The award is the highest honor given to a Texas Tech faculty member.
John Poch always assumed he would end up in the STEM fields. He was a good student with a mind for mathematics and an associate degree in physics when he began studying nuclear engineering as an undergraduate. A very profitable future was open to him if he continued down that path, but each day became a little bit harder – not because of the coursework, but rather his waning desire to do it. He preferred to focus on the short stories and poems he was writing in his free time.
A first-generation student, Poch was paying his own way through school, so he had no one to answer to but himself. Realizing he didn't want to spend the rest of his life slogging through a job he hated, no matter how much money he could make, he chose the road far less traveled, so to speak. Poch transferred to a different university and enrolled as an English major, and he's never looked back.
Since then, he's become one of the more prolific poets of his generation, authoring a dozen books and nearly 200 poems published in literary magazines all around the world. He's also received some of the most prestigious honors available, including the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, The Nation/Discovery Prize, the Foley Poetry Prize and the Donald Justice Award, granted to only one person each year.
His prodigious work and national acclaim has now led to another recognition. Poch, a professor in Texas Tech University's Department of English, recently was named a Horn Distinguished Professor, the highest honor given to a Texas Tech faculty member.
What does it mean to you to be named a Horn Professor?
Well, if you look at the list of professors who've been Horn Professors here, to be in that elite group, it means a lot. I was nominated for it, and I was thrilled for my nomination to go forward. I want to be in that group. But in some ways, it's very daunting to say I could be associated with them. I mean, Katharine Hayhoe, who got it along with me, I know her work quite well and she's quite famous, having been to the White House and making movies, and she's internationally known. To come up alongside her for the same award, I mean, that says quite a bit right there. So, I'm extremely honored and looking forward to being able to use this status and the research money to further my writing and further the mission of the university, department and college.
What originally brought you to Texas Tech?
Fresh out of my doctorate, I had a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Colgate University in upstate New York, then I applied and went on the market as people do. I was pretty lucky; I had seven or eight interviews, and I still didn't have a book at the time, which is kind of the gold standard for getting a job in my field: you need to at least have a book. But I had won The Nation Prize; I had publications in Paris Review and a few other really good places. So, I think people felt pretty sure that a book was forthcoming.
I had two job offers, and this was by far the best job offer. We don't have family in Lubbock or anywhere near here, so I thought we'd be here for three or four years. And just like many people who come here from afar, we ended up staying. Texas Tech has treated me so well through the years. I can't say enough about how many opportunities I've had, and it didn't make sense to go anywhere else. Now, I'm definitely here for sure. With this designation as a Horn Professor, I don't think anybody could possibly beat what I've got going on here.
What factors led you to become interested in your area, particularly creative writing?
Well, that's an interesting story. I thought I would be an engineer or something having to do with math and science, because I'm very mathematically minded. I scored 760 out of 800 on the SAT math section when I took it – way higher than I scored on the English. I had an associate degree in physics, and I transferred to Georgia Tech, where I was studying nuclear engineering. But I didn't love it; I kind of lost my interest. For the first time in my life, I made Cs in my classes.
I kind of fancied myself as an artist of some sort, and I was writing short stories and some poems, and then I found out you could study English. I just wanted to read and write, and because I'm a first-generation college student, and I was completely on my own paying my own way, I had freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. And I just thought, "I want to be happy all the time. If I'm miserable at my work five days a week as a nuclear engineer, that doesn't work for me. I want to be happy." And so I switched schools and dove head-first into an English degree at Georgia State University. Then, I had a master's degree of fine arts from the University of Florida and a doctorate from the University of North Texas in Denton. I just fell more and more in love with my field and began publishing. It wasn't something I knew I would do all along, and certainly not entering into college.
What have been your most rewarding experiences at Texas Tech?
Oh, boy, there have been so many. I would say one of the things that really allowed me to open up more than anything was my chance to teach a Study Abroad class. At the Center in Sevilla, I taught an entire fall semester, then I taught an entire spring semester in a different year. It opened my eyes to an international way of thinking. I mean, I had traveled abroad a little bit before, but to be able to take my family, to live abroad, Texas Tech gave me wonderful support to be able to do that.
Then, being able to do a Fulbright and having extra support? I don't think people realize, at many schools you can get a Fulbright maybe on your sabbatical year. Then you really have to sacrifice to make it happen. But Texas Tech really supports Fulbright professors with extra funds to be able to live without penalizing yourself and without sacrificing. In both those cases, I was able to spend a great deal of time in Spain. Now I'm trying to create a Study Abroad program in Italy to do some translation and some work over there. So I think the international experience has been part of it.
Another cool thing about Texas Tech is the graduate program we have here in creative writing. It's just a really strong program. Nationally, people think highly of our doctoral program. At that level, the graduate students quickly become like peers, because they're publishing poems in the best venues; they're winning national prizes; they're publishing books. I have a stack of books here a foot high – these are our students'. It's kind of impressive, and you have to see it to understand it. These are all prize winners, and it's very difficult to publish a book of poems. It's not easy with nationally known presses and nationally known prizes, and these are my students. They challenge me to get to the next level. I feel, in some ways, like I'm in competition with them, because if they write a really good poem for my class, boy, I can't remain satisfied with my own work, right? They even give me ideas about things I might do and think about.
So the international opportunities and the graduate program are two of the rewards. Another is living close to New Mexico and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; we go to Taos quite a bit in the summer. I actually started writing a novel about that area last year. I think, because of COVID-19, I am almost 70,000 words into it. I never thought I'd be able to write a novel; I write short fiction. And it just happened. I think the COVID-19 lockdown really forced – or allowed – me to concentrate on this enterprise. We'll see what happens with it; hopefully, I'll be able to get it to an agent in the early fall.
Who has been the greatest influence on your research and teaching?
That's a tough question, but if there could be only one person, it's easily my wife. My wife is a stay-at-home mom, and she has allowed me an incredible amount of freedom to get work done. Many families with two people working full-time jobs have to share the household duties and other responsibilities. Because my wife does what she does and she's very busy with it, raising our two girls, it frees me up to do a lot of other things. I just don't have to take care of very much around the house. She considers that her vocation and loves doing it. You know, that's our choice; we make that choice together.
Sometimes other people in my field say, "Oh, John, you're so prolific. How do you get so much work done?" Well, you know, I really have to give her credit for freeing me up to do a lot more. I've had residencies abroad where I was able to get work done, and she is happy to let me go for a month, sometimes more than that. Study Abroad classes that I've done have been more like six weeks; I've been gone seven weeks, and she's got to do everything at home, and that's a sacrifice for her. But, when I go away to one of these residences, or when I go away to do a Study Abroad program, I'm working hard and I'm getting a lot of stuff done.
I definitely always try to give my wife credit for freeing me up so much, because what she does, it doesn't quite show, you know? The work in our home, it doesn't show an outcome, like a book of poems that's published and wins a prize or something. She's not getting any prizes for the wonderful meals she's making or the bread she's baking.
What have been some of the most important lessons you've learned along the way?
I've learned to be more of a team player. I think as a poet who works in solitude quite a bit, you have your own ideas about what needs to be done. And, in working within a department, I think, early on, I definitely kind of overstepped my bounds a few times by not consulting with other faculty members about things we should have been doing all together and I was just going to do it myself. In some ways, maybe I unselfishly felt like I was saving them some time, but you kind of learn it's a big team project. So, that's been a big learning lesson for me to try to enable other faculty members around me to succeed. It's not just about me; I need to be gracious and help others out.
I've learned that students are ever changing, and technology's ever changing. The world is just exponentially changing, and we have to kind of roll with it. I had to learn how to teach online. I'm embarrassed to say, and maybe I'm telling too much, but I'm finally on Blackboard. Before, I would just hand everything back and require paper to come in, I'd write on the papers – everything was done through paper. And I don't know if I'll go back to that now, because Blackboard is so easy to grade in, to do things, and that's the way students understand things.
What are the most important lessons you like to pass on to students?
One of the things that was passed along to me that I like to pass on to them is this idea that the university is kind of like a national park. People go to national parks, they drive into the visitor center, they get out and they go in, they see a topographical map of the park, they see the stuffed grizzly bear, they use the restroom, they get some snacks or whatever, and then they leave the park. Maybe they venture out onto a trail a couple hundred yards and look around. I think for a lot of students, that can be like the experience at the university, and what I try to tell them is, if you go a few miles out on a trail, you'll have this national park to yourself, you will be out there alone – you'll be on a mountaintop, at some point; maybe it'll take six miles or eight miles. You get out there and it takes work – it's hard to go that far out, and you have to be prepared and take water and take stuff in case a storm comes up. But the reward? That's what the national park is all about, right?
The university is so much like that. Go to a zoology lecture on ants you see an advertisement for. It might have nothing to do with your field but could change your life – it could open up your mind to something that's going on in the world. We have just so many different fields of study here that can provide you with a way of seeing the world that's new and fresh and might seem to have nothing to do with you, but can open up a new vision for you.
I feel like the field of poetry is very small, and I don't try to convert students to being poets – as a matter of fact, I warn them off of it, because it's really hard to publish and to get a job, but I do want to show them the value of it, the beauty of it and the love I have for it – hopefully it's contagious – and help them to see that all these different fields are a part of our lives, whether we know it or not.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
This award is life changing. The English department is not Harvard or Stanford where there are unlimited resources to be able to do whatever we want – we're a state university. We have some funds to be able to get things done, and over the years I've applied for internal grants and gotten them and done good work with them. But, the possibilities now for me? I don't have to think twice about whether I want to go to a conference or not, or spending my own money on going to multiple conferences. I'm working on translating a young Italian poet right now, and I really need to work with him person to person on the poems. We can only do so much through communicating online, and it'd be so much easier to be there, for him to show me aspects of where he lives and where he comes from, and understanding his culture and being immersed in it. I need to go, and now I can. I don't have to think about it. This Horn Professorship makes that possible, along with dozens of other things I want to do.
I have a minimum of 10 books that are well underway and close to finished, actually. So, I have a lot of work to do. The Horn Professorship is going to make it much easier for me to go forward more boldly, and even help out graduate students and my department however I can.