Michael Trocchia: On the Library, the Classroom, and the Study

CS-MT-Unfounded-Cover_FrontCoverMichael Trocchia lives not only a double life as a working poet, but triple life: he also finds the time to teach philosophy at James Madison University. His first book, The Fatherlands, is a collection of short fictions/prose poems that, for me, nod toward a haunted fairytale world where logic doesn’t unfold in the ways you would expect. This world is peopled with faceless figures of “the woman,” “the man” and “the boy,” and every time a character resurfaces he is changed. His newest book, Unfounded, is a bit more traditional in appearance–there are no prose poems–but here again nothing can be understood as common. Every line break is followed by a surprise turn in logic or a not-yet-imagined imaged. And reading this collection also became an exercise in letting go, allowing myself to be lead through the mazey path each poem beckoned me down.  In the second section of the collection (there are three sections total), the poems took a turn toward Ars Poetica. As a sometime instructor of poetry and writing, I’m always on the hunt for new Ars Poetica, and Michael has provided me a new one to add to my personal anthology with his poem “Poem Without Itself.” You can find Unfounded on Amazon.

 Michael was kind enough to share some thoughts on his triple life and the myth of finding the perfect job. Here’s what he had to say:

What do you write? How do you write it? 

Claudia in the study

Claudia in the study

I write poems, prose poems in some cases, and the shortest of fictions. I’m working on a lengthier project though, a hybrid novella, a narrative blend of poetry and prose. In it we meet a professor who in his youth was a thief. While he’s long given up thievery—having sold off, lost, forgotten, or abandoned much of what he’s stolen—he has to this day retained one item in particular, an item taken under strange circumstances. The work picks up with his decision to return this thing, decades later, to its rightful place, the very spot from which he took it, however wise or foolish that may be. We follow his journey back and meet with all sorts of characters and happenings along the way.

How do I write? Slowly, as if I am constantly learning to see, or learning to read for the first time. But sometimes it will pick up a degree or two and it is more like learning to play a piece of music that, in some sense, I already know. It occurs in the mornings mostly, or whenever I manage to find generous moments of solitude. If I’m out and about and there is no pen or keyboard at hand, I work the words over in my mind repeatedly, a small rehearsal of sorts, as if learning lines from a play. When at home in my study, there is often a cat nearby.

What are sources of inspiration that you return to?

The worlds of mythmakers, for sure, whether fallen to us in letters or images. There are other sources: I am often drawn back to the poems of Georg Trakl in autumn, the novels of Hamsun in winter, the Italians Sinisgalli, Buzzati, Vittorini, and Quasimodo in summer, and Yannis Ritsos, the Greek, all year round. Spring is my wildcard, a season for who-knows and not-yets, though Jeffers claws through sometimes, his narrative poems mostly. Then there is the music of J.S. Bach, Arvo Pärt, the sounds of Górecki and A Hawk and A Hacksaw.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there?

Carrier Library Stacks

Carrier Library Stacks

I’ve two jobs, or perhaps one job while the other, if not itself my vocation, comprises a good part of it. What I call “the job” is my work for James Madison University Libraries, where I am the E-Journals Coordinator in the Technical Services Department. In short, I’m responsible for setting up the university’s electronic journals in all library systems, maintaining the holdings and date coverage, and making sure all access points and linking to the journals are working. In recent years, I’ve also headed up an event program for the library called JMuse Café. Our series of events provides an informal and lively forum for students, faculty, staff, and the community to come together and explore topics of public interest in ways that reach across multiple disciplines and diverse educational backgrounds.

What I refer to as a part of my vocation is the work that goes into teaching philosophy (also at JMU). In this work, as much as I am teaching students philosophy, I am of course always teaching myself along the way. The teaching opportunity and its various rewards could very well cease one day, but it is tough to see a day when pursuing my own studies and its rewards will come to an end. The work I do in philosophy is integral to the work I do as a writer. If we were to shred many of my poems, they’d become, I hope, no less than confetti tossed in the streets by a parade of old philosophers. This is certainly so for a large portion of pieces in Unfounded.

To the question of how I got here: In 2007 I began working at JMU after graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia. My first job here was full-time in the library as the Processing and Binding Manager. In this role I took care of the stream of books acquired by the library, ensuring that the books and their catalog records received everything they need (checkout information, call number labels, stamps, security strips, etc.) in order to make it safely and swiftly to the shelves. I was also responsible for binding the journals routinely and whatever books that were falling apart. I had been in touch with some professors in the philosophy department at the time and, shortly after, I was offered a spot teaching part-time (on top of the library work). In 2010, I moved into the E-Journals position I mention above.

How does these jobs/vocations challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?

Danielle Campbell Photography. Trocchia reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA.

Danielle Campbell Photography. Trocchia reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA.

I go to work with thousands and thousands of authors each day, from antiquity through the present. There they are when I arrive, sitting on shelves throughout the library, always willing to have a conversation, to confound and astound me, to reveal some new aspect of the world, or force me to reconsider this, to imagine that. I can ask for no better company from 9 to 5. At every turn in the building I am reminded of something exquisite, of some immensity indexed, some wondrous triviality. I am met with volumes, with orders of worlds bound up with our experiences of them, with stacks and stacks of fragmented knowledge, with the colorful and worn spines of our languages and thought, with imprints of question and formulae, with the inks of countless laws, natural and not, that line much of our existence, and will, as far as I can tell, continue to do so long after I’m gone. The library as a whole, we might say, is something of a law unto itself. As Borges writes, “the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.” And now many such “secrets” and more have surfaced at our fingertips, at the touch of a key, given the electronic sphere that libraries, publishers, service and content providers have built up in recent decades. Through the course of a simple morning in the office, like this one for instance, I’ll work on a mix of electronic journals such as Psychology of Music, The Public Historian,  Journal for General Philosophy of Science, Canadian Slavonic Papers, American Antiquity, and so on. The various journals from our collections flood my workday, and sometimes bits of their content are thrown together, deposited here and there in my mind after I’ve finished working with them. And these sediments can often find their way into my writing in one form or another.

My work week setting then comes three-sided: this library environment, the classroom, and my study at home. Yes, the days come in the shape of a triangle, a shape well suited to my aesthetic.

So it seems that you’ve got a full plate, but your that plate is full of good things and each component nourishes another. I am reminded William Carlos Williams  when he said “As a writer, I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather it was my very food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write. ” What are your thoughts on this sentiment?  

I would agree with Williams, but the key is for one to make “food and drink” of whatever it is one does for work. Not every doctor is a poet of course, but Williams made his work in medicine “food and drink” for writing because he was a poet. In a comprehensive way then, yes, everything must be made to nourish the other. So I’d say Poet Williams also fed the very experiences, shaped the vision and ear, of Doctor Williams, in the invisible ways he took to his daily work and what he took from it. “The poet feels abundantly the poetry of everything,” said Williams’ contemporary, Wallace Stevens, himself no stranger to a job “outside” of writing. But, I’d add, the poet only feels it abundantly insofar as he’s sought and gathered it inside him. If it wasn’t medicine for Williams, I imagine it would’ve been some other food and drink he’d gather together and put on the writing table. This is no easy effort, for sure. “Poetry,” wrote Jean Genet from a prison cell, “is a vision of the world obtained by an effort, sometimes exhausting, of the taut, buttressed will. Poetry is willful.” The challenge to all writers, I believe, is not to write but to live and write, no matter the living. This challenge, to echo Genet, is met by the will.

A few more words on this, concerning the idea of interference: We put ourselves at a great loss if we regard the “job” or anything else as interfering with the writing. Taken as such, it opens up all kinds of harm to one’s writing and causes what may be the real interference. One easily slides into the thought that one is not writing what he or she could be writing, reducing one’s efforts to an “if only.” “Only if I had some other job, or no job at all, what wonderful things I’d write! What a writer I’d be!” In this state, whatever writing one does risks suffering in the shadow of this phantom writing (that he or she is not doing). Or worse, understood as interfering, one sets oneself up for an excuse to write less and less, or eventually not at all. We might compare the batter who says that all pitchers interfere with his hitting. This player has somehow missed that the pitcher, though his opponent, provides the very thing he’s meant to hit.

That is particularly important advice, it seems to me, and well-explained too. And, one more question, if you don’t mind! I noticed in the bio on Unfounded it describes you as teacher and then as working in the library. What was the thought behind listing teaching first? 

That’s a good question. I am not sure what my reasoning at the time was for putting it down in that order. What I can say is I identify myself a bit more with teaching philosophy than I do with the work I do in the library, as, again, I consider what goes into teaching to be part of my vocation. Also, teaching just literally requires more of me, as that “job” does not really slow down or end throughout a semester. In addition to class time, I am often, as any professor is, plugged into my teaching responsibilities in the evenings and on the weekends—whether it is putting material together for class, thinking up new ways to engage the students, responding to emails, grading, meeting with students, and so on. The library position itself—that is, the daily responsibilities—is typically confined to the forty-hour work week, aside from the resources I might draw on or the effects that the library world has for my writing.

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