Agran ponders big money, small town heroes and heaven


Rick Agran and his mother, Ann D. Agran

Rick Agran teaches a variety of courses in the Writing and Literature department, including Introduction to Photojournalism.

What are you proudest of?

In my professional life, one of the things I’m proudest of is having Garrison Keillor read my poems on Writer’s Almanac. That was a big moment for me; he found my poems when I had just published my first book. And all of a sudden, one day I came home, and there were thirty flashes on my answering machine, back in the days when people had answering machines… And it was my publisher saying, “Hey, they’re going to read your poem on the radio today, I hope you get a chance to hear it.” Another was the radio program saying, “We talked to your publisher and she said we could read your poem.”

Do you have a favorite part of your job? If so, what is it?

Really, what I love more than anything, is trying to wake people up to new ideas and new perspectives ,and that can come around new points of view, larger contexts, interesting questions, new ways of looking at things. As an English teacher who grew up during the Vietnam War, I always learned to place a premium on communication, and effective communication. And so part of being an English teacher that I really enjoy is helping make people understand the power of good communication.

What is the strangest thing you believed in as a child?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be twins, because I thought you could be one person, but run both bodies. I didn’t realize how twins really worked; I thought you were basically two of the exact same person, so I could run the other person. I was not interested in being a twin when I found out that the other person was totally autonomous. So there was a rude awakening to believe that you couldn’t run both lives.

What is your all time favorite town/city? Why?

Brookline, New Hampshire. I grew up in Brookline on six acres, with a little brook running through it. And the woods were my constant place to be, and my constant companion. [I] knew all the animals, knew all the plants. My brother and I used to have frog-catching contests down at the brook, and that really went on to inform a lot of the poems I wrote later in life…It was a beautiful place, but also with a lot of pain there. So it was interesting to see both sides of that equation; that a place could be so wonderful, and yet, also that the human relationships in it made it a troubling place to be sometimes.

What is something that amazes you?

I learned a lot about how people bounce back from tough things. And it always amazes me how resilient people are, even though they have their wounds and have their difficulties. It amazes me how much people can be hopeful in the face of adversity, or against big odds.

If you could only keep five possessions, what would they be?

I was trying to think about five possessions, and it just occurred to me that most of my artistic and poetic life have used the five senses. I’ve often taught little kids poetry through sensory awareness, and had them clue into the five senses. People ask that rhetorical question “well, if you had to do without one of them, which one would it be?” And I just think it’s a really tough decision. My most prized possessions would be my five senses, because they keep me alive and alert and awake to the world.

What is your favorite smell?

I love the smell of balsam, and that smell of white pine in a pine grove. The piney smells of the forest are some of my favorite smells. I went to the prairie with my wife and taught in Missouri while she was getting her master’s degree. And we’re out in the middle of the corn fields, not a pine tree in sight. And coming back and smelling that pine smell again was just awesome. I Also love the smell of coffee in the morning; that’s a little joy every day. I grind my own coffee, and the smell of coffee just after it’s ground is pretty awesome.

Do you have a sweet tooth or a savory tooth?

I’m definitely a sugar fiend. I have much more of a sugary tooth. Chocolate and spices. Hot stuff too.

What are you most afraid of?

When I was a little kid, I was most afraid of the Wicked Witch of the West. She totally freaked me out. Now, I would say there are so many forces at play in the world, and Big Money scares me the most. I see Big Money wrecking a lot of stuff. I’m really afraid of Big Money in a really abstract, conceptual way; that it seems to have taken over some moral decisions, and some political decisions, and people’s personal decisions. I’m afraid of it as too much of a focus, too much of culture. So, I don’t know how the Wicked Witch of the West and Big Money go together, but that’s my answer.

If there’s a heaven, what would it be like for you?
I guess if there’s a heaven, I’d probably be re-united with my childhood cat and dog: Marbles and Chipper. They were great pets, and we had a lot of good times romping around in the woods. It’s funny. I think of them before I think of my dad actually. If there’s a heaven, I’m not going to see my dad there. We’ll just leave it at that.

Whom do you most admire?

I really have a variety of different heroes in various realms. I love Mark Doughty; he was one of my poetry professors; he’s definitely a poetry hero. I love Maya Angelou. I think she’s an amazing poetry hero. I grew up with Martin Luther King as a hero; my mom worked in the civil rights movement in the 60’s in Boston… I’d say he was an important hero for me. My mom is sort of a she-hero (shero) for me, in that she always worked for social justice, always tried to empower people who were disempowered, always tried to get them feeling able to use their voices, and be communicative. I think some of my desire for teaching grows out of her desire to see fairness and justice prevail in our society. I love a lot of artists, probably too numerous to mention.

If you could wave a wand and have someone disappear, who would it be?

Wave a wand and have someone disappear? That feels kind of scary. I kind of believe in karma. So a lot of the bastards that I’ve wanted to disappear, I’ve not had to do anything, and they’ve just disappeared. Kind of interesting. If you have a karma orientation, it just sort of takes care of itself.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?

I got married five years ago. The first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning is how lucky I am to be married to Hillary. My sweetie is just amazing, and I never anticipated how cool being married is. I come from a small town that had a lot of trouble in it, my parents had a couple of troubled marriages each, and so I just feel really blessed every morning when I wake up and I’m with my sweetie.

Is the glass half empty or half full?

There’s a painting of an empty glass in the forest, and a tree falling into it, and the branch is filling the top half. And it always struck me as kind of a joke about, y’know, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to notice, is the glass half empty or half full? I always sort of liked that. It’s both.

What do you think about more than anything else?

More than anything else, lately I’ve been thinking about what it’s going to take for humans to get to treat each other more fairly, and to understand each other’s basic humanity better. It seems like the recent violence of authority figures against black folk, the violence that’s going on in war pretty steadily since 9/11,and even the wars before that. We seem more acculturated into solving things through force, and the imposition of will, and less about communicating and helping each other understand what’s going on… Let’s all just get along.

What is your pet peeve?

Hypocrisy. When people are hypocritical it really bugs me. Folks need to be aware of how the big picture works. Hypocrites tend to miss the big picture, and that pisses me off.

When are you happiest?

I’m a Pisces, I love water, I love swimming, I love snorkeling… I am happiest swimming or snorkeling. I love swimming around the bottoms of rivers and in clear water, looking at stuff underwater. I don’t know why that is. I used to hold my breath in the bathtub when I was a little kid, and just see how long I could stay down there. I think that fascination with staying under, and seeing things while you can… the adrenaline of seeing something quickly and then having to leave it and go get some air sort of heightened the tension of exploration.

What is your favorite music?

Favorite music is a tough one because I was a DJ for about 7 years, and I loved all kinds of music, so people would ask me to do their shows when they needed a substitute. I got to learn all kinds of bizarre and interesting music at the college radio station [that] had I not been in that environment, I never would have come into contact with.

Was there music that you didn’t like?

My mom always used to chase my brother and me out of the house on Saturday with opera. She didn’t want us hanging around on Saturdays. She wanted the house to herself. She’d throw on some opera about 10 in the morning, and my brother and I would just get up, and get the hell out of there. Country and western I never took that big a shine to. And I don’t like misogynist hip-hop. I like playful hip-hop, but I don’t like misogynist rap.

You’re on death row. What do you request as a last meal?

God, I hope I never am on Death Row, but if so, I’d probably like a boiled lobster and some fresh sweet corn. If I’m going to die, that’s the way to go. Butter… lots of butter.