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On teaching, writing and saying goodbye

Several of my posts for this residency have mentioned my former teachers. Now a teacher myself, I sometimes repeat or repackage their advice. If you have been in any of my classes, my teachers have effectively been your teachers too.

A teacher who was particularly special to me was Roger Erickson. A celebrated English teacher, Roger taught generations of pupils to write clear, ‘well-synthesized’ essays and read more perceptively. In one of a memorable series of classes on The Waste Land, Roger played a recording from Tristan and Isolde so we could hear the lines Eliot nicked for ‘The Burial of the Dead’:


Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?


Roger and I kept in touch for 25 years and saw each other when we could, usually in New York but occasionally London. Once we went backstage at the Royal Ballet to see the lead dancer, Alexandra, who attended the same school on Long Island that I did. Alexandra had previously danced for New York City Ballet, and Roger rarely missed any of her performances.

Roger, who had no family of his own, was heavily invested in his students and former students. He wanted to be a writer himself, but teaching was his priority. Still, he was proud of my successes. When he came to the launch of my first book, he bought copies for all his friends.

Because I could never quite extricate Roger from the role of English teacher, I occasionally sent him drafts I was unsure about. As recently as this year I showed him the transcript of my interview with Hugo Williams before handing it in to The Poetry Review.

A recurring theme in our 25 years of letters and emails was The New Yorker, a magazine he subscribed to and hoped to see my poems in. I first sent poems to The New Yorker when I was 18, on his suggestion, and received a standard rejection. As I continued submitting over the decades, each rejection letter was more hopeful, until one day the editor wrote to me to ask if I had anything new she could see. Unfortunately this famously eccentric editor regularly lost my submissions, and I would have to resend the poems by airmail. To Roger’s delight, and then fury, she seemed to accept one of my poems, but then changed her mind. With each gaffe, she apologized profusely, offering to take me for tea when I was next in New York. I would forgive her, because she was that charming. But Roger would not. As gentle, mannerly, and courteous as he was, he had some choice epithets for that poetry editor.

In September, Roger emailed to say he had an incurable type of cancer. I booked flights to see him. No one knew he would deteriorate as quickly as he did, however, and he died before my trip.

In my Fragments class this term, we looked at Simone Weil’s aphoristic passages in Gravity and Grace. Weil wrote, ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ That is the way I want to be as a teacher: utterly attentive and generous. My Ideal Teacher Self would be a lot like Roger. But I also know that I cannot be like Roger if I am also a writer.

In my last email to him—or the last one he appears to have seen—I mentioned, for old times sake, that I’d sent poems to The New Yorker. He wrote, ‘I cannot tell you how happy I am that you are writing. That’s the best news I’ve had for a while. I want to see you in The New Yorker before they put me in the Viking boat, light it, and send me into the Long Island Sound.’

While this digital residency triggered reflections on many things from sestinas to multimedia poetry to tenets for a manifesto, it also coincided with my own moment of reflection—on my teachers, on the push-pull between teaching and writing, on the ways I could be better at both, and on my good fortune that I can do both.

Although you will see Jason and me again in the new year with a postscript on transatlantic poetry, our residency officially ends today. Thank you to The Poetry School for giving us this fascinating job; and thank you, CAMPUS members, for reading our blogs and live chats and for contributing to our discussions.


  • Sarah Leavesley/James

    Fascinating to read this (though sorry for your loss). I think teachers live on through us in what we do and how we do it, just as relatives and close friends do. Most of my study choices and personal interests have their roots positively (and negatively) in teachers that brought enthusiasm for (or antipathy/lethargy against).

    Obviously, I’ve not been taught by you. But judging from the very fact that you’ve thought about this push-pull and had such an example, I’m guessing you’re probably a motivating and enthusiastic teacher, maybe all the better for this personal experience as a writer as well as a teacher.

    Thank you for the blogs and live chats. Though I’ve not kept up with everything, I’ve very much enjoyed what I have read.

  • Jason Schneiderman

    It’s been an honor to serve along side you!

  • Kim Moore

    Lovely post Kathryn. I love the idea of when we teach, all the teachers we’ve had are in the same room as us. This often happens to me when I’m teaching music, or especially when I’m conducting my band. I repeat my old band conductors words without thinking. I’m sorry for your loss with your teacher. It sounds like a wonderful relationship to have had and if any of my pupils spoke of me with the same warmth you have spoken of your teacher, I would be very happy!

  • Clare Hepworth-Wain

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I have really enjoyed your blogs and the Open Workshop was a great learning experience – liberating.
    All best wishes in your future projects.

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Image: Screening of Karen Kilimnik’s Sleeping Beauty and Friends at the de Young Museum