From Bad to Verse; Music in Memory of Ted Shen | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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From Bad to Verse; Music in Memory of Ted Shen

Are some "tough customers" in the Columbia College English department making life miserable for poetry guru Paul Hoover?


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From Bad to Verse

In 30 years at Columbia College, Paul Hoover has become synonymous with the school and its innovative poetry program. Beginning as a part-timer, at $750 a class in 1974, and hired as a full-time faculty member in '77, Hoover built both the poetry program and his own reputation. Over the years he's published a dozen books, edited a Norton anthology of postmodern American poetry, launched two nationally distributed poetry journals (New American Writing and the student-edited Columbia Poetry Review), helped found the Poetry Center of Chicago, and bagged a good share of awards and grants. The undergraduate poetry major he fought to establish at Columbia was launched in 2000; thanks to his campaign for a master's degree, Columbia's first MFA students in poetry enrolled last fall. You'd think Hoover would be reveling in the success of his efforts. Instead, he's in exile--on a leave of absence he requested--and claims that he's the victim of a departmental power grab so humiliating he probably won't be coming back. In the rough-and-tumble world of the Columbia English department, he says, "I got knocked on the head by very tough customers. They decided to bring me down."

Hoover has run Columbia's poetry program single-handedly forever, though he's never had the title of director. He's developed the courses, assigned the classes, overseen the Columbia Poetry Review, and curated a reading series. When he and his wife, poet Maxine Chernoff, moved to San Francisco a decade ago it didn't cause a blip on the screen. He just worked out an arrangement that has him teaching a double load every fall and in California the rest of the year.

Hoover speculates that his current troubles began in the spring of 2002, when he says he rankled his superiors by challenging a deviation from hiring procedure. In February 2003, English department chair Garnett Kilberg Cohen called to say that the poetry program was being restructured: in the future, Hoover would not direct the undergraduate program and would curate only half of the reading series. He would, however, be given the title of distinguished professor (he was later asked to continue directing the graduate program). According to Hoover, Kilberg Cohen also said that six people had complained to liberal arts dean Cheryl Johnson-Odim about his lack of collegiality; the complaints included "scowling in the hallway" and speaking "abruptly." He says Johnson-Odim subsequently told him that "people in the English department feel you too much possess the program." After that, he maintains, he was excluded from interviews for new faculty, the budget for New American Writing was "challenged," and the English department's three-year plan noted that there are still some "vestiges of the 'cult of the major' regards to the perceived privileging of Poetry over other programs." (Kilberg Cohen said she couldn't comment on a "personnel matter.")

Hoover says resentment is fueling all this--coupled with Columbia's unusual structure of tenure without rank, which makes for strong department chairs (who retain their positions for years on end) and faculty members, tenured and untenured, scrabbling for position. Hoover himself led a long struggle to free poetry and other English courses from the control of legendary story-workshop creator John Schultz. Unlike most colleges, Columbia, which was conceived as a trade school for the arts, offers no English major. But in the mid-80s an independent English department was established apart from Schultz's fiction writing program. That left Hoover's poetry fiefdom, which now has its own undergraduate major and master's degree, as part of the English department, which still does not. As Hoover sees it, other English department faculty and administrators resent poetry's prominence and seek to control it, while younger poetry faculty want their share of the power. Last May he took a leave of absence (during which he's been teaching at San Francisco State University) and sent an e-mail to the Columbia English faculty explaining that he'd been demoted just as the MFA program was getting under way. He says no one in the department spoke up on his behalf: "All my old friends disappeared. Everyone's scared." A story in this week's Columbia Chronicle, the student paper, considers the impact of his absence on the school's first class of graduate poetry students, a few of whom say they enrolled in the program because he'd be part of it and have been disappointed to find newer faculty not as receptive to "experimental" work. Hoover claims there have been repercussions for students who support him, including an attempt to convert the Columbia Poetry Review to a faculty-edited publication; some students are complaining about questionable grading. Hoover's extended his leave of absence until the fall of 2005. He says he'll make a final decision about coming back that year. "It's inconceivable for me to return there in a demoted position," he says. "I'm too proud."

A Columbia College spokesperson issued a blanket "no comment" on behalf of the administration. But English faculty member Jeff Schiff says the poetry program under Hoover was "a one-man show" that's no longer appropriate given the school's growth: "It's not leader for life. Paul's paid his dues and he deserves to be here, but he's made it clear--it's all or nothing." Schiff says Hoover, who "at his peril" once fought the reign of John Schultz, is now the one who's "unwilling to relinquish any power."

Music in Memory of Ted Shen

Many people knew journalist and arts critic Ted Shen better than I did. Until three years ago our relationship consisted of infrequent work-related phone conversations, so I was delighted, when I began writing this column, to find that I had a genial and gracious ally on the beat--a friend who knew everyone and everything and went out of his way to share that knowledge. Ted was a connoisseur not only of music and film, but of food, parties, and the social relationships that underpin Chicago's institutions--a sort of walking cultural nerve center. His sudden death last October was mourned soon after it happened with an emotional tribute at Columbia College from the many colleagues who loved him. They'll gather again this week for a more formal memorial, including original music and performances by some of the musicians he wrote about, among them Betty Xiang, Wei Yang, and John Bruce Yeh. See "Remembering Ted Shen," listed under Classical in Section Three, for the complete lineup. It starts at 7 PM Wednesday, February 25, in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, and it's open to the public.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Pidgeon.

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