Published November 8, 2019
Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson have been mixing personal and professional togetherness for nearly 50 years. Both have recently published new, deeply personal books.
The couple met at UB after Christian, now a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, joined the university’s English department in 1970. Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture, had arrived at UB three years earlier as an assistant professor of English and comparative literature.
“I came to the English department at UB partly because those who were in it loved artistic things,” says Christian. “There was a love within the department for the poets and the writers and the novelists, as well as the critics. I turned down the University of California at Berkeley to come to UB’s English department because of the creative energy that existed here.”
Jackson had turned down positions at the University of Pennsylvania, MIT and UCLA for the same reason.
“I came because of what our friend Bob Creeley called ‘the company.’ It was a delight to be part of that spectacular group of artists and scholars. But, for me, there was more. I think my academic and research interests defied easy definition,” Jackson says. “I had been in Harvard’s Society of Fellows, which had allowed me to follow my interests for four years with no disciplinary or departmental obligation. My work in film, photography, social commentary, popular culture, folklore, criminal justice and civil rights cut across fields.
“UB’s academic leadership said, ‘Come here and you can teach whatever you want, write about whatever you like.’ They’ve honored that promise. I’ve taught graduate classes in English, comp lit, sociology, art, media study, law, architecture, the library school and more. I can’t imagine such flexibility anywhere else. That is one of the reasons I’ve stayed at UB.”
“Our professional and personal lives have intersected for a very long time,” says Christian. “That’s the wonderful thing about being at a university such as UB. You are in the midst of this stimulating environment and things are happening, so you remain engaged. We are doing what we love right now.”
For Christian, that brings a return to poetry, which she describes as her first love.
“Poetry is expressive for me,” she says. “As I became educated, I loved the intense poets … Keats, Dylan Thomas, the metaphysicals. I did my dissertation at Johns Hopkins on William Blake, who, in addition to being a marvelous visual artist, is a great poet.”
Christian also says she loved poetry as a child.
“It likely started with my Irish mother, who had a real love of language, and who loved poetry, as well,” she says. “I think it was part of the fabric of life for her. By that I mean my mother liked things kind of spare and succinct. She was very good on one-liners, and I guess I’ve always liked that.”
Christian has just published her second volume of poetry, “Occasion Poems,” a collection of brief, expressive verse. Her first book of poetry, “Wide Ons,” was published in 1981.
“Poetry has always been, in some ways, kind of private for me. Which is one of the reasons why I have only published one other book of poetry.”
Christian says “Occasion Poems” was suggested by a colleague, close friend and poet, the late SUNY Distinguished Professor Robert Creeley.
“He thought it would be a good idea to have poems for various occasions made up as ink stamps, ready to imprint on a postcard and send off for occasions,” she says. “Another part of the idea behind ‘Occasion Poems’ is that these are the big issues in life — birth and death, marriage, sex, among others — which are more reachable, more universal.
“I’m still a little nervous about publishing them because they are very personal.”
This year has also seen publication of “Places: Things Heard. Things Seen,” a collection of short memoirs from Jackson.
“The first essay in the book came about as a result of a visit Diane and I made to our old friend and colleague Howard Becker. It is about the random, control — or lack of it — and teaching without a net,” says Jackson. “Howie is a jazz piano player and maybe America’s most prominent sociologist. That visit led to a conversation with him about how some of my articles grounded in places — both published and unpublished — might coalesce into a book.”
In the third essay in “Places,” Jackson delves back for a powerful memoir about family, a window into growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the late 1930s and the 1940s.
“Both of my grandmothers spoke German, Yiddish, Russian and Polish,” Jackson says. “My father operated a ‘luncheonette’ on the ground floor of the apartment house next to ours. They were that era’s convenience stores.”
Jackson says some of the pieces were written specifically for “Places,” while others derive from pieces written over the past several years.
“There are stories I would frequently tell, and I realized a lot of them were connected to a place,” he says. “Often there was a photograph particular to that story and place, so each chapter has a photo that accompanies a personal essay. The book isn’t a single narrative, but the narratives in it interlock.”
The memoirs in “Places” recount experiences across Jackson’s life. The unlikely time and place of his favorite Pete Seeger concert — 1966 at Ellis Prison Farm in Texas. Photographing the northern Chihuahuan Desert in Texas and New Mexico. Buffalo’s October Surprise snowstorm and the rifle fire echoes of tree limbs giving way in Delaware Park.
“I have written before, in “The Story is True,” about how and why we tell stories and how and why we transform them; how stories bring meaning to, or make meaning of, our lives,” says Jackson. “This book is stories from my life.”
His next book, with hundreds of unpublished and never-exhibited color photos he took in Texas and Arkansas prisons from 1964 to 1979, is scheduled for publication in November 2020. “These photos are from long ago that, because of changes in technology, are only finding life now,” he says. “This book couldn’t have happened 10 years ago.”
Christian and Jackson are also working on editing 14 hours of conversation they had with their colleague and friend Leslie Fiedler, who died in 2003. “Leslie was a key voice in defining what American literature was all about and he was one of the people who gave the fabled UB English department of the 1960s and early 1970s its reputation,” Jackson says. “He was one of the reasons we both came here.”
Jackson is also working on a second collaboration with The Wooster Group, New York’s avant-garde theatrical company. “A couple of years ago, they produced a play based on recordings of Afro-American folklore I made in Texas prisons in 1964. It continues to tour. I have been made a member of the group. The new play is based on work I did a few years later,” he says.
In the spring, Jackson and Christian are starting the 21st year of their popular film series, the Buffalo Film Seminars.
“Every year we do 28 or 29 public film presentations in the Dipson Amherst theater,” Christian says. “We screen a classic film, then conduct an open discussion with the students and any of the audience members who want to participate. It keeps us sharp and we have so much fun with this, with all of the people who attend. Many are regulars, we are happy to say.”
When asked about retirement, Jackson says: “There aren’t too many people who have been on the UB faculty longer than we have, so we’ve heard that question several times recently.
“I like to refer to a line in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 movie ‘The Wild Bunch.’ The plot concerns an aging outlaw gang on the Mexico-United States border trying to adapt to the changing modern world of 1913. The scene is immediately after the gang has just bungled a bank robbery,” he says.
“The gang’s leader, Pike Bishop, played by William Holden, says to his closest friend, Dutch, played by Ernest Borgnine: ‘Sometime I want to make a big score and back off.’ Borgnine responds: ‘Back off to what?’
“And that’s how it is with us. We are doing what we love right now. UB has been, and continues to be, the perfect base for the work we’re doing. What’s to back off to?”
Professors Christian and Jackson are UB and Western New York treasures!