my bearing as long into, or as often during, the day as I’m able. And when that me is with me, he, I, we, feel fully and forever free.”

In the wake of losing Carol, Paul hasn’t walled himself off from people—he’s moved towards them. This year he gave me his portable space heater. He likes to give things away, delights in the joy of others.

Here’s a memory: He picks me up at my home and gives me a ride to the Carrs, where he will read poetry about Carol and night visions and Li Po, his first reading in forever. We park. He places in my arms a heavy wooden bird he has carved himself and now wants to give to the Carrs, and together we walk—me, the bird, and Paul—to their door.

In the Carrs’ backyard, wearing a white shirt open at the neck, his book of poetry lifted up in his hands as offering, Paul’s completely fearless and free, freeing us up to be real with each other—student and spouse, lecturer and professor—drawing us in to himself, inviting us to play, to feel things fully. “In the deeps,” Annie Dillard writes, “are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name ... our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”

A skilled scholar, Paul knows his literary theory. But he’s not just head. He’s heart, embodied. “The mouth,” he writes in Last Spring, “makes sounds, all kinds of them, including the most beautiful. To hear them, you need to be near it, listening, paying attention. It belongs to the body that fills its chambers, and all the words that arise therein, with the breath of the life that body has lived here, of the time it has taken to get to their moment, compressed into every word that mouth shapes. Right now. To come to know all of that, and you can, believe me, all of it, every little bit, come nearer, open your ear, hear.”

Another memory—sitting in Paul’s back room, enclosed in glass, overlooking his backyard. It’s summer, and Carol is dead. We’re eating grilled steak, corn, veggies. Through windows I can see his garden with a paper-mâché figure in it, like a scarecrow. We talk, listen to crickets, smell lush green. I realize that this room is like Paul—built out into the yard as if on stilts, as if he wants to get as close as he can to the garden, see everything more clearly through the glass and remember all there is to love, remind himself of sky and a bigger world than his own. Maybe that’s how his essays and poems flow out of him, like blood and water, like his walks in the woods: forays into consciousness, where everything—tree, rock, deer—is fully alive and speaking.

 

In Song

Paul sings. Bum, bum, bum bah. I hear him in the stairwell of the Cathedral of Learning, walking down from the sixth floor to the fifth. Da, dah, dah dah. His notes pierce my mind, wake me up from rumination. Da, dah, bad um bum bum. There he is, teeth flashing, smile, glasses, shock of white hair, strolling down each step, no hurry at all. He makes me look up, return to the now, just for a moment. My face relaxes, and we make eye contact, “Hi Jonathan.” After our chat, I’m changed, brought back to the stairwell, its echoes, my echoes, and I begin to sing.

 

—Jonathan Callard

 

Jonathan Callard has taught composition and creative writing at Pitt since 2008, and is currently working on an essay collection examining decomposition through body, landscape, and language.

 

 

Return to Newsletter Front Page