Fishing the word stream
Chico State philosophy professor Troy Jollimore successfully tests the poetry waters
The first poem I read by Troy Jollimore had a trout in it, so I thought of the increasingly forgotten Richard Brautigan because of the title of his book Trout Fishing in America, and that led me to think of the Arkansas-based folk/rock band called Trout Fishing in America, and that led me to think about the fact that I don’t go trout fishing anymore because the day came when I realized I was getting my jollies simply by hassling fish, and then the word “jollies” led me all the way back around to the man who had occasioned these thoughts, the aforementioned Troy Jollimore.
Jollimore is a Chico State University philosophy teacher and now big-deal poet who has caught fire by winning the National Book Critics Circle annual poetry prize for Tom Thomson in Purgatory, a book with a laudatory introduction by an even bigger-deal poet, Billy Collins, who was, for a time, the poet laureate of the whole damn country—and pretty popular to boot, which is almost an antonym for the word “poet.” Popular, that is, not boot.
Jollimore’s award-winning book of poetry employs a sequence of 42 linked sonnets that follow the thoughts and experiences of Tom Thomson, a man who can be seen as the poet’s alter ego. Of that character, and of the poet who created him, Billy Collins wrote: “Troy Jollimore knows how to trot forth a character as distinct as one who might be encountered in sharply rendered fiction … we lean forward to believe in him—our hero for the moment, a man of the hour … Reading this book, you are bound to take both Tom Thomson and his creator to your heart.”
Poet James Richardson blurbs the book with the following rhetorical question: “So what was the last sonnet sequence you devoured like a bowl of Doritos? No, no, don’t apologize: this was my first time, too.”
When he was attending the dinner at the New School in New York where those Critics Circle book awards were to be announced, Jollimore almost forgot that he was in contention for the poetry prize, even though he knew, rather vaguely, that he was a nominee. “It felt like hubris even to submit the book for consideration in the first place,” he says. “But I had to remind myself that I was, in fact, a finalist and not just a spectator. And when I won, it was a big surprise to me, and probably to nearly everyone in the audience. It’s my first book, from a very small press, and I have no connections in the poetry world, so there was no reason to expect I would win.”
But win he did, even though he didn’t learn the art and craft of poetry in the currently approved way, didn’t work his way through an MFA program of the kind that grinds out writer wannabes across the nation. He’s not even a professor of literature, for Chrissakes, one of those scholars and deconstructionists who churn out a little poetry on weekends. He is, instead, a philosophy prof at Chico State, who writes poetry on the side—and damned good poetry, too. So he’s bound to annoy some people in the English departments of the nation’s universities because he’s strayed off his own turf to steal a prize many of those literary types will surely regard as theirs alone.
That bit of cynicism about the academic world is more mine than Jollimore’s. “It will be interesting to see how much of that kind of thing emerges,” he says. “There were a few negative comments in the blogosphere about how someone or other had been robbed, or that I didn’t deserve to win, but most of the response has been very warm thus far. In a more general sense, however, it is surely true that there’s a lot of infighting in the world of poetry, and in the world of academia. There’s a sense we often have of either being ignored or besieged by the outside world, so instead of uniting, which would be the expected thing to do, academics and even poets sometimes turn against each other. I’ve seen it in a general way, but I haven’t yet been the victim.”
As to the idea that he’s a philosopher, not a poet, he says: “To my mind, every poet is also something else, because you can’t make a living at it, anyway, so I just happen to be a poet who also teaches philosophy.”
Nor does he see a great divide between the two endeavors. “I think maybe poetry and philosophy have one role in common, and that is to remind people how mysterious the world is. People of faith and people of science tend to underestimate just how mysterious things are. Both groups, all too often, have this amazing confidence in their understanding of the cosmos, a kind of confidence that stops them from asking questions. It gets harder for people in both camps—science and religion—to stop before the world and be overcome with wonder when they have the idea that they have it all figured out.
“So, I guess the job of a poet or a philosopher is to remind them, and the rest of us, just how much remains to be figured out, and how much there is of wonder all around us.”
Students sometimes whine about poems being difficult to understand, but that comes with the territory. “I don’t think every poem should necessarily be immediately clear,” Jollimore says. “Poems sometimes have to be difficult so they can be adequate to the complexity of the subject.
“When students go to baseball practice or whatever, and someone asks them to do something physically challenging, they won’t complain, but they tend to complain if someone asks them to do something intellectually challenging.” And sometimes both poets and professors ask them to confront issues that are not currently central to their immediate concerns, issues like death and dying, things that seem a long way off to students. “We’re planting seeds for later,” he says. “They will share these concerns, but maybe not yet.”
Troy Jollimore is on a roll, collecting the accolades of poets and peers while on leave from his Chico State job to serve as a Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, where he’s also working on a philosophical book called The Nature of Loyalty.
In the opening lines of a sonnet called “Tom Thomson in Limbo,” Jollimore writes: “Each thing done is a thousand things not done:/to read Frost is to not-read Henry James …”
In view of such trade-offs, you could choose to go trout fishing, or you could spend a few hours with Tom Thomson. I suggest the latter.