Assistant Professor of Writing and Literature Jensen Beach is a fashion plate, bon-vivant and author of two short story collections.
What are you obsessed with?
I am obsessed with reading. I’m obsessed with skiing, and I’m obsessed with travel.
Where’s your favorite place to travel?
I really like Montreal. This summer will be the fourth year I’ve taken students to Lisbon for the Disquiet trip. I’ve come to love that country, a whole lot. That’s definitely on my list. I like to go home to California where I’m from. That’s always fun, but I don’t want to live there.
Did the climate bring you to Vermont?
This job, actually. I went to graduate school in New England at UMass Amherst. Afterwards, I moved from there to Illinois, where I taught for three years, and then this job became available. I read the ad. And I thought, “Oh, I would love to go back to New England. I always liked it here. I always liked Vermont, and I would visit a lot when I lived in Massachusetts. The job almost weirdly was a perfect fit for me. It was teaching World Literature, editing and publishing stuff and fiction, and those are like the three things that I’m prepared to teach. Like, “Oh, someone wrote this ad just for me.”
This is a fun one. What would you do for a Klondike bar?
For a Klondike bar? That’s like a commercial, right?
Here’s the boring answer. I don’t eat that kind of thing, so I wouldn’t do anything for it. But, what would I do for a Klondike bar? I would give away one of my children. I have two too many of them.
You have two children?
I have three, and I’d give all of them away. Don’t read that, kids, I love you.
What do you like most about yourself?
I like to make myself laugh. I think I have a sense of humor, and I crack myself up all the time. I like to smile and see the world as a ridiculous, silly and fun place. But I’m also a writer, so there’s a lot I don’t like about myself too.
If you were stranded on a desert island, and you had to bring a book, a movie and something else, what would you bring?
That’s a good question. So, I would probably bring, I think, one of my favorite novels, “the Golden Notebook” by Doris Lessing. I might do that because I think I could read that book many, many times. I just watched a really terrific movie called JoJo Rabbit. It’s really good. I feel like I could watch that a couple times more. In fact, I may do that. And I also really love film “Call Me by Your Name,” which I taught. I taught the book and the film a couple of semesters ago here and had a really good time. I feel like I’ve watched that movie a bunch and it never quite gets old. So, yeah, I would bring a copy of that. What else would I bring? Is there internet on this fictitious island?
I’d bring my laptop, so I could text people and write.
Given that there wasn’t internet, what would you bring?
Oh, gosh. What I would probably bring is a notebook and some pens or something so that I can keep up the practice of writing stories. I don’t think I could go without that.
What would you like on your tombstone?
I used to always say I didn’t want to have a tombstone. I think I want to be cremated and I think I want my ashes to be left in the ocean and in the mountains. Both of which are places that I really enjoy and love and are kind of central to me, but if I did have to have a tombstone… My favorite epigraph is Keats’s epigraph, which says, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” which I’ve always thought was really beautiful. And I think it speaks to transience, or impermanence or something.
If they made a film about you, who would you cast as the lead?
Oh gosh. I have never in my life thought about this. I don’t know who I would cast as the lead. I would probably want my middle son Theo, who is a total ham. Yeah, I’d want him to play me.
What’s your superpower?
I think I’m pretty resilient and hardworking. I think my superpower is that I can always get my kids to laugh, even when they’re doing stupid things, like times when they need to be folding laundry or cleaning their rooms or something.
Would you rather fight 10 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?
Let’s unpack this a little bit. I feel like 10 duck-sized horses would still have, like, chompers, you know? They would have sharp horse teeth, right? Do they have the strength of a horse-sized horse?
Well, they’d have the strength of a duck-sized horse. It’d be proportional.
Don’t forget that horse-sized duck, though. He has teeth, too.
Ducks have teeth?
Yeah, the ducks have teeth.
I think that ducks are really cute and fun, but I feel like one that’s the size of a horse would be really, really scary. 10 duck-sized horses would be ultimately kind of cute.
Still vicious, though.
Right, and you still have to fight them in this scenario. I think I’d go with the duck-sized horses because I feel like I could like kick them or whack them with a tennis racquet.
It’s like t-ball, but with your mortal enemy! Now, if you weren’t a professor, if you weren’t in academia, what would you be doing?
That’s a very good question. I have thought about this question over the years. I really love this job and it’s one of the only jobs I’ve had as an actual adult, like a grown-up person with a family and whatever. I don’t know that I would be very good at doing anything else. I had an office job when I was in my early 20s, and, if there’s a list somewhere in the world of the worst office employees, I might be on that list. I was always getting in trouble and doing stupid things.
I don’t know. I’ve worked as a translator, and I really liked that job. I like that a lot. I obviously like writing, so I might do that. If someone said to me, “You don’t ever have to teach again, you can just write,” that might be appealing. That would be kind of a dream job, although, I don’t know that I would give up teaching even in that case. I probably still want to be in the classroom– I just like it that much.
I don’t know what else! Maybe something that involved travel. I’ve always thought it would be really cool to do travel writing or adventure writing, something [where I’m] experiencing interesting things.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional tennis player.
Were you any good at tennis?
I was. I still am pretty good at tennis, actually.
Wow! Hidden fact about Jensen: a tennis pro!
Everyone in my family plays tennis. My kids don’t. They never really took it up. But my grandfather played tennis and my uncle is a really terrific tennis player, and my mom played. I learned when I was a kid and I’ve always loved tennis. It’s my favorite sport to play.
What is your favorite piece of clothing that you own?
I am pretty pleased with myself for this purchase. When I was recently at home in California for the holidays, I had a free afternoon and I went to the outlets. I went to the Levi’s outlet and I bought a pair of jeans and it turned out that it was buy one get one free, so I bought two pairs of the same jeans. Now I don’t have to watch them very frequently. I’m pretty pleased with that. That might be my favorite currently.
What is one book you think that everyone should read?
I feel like if I don’t say Moby Dick, all my students and former students who read this are going to be really disappointed. That is definitely on my list. There’s so many, you know. I think every book.
Maybe the answer that avoids the tough question, other than saying Moby Dick, is that reading is just so intensely personal, and it’s so close to a person’s heart, and so close to who they are. I think fundamentally that there isn’t one book that anyone can say you have to read. I think there are thousands of books that we should read all the time.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I’ve actually achieved some of what I want my legacy to be here and it also relates to Moby Dick! Semesters ago there was a student here who was writing down things that I said in the classroom and putting them on Twitter. That’s one legacy. And she said something about Moby Dick, and I said something to the effect of, “Oh, stop. That’s the best book you’ve ever effing read.”
And she put that on Twitter. And then it turns out that there’s a game called Dick, which is Cards Against Humanity, but made up entirely of Moby Dick quotes. The game company responded to the student’s tweet, and said, “We think your professor’s a genius, we’d like to give them a copy of this game as a thank you.” They sent me a copy of the game. At the end of the semester, the student came into my office with a copy of the game that the game company had sent to her, and a printout of the tweet that she put on the internet. I think that’s my legacy. I can retire from NVU now. I think I’ve achieved academic greatness.
Maybe on a more serious note, I think I want my legacy to be this. One thing I try to do in my classes is to just kind of invite students into that “larger conversation.” It’s not necessarily about objective quality or about making art that’s going to win us awards. It’s really about the line in the Rilke poem, “You must change your life.” It’s about seeing the world as an artist. I hope that students leaving here, seeing the world in new ways, going out about their lives and getting jobs and continuing to write and to continue make art, remember how fun it was to be in a classroom and tell some jokes and look at great books and read poems and stuff. Yeah, that’s kind of what I want my legacy to be. When I retire, I would like a student to say, even just one, be like, “Yeah, you know, I loved that. That was fun.”