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Words of Wisdom

The world is full of paper. Write to me.

— Agha Shahid Ali

April 2008

EVAN: Introducing Dr. Paul Christensen an English professor here at A&M. In 1974 Dr. Christensen graduated U. Penn with a PhD. Today he is here to talk about his experiences as a writer and what you can do to take your writing to the next level. I’m your host Evan Shulman, and this is the next edition of “Write Right.” This is part one of the Dr. Paul Christensen interview. In this section we’re going to find out about the man behind the words. Dr. Christensen, can you please tell us about your experience teaching at Texas A&M?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Yes. When I arrived in 1974, I think there was one creative writing class in which you studied prose and poetry and that was it. There was no follow up course; it was considered just sort of a bit of window dressing, I think. But I essentially came here to teach contemporary literature, especially the poetry part.

EVAN: Have you brought any notable writers to the university?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, for 10 years I was host, founder, and general errand runner for my own show KNUFN called “Poetry Southwest.” And in the course of those 10 years from 1977 to 1987, I brought in oh at least 200 writers, ranging everywhere from Allen Ginsburg, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Diana Wakoski, Donald Paul, on down to some local writers who were just writing there first little chap books, and I found them just as interesting frankly. I wanted to know what sort of boundaries they were pushing back writing in a very small sort of community without much of a sense of what the nation is thinking. But they knew what they were thinking, and I really enjoyed talking to people like that, very young people.

EVAN: Do you write about things that occur in your life?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Well I was a Foreign Service brat first of all, so I’m very fond of writing about the moment at which I was snatched up into a taxi from the playground of a small catholic school in Falls Church, Virginia, and carried off to airport, and woke up the next day in Paris. And that was really cool. It was mind blower of an experience. And then whisked off to Beirut, Lebanon, where all of a sudden I’m confronted by an Arab culture, and I instantly loved it, I instantly understood. I went back to the United States, and then was immediately whisked a year later to end up in a boarding school in the mountains of Luzon in the Philippines where my whole life changed. It was a New England style prep school made up of some of the most interesting people I ever met, as a kid—bright, beautifully, well read, deep thinking students, who had many more privileges than I had had. And I learned vast amounts just from the students, more maybe than the teachers. I flunked out of course simply because my life was in utter turmoil.  But what a wonderful mind stretching experience it was to be there, and then I went to live in a planter’s villa in Saigon where my father had set up his headquarters with the American embassy there.

EVAN: Do you feel that these life experiences have impacted your writing?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: I began reading in earnest at the age of 12.  I started reading really difficult books that I’m sure I didn’t understand at all, but the thrill of seeing such massive vocabularies and long long sentences and enormous paragraphs thrilled me. I don’t know why, but it was something so different than my practical life.

EVAN: Can you tell me about some of the noble writers you’ve been involved with in your career?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Curiously enough whether or not it was the right thing I found myself falling into a company with people like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley for example. Robert Creeley, I don’t know if you know who Robert Creeley is, but he is one of these wonderful writers that grew out of the Black Mountain poetry movement and started writing in the early fifties. He was Harvard graduate, or if he was not a graduate then he probably studied at Harvard for a couple of years and then went to Black Mountain College. I also fell in with Clayton Eshleman, who’s an outrageous poet, who had spent some years in California and was now more or less headquartered in Michigan in Ypsilanti. He started a magazine called “Caterpillar,” and it published just about everybody after the Black Mountain and the Beat-scene more or less faded.

EVAN: Have you come across any great editors?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: I count as a very great friend and perhaps the most gifted editor I’ve ever met in Roberto Bennassi who lives in San Antonio. He truly is one of the finest editors I’ve ever come across. His standard practice when you gave him a poem was to immediately to knock off the first four lines and the last four lines and say now let’s see what you’ve really got. And it was probably, nine times out ten, the right thing to do because you have to clear your throat when you’re writing until you get to some interesting place where you mind clicks and you can write the poem, and then you often go past the ending.  Yeah you’re like some guy looking for a motel that still has a vacancy sign.

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