Paul Christensen is the author of seven books of poetry, several critical studies of the poets Charles Olson and Clayton Eshleman, memoirs about his life in Texas and in southern France, an edition of letters of Charles Olson and Edward Dahlberg, and two books about the craft of writing. He co-edited a book of ecological writing in Texas with Rick Bass. He has also published over two hundred essays on French culture (in France Today), Texas life and literature (in The Texas Observer and Southwest Review), national literature, and his own life and times (in The Antioch Review and other mags). Short stories have appeared in The Madison Review, Agni, The Antioch Review and elsewhere. He was a NEA fellow in poetry, twice a Senior Fulbright lecturer (Austria and Norway), and for many years a teacher of creative writing and contemporary literature at Texas A&M University.
I was an indifferent student much of my childhood. At Brent School, in the highlands of Luzon, the Philippines, my sophomore English teacher assigned an excerpt from Thoreau’s Walden, which I memorized without effort and lay on my bed in a state of wonder at the power of words written a century before. I couldn’t sleep. When I took the test the next day, I was the high scorer, an astounding fact to the rest of my classmates, who saw me as the class clown. It didn’t save me from flunking out of school that year, but it did drive me to read as hard and as fast as I could, looking for that high again. I read Moby-Dick, The Sound and the Fury, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway’s short stories, Hawthorne, Leaves of Grass, Fitzgerald, anything I could find in the English bookstore in Saigon, in 1960.
I was seventeen, empty-headed, famished for words, hopelessly lost. The war wouldn’t start in earnest for a few more years, but my father and everyone else’s American father was employed by the government to lay the groundwork for an assault against North Vietnam. I sensed this, but was too young and stupid to figure out the mystery of so many midnight troop trucks passing our villa on the way north. Other kids of my circle also suspected something dark and terrible was unfolding. Our lives were wedged between the Beats and the hippies, and we read City Lights paperbacks like Ginsberg’s Howl, Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, and whatever else friends in America could send over. We recited the poems by candlelight in a servant’s quarter behind my villa, and drank gin and smoked cigarettes bought from the embassy commissary. We were diplomatic brats, sons of spies, kids raised on army bases by generals plotting the great American debacle. We loved our freedom, our youth, the world that opened to us in the streets and nearby shantytowns, the intrigues of Cholon, the Chinese city next to Saigon. We had it all, but we could only nibble at the margins.
Then it was gone. We were merely Americans once more, going to college, trying to become artists, writers. I won a few literary prizes at William and Mary, and went to the University of Cincinnati for a master’s degree, mainly because of the Elliston Foundation, its poetry library, and the faculty there who encouraged us to write and give readings. I published my first poems in Epoch, The Southern Review, The Mad River Review, Prairie Schooner, but I still didn’t have a style. I had read William Carlos Williams and heard a voice I liked; I had filled my ears with Dylan Thomas, but his poetry was overwrought and at times unreadable; I liked Yeats (who didn’t?), Eliot, but only slowly did I realize the wealth of ideas and strategies to be found in Ezra Pound. I was almost ready to grapple with this pig-headed father, and the sublime heights of Cathay and his later cantos. Some of the southern poets intrigued me as a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, where I worked under the poet Daniel Hoffman on a dissertation about Charles Olson. I began to understand the nature of music and energy in James Dickey’s Drowning with Others and Buckdancer’s Choice. He had mastered E. A. Robinson’s anapestic meter (the story teller metric); poems like “The Lifeguard” and “Falling” overwhelmed me.
It was Olson and the Black Mountain poets who seemed to renew things for poetry after a long silence. Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan were all exciting new directions, even if I couldn’t strike out in any of them. I was eager to change myself, but having read Thoreau, the clear, hard prose of his thought was welded to my imagination, as were the late lyrics of Yeats. Poetry had forms that were the templates of human emotion; the line was unbreakable on the page, so far as I could see. No matter how much I liked e.e. cummings, or Kenneth Patchen, or anyone else experimenting on the fringes of poetry, I was committed to what seemed then and still does the ineluctable musicality of lyric, however much rhythm and line breaks were relaxed after Pound. I found myself publishing in the better mags and reviews, but I ‘ve always wondered what it would have been like to leave tradition behind – to believe that experience had its own self-ordering principles and did not need an imposed control. I wrote a book about Olson and challenged my thought, but I didn’t change my beliefs or practices as a poet. Not much, anyway.
When I came out of grad school, the war was over, the new age had begun, a combination of forces that redefined the university as the open door to all those who had lived under white male rule. Fine with me. I had no quarrel with the age, I just needed a job. I found one at Texas A&M University, in the prairies of central Texas, once a cow college that gave up old southern attitudes reluctantly. To its credit, it adapted to the times, and I made myself a home in the rural southwest. I found students I could teach, and others I couldn’t. But it gave me a hard nose, and a dedication to my own beliefs no matter what. I taught poetry as a forum of conflicting doctrines, since I couldn’t resolve them in my own life. Students went one way or another under my guidance.
My first book of poems, Old and Lost Rivers, the title taken from a highway sign in Louisiana, was printed on a stencil machine found in the trash in my neighborhood. I printed out fifty copies, numbered and signed; I summarized my first marriage and divorce, my college years in those poems. One or two libraries actually hold copies of these flimsy little chapbooks. My next book was The Vectory, printed on a letterpress; Robert Bonazzi issued Signs of the Whelming, my first full-length book, from Latitudes Press. It helped establish my name in Texas. So did the publication of Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael (U Texas Press, 1979). Another study, Minding the Underworld: Clayton Eshleman and Late Postmodernism (Black Sparrow/David Godine), broke fresh ground on the Deep Image poets of the 1960s and later. Other books came, but a breakthrough book was Blue Alleys: Prose Poems (Stone River Press); a few years later Panther Creek Press published my lyric poems, The Mottled Air. Paul Forman issued Hard Country on his Thorp Springs Press, and Wings Press of San Antonio published The Human Condition in 2010, a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters award. I was now a gray eminence of Texas poetry, and something of a doyen of Texas letters with my memoir, West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas (Texas A&M University Press). Wings published my second memoir, Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence, which tells the story of keeping a second house in southern France. My short stories have appeared in Agni, Antioch Review and elsewhere.
The pattern of my life is no more than a crazy quilt; some threads may baste my personal narrative together, but I’m hesitant to make too much of them. I came of age in foreign countries, and spent the better part of my life trying to grasp what I see in America, its dreams, its failures, its profound discontent as a nation. I have always had the desire to illuminate something as complex as American experience. Others have done it better, with more tools at hand, but I believe my life has not been wasted trying to turn ink into ideas.