Book of Dreams

Nonfiction, Profile Piece

Book of Dreams[1]:

A Profile of Dr. Michael Kobre

It seems he’s forgotten our interview.  His office door is closed and locked (and I’d raced up the stairs to be here on time).  I send him an email—“I’m outside your room.  Are you going to be here?”—and conspire to interview someone else.  Then I hear footsteps in the stairwell and, before a crown of white-gray appears, hear a, “Hi Holly.”

            It’s Dr. Kobre, and he’s exactly on time—not one minute late.

            I’ve never had a professor as laid back as Dr. Kobre, which is why I’d worried.  He’s so laid back I’m amazed that he makes it to class on time.  But he’s always on time.  And he’s always prepared.  And his discussions are always en pointe.

            The interview is for a profile I must write for my creative nonfiction course.  I’ve never written a profile—never interviewed anyone, either—so I’m most concerned about a) my comfort level with the interviewee, b) how much the interviewee will share, and c) whether or not the interview will make for an interesting profile.  It’s for these reasons I chose my contemporary literature professor (and director of Queens University’s top-five in the United States-ranking low-residency MFA program), Dr. Michael Kobre.

            Here’s what I know about him before the interview: He cusses while lecturing and reads from coffee-stained notes; he takes his parents’ phone calls in the middle of class (his ring tone is the Batman theme song); he responds to students’ discussion board posts (and he always responds, to everyone) while drinking beer; and he’s bursting with tangential factoids—like, he seems to know something about everything . . . and everything about Bruce Springsteen.

            Kobre is simultaneously successful and freewheeling, as if he stumbled into his achievements accidentally and somehow manages to keep up.  He’s a paradox, and that’s exactly what I want to examine in this interview.

            Now he invites me into his office and asks me to take a seat.  I choose the rocking chair closest to me; he chooses the one opposite.  Rocking chairs seem an odd choice for the low, round table they’re situated at, so of course there’s story to them: They’re gifts from Queens University of Charlotte—the one I’m sitting in to honor his 25 years of employment.  Kobre describes how he’d imagined walking onto stage and smashing the chair into pieces (a fitting rock star analogy for the man who has interjected at least one “mandatory Springsteen quote” into each of our conversations), but is quick to counter with an expression of gratitude for the gift.  “It’s just the irony of it,” he says.  When I ask how he feels about having been at the same place for over 25 years, he admits it’s a difficult thing to accept.  When I ask if he’ll be at Queens ten years from now, he says yes without hesitation.

            The interview begins with my admittance of nerves.  Kobre asks why I’m nervous then says, “Well now I’m a little nervous too.”  And this is typical of his essence: He’s gracious, sometimes to the point of self-deprecation.  I’m not sure I buy the self-deprecation—it seems almost to be a consolation—but I do appreciate it.

            Kobre grew up in a middle-class Jewish enclave of Columbus, Ohio.  His formative years were “quintessential geek,” centered on a love of comic books.  For him, there was nothing more enjoyable—and there is no childhood memory more vivid—than those times he spent alone in his room reading about the adventures of heroes created by visionaries like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  What captured him most were the interwoven narratives—a fantastical universe unfolding before his eyes.  It was a great escape.

            Kobre describes his heritage—Eastern European Jews who came to America in the beginning of the twentieth century and settled in the South—as “two distinct strains of neurosis coming together.”  He elaborates: “My father and Aunt once had an argument about, ‘Is Dulcolax a laxative or a medication?’”  I ask how long arguments like that might last in his family.  “Lifetimes,” he says, his guttural laugh bowling through the sentiment like thunder[2].

            It’s apparent to me early on that if I’m not careful, Kobre will lead the interview.  This seems more a matter of compliance than domination.  I’d prepped him by telling him I didn’t want to write something “safe”—that if it could be found on the Queens University website, it was probably too boring for the interview—and he’d promised he’d “try to be interesting.”  But under his lead, much of the first half of our interview reads like a career path summation.

            Kobre was an “uneven” student.  “If I was interested in something in a class, I did pretty well.  If I wasn’t forget it.  I did nothing.”  What was he interested in?  Theater (I imagine this might surprise his students and colleagues, and when I ask them later, they verify this).  He was voted “Best Actor” in his senior class for his starring role in Julius Caesar.  He still remembers his final speech.  He recites it for me.

            For a while, Kobre was a Psychology major, although he doesn’t know why because he “had no particular interest in it.”  He had dabbled in writing since grade school, but was “not a good” creative writing student.  Although he enjoyed writing, he ultimately chose literature, for his “analytical” mind.  He says, “I knew that I was an okay fiction writer.  Fair.  Nothing great.  But when I would talk about other peoples’ work in class, they would listen.”

            He describes his undergrad years as “iconic.”  He and his best friend walked the streets at night, hitting bars and discussing their endeavors with the opposite sex.  His realization of the seriousness of art crystalized in a moment he recalls with apparent pride: “Towards the end of the semester, [my best friend] wrote his first mature poem.  And he showed it to me—weweresittingonthestepofBakerCenterthestudentunioninAthensOhio—he showed it to me and I said that’s really good.  We got to class that night and when it was his time to have his work, discussed, [the professor] didn’t talk about the work, he just reached across the table and shook his hand.  And it was like, that was kind of like the laying of hands: You are a poet now.”

            I ask if he’s ever had his own moment like that.

            There’s a pause.  “Um . . . not quite.”

            “In a half-ass practical way,” he chose to write a formal scholarly dissertation.  He chose his subject in a  “really half-ass manner,” too: The novelist Walker Percy was one of the most oft-profiled authors of the time.  Still, he got a book out of it.  I ask if he has the book.  He stands and walks to his bookshelves.  I wonder how he knows exactly where this book sits on the shelves and learn that the bookshelves are alphabetized—the entire fourteen-foot expanse of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, packed with books—alphabetized.

            He pulls out a different book about Walker Percy, by a different author, and turns to page 217 to show me a passage in which the author refers to his analysis.  He recalls his chance encounter with this passage: “I was sitting there in the bookstore like shit!  Holy fuck!  Shit!  Look at this!”

            Fives minutes later, he refers to his work ethic as “half-ass.”  This time I must say something: “You keep saying half-ass.  Is that how you see yourself?”

            “Um . . . sure!”  He laughs.  “Some days, a lot of days.”  He laughs more.

            This seems a wall to me.  I prod: “What’s half-ass, though?  I don’t see half-ass.”

            He stutters, literally, over an explanation of his frustration that he can’t write as often or as much as he’d like to—that for him writing well has been a long struggle.  In spite of (or perhaps because of) his awareness that he’s not a “natural” creative writer, he wishes he could spend more time at it.  And he needs time.  He’s  “afflicated with the curse of long forms.”  Of all the literary forms, to him the novel is the greatest.

            When I ask, he admits that novelists are his heroes.  For him, at the peak of literary greatness are Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.  “Those people are all geniuses, and I mean geniuses in the sense of almost being mutants.”

            There!  That’s what I want: some insight into what drives the man with the seemingly haphazard drive.  There seems to be a theme in his thinking.  I’m convinced that he has found a way—whether conscious or unconscious, I’m not sure—to morph into a real life superhero.  I ask if he can draw some line between his favorite writers and his favorite comic book characters.

            He seems to intuit where I’m going.  He doesn’t want to go there with me.  He says, “but let’s get back to what we were talking about.  Where were we?”  Now I’m annoyed that he’s trying to lead my interview.

            “We’re exactly where I want to be,” I say.  I point out that he used the word “mutant” to describe his favorite writers.

            “But that’s just my application of a pop-culture vocabulary—just fun stuff,” he says, his tone bordering on dismissive.

            “Well psychologically-speaking, your subconscious chose that word for a reason.”

            We are clearly at an impasse.  His demeanor has changed, the darkness[3] of his eyes shooting laser beams of “I’m not budging” through his wire-rimmed glasses.  He’s serious, and he’s really not budging.  It’s a side of him I’ve not seen but have wondered at.  In the futility of trying to pin him down to my version of his story, I’d exposed the man behind the humility: This is a sharp-minded man, a decided man, a stubbornly pointed man. This man doesn't half-ass anything.

            What follows is a fifteen-minute lecture on super heroes as metaphor.  He says, “Was that metaphor intentional?  No.  It was just sort of baked into the cake of the characters.”  He closes by saying that the heroism of super heroes is “not the same as the heroism of James Joyce.”  I’m not convinced, until he explicates on the concept of “the super hero with problems.”

            Then Kobre quotes something I’d said to him in a prior email conversation: “I’ve got this tension between duty and freedom.”  He says he read that and thought, “Yes!”  He continues, “It’s just easy to be in that wheel and spinning, spinning, spinning . . . and not be able to get back to the other.”

            I ask if he’ll ever make it a priority to focus more on his writing.  He says it’s always a priority, but “it’s just about what’s possible.”

#

            Although the interview is over, it’s not really over.  We exchange emails daily, me asking questions and him providing responses.  The more he invests in the interview, the more I worry about doing it (him) justice.  I’m not sure I’ll ever finish this profile piece—that I’ll ever be able to get it right.

            I wake up one morning to find Kobre had sent me a Bruce Springsteen song at 1:00 a.m.: “[This] captures the way I feel so much of the time.”

 

            I’ve done my best to live the right way

            I get up every morning and go to work every day

            But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold

            Something I feel so weak I just want to explode

            Explode and tear this whole town apart

            Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart

 

            There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor

            I packed my bags and I’m headed straight into the storm

            Gonna be a twister to blow everything down

            That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground

            Blow away the dreams that tear you apart

            Blow away the dreams that break your heart

 

            This version of “Promised Land” is not the album recording.  It’s a video, of an older, grayer Springsteen, reinterpreting a song that brought him fame in his twenties.  This live, solo acoustic interpretation meanders stark and raw, its depth almost brutal.  I’m reminded of something Kobre said during our interview: “Nothing will make you feel more insecure or more powerless than struggling to write something.”  I listen to the music and envision Kobre at his desk in the last night hours, long after his family has fallen asleep, meditating on Springsteen, sprouting wings, and taking flight.

           

 

[1] Book of Dreams is from Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 album Lucky Town, a soul-searching and largely autobiographical volume that is often cited as one of Springsteen’s least popular works.

[2] Thunder Road is the first song on Springsteen’s Born to Run album.  Although Born to Run made Springsteen a star, it’s not his best work.  The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is arguably Springsteen’s best album, but for some cool, old-bluesy acoustic stuff, Nebraska is where it’s at.

[3] Darkness on the Edge of Night defines Springsteen, even if the studio recording is “stiff.”