Pam Houston Comes to CSU
I once had a cup of coffee with Pam Houston. Except really, as I think of it, I’m not certain Pam was drinking coffee at all. She may not have been drinking anything. At the time, I was in the middle of my thesis year at the University of California in Davis, where Pam is the Director of the Creative Writing Program. As these things tend to go, in my second year and trying to complete something like a poetry manuscript, I am perpetually swamped with paperwork. I am always behind on my rent. I am young in this program and in the world and I feel stupid most of the time and I am almost certainly drinking coffee. So I’m sitting in Pam Houston’s office, having asked her some weeks earlier to agree to take a spot on my thesis committee, even though Pam writes fiction—short stories that get anthologized in the Best American Short Stories of the Century, to be more precise—and I’m not sure the fifty pages (okay, thirty-five) I’ve just given Pam can be called poems. Really, I’m not sure they can be called anything. I’m trying desperately to seem like I might know what I’m talking about—I’ve read some Derrida! I can define post-modernism!—but I’m suddenly mortified at the thought of Pam, calm in her genius as I am over-caffeinated and practically incoherent, wasting her time with my non-poems. But she does read them. In the coming months, she reads my manuscript three times—approximately two and a half times more than my own mother—and has things to say to me about these non-poems that give me retrospective heartache for having wasted a moment of concern for something as irrelevant as poetry v. prose. Care for language is care for language, is gilt-edged and transcendent and completely outside of genre. This is something Pam taught me.
“Pam Houston takes care of her own,” an old colleague of mine once told me when I asked how he was enjoying her workshop, and this is the heart of the matter with Pam Houston: one of the most generous and present educators I’ve ever known, she takes the same care with her reader. I read most of Pam’s newest, Contents May Have Shifted, at the AWP Conference in Chicago last year. Toward the middle of the book, the narrator–sharp, honest, uncommonly thoughtful—says of growth, “I don’t want to grow old feeling like I’m not good enough.” Seated in an enormous hotel conference room–the lighting reminiscent of a shopping mall, the sound like a carnival, hundreds of writers and teachers and press folk networking to save their lives—I didn’t cry. But it was a close thing.
When I became the Assistant to the Director of the Creative Writing Reading Series this past fall, Pam was at the top of my list of writers to bring to our campus, and I’m thrilled that she agreed and that we’ll be kicking off our spring semester Reading Series with such an exciting event. Pam will read at 7:30PM this Thursday, January 31st in the Lory Student Center Cherokee Ballroom. She’ll be reading from Contents May Have Shifted, published last year by W.W. Norton. I hope you’ll come if you’re able—I know you won’t regret it.