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Two Retiring English Professors Reflect on their Years at ODU

By Philip Walzer

Two of the leading lights of Old Dominion University's creative writing program, English professors Janet Peery and Tim Seibles, are about to retire.

Peery, 70, a novelist and short story writer, won the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Seibles, 63, recently served as Virginia's poet laureate. His awards include the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award for poetry.

They got together in Peery's office last semester to talk about how they and their students have grown during their time at ODU and what they plan to write next. Both spoke as eloquently as they write.

What was your biggest surprise at ODU?

Peery: I was teaching a beginning fiction workshop and noticed that their voices were false and manufactured. So I assigned a 30-page autobiography. The writing became supple, honest, more beautiful, even syntactically more advanced. What I learned from that is that in everybody there is an authentic voice.

Seibles: I was most surprised by the diversity of the student body. I like to think that in hearing each other they learn things they couldn't otherwise learn if they were in monochromatic situations.

Peery: They're more accepting of each other in a way that even 30 years ago we wouldn't have seen.

How have your teaching styles changed since you got there?

Peery: I no longer hold back when I have something that may be hard for them to hear. They seem to take it better than I could have imagined when I was younger. Could have to do with my white hair and getting a finger wagging from your grandmother. Because I try to couch the hard news in an encouraging way, some of the graduate students used to call me the Velvet Hammer.

Seibles: I think my insights as a teacher are sharper, and I've also learned how to couch my suggestions and criticisms in language that I think they're a little bit more ready to hear and less affronted by. You want to give them critiques that are both honest and encouraging.

Your most significant contributions to their education?

Seibles: I hope I've been able to give them a wider sense of what's possible in the writing that they do. I try to have them read different kinds of writers and think about different issues.

Peery: Great answer. I wish I had thought of it. Mine would probably be, if I've given them anything, it's an increased appreciation of form, and then how form can be subverted.

What will you miss the most about Old Dominion?

Peery: Talking to students about literature and ideas. It's like having a really good conversation every week, a three-hour one. They're all different, and they all bring something.

Seibles: I agree. In addition to the conversation, dealing with such young energy. The world is just newer to them, and I love that. It's great to see people who believe in possibility.

Name the most annoying misconception you've heard about poetry or fiction.

Seibles: I still hear that poetry is hard to understand. If students have this attitude, it's easy to show them poems that are certainly not hard to understand. Part of the reason is that they were often taught by teachers in high school or middle school who themselves didn't like poetry or didn't really try to read it, so they would mystify poetry to seem smarter to their students.

Peery: For fiction, it's how easy it is to write a bestseller. When I'm on an airplane, people tell me, "If I only had time, I'd write a novel." That's like me saying, "If I only had time, I would operate on your brain."

Now that you'll have a lot more free time, should we expect to see more books from you?

Peery: It's going to be wonderful to have unscheduled time. For the novel, that's what you need. You need stamina, and you need unfettered time.

Seibles: When I'm not writing, all my wires start to short out. I'm also interested in writing prose. I love essays, and I love short stories. Maybe I'll try one soon.

Peery: You should. I have thought of a book compiling the letters I've written to students in my fiction workshops. I've had occasion to read some of them over and I thought, "Damn, I was good at that."

Seibles: It's a great idea, Janet. It's a history as well as a book about teaching.

A longer version of this story will appear in the summer issue of Monarch magazine. Look for it later this month at www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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