Sunday, June 6, 2021

Michael Martone, The Year of Lasts (2)

This is an essay in a series of b-sides to The Texas Review All-Essay Issue. (More info at the end of this post.)

The Year of Lasts / The Death of the Author or an Existential Inventory

Michael Martone


On Friday after the retirement reception for my colleague Dilin Liu, I lugged my university issued laptop over to the E-Tech offices for my annual inventory.

This one, of course, will be the last inventory--I have a laptop and an iPad--as once I retire all the equipment returns to the university. I talked with Ruth Pionke, E-Tech director, who told me that if I am granted emeritus status (and that is an if) I get to keep my email address, and I then can petition to use a lab computer if I need one. The tough loss is that I will no longer be part of the license agreement for the shared university software. Sigh.

Pictured, the ritual checking in and checking off of the equipage. I had to hand (very old-timey) initial the big book and there years of "mm"s cascaded down the analog page:
looking a bit like the ordered headstones in a veterans cemetery.

Areej Sindatok did the heavy lifting, reading off the impossible ID tag number to Annmarie Samuelson who also took the documenting photograph. Something new happened during this last session. Areej said that they now had to attach a nadditional sticker with one of those square scanning codes--I assume to make it easier the next time even though there will be no next time. So I wanted a picture of a computer, Arjeej's iPad, taking a picture of a computer, my laptop, so I could download the picture from my email--which I may get to keep--and upload it here for you to see on your computers or laptops or hand held devices.

Yes, all of this term has been steeped in senses of ending.

I started "teaching" creative writing 40 years ago, in 1980, when the idea of creative writing at the university was newly novel. Little did I know then but that in a garage someplace the first Apple was being engineered as well. I remember back then that when I applied for graduate school there were maybe a dozen places with programs. I graduated into a world where we couldn't have enough of them. Over 100 by 1985. The writer in a college went from the Writer-in-Residence model to an academic. The author became a Romantic Modernist genius now with tenure very fast. And just as fast we traded in our typewriters for computer word processing.

Side note: The bulletin boards of Johns Hopkins were scalloped with flyers advertising typing, a buck or two a page, with a fringe of rip-off phone numbers. I had to turn in my thesis to my typist a month ahead of its distribution to my defense committee as the type had to be perfect even if the content and style and art of it was deeply flawed.

Anyway, somewhere in there, those forty years, the "author" died, but writing continued.

The deconstructive essays from the continent set many of us on edge, but I am pretty sure now that post-structural theory didn't really lay a hand on the author (or writers) in the university. We typed on, on our computers, our computers hobbled to produce a typescript pretty much like one from the late 19th Century anyway. But now, now that I am in midst of my last lasts, I understand that being an author working at a university (and remember I was there at the beginning of this experiment) now seems to be in its final phases as well. That is to say it feels like the author is dead, long live the writer (as is the "professor" replaced by the "instructor" it is not that I am irreplaceable but that my category, my genre, might in fact be disappearing with me). And it wasn't Derrida or Barthes that deconstructed me. It was that heavy beast that went with me through all those years, that slab of plastic that redefined, redefines, is redefining who and what a writer is and how, with the reader, meaning is made.

Strangely, the day before, the creative writing faculty had a routine meeting. But before we began the department's undergraduate director wanted to say a few words. A heads up for our information. The department was moving to introduce a track of digital and textual studies. There was a report in the Chronicle that Florida State has over 600 majors in this new conception of what the teaching of "English" should be, is becoming. I had long thought that Creative Writing and writing of all kinds could "take over" the literature departments that hosted them, and now they are. We didn't do it because we didn't want the headaches of the administering. But now, it might be, we have to.

I have no stake in all this. I certainly don't mourn what is fading away nor do I cheer the replacement. I just am noting that my time on earth (and in English Departments) has presented itself within these neat parentheses. I was one of the first into this particular construction of a writer, a teacher, an editor, a reader. And, even though we checked each year, I end up here not the "I" I thought I was or would be.

Funny, too, that in class this week, we discussed The Ship of Theseus paradox. It seems it should be used here but you can look it up easily enough, it's there at your fingertips.

The Year of Lasts / Stumped

This morning I spent time cutting down a hackberry sapling and removing its stump from the middle of the front yard garden. 

It was about 8-10 years old about four feet tall. Weed tree. I left it flourish through all those years, cutting it back in the spring because in April and May there is, usually, no time for stump removal. Now, there is time. 

Everyone says one should try to stay on a schedule during this time of removal. I have dedicated a part of each morning to weeding, pruning, cultivating the front yard garden. 

The bicyclists go by in big spaced pelotons, heading out to the Ferry Road ride. We wave at each other. Most of the weeding is ground mint, much of it in flower, little blue nibs. Also, the dreaded multi-flora rose. I am clearing last year's sea oats. The new shoots are already appearing underneath the debris. Everywhere there are stumps, all around the big rose bush and the clumps of zebra grass that is still decoratively dried out and flying last summer's tassels. For years, I have just been cutting back the trees, telling myself I would get to the stumps later. But "later" was always planting and mulching.  Now, now is later.  

Tomorrow begins the last four weeks of teaching for me after forty years of teaching. It is very strange to enter into these last four weeks a rank amateur at teaching. I have no idea what I am doing, how I should be teaching, what I should even "teach." I do know that what I might be able to do is help my students, who also are trying to teach, teach their classes. I don't know (because see above) if I can be much help. I am there with them at least. But so far behind them in the wet wiring of our beings. I have been trying to splice into the virtual world that they were born knowing, it seems. And I have always been worrying "place" all these years in my writing and reading. I feel, as everyone does, alienated now in this profound purposeful isolation. And for many the electromagnetic connections make a kind of sense. The ethereal connections connect. But I find myself discombobulated. Time is running out for me as a teacher, forty years, and then this other clock is running, four weeks, all set in bleak season of timefulness mortality.

So, I thought, work on removing a few stumps a little bit each day.  Fucking tenacious stumps! Wave at the flights of bikes flowing by. This might be what retirement will be until my time runs out, the removing stubborn stumps of volunteer trees (my God, I hate mimosa!) in the shaggy garden in my front yard.


After 40 years of teaching creative writing at 4 different institutions of higher learning, Michael Martone retired. His new book, The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone was published in October 2020. He lives and putters in his garden in Tuscaloosa.


I have always loved the B-side of records or cassettes, being let in on the secret/unreleased or more unexpected strangeness that awaited from artists. The B-side, in its essence, offers a singular delight in a promise that you, the audience, will not (or may not) be able to recreate the experience the B-side offers anywhere else. It says welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat. 

In the spirit of the B-side, The Texas Review asked contributors of the All-Essay Issue (Vol. 40, #3/#4, 2020) to contribute essays to a B-side compilation. We want to offer, here, a moment of singular delight as accompanied unexpected strangeness or echo location or dancing and braided conversation in conjunction to the contributors’ essays featured in the All-Essay Issue. 

Please enjoy the following B-sides by: Mary-Kim Arnold; Piper J. Daniels and Nicole McCarthy; Lily Hoang; Vincent James; Michael Martone; Ander Monson; Katrina Otuonye; Danielle Pafunda; Monica Prince; Addie Tsai; Julie Marie Wade; and Nicole Walker. 

Thank you (and genuflection) to all of the contributors featured in our pages: Danielle Pafunda; Sejal Shah; Addie Tsai; Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint; Temim Fruchter; Raquel Gutiérrez, Muriel Leung; Monica Prince; Ander Monson; Janice Lee; Piper J. Daniels; Camellia-Berry Grass; Wendy C. Ortiz; SJ Sindu; Dinty W. Moore; Michael Martone; Lily Hoang; Nicole Walker; Mary-Kim Arnold; Katrina Otuonye; Vincent James; Julie Marie Wade; Caroline Crew; Diana Khoi Nguyen.

Thank you to Ander Monson for giving us the space of Essay Daily, and as ever thank you to Nick Lantz, Editor of The Texas Review. 

Welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat. 

Katie Jean Shinkle, Guest Editor, The Texas Review

If you would like to order a copy of the All-Essay Issue:

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