Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Homeward Bound Before He Returns To His Native Ireland, Jim Mcauley Reflects On 27 Years Of Teaching Poetry At Ewu

As he pours a stream of tar-colored coffee from an oversized French press, Jim McAuley issues a warning.

“I make it strong,” he says.

He isn’t lying. One sip, even cut with a dollop of whipping cream, brings on an instant adrenaline rush. Yet the taste… oh, the taste is a Juan Valdez daydream. Seattle espresso-maestros should be so talented.

So this much is clear: When McAuley returns to Ireland this summer, he shouldn’t have trouble finding something to do.

He could always open his own coffee shop.

He won’t, of course. McAuley, who has spent the last 27 years teaching poetry to Eastern Washington University writing students, is through with anything that takes him away from his own work.

“I’ve retired to write,” he says. “That’s mainly what I’ll do. I’ve plenty of things built up.”

And as he says this, you notice - not for the first time - the brogue. The hard T in place of the soft TH. The D for the hard TH. The dropped final G, as in “somethin’.”

It’s not exactly Darby O’Gill. McAuley’s accent has blended more than a bit with Americanisms. But after all these years, you can still “hare” it. It’s still “dere,” you know?

Which says something about McAuley, both as a person and an artist: He’s never lost touch with his roots; the “mud, slush and shamrock” have never deserted him, nor he them.

Oh, he’s tried. For a time in the early ‘70s, he invented a kind of persona that, he once explained, “I gave the very unoriginal title of ‘exile.”’ But it didn’t stick.

“My mouth wants to say that I am European, that I have an international background,” he said. “But my heart says that’s all B.S. I’m committed, condemned, convicted to being being an Irish writer.”

Yet even as the Irish voice remained, an American voice intruded. In terms of the way he speaks, it’s been (pronounce it “bean”) no big deal. It’s even enhanced his image in American literary circles.

Professionally, however, it’s had a more profound, and sometimes negative, impact. Despite McAuley’s seven books of collected poetry, editors who put out poetry anthologies don’t usually include the work of this artistic hybrid.

“The American anthologizers think of me as an Irish poet, and the Irish anthologizers think of me as an American poet,” he says.

He’s a bit of both.

McAuley, who turned 62 last month, left his native Dublin in 1966. Working then as a clerk for the city Electrical Supply Board, he nevertheless found time to write two books of poetry, edit a monthly magazine, write reviews and give the occasional lecture.

But his desire to be a full-time man of letters drew him to America, specifically to Arkansas where he studied with the poet James Whitehead. It was there, he would say years later, “that I learned my trade.”

After a short stay at a small school in Pennsylvania, where a poetic poke at school administrators got him bounced from his job, he accepted the position at Eastern.

He came to Cheney in 1970, the same year his third book of poetry, “Draft Balance,” was published.

And found… well, let’s be honest. Whatever charms it boasts, the rolling farmlands that surround EWU’s campus are about as different from Dublin’s mossy green as Guinness is from Rainier.

And Spokane, the big city 15 miles away? Think Budweiser.

One writer with Spokane roots who became a friend of McAuley’s, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer, described the Lilac City this way in her poem “Running Away From Home”: “After Spokane, what horrors lurk in Hell?”

McAuley, at least when he knows a tape recorder is running, can be much kinder.

“The old L.A. joke, I think, applies to Spokane,” he says. “You know, a quarter of a million people can’t all be wrong.” Then he adds, “There are great attractions to Spokane. They don’t happen to be my attractions, particularly.”

Such sentiments tend to disturb Spokane boosters. But those honest remarks mask a basic truth: Words are cheap, it’s action that counts.

And McAuley, over the years, has acted in ways that consistently have benefitted EWU, Cheney and its neighboring city with the picturesque falls.

Take Eastern’s creative writing program. When McAuley was hired, there was no master’s of fine arts in creative writing. There was no university press. Undergraduate courses were taught by creative writing pioneers Jerry Bumpus (who left) and Patricia Coontz (a co-founder of EWU’s women’s studies program whom McAuley calls “the godmother of creative writing at Eastern”).

By the mid-‘70s, the department was essentially a triumvirate: McAuley (poetry), John Keeble (fiction) and Patrick McManus (non-fiction).

“Yes, I taught in that program,” recalls McManus, the best-selling humorist who retired in 1983. “It’s improved enormously since I left. So I should get some credit for its success.”

All jokes aside, McManus insists that “the excellence of that university has always exceeded its reputation.” And a good part of that reputation is based on the quality of EWU’s creative writing program.

“And I think McAuley obviously has been one of the major factors in that,” he says. “He’s been pretty much the driving force.”

Keeble, the author of such well-regarded books as “Yellowfish” and “Out of the Channel,” was hired in 1974. He agrees that McAuley provided the program’s initial boost.

“It was McAuley who gave the first significant energy,” Keeble says. “I don’t know what other people have said, but that is his outstanding feature.”

It is Keeble who took over when McAuley was too angry (not his exact words) at the state to do the actual application that would win the school its MFA program. McAuley’s judgment: “He did a wonderful job.”

Yet Keeble sees himself as the stable part of the equation. McAuley always provided the heat.

“He was described to me once, during his time in Arkansas, as ‘a flame that passed slowly through the town,”’ Keeble says. “Which is kind of the way that he was here.”

One of McAuley’s creations was the Dublin Summer Writer’s Workshop, which since 1979 annually has taken EWU students to study and work in the land of Seamus Heaney and James Joyce.

And whatever energy he didn’t lavish elsewhere he applied to the EWU Press (see separate story). As editor, he took over a small operation in 1992 and turned it into an award-winning and respected publisher of history, essays and poetry.

“I’m flat out proud of this press and I’m proud of what Jim did for it,” says J. William T. Youngs, author of “The Fair and the Falls,” a definitive history of Expo ‘74 that the press published last year. “I don’t think many people could have had the vision and the drive to put it together and make it happen.”

McAuley took on the press job after years of passing the department directorship back and forth to Keeble. In the mid-‘80s, they got relief from other writers who came to the school.

One is Ursula Hegi, the “Stones From the River” novelist who stayed on to become an Oprah Winfrey favorite. Another was Gillian Conoley, the poet who followed her husband to California. Poet Nance Van Winckel served as occasional director even though she is better known as a longtime editor of Eastern’s literary journal Willow Springs.

“I have enjoyed working with Jim over the past 14 years,” says Hegi. The Nine Mile Falls author, who sent her quote by fax, adds, “He is a fine writer, a generous teacher and colleague, committed to our students, the writing program and the press….”

Van Winckel bemoans the loss of McAuley who, she says, “knows things about poetry that nobody else in the world knows.”

There’s a particular side of McAuley that those who knew him best say they’ll miss. Hegi refers to “his splendid sense of humor.” Van Winkel talks about how he “brought a lot of fun to our program.” McManus describes McAuley’s “biting Irish wit.”

And Sue Ehama, who was the creative writing department secretary for 15 years, calls her time with McAuley “unpredictable, interesting and never dull.”

There’s more to the story, of course. Everyone has a dark side, and McAuley is no different. He can be a difficult man. Married three times (of his six sons, the youngest is 8 years old), he has enraged more than one of his colleagues and one can only guess how many students. Even now he is not loathe to take shots at those whom he sees as the enemies of intelligent discourse.

He’s done it many times with his poetry. The line that got him in trouble at Pennsylvania’s Lycoming College referred to college administrators as “the trick apes of sad municipal zoos.”

He must have forgotten his own experience when he said, “Sometimes by accident even journalists tell the truth. But if they tell the truth out of malice, they get sued. Poets, you see, can write truthful poetry out of malice and escape any liability.”

However good it is on paper, it’s much more fun to hear him vent in straight conversation.

Here’s McAuley on the Eastern faculty blaming the school’s current budget woes on outgoing president Mark Drummond: “The sad thing is that the faculty senate at Eastern is notoriously pusillanimous.”

All right, I had to look it up too. Pusillanimous comes from the latin pusillus (tiny) and animus (the mind).

Here’s McAuley on the uproar involving turf wars between EWU and Washington State University: “This is the scandalous thing about Wazzu. They’re trying to mask their own enrollment problems by trying to grab students from Eastern. It’s just such a blatant and outrageous sort of piracy.”

Here’s McAuley, who once managed the boxing career of his son Jimmy, on the modern world of fisticuffs: “The kind of behavior that goes on in the ring with boxers should not be tolerated any more than violent, illegal play in football.”

Here’s McAuley on those who would make something scandalous of the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair: “What is there about sex and America? I mean, my God, who do these fascists think they are?”

Here’s McAuley on himself: “Don’t I have a lot of pet peeves?”

Maybe. Sure. Whatever. In any event, they seldom push away his colleagues and friends. At least not for good.

“I have known Jim, as is obvious, for a long time,” says Keeble. “And we’ve had some serious disagreements, partly because we have different natures. But I really love the guy. I’ve come to love him after working with him all these years. I feel I can trust him implicitly.”

It’s that kind of relationship that his friends, his colleagues and his school will miss in Jim McAuley.

For his part, he will be “flattered to think that there would be some kind of legacy. I’m hoping that the program will continue on.”

Ultimately, however, he offers a quote that he believes makes a much more appropriate comment. It’s from the French-English poet/ essayist Hilaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: His sins are scarlet, but his books were read.”

“I think in terms of what I would like to leave,” McAuley says. “A few people readin’ my books would be very nice.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo