As much as Peter Sears gets jazzed by his own work, he’s equally excited – if not more – by the prospects of helping writers at all levels find the line or turn the phrase they’re shooting for. Born in New York, Sears has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Reed College, Bard College, and is on the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. In addition, he has led countless independent and affiliated workshops. His work has been widely published and has appeared in The Atlantic, Zyzzyva, Northwest Review, Rolling Stone, Southern Poetry Review, Mother Jones, Antioch Review, Poetry Northwest, Mademoiselle, Poetry Now, Iowa Review, New Letters, and the New York Times. In 1999, Sears was awarded the Stewart H. Holbrook Award from Literary Arts, Inc. Today he remains an instrumental part to the writing community throughout Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Part 1 of our interview focuses on education, while Part 2 focuses on Peter’s writing, and will appear later in 2009.
(DJ): Did you have a class yesterday?
(PS): It’s a basic comp course at PCC (Portland Community College). Most of the kids are 18, 19. There are some vets in there. I asked one of the guys what he came out as. He said, “Spec 5.” So did I. The difference is he was in the infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I basically went to southern Germany and Berlin. I mean, I lived like a king compared to this poor guy. He didn’t mind.
It’s a required course. About a third of the students are almost too good to be there. The ones at the bottom don’t know what a sentence is. They try, but cognitively they can’t get ahold of it, or they never got it. They’ve never done any writing, they didn’t get proper grammar in high school, they don’t read, or they didn’t read. So now they’re semi-illiterate. They’re nice, they’re quite bright, they work hard, but it’s hard for them. If they get a C they’re going to be lucky. It’s not their fault. They didn’t have it in school. That’s the range. Then there’s a bunch in the middle who are sort of OK.
(DJ): No creative writing?
(PS): No. The first assignment I used a Ray Carver poem, “The Car”. Each student reads a line. They write their own ‘car’, ‘house’, or something, whatever it is. The actual writing assignment is to transpose the creative start to an essay. Essentially, make full sentences out of each of these phrases. A good fifth of the class flunked. They couldn’t do it. I let them make that up, but we had to get further into it. I’ve spent more time than the class really allows for getting into grammar, sentence structure and things like that.
(DJ): Does it frustrate you?
(PS): I like to teach. This is the real world. It’s not like graduate students. One guy tells me about sales meetings he has to go to. One guy can’t make it because his kid’s sick….
(DJ): So teaching comp vs. teaching poetry…
(PS): I was in teaching a lot longer than I was in writing, professionally speaking. In the last few years I’ve realized that teaching is a lot harder than writing is. It’s a lot more important. It just isn’t credited in our society. I wanted to get back in it in the real way. Not just doing creative writing classes. They’re fun, but they’re kind of specialized. They’re not the real world.
I did a residency out in Fossil and Condon (small towns in north-central Oregon). That was the breakthrough for me. I mean, Fossil has 450 people in it, and the population is going down. There are 28 students in the entire high school. It’s really out there. I was trying to get someone out at both schools, but then I took it. The kids only go four-days a week because there aren’t enough students to warrant otherwise – they get enough instruction time. That kept me sane. I’d drive back here on Friday mornings.
I went out there with the understanding, or I told the school, that I needed two things. The teacher would be in the room with me to keep control of the kids. Secondly, the students wouldn’t be graded. Not only that, but if they didn’t want to do something they didn’t have to. It would be my challenge to keep it interesting. The kids were astounded. They were the children of ranchers. These people were serious, they didn’t mess around. One bad year and they were out of business. And it was a challenge, but because of that openness, it made the teaching much more interesting.
(DJ): When was this?
(PS): Two years ago. I was only six-months off chemo. It turned out, being in a dry climate was just what I needed. I’d go for a walk in the afternoon. I couldn’t go in the evening because they had cougars.
(PS): Someone said, ‘Do not go for a walk at dusk around here.’ I didn’t see one. They told me it was true.
(DJ): Any poems from this period?
(PS): A few. One about wind turbines. It’s OK but not great. I’d like to get the cougars in some.
(DJ): And the kids liked the class?
(PS): I had them do poetry, personal essay prose, short story writing and playwriting. We did four pieces in four weeks. Then we did a show for the students at both schools. People were like, “You’re not going to get these people to come to some show.” Their teacher told me to give her a list of students that I wanted to read, and she’d work on the families. First she told the students, gave them a certificate and made a big deal out of it. Of course none of them wanted to do it. Peer pressure. They weren’t going to stand up and read in front of a bunch of people.
So she calls the parents up and tells them, “You know, Mr. Sears wants Johnny to be in this show, but that’s not why I’m calling.” And so on. The parents would cut in and say things like, “What’s this about some show?’ The teacher was great. She’d say, ‘Well, Johnny doesn’t want to do it, and Mr. Sears isn’t going to force students to participate. And the parents are like, “We’ll get Johnny to do it.”
Soon the show becomes the thing to do. Suddenly kids who hadn’t written jack come up to me and say they want to be in it. I tell them they didn’t write anything and they say, “Yeah, but I didn’t know there was going to be a show.” Stuff like that.
The show was monumental. All the families were going screwy, chanting and hollering. The guy who owned the theater never sold so much popcorn in his life. It went right to Fishtrap (the funder) and their board, then it went right to the community foundation, then right to the NEA. This is exactly the type of thing they like.
(DJ): When you create something like that, don’t you think it creates the desire to continue when you’re gone?
(PS): God yeah. The grant is still going on. It’s in its last year now. It was a big event, but it came along because of the teacher. The committee didn’t know what to do but the teacher was great. Just one of those things where it hits.
Teaching out there was as rewarding and meaningful as any teaching I’ve done. I’ve taught at a lot of places. And when I came back I wanted to do a comp class. And I’d like to do more. Working with teachers through Community of Writers is also very important to me. I like to stay engaged. Plus from a practical standpoint, it’s reliable.
Remember, I’m 71. To be working at my age in any field is really a great benefit. People my age do some consulting work, things like that, but they’re kind of pushed off to the side. So I feel very fortunate. I also think it helps my writing a lot. My writing’s gotten better.
(DJ): I was going to ask…
(PS): It really has.
(DJ): If you were cloistered away, not working…I can’t imagine that being your day.
(PS): No, I couldn’t do it. I like to be out there. I like the contrast. It’s healthy. If I was around my house all the time, just me and the cat and the washing machine, I’d go nuts. I’m lucky to be teaching and I’d like to do more of it.