Conversations, Mark Cox with Richard Jackson, 28 October 2011

Art, Revision, Teaching


Jackson: [S]tudents love . . . your work [for] the sense of the real person speaking . . .

Cox: Certainly, I try to be an artful writer, and I'm very, very conscious of craft in my poems. Accessibility, and ultimately, communication and the conveyance of the experience that I have either imagined or experienced myself, the evocation of something that actually becomes real to people, that's very important to me.

Students--all of us--have certain predispositions in terms of how we think. . . . But whatever the filter that you have, it is important that you recognize what it is, and then, be able to consciously work yourself into a place where you can see it from the outside and . . . alter it. . . . [T]hat's what style and technique and everything allow us to do, . . . to see the pattern in our sensibilities and how we move through the work, how we see things. So the revision process for me is a lot of moving around and shifting, and trying to . . . trick myself into a different perspective, into a kind of surprise so that I don't end up just writing what I know.

My work is actually, pretty consistently circling the very same things over and over again. And yet, at the same time, it's the process of moving back and forth between different kinds of approaches or stances toward language or associative logic. . . . [I]n the beginning I was very enamored of figurative language. I was highly metaphorical. I really wanted to break away from where I'd come from. . . . I revised just last week a poem from 1984 that started out as being a sonnet, and I did everything possible to make it not a sonnet. I just stripped it. And now, 27 years later, I came back to it, . . . and I said, "Oh, hell." So, I sat down and . . . made it the sonnet it was supposed to be. . . . I was working against my formalist . . . beginnings . . . [N]ow . . . I'm understanding better to listen to that poem and let it be what it wants to be.

I think you have to trust yourself enough to really, truly question yourself. Students that I have who do the best, who accelerate the fastest, who find themselves, who really find some joy in the writing, are those who are very, very open and who are willing to try anything twice, and who don't worry about being defensive or worry that if they try to do something in a different way or read something that they don't particularly like or [are]challenged in some way, that it's somehow going to steal their original impuslses, which, of course, no one can do. If it's part of your identity, if it's who you are going to be as a writer, nobody can take it from you.

I've become a much more domestic writer, and unabashedly so. In [1984], I was a construction worker, . . . a bridge painter, an industrial painter--what we call the steel painter in the Midwest--sand blasting and spray painting and high work high rigging . . . for ten years before I started teaching. . . . I maybe write a little bit less about the blue collar aspect of my experience. But I've become much more quiet. I'm much more interested in my family, in relationships, in the relationships between people, in my students, and not quite as enamored with the cleverness and ingenuity of my own light.

Jackson: How do you think students have changed over the years?

Cox: [T]he best of them have not changed at all. . . . Unfortunately, I also think that as the creative writing programs have proliferated, . . . things have become professionalized . . . so that publication and achievement, vocational achievement and having skills to then get a job and teach--a kind of votech mentality--has crept into the arts teaching and study. And that's a difficult thing because that's not really what we're there to do. We're to help as writers and as people who are interested in evolving as persons and of testing their sense of culture and becoming a well-rounded human being living in the world. So, sometimes those students can seem to me to be a little entitled. They have certain . . . expectations which are unrealistic, and I, occasionally, feel like teachers are not treated like mentors but more like workers who have clocked in and who owe them a particular thing in a particular, which is another way of saying they are not really open to hearing what they need to hear to grow as artists.

For more information about Mark Cox, see his bio page.

© 2011, Chattanooga State, Mark Cox, and Richard Jackson. Used by permission.
Producer: Meacham Writers' Workshop
Director/Editor: Charles Parks, Media Services, Chattanooga State Community College.


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