Dr. Isaac Cates: Director of the C.W. Post Poetry Center
by Derek Grosso
Where were you born and where do you currently reside?
I was born in Wurzburg, Germany, while my father was stationed there, but I grew up in a small town south of Austin, Texas. Currently I split my time between New Haven, Connecticut, and New Hyde Park, New York.
Walk us through a day in your life.
Of course my typical day varies from semester to semester, and within any given week class days are quite different from days off campus. But this semester I rise early to drive from New Hyde Park to C. W. Post: I like to be on campus an hour before I teach, and my first class this semester meets at 9:30 in the morning. That class is a seminar on Modern Poetry, so we might be discussing a few poems by Robert Frost or by Marianne Moore. After a break, I then have back-to-back classes in freshman composition, which I'm focusing on contemporary poetry. In those classes, we might be talking about Robert Pinsky or about what makes a good first sentence in an essay. Classes end at about 3:30, and if I don't have any meetings or other business on campus, I return to New Hyde Park and spend some time reading e-mail or my students' work before dinner. Most Wednesdays I go home to New Haven after dinner on Long Island. If there's a poetry reading, of course, I stay on campus to host the visiting poet or poets. Those are unusual days in terms of my routine, but they're definitely days I look forward to.
What is your favorite restaurant?
I haven't had a chance to explore the restaurants of Long Island as well as I'd like to, though I've found a place called Indian City in New Hyde Park where I like to eat on Monday nights (when the restaurant is, it seems, always mysteriously empty despite their delicious food).
In New Haven, I have too many favorites to name them all, but among the tops are a Malaysian place called Bentara and a Japanese restaurant called Hama.
In the world? Again, there are too many to name them all, and different museums are good for different things. I really like the vibe of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and don't think I could get tired of the National Gallery in DC. I will probably always have a soft spot for the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven -- and the Texas Museum of Natural History in Austin, for that matter, where I saw my first fossil bones -- because I still have a lot of my mind reserved for dinosaurs and cabinets of wonders.
Favorite poet and/or poem?
You can't really expect me to single one out, can you? Once I tried to make a list of a hundred English-language poets I thought I could read intensely for at least a week and learn from. At the end of that exercise, I found myself running out of room on the list.
I spend a lot of time on The Personality Forge, which lets you program (and test) an artificial intelligence "chatbot." Some time this year, I intend to teach my "bot" to compose poems.
I also find myself checking James Kochalka's daily diary comic strip at www.americanelf.com on most days.
Favorite television show?
I don't have a television, actually. Which isn't exactly an answer to your question, I realize.
Favorite season/time of year?
Spring, I suppose -- the first days of the year when it's warm enough to wear short sleeves; the first days when the sun is warm and you see flying insects. I've lived in the Northeast for about a third of my life, and I'm more or less inured to the cold, but I still find the winter here awfully long, and my system seems to want warmth and daylight every year by the end of February.
Favorite place on Long Island?
I wish I knew Long Island well enough to give a really good answer to this question -- but I've really only been here a couple of days a week for about four months, and I've mostly been at work while I've been here. I'd be happy to receive recommendations.
Most dynamic duo, real or fictional?
That would have to be Krazy and Ignatz from the old Krazy Kat comic strip. I'm a huge fan of Krazy Kat. One day I'll write something about the genius of George Herriman: I really think that Krazy is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century. Of course, Krazy and Ignatz aren't really a duo. They're two vertices of the triangle that includes Offissa Pupp.
What is playing on your radio right now?
I've been listening to Jay Farrar a lot lately, and a smattering of Eliza Gilkyson, though what's playing as I write this is Roy Head and the Traits.
I would like a lifetime subscription to ______ magazine?
Most recent book read or movie seen?
Earlier this week I re-read my friend Chris Cessac's excellent book Republic Sublime as I was preparing my classes -- to choose a few poems to present to my students. But by the time this goes on-line I will have re-read Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry so I can discuss it with my composition students, and I may have re-read Ciaran Carson's The Twelfth of Never as well.
Historic figure you would most like to meet, living or dead?
It depends on the circumstances of the meeting. It would be nice to sit down for a few cups of tea with John Keats or with Shakespeare, though, that's for sure. For a briefer encounter I'd probably choose someone more mysterious. If I were going to be given time to develop a friendship, I'd probably choose differently. Or, for that matter, if I could speak Ionic Greek or Renaissance Italian. Or Aramaic.
What has been your greatest/proudest accomplishment thus far?
It's not exactly an accomplishment, since a lot of this had to do with chance, but I was in the awkward position a couple years ago of giving a conference paper on the comics of Dan Clowes (the author of Ghost World and David Boring) while sitting at the same table as Clowes himself, in front of a crowd of students who had come to listen to Clowes and Terry Zwigoff. (This was right after the Ghost World movie had been nominated for an Oscar.) I'm happy to say I managed to come through the experience without embarrassing myself, offending Dan Clowes, or boring the undergraduates.
What would you like people to know about you?
I'd like people to know that I am trying to bring excellent poets to C.W. Post, and that if many of those poets' names are unfamiliar it's because I am often hosting people who've written only one or two books so far. These are all poets worth taking a chance on, and coming out to hear.
I really believe that for poetry to continue in the new century, readers outside of academia will have to pick up first books by young poets and find pleasure there. Sites like Amazon and versedaily.org make it possible for us to find and buy new books by poets we like, and much more easily than we could have fifteen years ago, but that hasn't translated into any larger market for a brilliant new poetry yet.
I'm trying hard to make the Poetry Center a place where people -- and not just students at Post -- can find out about new poetry, sometimes challenging poetry, but poetry they can enjoy.
Most important life lesson?
Could I be glib and say something like "Character does not consist of a series of preferences and favorites?"
No, I'd rather not be glib. And actually I remember a time when I didn't realize that: I assumed that when I'd learned what a person liked, I had learned who he or she was. It's the sort of idea about psychology that makes you think you could never really get along with someone who preferred the Monkees to the Beatles; eventually, always, you meet someone who proves that kind of thinking wrong.
I have a few other things that I try to pass along to my students, things that I realized a little late in my undergraduate education, and which would have benefited me if I'd learned them much sooner. The first is that college (or any education) is meant to change you -- and not merely to add to the contents of your mind, but to change the way your mind works. In order to accomplish this alteration, education has to be challenging sometimes. College will therefore do more for you if you choose hard classes sometimes. This goes well with the idea that something which requires effort -- like, for example, reading difficult poetry by someone like Gerard Manley Hopkins or Hart Crane -- can, with practice, be pleasurable. We all know this is true with physical activities that start off painful or awkward and become fun as we get strength and practice; the same thing is true of mental skills like writing or reasoning.
What makes Long Island special?
It's where I meet my students every week.
For more information about the C.W. Post Poetry Center, please visit http://www.cwpost.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/culture/poetry.html.