A new lyricism

Before Professor Thomas Fisher became a writer and poet who defines himself as “largely a scholar,” he almost followed another passion altogether into his adult life.

Before Professor Thomas Fisher became a writer and poet who defines himself as “largely a scholar,” he almost followed another passion altogether into his adult life.

While in school, Fisher played competitive tennis and had it not been for his love of literature, he could be sweating it out on the court instead of teaching modern literature courses.

“Literature and poetry are a kind of language in which secrets were unfolded,” he said. “Poetry’s genre uses language in an exemplary way.”

Fisher is working his poetry into a book he hopes to publish. His genre, new lyricism, “puts into place notions of self and identity.”

While in college, Fisher said he had “no concern for the thereafter,” though he admits the endgame was always clear.

“I knew, though, that being a professor would be the outcome of my interests,” he said.

His method of teaching is to instill in students “an obligation to pursue language.” In upper division graduate classes on literary theory, “terminology is the subject of investigation and there is greater consensus to explore words.”

Fisher’s interdisciplinary classes are designed to help writing and critical thinking skills, which apply to other subjects as well. Literature, Fisher said, has a practical application integral to one’s day-to-day life.

“It makes me alert to the ways in which the world is constructed, alert to the process of meaning and defines my own social life,” he said. Fisher often gathers with a vibrant Portland poetry community, which meets in homes and attracts academics.

“I’d like to say we meet in dark corners and alley ways, ” Fisher said jokingly.

Portland State professors and other teachers who cater to experimental writing meet up for the Spare Room and Tangent Reading Series, mostly through word of mouth. There is no institutional support or official organization behind these groups.

In the classroom, Fisher said he allows text to speak as he guides students in its examination.

“We learn how to read, in a sense, to engage in the complexities of text,” he said.

Fisher often rides his bike from Northeast Portland to campus, and in warmer weather his son, Pascale, 3, rides with him to the campus daycare. He jogs, and plays the guitar in a trio.

His wife, the poet Alicia Cohen, is a vocalist and songwriter. They are expecting another child soon and are moving into a new house.

Fisher is working on a book about poets who have stopped writing for either political or social emergencies which led them to feel the world was coming apart and their work was meaningless, or because, like Plato, they felt poetry didn’t have a practical application.

A book he wants to do next would be the structure of renunciation itself, people who turned away from what they were doing, like Garbo, Bob Dylan and Dave Chappelle.

Fisher said modern literature captures the moment in the arts.

“We live under the sign of aesthetic forms we inherited from the moderns,” he said. “Writing forms our cultural and social life, such as the structure of the city. We’re still living in the spirit of that innovation.”

Fisher said he likes to explore difficult writers, like Joyce and Stein, and asks students to identify the story line, the illuminating image, the didactic lesson and the singular thematic preoccupation.

“Literature is a technology, a device through which we can access the mind,” Fisher said. “I don’t ask what James Joyce was thinking. I ask what thought does his writing produce?”

As a member of Gen X and now 38, his awakening to political consciousness happened in 2000, when he realized his generation was self-indulgent. The revolution in gender and race studies helped him to become more aware of the need to participate in the issues of the times.   

“Everything we study applies to the now,” he said. “We are historical subjects.”

By the way, he has started playing tennis again.