Goodbye and Good Luck, Max Garland

The University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire bids a bittersweet farewell to Professor Max Garland after twenty-five years of dedicated, inspirational teaching. Max was kind enough to grant me an interview with him to speak openly and warmly about his time here and the times to come after.

To ask any man to sum up twenty-five years of his life, to hand-pick the memories worth reliving and to reshape them into words, seems an impossible task, but not for Max. After only a beat of silence to arrange his thoughts into eloquence, he began. “Growing up in rural, western Kentucky was simple and comfortable”, he said. He went to school, he grew up, and he became a mail man. Every day, like his grandfather before him, Max took to the streets of the neighborhood where he had spent his whole life, dropping mail into the boxes lining the sidewalk and writing poetry in his head to scribble into his journals once he had finished his route. Although this job was secure and guaranteed Max a safe, stable future, he couldn’t ignore the fact that it just wasn’t his calling. Eight years before he had full pension, Max quit the post office and went back to school at thirty-years old.

That chapter in Kentucky was his first, it was his foundation. He was encouraged by his teachers to make decisions about his own fate, and that’s ultimately how he became an educator. “If you were given a ladder as a child to achieve your dreams, you owe it to the people who held the bottom rungs while you climbed to pass it on to someone else.” His second chapter was here in Wisconsin, his fellowship at University of Wisconsin – Madison, his year as Poet Laurate in 2013, and his years as our English Literature professor. That chapter wove through his aspirations and he came out at the end the writer he always dreamed of being in Kentucky. The anticipation of his third chapter, the adventures and opportunities rushing at him as he leaves UWEC, he said reminds him of his last mail carry. “On the street where I was born, where my grandfather, father, mother all lived with and before me, I slipped a letter into the final mailbox of my final route and I braced myself for the wild impracticality of becoming a poet.” It took him fifteen years to get back to where he had been as a mail carrier, but undoubtedly it was worth it.

Although the differences between carrying mail in Kentucky and teaching English at a university in Wisconsin are numerous, one in particular shone like a beacon when I spoke with Max. Where his time at the post office was long overdue, his time here at UWEC comes to a close prematurely. Due to Wisconsin government’s recent state of turbulence in the last decade, especially concerning funding for public education, Max is choosing to retire several years early. He solemnly admitted, “I want to continue teaching, but simply can’t bring myself to stay. The university I am leaving is not the university I came to. It has grown and broken and repaired and after all these changes, it simply isn’t the same. Not only do I need to give myself more time to write, but I need to rebuild in Wisconsin the reputation of education that has been torn down.” He hopes to stay, if not in Eau Claire, then surely in Wisconsin, and make the case for accessible education. “Our gift to the world is public education; a concept so radical and wonderful it deserves to be shared, not stolen,” Max said, staying optimistic about the next couple years and the efforts he plans to make.

As we talked about Eau Claire, I saw Max swell with pride. Despite the toll on public education, this city has remained steadfast and grounded in culture and arts, something Max, and all of us, should be proud of. “UWEC is a wonderful place to encounter inspiring students,” Max bragged. “Any one of the students I’ve worked with and gotten to know during my time here could easily become the next Aldo Leopold, Kao Kalia Yang, or John Muir.” His hope is that these students coming in and out of UWEC, and the growing plans for the Confluence Project, will cultivate a “better climate for creativity and a revival of new culture in Eau Claire.”

Even within his classroom, Max worked diligently to nourish new mechanisms of creativity. As a former student of his, twice, I remember how he encouraged us not to think better or harder, but just differently. One of his favorite more creative homework assignments he used to give to his students was asking them, if they had to, to choose a line of literature or poetry to get as a tattoo. He loved hearing the creative, rare, even outlandish, lines his students would come up with, everything from Dante Alighieri to Doctor Seuss. Unable to help myself, I asked him the same question. He told me, “If I had to get a poem tattooed on me, I would be torn between two. The first, a stanza by William Stafford, ‘The swallow heart from wingbeat to wingbeat/ counseling decision, decision:/ thunderous examples. I place my feet/ with care in such a world’. The second, a short poem by Theodore Roethke, ‘A lively understandable spirit/ Once entertained you./ It will come again./ Be still./ Wait./’ I find myself very often coming back to those.”

With his retirement, when he isn’t making waves in the political pool or indulging in the rich culture of our city, Max plans to improve his own writing. Back in Kentucky, when being a poet was only a fantasy, he collected his thoughts into journals. Over the years those journals towered to an astounding height, standing now in an impressive stack as high as his head. “It is long past the time for me go through them. They are filled with unfinished poems and abandoned ideas that I’m ready to throw myself into and hopefully turn into something worth the attention of a reader.” I can say with the utmost confidence, none of us doubt he is capable of that. He will also continue to teach, but in short-term, like community workshops and local readings, similar to what he did as Poet Laurate in 2013. It won’t quite measure up to the quiet, but thriving workshops in the Kate Gill library that he has grown used to, but it will be a chance for him to continue doing what he loves.

As our interview came to a close, I asked Max if he had any parting words for this university, for the friends he has made here, the staff and students to come after he has left, and in true Max Garland fashion he said, “You are what you want to be. You have a choice. Behind every one of these office doors is someone who risked everything to achieve their calling. There are people from all over the world who packed up and left everything familiar, willing to travel anywhere to take any position, to do what they felt they were meant for. And they wound up here, just like me and you.” Max’s bond to Eau Claire and to this university is blindingly bright, and the bond attaches at both ends. The community here at UWEC, and especially within the English department, will be drastically altered by his absence, but it will not be a hole, it will be an impression, a watermark on the pages of UWEC’s history that will never fade. Thank you, Professor Garland, goodbye and good luck.

Authored by: Hannah Reed, Creative Writing Major