Thursday, February 28, 2013

No ordinary teacher(s)

Tucked away in a classroom at Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont High School in Eddyville, Iowa is an English teacher, John David Thompson. By day he dispenses typical English class fare: proper use of grammar and syntax, the formatting of an essay, the art of making smooth transitions between paragraphs, an introduction to the classics. To some, exciting stuff, to others drudgery.

Such is the life of an English teacher. But John David Thompson is no ordinary English teacher. He is also a published poet with eight books to his credit. His latest book, Iowa: A Place to Poem, recently hit the bookshelves.

Think about the title for a second. The first thought that comes to mind is the former Iowa tourism slogan, Iowa: A Place to Grow. But Iowa is thought of as a place to do many things: grow corn, raise hogs, manufacture machinery, go to school, but a place to poem?  Thompson thinks so.

Two of Thompson’s previous books, the ones I have first-hand knowledge of, also reflect an Iowa theme. 99 Voices, 99 Lives: County Poems of Iowa, published in 2006, includes poems inspired by each of Iowa’s counties. Another, On Holiday, is a Christmas-themed collection of poems written by an Iowan for an Iowan. It was also accepted for review by the Pulitzer Prize Committee in 2007. Not bad for a small town teacher from Iowa. But then again, Thompson is no ordinary English teacher.

Thompson’s latest book is a collection of over 300 poems also reflecting an Iowa theme. In one he writes as a house. See if you can pick up on which one.

Quietly a drifter trips to my yard,
entranced as if in requisite study.
He calls me the backdrop, and it settles hard.
His brush of air, annoys and disturbs me.

Round of spectacles and round at mid-waist.
this Wood-be painter asks for my porch profile.
I may be the house, but he is fresh paint
 to ask that I turn my gables, effect a smile.
You’ll need frown’s farmer, and
you’ll need a stern wife.
I advise with my south eye window-arching.

And it’s best to depict me in the dust-white
to convince of regionalism’s aching.
His masterpiece eyes spy a rarity.

I bring’m to size. Wait for the parodies.

Much of what is written about the house in American Gothic is how Grant Wood found the house and what he saw in it. This is the first I have come across from the house’s point of view, and obviously it was a bit annoyed. He calls Wood a “drifter” and takes offense to making him the “backdrop” for the painting instead of front and center. While Wood paints, the brush sounds “annoys and disturbs” him and he belittles Wood by calling him a “Wood-be painter,” which, by the way, is pretty clever. In the end the house accepts its fate and importance and becomes prescient: “Wait for the parodies.”

This is what an artist does; he or she provides us with something not thought of, another point of view. Wood painted familiarity—farms, fields, the product of toil, although not quite with an exactness. Thompson does something similar by humanizing the famous house and its thoughts on the painting. It’s food for thought—and fun—what more could a reader want.

I only know Wood by what I read, and only Thompson enough to feel comfortable saying “Hi, John” when we cross paths, but by reading the introduction poem in 99 Voices, 99 Lives, have come to the conclusion both have much in common.

I am a man for all counties,
and I push a proud pen.
Before most of you met your first morn,
I was born in one of them.
Goldfinch greets me at easterly window.
The rose and I grow in a ditch reserved for the wild.
Among the strongest of vines there,
Iowa’s child.

Besides both being artists with an appreciation for Iowa and Iowans, both were—are—teachers. And no ordinary teachers at that.

Iowa: A Place to Poem is available from Amazon and bookstores throughout Iowa.

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
American Gothic House Center

The American Gothic House Center strives to become financially independent through gift shop revenue, sponsorships, and by establishing an endowment fund. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to match the Iowa Cultural Trust Endowment Challenge Grant and will become endowment funds to support the Center's annual operations. As a subscriber to the weekly newsletter, you have already shown support for the American Gothic House Center. I invite you to strengthen your role in the valuable experience we provide the community by making a contribution to our fund drive. Click here to give your tax deductible gift, or head to our website for more information. Thank you to all who have donated so far!
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