Alumni Spotlight: Jack Litewka '69

September 09, 2014

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Jack Litewka '69 finds it "difficult to write a short bio. (It was Mark Twain who said something like "I would have written a shorter book if I had had more time.") I have had a non-linear work-life..., so I won't attempt to summarize my 9-page master resume. I live in Berkeley, California. I'm working on a long series of poems and writing a book on management techniques in matrixed corporations. I do regular grandparental duties. I'm a 3-cushion billiards aficionada. I play full-court basketball three times a week. I'm an inveterate politico. I watch lots of films. I'm old enough to have lived through the deaths of friends younger and older than I am. I cringe at the state of U.S. politics and at the state of the world. I count my blessings. (The photo, at right, shows me in the foreground and two of my classmates in the background. In the background at left is Bob Nero, who died about 12 years ago. In the background at right is Hugh Seidman, a poet still residing in New York city. The photo was taken in Central Park.)"

Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

Adrienne Rich and Stanley Kunitz—who were my teachers in the Poetry program. Neither was a narcissistic personality. They read poems closely, carefully... and had great tolerance for many varieties of poems. And they cared about poetry as an actor in the world—not just about their poetry. My peers were, almost uniformly, very interesting and wonderful people who added enormously to the experience. I'm still in touch with a few of them—in some cases after decades of not being in touch.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

It was a great privilege and luxury to have 2 years to devote myself to reading and writing poetry... without having to write academic English-department-like essays. From my two teachers and my peers, I was exposed to poets whose work I hadn't read (and in some cases didn't even know about). It's difficult to name and assess the large and small ways in which the MFA program affected my writing... but I did become a better reader and poet as a result. As for career—it had no effect. In 1969 teaching jobs were scarce; and because English departments everywhere, which were at that time largely bastions of white male professors, trying hard to hire women and minorities. I was all for that: it was the right thing to be happening... though it was not a great time for a while male to be looking for an academic position. (E.g., when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, I believe there was one tenured woman and about 80 tenured males. Today I believe the English faculty is, roughly, 50% women and minorities—and that is as it should be.) I had to make a living outside the poetry establishments within universities. Ergo, my "career" was not as an artist—though my language sensitivities were useful because they made me more influential in almost all the positions that I held in various businesses.

What were the most pressing social/political issues on the minds of the students when you were here?

Vietnam war. Civil Rights. What else is new?

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

A student strike closed down Columbia University during the Spring of 1968. Adrienne Rich asked us whether we wanted to stop meeting during the strike. The student-poets agreed unanimously to not hold class. Adrienne then offered to have informal gatherings at her home on Central Park West. We all thought that was a nice idea... even before we knew that wine and cheese would be added to our curriculum.

Read more from the Alumni Spotlight series