Before I met Peter in person, I met him on paper.
In the spring of 1998 I was chairing a search committee to hire a fiction writer for our newly created Department of Writing and Linguistics. Peter was a semi-finalist; the committee was impressed with his credentials – strong publications and awards, recent MFA from the University of Florida, glowing student evaluations and recommendation letters. But other applicants were similarly impressive, and we were in the process of reading writing samples to help us decide who to invite for a campus interview. As I read Peter’s stories, I grew increasingly riveted by the originality and music of his writing. The rhythm of his sentences, the lyricism of his phrasing, the density of his language – all were truly distinctive and invigorating. As his students can attest, he believed that writing should “go for the jugular,” and his did. There was an intensity to his writing that was like a slap in the face – the kind that says “wake up, the world’s on fire.”
This was art that was not afraid to be Art, and not afraid to cut close to the bone. The forgotten and the lost were his subjects – a homeless dumpster diver, a subway panhandler, a death-row inmate – and their lives were described unflinchingly. In these specific characters he revealed all of us – our worst loneliness and darkest impulses, but also our highest, most selfless aspirations and our deep capacity for love.
When I finished reading his stories, my only thought was, “I’ve got to meet this guy.”
I’m not sure what I expected him to be or look like. But based on the ferocity of his writing, I was pretty sure that he would be at least a little scary, possibly with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles. After all, at Florida he had studied with Harry Crews, the original bad boy writer.
So when Peter came for the interview, I could barely reconcile the person I met with the writing I’d read. He might have been applying for a job as a bank manager. Sport jacket, white button down shirt, subtle tie, pleated trousers, briefcase. Courteous, soft-spoken. Was this really the same person who wrote those stories forged in fire and hammered into razor-edged steel?
It was one of many paradoxes about Peter that somehow, ultimately, made him the person that so many of us loved. Here are some others: Peter always seemed in control, self-possessed, comfortable. But in fact he was shy, really painfully shy – it took great effort for him to be the model of self assurance that he appeared to be.
He was deft at drawing other people out, learning about you, helping you. But it was difficult to get him to tell you how he was feeling, what he wanted.
He was a fiction writer who loved poetry, whose writing was as lyrical and as compressed as poetry. But he didn’t think he could write poetry.
He was Peter, but he was also Pete. Peter the quiet, thoughtful, reserved. And Pete the playful, the funny, the self-deprecating. Giver of nicknames.
But of course all these paradoxes really aren’t. All of his complexities were bridged by his most important, most defining qualities: his true and deep compassion, his generosity, his profound commitment to the well-being of others, his absolute belief in the saving power of writing.
Because of these qualities, it didn’t take long for Peter to earn a reputation as an inspiring teacher. A great teacher. The kind who changes lives. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that he was responsible for recruiting more students to become Writing majors than any other faculty member. Possibly more than the rest of us put together. Three years after he came to Georgia Southern, he won the Writing and Linguistics Department’s Dorothy Smith Golden Excellence in Teaching Award.Peter’s personnel file is filled with unsolicited letters from his former students who are now either working or in graduate school. The letters usually begin with “Dear Professor Christopher, I don’t know if you remember me …” (of course he did remember) and all of them go on to thank him – not only for what he taught them about writing but also for what he taught them about dedication, hard work, and commitment.
And here is another paradox. Peter didn’t read a lot of pedagogical theory, and he didn’t use new technology to enhance his teaching – not WebCT, smart classrooms, podcasting. I don’t think he ever used a television set, video recorder, or an overhead projector. Not because he was opposed to those things, but because he was completely inept at using anything mechanical! And yet he was a great teacher, a cutting-edge teacher. The old-fashioned way. He connected with students face-to-face, individual by individual. He required students to conference with him at least once in the semester, but after the first time, students didn’t or couldn’t stay away from his office. He offered them his time, his complete attention, his encouragement. He valued them and inspired them to value themselves.
He had that effect on everyone who knew him. My most vivid memory of Peter is from a day in Baltimore at the Associated Writing Programs Conference. It was early Saturday morning, and we decided to take a walk through Little Italy, not far from the conference hotel near the Inner Harbor. It was quiet, few people were out. We walked block after block of row houses, narrow streets, small grocery stores and restaurants, everything still closed.
Finally we saw a bakery on a corner. In contrast to the sameness of the blocks we’d been walking, the bakery was magical. The cases were crammed with cookies, breads, pastries of every imaginable color and shape. And of course the whole place smelled like we’d just stepped inside a yeast roll. All the people we hadn’t seen on the streets were in there
ordering and eating. At the half dozen tables, customers sat with coffee and pastry and small talk. Silverware rang like chimes.
We hadn’t been looking for this, but we looked at each other, knowing that this was exactly what we’d been looking for. We took a table and a menu with all the Italian pastries listed, none of which – except cannoli – I knew or could pronounce. But Peter knew and he ordered a sample tray for us. Soon a platter large enough to hold a Thanksgiving turkey sat between us sparkling with sugary things; oozing with gooey things; tilting with powdered and sprinkled things. We laughed like kids. And then we ate like kids. We stuffed ourselves. We gorged. At some point Peter stopped but he urged me to keep eating, egged me on, telling me I had to try this one, and this one, and you can’t stop until you’ve eaten one of these.
We stumbled out of that dream world feeling sick but triumphant; we felt like we ourselves had become two giant pastries. We walked and groaned and talked and laughed. We were happy and we talked about being happy. I said that the happiest time in my life was the five years that Stephanie and I lived in Blacksburg, when I had my first full-time teaching job, Ben and Claire were born, and I was beginning to publish poems. I asked him what was the happiest time of his life. And he said, without much hesitation, “Now.”
As wonderful as I like to think I am, I knew that he wasn’t referring specifically to this moment with me, but that he meant “now” as a philosophy -- of living fully, with gratitude, in the present. Which is much easier said than practiced. Peter was the only person I’ve known who actually did it. He had the ability to focus entirely on the moment and person at hand without becoming distracted, without seeming bored, without giving any sign that there was somewhere he’d rather be. When you were talking to him, he made you feel that you were the only person alive, that he was grateful for your presence. He filled the air around you with his compassion, concern, and gentleness.
He was the best listener I’ve ever known, with the possible exception of my dog Belle. Interestingly, he and Belle often had the same suggestion: let’s get something to eat and talk about this some more. Peter listened intently to everything: to what you said, and to what you didn’t say; to the music he loved; to the stories his students wrote as they read them aloud in his office and in class.
In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman says “if you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.” I believe that Peter would say, “if you want me again, listen for me -- in the music of Miles and Mozart and Bird and Trane; in the rhythms of well-made sentences, in the cadences of poetry, in the clear, true voice within yourself.”
“I’m here,” he’ll say, “Listen.”