Poet Cecil Giscombe has lived all over. Born in Ohio, he’s lived and worked in New York, Illinois, Washington, and, most recently, Pennsylvania. But he’s settled here in Berkeley, and now he’s made one of the ultimate commitments to his new state.
“I just put the California plates on the car,” he says, lounging in front of his cluttered desk on the fourth floor of Wheeler Hall. “It’s forever, now.”
It’s been a year since Giscombe, a poet with a new volume of work coming out this fall, joined the English faculty. Turns out he is peripatetic when he’s teaching too. He and his students made field trips to Yosemite and San Francisco last year, walking in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder.
Students of his non-fiction travel writing class strolled from the Mission district all the way to Columbus Street, hunting for the kind of moments that inspire writers to document their wanderings. Students were reading Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. The course was focused on non-fiction prose various kinds, including the work of the flaneurs, or intellectuals who roamed urban boulevards in order to experience the city. The class also traveled toward the north edge of Yosemite in search of the spot where Kerouac had his moments of epiphany. The weather conspired against them — they were snowed out of the high Sierra — but the group did manage a hike to the top of Yosemite Falls. Students recorded their observations in group writing projects based on ancient Japanese poetic forms (the Renga and the Haibun).
“I’m a bit of a tree-hugger,” Giscombe says. “So often in the woods I’m the only black person I see, unless my sister is there with me, or my daughter. But climbing Yosemite Falls, people are speaking all these different languages.”
The East Bay in general, Giscombe notes, is an out-and-about sort of place—for everyone.
“Even hiking up at Tilden Park, I was struck that it wasn’t just white people on the trails,” he says. He hopes to see increasing numbers of black students on the Berkeley campus in the coming years.
Giscombe himself has written extensively about place and outdoor environments. It’s a theme of his poetry, including the new Prairie Style poems due out later this year. Another book — a nonfiction meditation on his experience with public transportation — is in the works. Titled Railroad Sense, this book took Giscombe back to upstate New York to revisit the routes he’d driven as a taxi driver in Albany while an undergraduate.
He is pleased that so many of his students are game to go along on class adventures, pounding the pavement and climbing beyond the timber line. Overall, he says, Berkeley students are “ready to do stuff,” and are unusually engaged in their studies.
“They read the assignment and then they read supplementary material around the assignment,” he says. “Students from this and other classes have pressed published stories and essays and poems on me, seeking conversation about them. This has happened before elsewhere, but not in such numbers.”
Alternating as he does between teaching writing and doing his own writing, it’s fortunate that Giscombe often finds inspiration in his students’ work.
One student paper in particular has lingered for Giscombe, an analysis of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which is not a novel Giscombe much likes. But the student’s own arguments and insights — into ideas of authenticity and truth — led Giscombe to consider the same issues in his own work.
“I was impressed by what he had to say,” Giscombe says. “It’s not that I have all the knowledge and have it to dispense to students. There’s an important interchange in conversations in the classroom.”