An Interview with Jim McMichael
Katherine: This is Katherine England, and I am interviewing Jim McMichael. We’re here in his home in Long Beach. It’s November 24th, 2009 in the afternoon, and we’re in his studio, which is a really cool fort. It looks like something Dad would have loved to have. I can already tell they are kindred spirits. Jim is a poet.
I read some of your pieces, and I really enjoyed them a lot. Why don’t we just start by having you talk about when you first knew Daddy, and your relationship; and then we’ll get into more specifics.
Jim: I think he came to Stanford in 1962. I think I’d been there a year before he got there and I think he was there a year after I left. I left in ’65. I suspect we became friends pretty quickly. The best thing about Stanford was the peers I had there. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d been really blessed in the undergraduate education I had, which was at UC Santa Barbara, which was a party school. I knew how lucky I was when I was there. But I couldn’t have known at that tender age that graduate instruction from our teachers wouldn’t be better still. In fact, I had it in mind that it would be. You’d think if you were going from getting a B.A. to getting a Ph.D. at a famous place like Stanford, you’d have great instruction. We did not have great instruction. We did have great peers, and none of them was more important to me than Gene. I don’t know how much of that was that he was maybe seven years older than I am. I was grateful for that difference in age. He never once did anything to suggest that he was wiser than I. He was, but wouldn’t have been anything in his bearing or what he said that treated me as if I were juvenile, which I was.
Katherine: So were you both studying the same thing?
Jim: Yes, we were both in English. We both seemed to have the same loves in terms of the poets that we were reading. It’s hard for me to be clear about what it was and why the talks we had were so important to me. I knew they were at the time. I know how important they were. It’s just hard to put words to it.
Katherine: What were you talking about? Were you talking about literature or politics? And what was it that you were passionate about or got excited about?
Jim: It was poems most of all, poems by American and Renaissance poets. And because that was now so many years ago, at the beginning of an apprenticeship for me and for your dad, it’s hard for me to be able to put words to how essential it was that there was one other sensibility than my own with whom I had as much in common as I had, and with whom I could talk about things that are as singular as feelings. People involved in the writing of poems and stories and plays tend to be isolated in ways that other people that share disciplines don’t necessarily have to be. That’s not to say that everyone in biochemistry doesn’t have his or her own particular vents. Thank you. But, it’s different for people in what gets called “the arts,” I think. The fact that one can be a free agent and be operating on one’s own out there, away from everybody else, I think makes having the kind of connection that I felt with your dad indispensable. It was in the same place for three years with him. I can’t speak about it from his side of it, but he never indicated to me that he didn’t value it himself. It felt entirely cooperative. It was priceless, just priceless.
I knew toward the end of the time I had there with him, and with three or four other people whom I saw less often than I did your dad, that we were going to become a Diaspora. I knew everybody was going to go off and that it would never again be as good as it was. And I was right. It just wasn’t that good again, ever. I maintained contact less consistently with your dad than I did with Robert Pinsky. But those were the only two relationships that were sustained. My relationship with your dad would not have been revisited, resuscitated, if he hadn’t taken the initiative. For a while I knew where he was, then I lost track even though through a mutual friend I heard about him from time to time; but I didn’t take the trouble to get in contact with him, which was my failure.
And then he showed up. I wish that we had been able to have more conversations after he did; but we had several, and they were wonderful.
Katherine: Can you tell me specifically about when you were back there in the ’60s, where did you meet? Did you have study groups, or was it social? Tell me the setting and what you remember about Daddy’s demeanor or personality at that age.
Jim: I think in graduate programs everybody gets to know everybody else kind of, so you generally don’t miss any one person who was a student along with you in that particular program. So it wasn’t unusual at all that we would have met. I don’t remember how it would have been that we began to understand that we’d like to have conversations with one another. That happened pretty quickly, as I remember. He was just the best listener I’d ever met, and he made me want to be as good a listener. It’s hard for me to sort out what else it was about him besides his patience and his seriousness and his intelligence and his sensibility; what else it was about him that made our conversations as good as they were. It just worked, and in a way that I hadn’t experienced to that point in my life with anybody. It was just uncommon. I treasured every bit of it. I looked forward to the next conversation. I had the sense that he did, too. It was just one of those connections.
Katherine: Did you ever come to our house on Waverly?
Jim: Yes. Not many times, and maybe I was bringing him home. It may have been something like that. But I can kind of see it.
Katherine: Those were good years.
Jim: Yes, they were.
Katherine: How did you find each other again?
Jim: Sometime in the early ’80s, I was a mile-and-a-half in from Highway 2191 from Idaho Falls into West Yellowstone, Montana, just below Last Chance, Idaho. I walked back out to my car and there was your dad, who had learned where my house was, twenty miles north of there, turned up at the house, and had Linda, my wife at the time, tell him where I was. And he’d come back down. He waited for me there.
Katherine: He would do that. That man was nothing if not resourceful and spontaneous.
Jim: Then, I think he found me a second time when I was giving a talk at a Memorial Day service in Irvine. He was there to hear it, and then he came over. I was living in Irvine at the time. We had a wonderful talk after that. And then it would have been at that time that I was invited to come over to Fullerton.
Katherine: When you would meet up it, was it like there had been no time?
Jim: Yes, it was. And then, how recognizable it was in terms of what it had been like to talk with one another. It would come out in ways that included each of us separately having developed a love for a particular writer. The one instance that surprised each of us was Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian Jew who wrote in French and had been a student of Heidegger’s. Your dad had fallen in love with his work and had been part of a reading group; and Levinas had been important to me at that point for fifteen years, and I knew most of his work and translation. So there that came up, even though both your dad and I came to the whole question of religion from very different points of view, and neither of us was a Jew. We both have Levinas’s work in common, and a deep love for that work.
And then on many other points there were coincidences that are surprising. One of the most extended talks I had with him took place over several days in which he kindly went fishing with me. We would have left Palo Alto and driven east up into the Sierras and gone in a crane flat, gone over Tioga Pass and down to the eastern slope, and fished several places along there. I think it was in June. So, we had plenty of time to talk in those days, on the ride to and from.
Katherine: It seems to be a recurring thing with fishermen.
Jim: It seemed very kind of him, you know. He would never come close to congratulating himself on his generosity, but I knew it was an outlay of time for him that he might not have. He did nothing to suggest that it was that, but I could tell that it was, and he did it with his whole heart as he did everything.
Katherine: Tell me about your religious conversations. Did you talk about your differences? How did that play into academia?
Jim: We must have talked about them. It didn’t surprise me that he didn’t proselytize. A mutual friend that we had whom I’d known in high school, Bob Christmas, didn’t either, though Bob’s wife did. I remember that your dad took me to hear Paul Tillich when he came to talk at Stanford, and that was very effective to me.
I don’t remember, in detail, talks we would have had, and that’s one of the ways in which our having come to have Levinas in common was important, because we would have met in Levinas’s work in ways that would have had a lot of harmony to it, though not much in the way of sectarian religious belief. It would have been something that was grounded in Levinas’s sense of what it’s like for a person to be in the world with other people and feel mastered by anyone of those other people, so that one feels one is being addressed from a height—not by someone who is equal to oneself, but by someone who, because that person is other than oneself, speaks to one from an elevated position and obliges one to pay attention and to respond with a kind of mastering of oneself. This is something that was based, for Levinas, on the Torah. He was someone who into his eighties would have tutorials with individuals on the Torah.
It’s not a surprise that the Judeo-Christian tradition would have, two millennia on, someone who was a Mormon and someone who was looking for God in a way that has a lot that’s problematic about it. It’s not odd that we would have found a common ground in someone who talks about obligation in a way that Levinas does, and who would have found in Levinas’s descriptions of what it’s like to be a person, things that we recognized from our experience, and to find that it’s a strengthening of one’s faith to have those descriptions that seem to be as inclusive as they are, to leave as little out as they do.
I can’t remember anything combative in talking about religion. Your dad was a comfort to me. His faith was a comfort to me, even though I couldn’t exactly share it. It was something that helped me a lot.
Katherine: I really enjoyed the story about going fishing. Can you tell me any other particular incidences you may remember?
Jim: Well, it seems to me that most of the talks were at school. He and I would find times during the day when we’d need to be there for a class that we were teaching or taking, or both, and there’d be gaps in the day. We could meet and have lunch together or meet and just talk.
Katherine: Were you guys writing poetry back then?
Jim: Yes, I guess.
Katherine: You almost sound embarrassed.
Jim: Well, I am. I am embarrassed about how bad the poems were. I got to my thirtieth birthday, which was five years after I left Stanford, and was just horrified at the fact that I hadn’t written anything that I wanted to put my name on. I published poems, but they weren’t any good, and I knew that. There was nothing that led me to feel I’d ever write one that would be any good.
That was all part of the weird kind of schizoid apprenticeship, where what you are doing in getting a Ph.D. in English is writing about other writing rather than doing your own writing. And yet both your dad and I had connections with Ivor Winters, and that meant that we were also writing poems, as Robert Pinsky was and John Pack was and John Matthias was and Robert Hass was. So we were kind of wearing two hats and wanting to feel that the poet hat would be the one we’d keep, and the other one we’d discard even though it was clear that it was more practical. If one wanted a job, one needed to be the critic and not the poet. And so we were essentially training to do the critical part of it, and the poet part was a separate thing that seemed holier but that needed to be set aside and not allowed to get so much in the way that we couldn’t meet all the requirements for the Ph.D., which included my having to fail seven German exams after having had two years of German in college. At that point in time, grad students in English had to pass reading exams. They weren’t difficult, but we had to pass reading exams in German, French and Latin. I failed a total of ten of these exams before I got through. There were things like that that were in the way.
Katherine: Did you read each other’s poetry later?
Jim: I saw some of your dad’s poems. I didn’t see many. In 1992, he sent me some of his essays, which I liked very much.
I would have seen him last in Idaho up there at my house. That would have been in 2000, I think. He came up with Bob Christmas. The two of them did.
Katherine: I think at the end of that summer, he kind of started to change. The tumor started to affect him. He thought he was in a depression. It was the end of that summer. And then he collapsed that next February, I think. But we started to see a real personality change after that summer. So you would have seen him when he was still Gene.
I really appreciate these memories. This is really wonderful. Just two weeks ago his papers were finally taken to the University of Utah. My mom is sponsoring this particular project and is collecting and recording stories. And so, it will be good.
The following is an additional memory sent by Jim McMichael separately from the interview:
An anecdote as a way of describing Gene to those who did or didn’t get to know him:
When he and I were graduate students at Stanford in the early sixties, I lived with my wife and son on the campus at Escondido Village. There were eight units in each complex, a fenced yard for the kids, and (in our complex, anyway) a lot of interchange. My next-door neighbor had borrowed some bread a day or so earlier and had returned it to me one morning in a sandwich bag. I’d already made myself a sandwich to take to school later that day. When it was time to leave several hours later and I was putting my sandwich in a lunch bag, there were the two pieces of bread the neighbor had returned. They looked like a sandwich, so I picked them up in their bag and thought my wife must have made me a sandwich before she went to work and then thought I’d take this second one to Gene, whom I’d be meeting at school. Gene seemed happy for my largesse when I offered him AS A SANDWICH the two pieces of bread. He ate them without a word about what they didn’t contain, and he and I went on with one of our (for me, at least) priceless conversations. A few hours later, I figured out what had happened, called him and apologized. We laughed.
The best thing for me at Stanford were my peers. No one of them means more to me than Gene.