John Poch talks about life as a poet, pedagogue and purveyor of the fine metered word
by John Davis
Words make his machines.
Sometimes only two lines long, and some that go on for pages. But the curious turns of phrase he hears in everyday life sit patiently in the mind and notebooks of poet John Poch, waiting for him to take them out and engineer them into finely tuned creations.
“I am like most poets in that I write a different poem on a different day because of whatever has happened to me in my life,” said Poch, a professor of creative writing in the Department of English. “But I’m always listening to language and how people use it in interesting ways, and how language offers a multiplicity of different meanings at once. And whenever I hear something peculiar, I try to write it down and somehow fit it into a poem.”
Poch, a former engineering student who instead began to study the written word, is an integrated scholar and one of four poets at Texas Tech University’s nationally renowned Creative Writing Program. He teaches the art and craft of reading and writing poetry to graduate and undergraduate students. The author of more than 200 published poems, a chapbook, three books of his own and a collaborator on two others, he has three more in the hands of publishers.
His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Paris Review, Yale Review, Agni and many other magazines. He just stepped down as editor of 32 Poems Magazine, which has in the last eight years published five poems that have gone on to appear in the “Best American Poetry” series. The series chooses 75 of the best poems out of thousands published in one year.
In the classroom, however, Poch said he tries to teach what makes good poetry, how it’s OK not to “get” all the meanings.
“I think a lot of people think poetry is this thing that can’t be taught,” he said. “But there are a lot of aspects of the craft that you really can teach. I try to focus on those things.”
Son of a Preacher Man
Born in 1966 in Erie, Penn., Poch was the middle of four siblings. His father was a minister and his mother a homemaker. When he was 12, the family moved to Stockbridge in rural Georgia, and he learned to blend into that society after a fellow student told him he “talked funny.”
He credits his father’s career with the start of his love affair with words.
John Poch is a professor of creative writing in the Department of English at Texas Tech University. In 2010, Poch was honored as an Integrated Scholar by the Office of the Provost for his outstanding efforts in teaching, research and service.
“If I were to go back to when I think my love of poetry started, it would probably be with the cadences of the King James Bible,” he said. “But it’s a combination of everything in my life that made me love words.”
Throughout his childhood, Poch said writing and poetry never seemed crucial, though he did love to read. Instead, he pursued scientific and mathematical interests.
The first member of his family to go to college, Poch got his first two-year degree in physics. But as he finished his first semester at Georgia Tech University studying to become a nuclear engineer, he wasn’t happy.
“I didn’t have any family who had ever been to college before, so I was sort of on my own and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought well, I’m good at math and science, so I guess I would be an engineer.”
Instead of formulas and theorems, he escaped by writing short stories and poems. Poch recalls a poetry professor at Georgia State asked him why he was studying nuclear engineering. It was the first time he asked himself the same question. When he couldn’t find a reason to continue, he said he changed his life to pursue something he really loved.
And so began Poch’s love affair with words. He recalled walking down the streets of downtown Atlanta feeling as though he might burst out of his skin while on the way to a poetry workshop. His short stories got shorter and shorter until poems ruled his creativity.
Working nights on the loading docks of Southeastern Freight Lines in Conley, Ga., he would ask his fellow dock workers to critique some of his works in their spare time.
“They must have thought I was a freak,” he said, blushing. “Here it was, their second or third job of the day, and here I was passing out my poems for them to read.”
Poch went on to earn his master’s in poetry in 1997 from the University of Florida, where he met William Logan, a professor of poetry in the Department of English, a regular New York Times Book Review poetry critic and author of eight poetry books.
He credited Logan with giving him the proper poetic education he needed to become a professional.
“From Logan, I learned the responsibility of the writer is to be a reader and critic, as well as a poet,” Poch said. “I learned that few poems last beyond a generation or a century. If it does last, it is because you have made a contribution to the language, not because you fit some social project or some incidental fad. I learned that craft can be taught, and it is helpful, but imaginative possibilities must come from a life and all its complexities beyond the academic education. Poems should contain philosophy, history, the literary tradition, linguistic excellence and so much more far beyond some personal self-expression.”
Logan said he remembered Poch’s courage as a writer, and his ability to learn from his mistakes.
“John was not crippled by his gifts, as some young poets are,” he said. “He faced up to them and was not cowed by them. He learned how far to go by going a little too far, by making mistakes and not making them again. A poet needs to be a little bit reckless and then know how not to drive off the cliff. His later work has shown how important that touch of recklessness was.”
Poch earned his doctorate in English in 2000 from the University of North Texas. He served as the first Olive B. O’Connor fellow at Colgate University before coming to Texas Tech in 2001.
The Llano Estacado
by John Poch
How much soil do you plow to soothe a conscience?
If you’re a staked plains, dry-land, long view man:
a sky’s worth. Some even sow the dry playa
mid-summer with sorghum, the cotton plowed under
after early hail. Thus, not every farmer keeps
an old broken homestead sacred as a graveyard.
Today, no Sharpshin on a pivot for an omen,
no stoic farmer on a turn-row changing water.
Among a little wind grit, in a grid on a grid, somewhere
like the crossroads of outer space and Earth, Texas,
a handful of ragged elms withstand a long sway
of heat and wind. These old guards of a home haunt
the field but wither even as ghosts must. Honor them
with a walk among homesick bricks, and prophesy good.
Credit Poetry Magazine
The Writer/The Teacher
When looking for inspiration, Poch said he draws from his own experiences, much as many poets do, when creating a new piece.
“I began writing poems that were more personally symbolic in the beginning,” he said. “Poems that were more about language itself and my own personal stories behind the scenes without trying to make them clear. Maybe I’ve come full circle because I’m interested in that again. But I shifted to where I wrote poems about ghost towns in northern New Mexico because I was passionate about Taos and what made it special.”
Perhaps the appeal to the mathematical part of his mind for writing poetry is how words can become like engineered machines when the language used offers a multiplicity of things at once.
Whenever he hears words and phrases that sound workable, he collects them like wheels and gears, then tries to fit them into the machinery of a poem. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, he said.
“I write poems that are two lines and some that go on for six or seven pages,” Poch said. “I try to follow the words and see where it leads me. . . I have a 5-year-old, and about a year ago she was looking out the window, and she said “Daddy, look, the birds are pretending they’re airplanes.” That’s a poem in and of itself. So I got my notebook out and wrote it down, trying to figure how I was going to fit that into a poem.”
As he’s learned from life’s experiences, being a poet isn’t easy. No road to riches lies ahead. Even fiction writers have it somewhat easier when it comes to making a living. Because of the pace of modern lifestyles and lack of spare time, Poch said, very few people buy poetry anymore, and not many want to take 30 minutes indulging in the analysis of the words, except for other poets.
But that doesn’t stop him from practicing it. Or teaching others how to succeed as a poet or writer.
Chloe Honum, a creative writing doctoral student from Auckland, New Zealand, was recently honored as a finalist in The Yale Series of Younger Poets. She said her correspondence with Poch served as the deciding factor for her to come to Texas Tech to earn her degree.
“I greatly admire John’s poetry and was already excited about the possibility of working with him,” Honum said. “John has become a wonderful mentor. He is generous, wise, and goes out of his way to support his students. I feel very fortunate to have John Poch as a mentor and look forward to taking courses with him.”
As a teacher, Poch tells students to take time to play with the words in their minds and enjoy the experience.
“Poetry wasn’t created for any other purpose than the purpose of enjoying language,” he said. “It’s not created to teach you how grammar works or syntax functions. It’s not created to help you make public speeches, although it can lead to those things. Poetry is made for pleasure.”
With undergraduates, he tries to remember how learning about poetry was for him in the beginning, and then adds what he wished he learned. Imagery usually serves as a good starting point. Then he moves on to more technical aspects, such as rhyme, meter and metaphor.
“Young kids say ‘I don’t like poetry because I never get it,’” he said. “It’s a constant enjoyment of language that you should get. It’s not about getting a meaning. That is one of the things I most often have to un-teach at the beginning of a semester.”
Even so, some parts of poetry are hard to identify in words–parts he can only call magical. Moments even he finds difficulty in trying to explain why it works. In the best poems there are moments that rise above in some mysterious way, and he and his students try to get at it to find what makes them work and how they can do this in their poems.
In the end, he hopes his students have discovered a new love and way of expression through a language they use every day.
“Some students will come in having no knowledge of poetry whatsoever,” he said. “If they’re hungry for knowledge and what the class offers, then we’re going to have a really good time. I tell them, ‘You might find yourself getting interested if you work at it, and making discoveries you wouldn’t have. Poetry can offer a new way of seeing the world, and the practice of being creative with words will probably help you to be creative with whatever else you choose to pursue.’
“And truthfully, who doesn’t stand in awe when someone recites a poem by heart.”
Department of English at Texas Tech University
The Department of English offers undergraduate and graduate opportunities in literature, linguistics, creative writing, composition and rhetoric, and technical communication. Master of Arts or Ph.D. candidates may focus their studies in several ways depending upon interests and professional goals. Some notable areas of specialized study include:
John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University. Videos produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Image courtesy Neal Hinkle.