Jack Collom, Force of Nature

Jack Collom, poet, teacher, friend and lover of nature, died last month. His memorial is held at Naropa today, and I’m sorry not to be there in person. I am sure many will be in attendance, and also there in spirit. Jack was a much loved and profoundly good teacher, one of the best I ever had, and his influence is felt far and wide and with great affection.

My first experience of teaching in fact came when I took Jack’s Project Outreach class at Naropa in the fall of 2002. I volunteered one morning a week in a Language Arts class at Fairview High School (which was every bit the archetype of the American school that I hoped it would be). Then every Friday at 4p.m. our Outreach class would reconvene in one of the Upaya classrooms and compare notes from the week, listen to Jack’s guidance, and do some writing exercises of our own. And with Jack, there were always tons of writing exercises: acrostics, sestinas, recipe poems, odes, Q&A poems, I Remembers, pass-arounds – lots of pass-arounds.

One form I was introduced to was the haiku-like lune. The variant the Collom lune is even named for Jack. Counting words rather than syllables suits makes this poetic form more robust and suitable than the haiku itself for the English language, I reckon. Like many good things, it was an accidental (but naturally arising) invention; Jack had no embarrassment in describing how he had misremembered the form as a verse of 3-5-3 words rather than syllables.

Over two weekends I also took the weekend practicum Designing A Writing Workshop that Jack co-taught with Lee Christopher. It offered tons of practical advice as well as some of the most fun I ever had in a classroom. We did lots more writing exercises too. The lack of self-consciousness that Jack fostered among writers was shown in his classes when, in response to the prompt ‘How I Write’, I penned a day-in-the-life poem about my tendency towards procrastination, which included rather Too Much Information about certain activities other than writing. And it must have been a classroom wholly lacking in self-consciousness that Jack fostered, because I then read this TMI piece out loud. And then, once I’d read it, I blushed, and laughed a lot with everyone else. I laugh again as I remember this, and think that doing what comes naturally and what feels like fun is so often (always?) a requisite of the best writing.

It is ironic that we often need to learn how to do what comes naturally, though. Fostering an instinctive approach to writing (and learning in general) was at the heart of Jack’s teachings. He worked a great deal in the school system, especially with the Poets in the Schools programme, and he often shared his particular joy at writing poetry with elementary schoolchildren.

Poetry Everywhere, the book on teaching poetry Jack co-wrote with Sheryl Noethe, is one of the richest resources a teacher might have. Among the hundreds of poems it uses as examples, poems by William Carlos Williams and Pablo Neruda sit beside poems by first grader Lacy Wiley and twelfth grader Ann Jankowski and many of the thousands of other students whose work Jack published in class anthologies at the end of every semester.

Such an honouring of children’s voices is not only an exercise in democracy in the classroom, but a reminder that writers often need to rediscover things we have lost: our true natures. In On Sound and Rhthym, an essay that shines brilliantly not only on the teaching of poetry but on the whole idea of learning, Jack describes how children:

have the potential for art right on the tips of their tongues. It is important that we recognize this “little genius” for poetry that children have—and not try to “muscle” them into adult standards of poetic discourse. Yes, they should develop mature language skills—but gradually, organically, while as much as possible maintaining (and developing and transforming) their own fresh poetic talents.

Good writing comes naturally. Second Nature is the title of the book of poems and essays of Jack’s that won the Colorado Book Award in 2013.

Jack taught us that an important way to develop this instinct for writing was in having fun. He sometimes taught summer workshops on comedy and writing. And his good-humoured and graceful presence in any classroom was the ultimate lesson in how to be a teacher: funny, inquiring, big-hearted, listening, patient, unafraid to challenge, praising occasionally, sharing always. And Jack always (always) joined in the writing exercises himself, scribing away at a yellow notepad with a ballpoint pen. Theories of education seem dry when set against such an example.

Keeping with that theme of nature, Jack also taught Eco-Lit, a pioneering Naropa course that was one of the first (if not the first) to focus at college level on writing about the environment and nature in such a way. The reading list amounts to an artfully curated anthology of poetry, science writing, oral history, essays, creative prose, and other forms, ranging from Stephen Jay Gould to Rachel Carson to Elizabeth Bishop to Herman Melville to Aztec poetry. I hope someone is carrying on that lineage at the Kerouac School.

Another memory: during readings of his work, Jack would indicate quoted matter by drawing bunny ears in the air with his index and middle fingers.

I don’t think Jack was a Buddhist, and (other than birdwatching?) I am not sure if he had an obvious contemplative practice. Yet he was one of the few I encountered at this Buddhist-inspired school who genuinely seemed able to put his ego to one side to get down to the work in hand. He was serious about the Big Issues in writing, but he never took himself too seriously.

Beyond his work as a union organiser, Jack did not strike me as overtly political either. Unlike many activist writers, Jack was never patronising or carping in his writing. But his poems often possess careful acts of observation, and when you are observing the truths of nature and everyday life there is little that is more political.

And how many other poets have had their hometown honour them with a specially named day, as Boulder did with Jack Collom Day in 2001?

Poet, birder, veteran, yodeller, environmentalist, father, husband, teacher: Jack Collom was a force of nature. No, is a force of nature. Because the best teachers never die. We ‘watch them grow from was to will be and will be to was’: like the Old Woods of Jack’s poem, their teachings will last.


Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe

How I Teach Poetry in the Schools by Jack Collom on poets.org

An Ecosystem of Writing Ideas by Jack Collom (every writing teacher should read this)

On Sound and Rhthym by Jack Collom

From Nature to Nurture: Ecology and Pegagogy Inform Two Long-Running Writing & Poetics Courses from Naropa University

Jack Collom (1931-2017) from the Allen Ginsberg Project  (includes video links)

Jack Collom, Boulder Poet and Educator, remembered in the Daily Camera

I Wouldn’t Be Here If It Weren’t For Jack Collom by Jonathan Montgomery

Interview with Jack Collom by Elizabeth Robinson

And my favourite poem of Jack’s (one of my favourite poems): The Old Woods

Friday Writing Experiment No. 3: Variations on the Form of ‘I Remember’

We all love ‘I Remember’ exercises. Based on the poem by Joe Brainard, and popularised by the likes of Jack Collom, these pieces of writing simply start each line with the words ‘I remember’ then evoke some memory. Some lines selected from Joe:

I remember jumping into piles of leaves and the dust, or whatever it is, that rises.
I remember raking leaves but I don’t remember burning leaves. I don’t remember what we ‘did’ with them.
I remember ‘Indian Summer’. And for years not knowing what it meant, except that I figured it had something to do with Indians.
I remember exactly how I visualised the Pilgrims and the Indians having the first Thanksgiving dinner together. (Very jolly!)
I remember Jack Frost. Pumpkin pie. Gourds. And very blue skies.
I remember Halloween.
I remember using getting dressed up as a hobo or a ghost. One year I was a skeleton.
I remember one house that always gave you a dime and several houses that gave you five-cent candy bars.
I remember after Halloween my brother and me spreading all out loot out and doing some trading.
I remember always at the bottom of the bag lots of dirty pieces of candy corn.
I remember the smell (not very good) of burning pumpkin meat inside jack-o’-lanterns.
I remember orange and black jellybeans at Halloween. And pastel-colored ones for Easter.
I remember ‘hard’ Christmas candy. Especially the ones with flower designs. I remember not liking the ones with jelly in the middle very much.

And do watch this trailer too.

This is a form that has been adapted by other writers: see, for example, Georges Perec’s own I Remember, and Zeina Abirached’s graphic memoir I Remember Beirut.

I Remembers rank among my favourite forms of writing, because:

1. the writing tends to be natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered – writing from the heart, writing from the gut.

2. the writing tends to be concrete, vivid, specific, e.g., the house that gave you a dime, and elsewhere in Brainard’s poem very light faded blue jeans, ice cubes in the aquarium, giving Aunt Ruby stationery or scarves for special occasions.

3. the writing usually shows rather than tells: the contents of Brainard’s version – references to movie stars and songs, the clothes, food, hardship and simple pleasures – conjure up a whole time and place, for example.

4. they are economical – each line or section stops when it has to stop, and then on to the next …

5. I love lists (if you couldn’t tell).

6. the form is regarded as both poem and/or prose and/or either/neither, and I love writing that plays with or maybe ignores categories, and simply enjoys being good writing.

7. the process of free association often takes us to places we never expected – what arises arises. In the extract above I love how we linger in specific memories of Halloween and then zip quickly via Easter to Christmas, where we will linger a page or two before moving on again – and returning elsewhere. There are many such threads and patterns through the book.

8. the writing is uncensored, authentic. For example, I note in the example above the reference to the Pilgrims and Indians celebrating a jolly Thanksgiving. Now: I don’t think it’s stretching things very far to say that that recollection is of a romanticised association! And we could of course parse that, and discuss what it means, e.g., in terms of postcolonial theory. But the actual writing here is simply being honest – it’s about recalling a perception, a time and place – and it is being true to that. (Even if it’s not true to the historical record, and we hope there will have been scope for future reconstruction!) Elsewhere in the poem we get gender- and race-based descriptions that are products of that time, and there is an awful lot of sexually graphic and extremely fruity content. It means I’m always careful about selecting extracts for classes! But again: this has a truth.

9. the simplest things are often the best

10. repeating myself – the writing is natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered

There is of course a risk that this sort of writing unearths deep, sad memories. Maybe that’s not a risk. Maybe we need to confront those memories from time to time? But maybe, unless that is its purpose, we also need to set limits around that sort of writing (or have a therapist to hand). I often suggest that writers focus on, e.g., happy memories. The tone in the writing often ends up being quite soft and nostalgic, anyway.

So: this week, do an ‘I Remember’. But also introduce some twists, or focuses. For example:

* Remember your schooldays, a holiday, Christmas, a wedding, a love affair

* Remember your first times

* Remember your blessings (count them, even)

* Remember your failures (but maybe limit them … and only if you next:)

* Remember your successes (unlimited, and remembered after your failures – let’s end on a high, please)

* Draw (and write) your own graphic I Remember in comic strip format.

* And maybe do ‘I remember’ for characters in your fictions? This can involve a slight shift in the writing, and perhaps a bit more thought than some of the more natural, I-centred versions, but it can also be a good way to graft some of your fictional content on to your natural, easy, remembering voice

* I don’t remember (good for surfacing secrets and lies and subtexts and regrets and all that other good story stuff)

* And invent your own rememberings too! (Give us some prompts and ideas too, if you like.)

You can probably write forever this way. You might want to set some limits (time; focuses). Or you might not.

Enjoy! These pieces really are some of the most fun in writing.

(And all credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.)

Update, January/February 2020: Here are others I’ve subsequently written (also see some more by others in the comments): I Remember the LibraryI Remember YorkI Remember Bobbie Louise Hawkins. I also added links for the books by Perec and Abirached, and altered the opening quotation to give a fuller illustration of the workings of Joe’s text. If you know of other examples, please add in a comment below.

Crazy Wisdom: The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics

A super film called Crazy Wisdom: The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics about my Alma Mater, Naropa University.

It’s lovely, from thousands of miles away, to see Bobbie, Bhanu, Jack, Reed, Steven, the Beat Book Shop, the flags on the Sycamore lawn, hear some of the tales, the myths, the wartiness and all. The energy. It’s a magical place. When I first arrived there it felt like coming home.

Crazy Wisdom: The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics from Kate Linhardt on Vimeo.

(Impressed that this film was created as someone’s final project at Vassar.)