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My Academic Journey

  1. During high school, I planned on going to college like many students and I had my preferences. At the time, they included the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University, among others. Unfortunately, two things happened to ensure I wouldn't be going to those schools, or any like them. I took both the SAT and the ACT. And my scores weren't that great. In fact, my SAT scores sucked. It was because the test covered only English and Math and I am horrible at math. I did better on the ACT, because there are four categories: English, Math, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. I did much better. Still, not good enough to get into schools of that caliber.

    More importantly, my extremely religious parents wanted me to go to a private religous college, preferably a Presbyterian school. And they took me on a tour of "acceptable" schools so I could make an informed choice. These included Covenant College, Bryan College, Taylor University, Geneva College, Grove City College, and a couple of others. However, I chose to go to King College in Bristol, Tennessee. Why? It was the most lenient school of all of the ones I had seen. At many of the other schools, not only did they have extremely strict on campus regulations, but at some, you couldn't even go dancing off campus or even go to movies off campus. I wasn't about to put up with that during college. You see, even though I had grown up in a religious home, I had moved away from that and I wanted to experience the full, stereotypical college experiences and lifestyle.

    King College Icon

    King College Picture

    First, my ACT score helped me obtain a small scholarship, which helped, so that was good. And then when I got to King, I learned some things I hadn't known. At the time, it was ranked second in the state academically behind Vanderbilt, and I found that shocking. It was a small school. The student body was about 600, smaller than my high school graduating class. And I lived in a dorm. My roommate was from Virgina. The people on my floor were pretty cool and I quickly made friends. And I quickly discovered that King was unlike the other schools my parents had shown me, just as I thought. A third of the students were there because they were committed Christians and wanted a religious environment. The rest of the students were there, like me, because they had to attend a school like that, but they were partiers. There were hundreds of partiers at King and I quickly became friends with most of them. I started hanging out with some new friends who liked to party hard and go to concerts all the time, as well as going to regular weekend get togethers that were held at different people's houses. I had my first PGA (pure grain alcohol) at one, burning the skin off my lips by sipping it, until I learned you had to down it in one gulp. I also got into trouble at the school many times for breaking many on campus rules, as I was trying to get kicked out so I could transfer to a secular university. However, they never kicked me out, deciding instead to keep giving me fresh chances to try and convert me.

    We saw some great concerts my freshman year. We had to travel to nearby Johnson City for most and even to Knoxville for some, but it was always worth it. Among the bands we saw were Rush, Foreigner, Three Dog Night, KISS, and Reo Speedwagon.

    I also enjoyed the school's athletic teams that first year. Our men's basketball team wasn't great, but it was decent and we had one really great player who dominated other teams and who led us to many victories. I also enjoyed watching the women's volleyball team. We had a couple of really tall players who could block shots and we won a lot of games. Our baseball team was very competitive. We were in every game we played, had some pretty good players, and did well in the conference. But it was our men's soccer team that was our school pride. I think we lost one game all year and we ended the season finishing in the top 10 in the country in the NAIA division (that's the division for small schools). We had an All American goalie and several other All Americans, none of whom were American. We had five African players, three or four South American players, several European players, and a few American players, most of whom didn't start. Most of the students turned out for the soccer games.

    The classes I took at King were harder than I expected them to be and I didn't get the GPA I wanted, but truthfully, I slacked off a little with some of the other kids who were bad influences, so I guess I got what I deserved. However, by the end of the year, I wanted to transfer to a "regular" university and somehow I talked my parents into it, so I looked around and decided to apply to the University of Tennessee, back home in Knoxville, and to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It's a good private school and I thought a degree from a school like that would be worth something. UT accepted me immediately. However, Wake Forest put me on a waiting list. Looking back on it, I probably should have waited, but I didn't want to, so the next year I moved back to Knoxville and transferred to UT.

  2. Before my UT school year started, I got a job at a law firm as a runner/clerk. Many of the people there had been SAEs in college and encouraged me to rush. I hadn't planned on joining a fraternity or rushing, but I decided to go check that one out and see what they had to offer. I was a Sigma Chi legacy, but the only fraternity I visited was Sigma Alpha Epsilon. It also happened to be the most prestigous fraternity and most of the guys in it were prep school legacies. They allowed in two or three public school grads a year. For some reason, I was issued an invitation to join. Maybe it's because my attitude said, "I don't care." But it was by unanimous vote, so I was shocked and I pledged SEA. I came to regret it and ended up leaving the fraternity before my time in college was up.

    I started out as a business major at the University of Tennessee, but spent too much time partying and not enough time going to classes, so my grades suffered and I didn't do well. After three years of floundering, I switched majors to English, which seriously upset my father, but I had always loved reading and writing, so it made sense to me. Unfortunately, I basically had to start over again. It took me nearly seven years to get my first degree. However, I achieved a good GPA in my major and enjoyed getting my BA degree. It was during my time as an English major at UT that I got my first poems published in a number of small magazines nationally. That started my career as a writer.

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    The Hill

    While I was at UT, I had the good fortune of making lots of good friends. In fact, since I was there so long, I went through several different groups of friends. Some of my earliest friends were named Karen, Dee, Chip, Laura, and Sheri. I still keep up with Karen and Dee. Later I became friends with "Little" Amy, Vicki, Christy, another Amy, and a few others. We all went to see Ziggy Marley and INXS together and most of us went to a local park on the Tennessee River every afternoon to join other students in having a few beers, throwing some frisbees, and catching some rays. My three closest friends while at UT were named Robert, Ami, and Carey. Robert, Ami, and I did everything together. We were inseperable. Carey was another English major and he was quite the philosopher. He turned me onto existentialism and it's because of him that Camus and Sartre have been my favorite writers for most of my life. Carey and I went out every night for several years. Other friends included my lawyer, Dan, as well as Andrea, Gabriel, Brent, Howard, Susan, and a number of others, most from a club I went to many nights a week. Out of these, I remain in contact with Ami, Andrea, Gabriel, Brent, and Carey.

    During my first few years at UT, I was a prep and I hung out with a lot of Greek friends. However, I started drifting away from that crowd by my third year there and it was at that point that I got a job as a bartender at a new goth/industrial club in Knoxville's new Old City district called Planet Earth. It changed my life. All of a sudden, I was exposed to a lot of new music I hadn't known existed before. Bands such as GWAR and Front Line Assembly came to the club. We also had many dance nights where the DJ played groups like Ministry, Alien Sex Fiend, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, Dead Can Dance, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Skinny Puppy, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Severed Heads, Tackhead, KMFDM, Shriekback, Renegade Sound Wave, Nitzer Ebb, NIN, Love and Rockets, Front 242, Greater Than One, and Die Warzau, among others. I loved it and learned to dance my ass off to this great music on these club nights. I also made lots of new friends, most of whom I wouldn't have spoken to a few years previously. I discovered that many of these people were good, kind, smart, artistic, and fun loving people who I enjoyed being around and soon I was going to after hours parties and to concerts at other clubs with many of them. Among the groups I saw with some of them were the B-52's, REM, Peter Murphy, and Nine Inch Nails. My appearance also changed during this period of my life as I killed off my old preppy look and went for the goth/alternative look, wearing the stereotypical black, often with black eyeliner and fingernail polish. Some of my old friends wanted nothing further to do with me.

    Upon graduation, I started looking for jobs, preferably wtih a company that published, preferably in an editorial capacity, although writing would have been fine too. I also wanted to move away from Knoxville, as I had gotten pretty tired of my life there and wanted to see new places and experience new things. I traveled to various locations to look for new places to move to. Among the places I visited were Atlanta, Washington DC, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. I had family in Phoenix, so they convinced me to move there and I did. However, I had a hard time finding work, as there was a recession, and I took a poorly paying job with horrible hours. After some time there, I started to think a graduate degree might help open new doors for me, so I decided to apply to grad school. I took the test and applied to several schools. I got accepted into the University of Memphis, Pepperdine University, and California Statae University, Long Beach, where a writing friend/acquaintance of mine taught, Gerald Locklin. I had been writing for a number of years by then and had published poems in dozens of magazines. I had even had several small collections of poetry published, including one in Finland. I thought it might be good to be with Gerry since my work appeared in many of the same magazines as his work. I decided I didn't want to move back to the south and Pepperdine, a private school in Malibu, was far too expensive, so I chose CSULB as my next stop in my academic career and the place where I would pursue my MA in English.

  3. I hadn't been the best student at UT, even though I had a good GPA in my major. I hadn't properly focused. I was determined to focus and work my rear end off in grad school though and to make good grades and do well as a student. California State University, Long Beach enabled me to do just that. My first two graduate classes were on literary criticism and compostion pedagogy. They were unlike anything I had had at UT. They were much harder and required a lot more work. At the same time, as I was paying out of state tuition, I was having to do everything I could to help make ends meet, so I had taken out sizable loans and had won a CSULB grant and a California state grant. I also won an English department grant. I did a couple of other things for some money. I took a job as a graduate assistant with the Department of Criminal Justice, where I advised students on their schedules, their classes, and their graduation requirements, while also helping to edit faculty papers and serving on the departmental magazine's staff. I also tutored graduate students in working on their thesis documents and helped edit them for some extra money. In addition, I got a job as a tutor in the English department's writing lab, which kept me very busy, as CSULB had a very large student body and many of them needed writing help, especially as many of them spoke languages other than English naturally and had a hard time understanding how to communicate in English. It was a real challenge.

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    The Pyramid

    I worked hard on my classes and my grades, but I was still surprised to discover that I had gotten a 4.0 GPA at the end of my first semester and again, at the end of my first year. I then took classes in summer school and got good grades, maintaining my 4.0 GPA. During this time, I had become pretty good friends with Gerry and by the time I graduated, I took at least three seminars from him.

    At the end of my first year, I decided I wanted to teach during my second year, so I applied to become a teaching associate. Competition was fierce. In a department of over 600 students, there were only eight openings. I was fortunate enough to get one of them. During my second year, I taught composition and ESL classes, while still working in the writing lab. The ESL classes were hard because I had students with at least 20 languages represented and I had virtually no training at all, so I had to wing it. Nonetheless, I felt like I did a good job with my teaching duties that year and enjoyed it quite a bit. While working those two jobs, I continued trying to build my vita, so I continued getting dozens, even hundreds, of poems published in hundreds of magazines around the world, ultimately in 26 countries and five languages. I also had several more poetry collections published. I even had some fiction and nonfiction published. And to help my academic career, I was able to present a couple of my papers at academic conferences and get them published in the confeence proceedings. In fact, my papers were so good, that I was getting them published in MLA-indexed journals after I got them back from my professors with typically high grades. I finshed my final year and academic career at CSULB with a 4.0 GPA, much to my original surprise, and I was chosen as the top graduate in the College of Liberal Arts at the largest university in the state. I got to sit on stage with the administration during graduation.

    During my final year, I had decided to continue my studies and pursue a PhD. I took the required tests, put my vita together, got my references, did my research, decided on a dissertation topic (the San Francisco Renaissance period of American literature), and applied to a number of schools, including a couple I knew I probably wouldn't get into, some I wanted to go to, but was unsure if I could get into, and a couple of schools that were fall backs that I was pretty sure I could get into. Thus, I was accepted by the University of Denver, Georgia State University, Washington State University, and the University of New Mexico, which had a scholar in my field who had agreed to be my dissertation advisor and was where I really wanted to go. I had applied to Virginia, but they had only accepted one out of 800 applicants the year before. They told me I was in their top 20, but obviously I didn't make the final cut. I decided to go to New Mexico and made plans, excitedly, but at the last minute, things transpired that made my plans impossible to pursue, so I had to contact the department and tell them I wasn't coming. It was incredibly disappointing. I had been their top choice and had been given a teaching assistantship, scholarships, grants, the dissertation advisor of my choice -- everything. It just didn't work out.

    Even though I was hyperfocused during grad school, I still found a little time for some fun. I made a few friends, such as Marc, a Chinese-American who had transferred from Ole Miss, and Andrew, who had graduated from Brown and had gotten into UC Berkeley but had decided to come here because he wanted to surf, Kurt, an English department friend, Nguyen, who would go on to become a doctor, and a few others. Marc and Kurt and I often went out for drinks. In fact, it wasn't uncommon to find Marc and I at an Irish pub on Second Street, drinking as many beers as possible while watching college football on Saturdays. I remain friends with Marc to this day.

    After graduating from CSULB, I had some job offers and the one I chose was an editorial job for a publishing company in Culver City, California, right down the street from Beverly Hills. While I loved the editorial aspect of my job, I was intrigued by the fact that we had a wide range of computers at the office, the bulk of which were SCO UNIX computers on the company LAN. The art department had Macs, of course, and I had discovered an old XT PC in one of the offices. Additionally, I had recently purchased my first PC at home (my old Commodore 64 didn't count, did it?), and was really getting into computers. The XT was password protected, but I was able to break into it quite quickly and I found some pretty cool things there, including an ancient Earl Weaver baseball game. However, it was the UNIX network that really intrigued me. We had no onsite IT tech, so if we ever had a problem, so had to call someone and wait until they arrived to work on the system. It really slowed us down. I therefore decided to learn about UNIX systems so I could start working on them myself to save us some time. I had already taken a tech writing class at UCLA Extension and UCLA offered numerous computer and technology courses.

  4. I soon enrolled in some classes at UCLA, where I continued to take classes for the next four years, part time, long after I left the publishing company to go work at EarthLink Network. I took UNIX and UNIX shell scripting classes. I also researched Internet technology and web design on my own and started my own web design and consulting company on the side. I became the company's in house IT tech and its internet architect. Later, at EarthLink, I decided to try to get a certificate in broadband networking at UCLA to enhance my knowledge and career opportunities as I was working in the Engineering division in a managerial role and wanted to keep moving up the ladder. So I took classes in Visual Basic, Relational Databases, Broadband Networking, Network Security, Microwave technology, and several others. Unfortunately, certain events took place that caused me to move back to Knoxville before I was able to finish my studies at UCLA and I've always regretted that.

    I didn't really have any opportunites to make friends with anyone while at school there. I went there straight from work and headed home after my classes. I did enjoy being on the main campus, which was one of the most beautiful campuses I've been on, and the research library was quite impressive. I also took classes at the school's downtown campus, but that site was strictly utilitarian and I have no fond memories of the place. It was solely functional.

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  6. After living in Knoxville again for a short while, I decided I wanted a new career. And I knew I didn't want to stay in Knoxville; I wanted to move back to a big city, like L.A. Becoming a lawyer for the sake of becoming a literary agent started to appeal to me. I started doing some research and decided to take the LSAT. It was hard, but I got a semi-decent score and I decided to apply to law school. I decided to apply to a couple of southern schools, but since I missed California and since I thought I would have better career opportunities there than most other places, I concentrated my applications to schools in that state. In fact, I traveled back to California to tour some of the schools I was thinking of applying to. And I was determined to get scholarships. Hey, law school is expensive! I applied to nine law schools. One in Florida, UT, and seven in California. I was accepted by eight of them and five of them gave me decent scholarships, two being pretty substantial. After considering all of the factors, such as graduation rates, graduate hiring percentages, rankings, bar exam pass rates, reputed specializations, and more, I decided to go to Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, California, which is located in Orange County, right beside Los Angeles County. The school is across the street from California State University, Fullerton. It had a pretty good record and roughly one third of the county's lawyers were graduates of that school -- and it's a big, heavily populated county. That said something to me.

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    Western State

    I moved to Whittier, California and attended orientation after going to the financial aid office. One of my motives for going to Western State was that they gave me the best scholarship of all the law schools I applied to, but I still had to take out massive loans and I was waiting to receive them so I could buy my textbooks, as well as pay rent, buy groceries, pay utilities, and basically pay my living expenses. I was shocked to find out that no money was there waiting for me. I was further shocked to find out it would be a long time before I saw any money. No one got their financial aid money until their second semester there, which is insane. I asked how students pay their expenses, pay to live. I was told to put all of my expenses on credit cards and pay those off when my financial aid came in. This shocked me. What if I didn't have credit cards, or enough credit to pay for a semester's worth of living expenses? Why had no one told me this? This seemed like the most stupid policy I had ever heard of.

    As I started taking my classes, I quickly became disenchanted. The atmosphere was cutthroat, the professors were trying to weed the weak students out, and the classes were beyond boring (Torts). I just wanted to become a literary agent. I didn't enjoy the hyper-competitiveness. I also knew no one in Whittier, which seemed to be about 98% Latino and where I felt really out of place. I started racking up serious amounts on my credit cards and that made me bitter. As November rolled around, I found out we wouldn't get our financial aid until February and school had started in August. It seemed insane that the school expected everyone to pay for all of their expenses by credit card and even more insane that they never told me, and perhaps anyone else, about this policy. By the end of the first semester, I was broke and in debt up to my eyeballs and I was deeply disenchanted with law school. Knowing I still had two more months to go until I got my loans, I decided to drop out of school and move back to Knoxville and figure out something else to do with my life when I got there, so that's what I did.

  7. When I got back to Knoxville, I enrolled in some classes at UT while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. It occurred to me that it might be possible to pursue becoming a creative writing professor somewhere, with the right education. After all, I had two English degrees, had published 14 poetry books, had had hundreds of poems published in 26 countries and five languages, and had served as a professor at three academic institutions. All I was lacking was a terminal degree. In this field, an MFA is considered a terminal degree, similar to a PhD. At the time, a new concept in MFAs was appearing -- low res MFAs. Several schools and programs had sprung up around the country where you could go as a student to the college campus for the first couple of weeks for seminars and workshops, then go home and do the rest of the semester's work with your small class online. It would be a two year program. Some of these schools and programs were developing good repuations, in part because they were attracting really good faculty and good students as well. I decided I might pursue this, so I researched some of these schools and programs and applied to four: Warren Wilson College, Antioch University, Queens University of Charlotte, and Spalding University. I heard back fairly quickly from three of them, the first of which was Queens. Queens had a good faculty, with prize winning writers on staff, including a Pulitzer winner. They were attracting good students, and their poetry, fiction, and nonfiction programs were taking off. I was accepted by all three schools and the director from Queens called me. He told me they really wanted me to go there. I told him there was some competition. He asked what they could do to attract me. I said it's awfully expensive; would it be possible to get a scholarship or something like that? He said he'd call me back. He called the next day. He said they don't give scholarships, but because my vita was so excellent, they were going to waive a semester from my requirements, thus allowing me to graduate in three semesters and saving me the cost of one semester. That seemed like a good deal, so I accepted. Interestingly, Spalding offered me the same deal the following week, but I had already committed.

  8. I soon made my first trip to Charlotte to attend Queens University of Charlotte to pursue an MFA in creative writing (poetry), and the residency period was pretty cool. The students seemed nice and talented and the faculty was as advertised. My professor, Robert Polito, was an excellent poet who taught at the New School in New York City and I learned some things from him and my classmates that semester. My professor my second semester was Alan Parker, who was highly thought of as a poet and who also taught at Davidson. My last semester was good. My 15th book had just been published and it was getting good reviews. At 210 pages, it was my biggest poetry book I had had published. My professor that semester was Cathy Smith Bowers, who was North Carolina's Poet Laureate, and she was very supportive. In order to graduate, I had to write a graduate level academic paper and present it (mine was on Carl Sandburg) and I had to turn in a thesis and give a public reading from it. I felt a sense of accomplishment in getting my third degree when I walked across the stage.

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    Queens University

    I was fortunate enough to make some good friends at Queens, some good writer friends. Jilly and I hung out most of the time we were at our residencies. Chris graduated ahead of me but we became good friends and ended up editing a literary journal together for nearly five years. Jessica had talent and when her memoirs came out a couple of years ago, it won awards and sold well. Terri's poetry won awards in South Carolina. I remain friends with all of these people today and value our relationships.

  9. Before I finished my MFA, I had ironically decided teaching wouldn't be for me. There were suddenly too many low res MFA programs pumping out graduates with terminal degrees, all searching for teaching jobs that didn't exist. It was a flat market. I returned to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I had been living, and became a newspaper reporter. Later, I moved up to Chattanooga and couldn't find work until I removed the third degree from my resume. It made me overeducated and it had been a big waste of time and money. I got an editorial job and later a tech writer job without that degree on my resume. I haven't pursued any more education for quite awhile -- until this year. Lately, I've been taking online programming classes. I like the field and I like the challenge and it feels good to be learning again. I don't know if I'll do anything with it, but I may. So, my bizarre academic story may not be over just yet. I may simply be starting down a new path.