This is another entry in our recent series of interviews by Annie Livingston and Amanda Reed. Our subject this time is Curt Nehring Bliss, one of the English professors at Finger Lakes Community College!
Curt Nehring Bliss
Interviewers: Annie Livingston and Amanda Reed
Have writing and literature always been a big part of your life?
I have a record of my writing all the way back to kindergarten, so yes, writing has always been a big part of my life. It’s how I kind of coped with all of my heartbreaks in high school and junior high. I have been using writing as a way of understanding myself in the world almost my entire life. Literature came a little later; I didn’t really discover literature until the end of my sophomore year of college. I was Chemistry major when I started as an undergrad, and than I took a required literature course and fell in love with poetry. I changed my major that summer, and ever since then I have just been a veracious reader.
Why did you decide to teach, and how did you come to teaching at FLCC?
When I was a kid and used to play pretend with my cousins, one cousin was a cop, one was a martial artist, and one was a fireman—typical young kid dreams, however I was always a college professor. My grandfather was a principal, so maybe there is something in the blood. I also had some really great teachers growing up, and so the profession always interested me.
I went to undergrad and grad school, then I got an opportunity to teach down at SUNY Cobleskill, and it was something I fell in love with right away. That was in the early 90’s, so I have been teaching almost 25 years. I have had three professional jobs— SUNY Cobleskill for three years, I was out in Illinois for three or four years, and then I kind of wanted to come back to New York—so I did a job search focusing there. This job at FLCC was available, and when I interviewed here I knew that if I got this job I am not leaving, this is the place that I am meant to be. It worked out, I am here and it’s the perfect job for me.
Who are some of your biggest influences either in the field of writing/literature or outside of that?
My first big influence in writing was the poet William Carlos Williams who was a writer in the early part of the 20th century and was also a pediatrician and delivered babies. He showed me how to write clear, precise poetry and not all this crazy, symbolic, flowery stuff. So some of my earliest writing was really influenced by him. The other big influence around that time was a writing teacher Natalie Goldberg, who wrote a book called “Writing Down the Bones.” She taught me free writing, which I never learned in high school or college. There is something about free writing that can lend itself to all kinds of writing—whether it is poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or even academic writing. I also have to add Tom Waits, the musician. He helped me to understand how language can take on deep, mystical, poetic meanings, even if it doesn’t always make sense. He has been a big influence on me as a writer as well as a songwriter—my wife Nani and I compose music and he has heavily influenced me as a lyricist.
What is one book that you think everyone should read?
I think that everyone should read William Kennedy’s Ironweed. It is a Pulitzer Prize winning book from the mid 80’s, and it is about the 1920’s homeless in Albany, my hometown—so I have a personal connection. This book was also made into a movie with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Tom Waits. It’s such a tender look at the down and out.
What is something that you tend to see students struggle with in their writing and how do you help them to overcome it?
I really try and encourage students to write about the everyday. I think students feel the pressure to write about something really big—the big game winning throw in the football game, the big heartbreak, or the big car accident that they almost died in, and I try and show them that they don’t have to write about the big things—they can just write about what happened to them today, on an average day, as the writing is more important than what you are writing about. The world is so unpredictable and gorgeous just in it’s own plainness, and so we do a lot of observation activities and noticing the details, and recognizing that the deeper we listen, the more we see, and the deeper we become aware of just how extraordinary the ordinary is. Using free-writing and some different listening and seeing activities helps us to do that.
What is your own writing process like?
I have been free-writing for 25 years, and have boxes of notebooks full of free-writing that I have never done anything with, never even looked at again. I free-write every day, sometimes in more of a meditation practice than to try and generate material. When I teach writing classes, I write with my students. Anything that I assign in a writing class, I do as well. That’s really the only writing towards drafting that I ever do when I teach writing. Right now I am teaching a creative nonfiction class and working on multiple pieces—I just wrote a piece that I am really happy with about my mom getting hit on by a professional wrestler. The move from free-writing to drafting towards a product is something that I don’t do very often and don’t really have any motivations for publishing, but I do love sharing my writing with students and reading my students writing.
What are some of your favorite spots to read or write?
For the first time ever, I have a dedicated writing desk. This winter we rearranged our house and I created a nook with my wife’s grandmother’s table. I have it lined with artifacts, my grandfather’s journals, a wooden ship of my dad’s, and my grandfather’s compass from World War I. The desk is always clean, has a lamp on it along with my pens, and it is ready for writing at any time. Before that though, I would write anywhere. I have started almost every free-write for 25 years with the same exact line, and the line is “So I’m sitten’ here.” To say “sitten” as opposed to “sitting” instantly gets me in a more causal frame of mind. Then I would say where “sitten here” is…down by the pond, by the dock, by the Airstream trailer, at the picnic table, or at my desk in my office. Then I go into whatever is on my mind. When writing, I try and be aware of my posture, making sure my spine is straight, feet are on the ground, and shoulders are relaxed, as writing is a physical act. Reading on the other hand is a causal act, and I just want to be comfortable—in bed, on the couch, or in a comfy chair.
If you could spend a day with a character from any book, who would it be and what would you do during that day?
I would want to hang with the three characters from Ironweed, Francis Phelan, the main character, his buddy Rudy, and Helen. It takes place in one night, on Halloween night—and I would like to hang with them in that night. It is an adventure, and it ultimately gets pretty sad, but it is a powerful night for me in literature and I would love to tag along with them.
What are some of your favorite places to visit in the Finger Lakes region?
My favorite thing going on in the Finger Lakes right now is the big apple cider boom. There are more and more orchards for hard cider going up, and there is this place in Geneva called Lake Drum and they make really good cider. I also love the waterfalls at Grimes Glen, Clarks Gully, and Conklin Gully. Clarks Gully in particular is so mystical and I believe that Clarks Gully is the crack in the Native American legend of how humans were born out of the crack in the earth. If you are going to have an origin story about the birth of humanity, that gorge seems like the place where it might happen.
If you got abducted by aliens, what would you do?
I would go along for the ride and see where it takes me. I would hope that I would learn something from it; I am of the belief that we should encounter every situation, no matter how uncertain it is, with the orientation towards “What can I learn from this?”