If September 11th wasn’t reason enough to cancel a party, then there was a much more down-to-earth excuse the following year. In the party that welcomed the new group of students (including yours truly) the year before, my friend Rosalyn took a fall down a flight of stairs. It was the type of mistake anyone could have made, had they been a little too close to the staircase that led from the living room to the basement floor. While there were handrails, the rectangular hole in the floor that showed the stairs was hardly noticeable. With drinks, high heels, and the stairs’ low visibility, anyone could have tumbled down and hit their head. But it had to be Rosalyn, one of the people who lobbied for the party.
At the Universtity, the English Department traditionally sponsored a welcoming party for the MFA program at the beginning of each academic year. Fortunately, it wasn’t held on campus grounds, but in the home of a student. She was a retired English teacher-turned-professional MFA student as she had been working working on her degree for nearly a decade. The benefit of an off-campus party is the warm atmosphere only available in someone’s house, a gorgeous spread, and the alcohol. The last item is definitely essential as it facilitates socializing, but more importantly, it’s expected. The one that was held in my first semester in the graduate program would be the last one of its sort.
Henry O’Donough, this post-modernist professor at the University, kept office hours in the afternoon and “bar hours” on Thursday night, on the border of the City, between one of its eastern suburban neighborhoods and the exurban neighborhoods of two cities with names that translate into English as “The Table” and “The Box.” Most of the students who came to this little strip mall dive bar to hang out with the esteemed scholar, interviewer, and editor of several postmodern anthologies, including one that is a perpetual best seller for Duke University Press. And Professor K, ever trying to hold on to the tail of the fast-moving Zeitgeist, has a decent story in O’Donough’s best known anthology. Strangely, during my first year of knowing Professor K, I would go to “bar hours” to hang out with Henry and some classmates, past and present associates of Henry’s, and to unwind from Professor K’s classes, which were always held on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Professor Joseph K is the pseudonym of a professor I worked with when I was in graduate school. The name, of course, is borrowed from Franz Kafka’s protagonist of The Trial. This professor, author of small tomes, and armchair anarchist is the nemesis in much of my previous posts about him. Here, he finds himself in the midst of something I really wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. He’s definitely in that category
It’s funny that Professor Joseph K would find himself in the midst of a Kafkaesque nightmare at one point in his career. Some time after I ended my academic and professional association with him, he found himself the subject of a University investigation. I only have second-hand information on this subject. Given that I had been a student and employee of his for two years and that the investigation occurred while I was still in the MFA program, I’m surprised I was never interviewed as a witness. Getting back to the subject at hand, the reason why the University was looking closely into Professor K’s affairs was that a student felt their grade was at stake after she objected to attending Professor K’s class when there was a sexually explicit presentation.
In this Six Feet Under episode, Olivier is caught in unprofessional conduct by Claire and tries to buy her off with a grade of her choice.
I should be over something like this. As much as I can dwell on the whole MFA experience and what a racket it was, people like the Professor Joseph K are a joke. Unfortunately, my dealings with him and his self-serving behavior haunt me to this day. At the start, he was the mentor figure, the one who gave me admission to his inner literary circle. In the end, I got tossed aside. As much as he told people that they should do what’s beneficial to them as writers, he wanted people to take his workshops and tell him how brilliant he was for publishing his slender little volumes of deviant behavior. Regarding his writing workshops, there wasn’t much to get out of them. Publishable in his terms meant “I publish you, you publish me.” As a grad school friend of mine said, fiction could not create a villain as evil as Professor K.
It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on my experiences in my MFA program. One very significant figure, whom I’ve discussed in previous posts, was Professor Joseph K, who served as my early mentor, friend, boss, and later silent tormentor. This post is Part 21 of If You Want To Go To Grad School.
We’re at a party early on for the University’s MFA program and I mention working with Professor Joseph K. You ask me what he’s like and I’ll try to give you a sound byte answer. After all, this is a party, and the conversation’s not supposed to be too deep. So, here’s what I say: Joe’s a good guy and I work very well with him. I also enjoy his workshops a lot.
My answer would change much later, as I was only one year into my academic and professional relationship with Professor K. Being his secretary didn’t pay much, but I liked it better than working in the supermarket. There, I was paid better and I had benefits, but with Joe, I had keys to the mail room and his office, and I had a code for the English Department copier. I had a place to hang my coat, to read, to study, and even to write. I even had my own desk so I wouldn’t use his. What I had lost in practical terms, I gained in privilege. Which is essentially the case with anyone who goes into something arts or humanities related. I also harbored great hopes that my association with Joe would benefit me in the future. Perhaps I would become an editor or a professor, or even an editor-professor like Joe.
Earlier, this afternoon, I hinted in a discreet way to Chris that my former professor mentor Joseph K inflicted Taxi Xum Klo on his students in his Madness in Literature seminar. In an attempt to slyly reveal Professor K’s own perverse (and slender) body of work through links, I kept frakking up on the simple HTML code. I won’t do it here, as it’s been my policy to never directly point the finger at him on my own blog (though he has his own website, an entry in Wikipedia, and tons of generous “I publish you, you publish me” reviews). However, anyone who knows me from the MFA program at my alma mater knows who he is.
Here is an excerpt from my previous entry on Joe:
The literature students were no match for Joe. They appeared to be staid and conservative in comparison to him. The creative writers perceived this and ganged themselves against the MA’s. Joe often favored the MFA’s, showing preference for their ideas in the seminar’s discourse. Joe, or at least his persona, openly eschewed canonical authors. When an MA student proposed doing his final presentation on Virginia Wolff’s madness, Joe dismissively said that was old school. Since I had seen Joe’s personal library, I knew he did not completely subscribe to that view. However, he saw the graduate lit students as orthodox, unremarkable, unreceptive, inflexible, not even worthy of the A’s or B’s he gave them. Then again, was an A or a B even really worth anything in any graduate course?
Many of the literature students were more grounded in the canon, especially the specializations they were drawn to. They were not accustomed to thinking of the avant-garde feeding into literature, unless they were post-modernists. Their ways of talking about literature did not fit in with how he discussed it. They were confronted with the bizarre, the outré, the experimental, the independently published, even stuff that was downright bad. Some of the outsider writers weren’t that good at all, but their ideas were worth discussing. It may have been one thing to be required to read badly written stories, but seeing a sexually explicit German film, Taxi Xum Klo, was definitely much for some. Some scenes left little to the imagination; pornographic, though strong, would be accurate. Like most of work Joe presented, there was supposed to be something beyond the obvious. Or was there?
Beyond Joe’s choice of material, we were treated to Joe’s work. One story of his may have been included in the reader he prepared for the class. During one of the times we met at his home, he did a dramatic reading where he played Charles Manson. His stories were often like two character plays without dialogue tags or description of the characters. His subjects were often sexually unconventional people or murderers, sometimes even both. At this point, he was writing a body of creative work about serial killers, so his work qualified as madness in literature. None of the MA’s cared that Joe was a minor league literary star, a power broker in the avant-garde literary community. I’m sure a certain percentage of the MFA’s also shared similar sentiments. However, the MFA’s in his class treated him like a god. Their reverence was certainly rewarded.
I’m sure this stirs up a huge canister of worms, especially since I haven’t posted about Joe in about a year.
When I was a young college student who majored in French, the French literature professor showed us Fassbinder’s adaptation of Querelle, which some of my classmates had the same reactions as the graduate students who saw Taxi Xum Klo. While I am at a loss to remember the point behind Professor K presenting his German film, the French professor’s showing of Querelle was about Jean Genet, who is very germane to the subject of that course.
Needless to say, I’ll never make students watch a gay, semi-pornographic film. I don’t think it’ll ever happen. I don’t even inflict that stuff on my gay friends.