“Rock Rock Rock Rock and Roll High School”

“My life could have turned out differently, but it didn’t.”

                  –Jim Harrison

“I live with my contradictions intact”

         –David Ignatow

“I’ve got to lose this skin I’m imprisoned in”

                  –The Clash 

“Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by”

                  –Robert Johnson

It is easy to trace the twisted path which led me to where I am; however, it is a bit more difficult to see where I am going next. 

An obnoxious student asked me last week, in regards to this assignment, what my “rock” was. In my usual evasive fashion, I responded, “You are” meaning all of them, my students were my rock. However, even though I enjoy teaching most of the time, when I think of why I do what I do, or rather who I am, I don’t think about teaching. I have several roles I have taken on over the years: husband, father, friend, teacher, student, doctoral student, writer, poet, fool. I don’t think I am a Prufrock, yet, sometimes I feel as if I am no more than a sad man walking along the beach with my trousers rolled. Having a meaning or purpose, it is often said, leads to a happy (ier) life. With that in mind I guess, I would say that teaching gives me some of my purpose, and poetry gives it meaning, or helps me to create a meaning, to create sense out of chaotic universe.

Recently a friend wrote that she had a hard time calling herself a writer, even though I know she writes and writes well. A few years ago, a woman at the first meeting of a poetry group said she did not feel as if she could call herself a poet. I had just said as part of my introduction of myself that I had considered myself a poet since I was fifteen.  She seemed shocked that I would have the audacity to call myself a poet.  This inability to call oneself what one does came up again in another conversation between teachers. One man said that it felt somehow pretentious to call oneself a poet or a writer.  I asked the group how was it any more pretentious to say you were a poet than to say you were a teacher. To me it seemed more pretentious to lay claim to that title, to say, “I am a teacher.” I mean Jesus was a teacher. Who the hell am I? But I have over time become used to being called arrogant, so I guess that is why I have an easy time saying:  I am both: a teacher and a poet.  I don’t claim to be very good at either one, but I am both. Charles Bernstein said that if one says it is a poem, then it is a poem. No claims to quality, but it is a poem.  I am a poet.  I sit down with the intention of writing a poem.  I think about each line, the rhythm, the sounds of the words in relation to the other words, the phrasing, where I can cut and reduce, where something else needs to be added. I use poetry as a way of making sense of myself and the world I find myself in. As I have said elsewhere, poetry (both reading and writing it) helps keep the horrors of the world away and a way to find beauty everywhere and in everyone. I have consciously written poetry since I was fifteen; with luck, I will continue to do so the rest of my life. I am a poet.

Of course, I am also a teacher. If some magical seer had appeared to me when I was a 17-year-old senior, and told me that I would be a teacher for more than 30 years, I would have laughed out loud just before dying in horror. Yet, here I am working at one of the best high schools in Texas as the senior APLit teacher. Sartre famously wrote about a waiter at a Parisian café. The waiter, according to Sartre, is only a waiter when he is performing as a waiter. So, following that train of thought, I am only a teacher when I am at work talking to my students. I rarely think about being a teacher. It is still, after more than 30 years, difficult to think about me being a teacher.  I suppose my life as a teacher would be inauthentic since I don’t think about why I do this beyond making enough to feed my children, pay the mortgage, and send them off to college. Yet, in some small way I like to believe that what I do matters, even though I know it probably doesn’t. 

Maya Angelou said you remember how people made you feel, not what you learned. I think that is why when my former students run into me at HEB, or they come back to visit, they remember my class fondly. A few weeks ago, I was having a beer with a friend when I man in his thirties approached and asked if I was Mr. Neal, as if he were a process server for some lawsuit. It was odd to say the least. When I answered yes, he told me that he had been in my class when he was an eighth-grade student at Pflugerville Middle School. He said he heard my voice, and knew it was me. He remembered “The Road Not Taken.” (I used to have my students memorize poems). He said the first few lines. He said that had been his best English class, which I found embarrassing and kind of sad—his best English class was as an eighth grader. 

I am not retelling this event as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but to show how one’s self-identity is often much different than how the world sees you.  I am always uncomfortable when people try to define me to me. I find their descriptions to be too pat, too much mired in the cliché, too many wrong associations. I am a teacher, and I feel in some small way I am helping create a better world with my students; yet, I never really know what it is I am doing. 

In a faculty meeting, several times, I have stated I don’t have any idea what my students are taking away from my class. In an age of standardized testing, to say I don’t know what my students learn in my class is tantamount to heresy. I don’t mean I don’t know what it is I am doing in class; I just don’t know what it is they are learning. And I certainly don’t see them as the number they receive on standardize tests.  I have had students tell me years after being in my class what they remember. It is always surprising to me what they found valuable, because it is never really what the objectives were in the class. 

When people ask what it is I teach, they mean what books are we reading. They seem confused when I talk about my students. My students are what (who) I teach. Books, poems, essays, are just the ephemera of my class. The tools that are employed in the teaching. About 15 years ago, I would respond glibly to my fellow teachers when I was asked what I was teaching that six weeks with “Nothing.” My students read what they wanted to read, and for the most part wrote what they wanted to write. I ran my class as a reading/writing workshop. The district where I worked claimed that ELA did workshop k-12, yet I was the only teacher in my high school who did. So it often took several weeks to teach the students how to read on their own, to have the stamina to read for 20 minutes without interruption. So, one day after the students were fairly proficient at the process, I was sitting on the floor in the doorway to my class. I was monitoring the students who read in the hall, and the ones who stayed in my classroom. A history teacher walked by and said snarkily, “I wish I could not teach, and sit around all day and just read.” My students were on the verge of rising up against her, when I mumbled (they had learned to understand my mumbling at that point as well)—I mumbled in response to her, “One would have to know how to read first.’ She walked on, not hearing what it was I had said, and the students laughed as they settled back into their books. I developed a reputation with the faculty pretty much as a smart-ass. Not that they were wrong, but I interpreted what they saw as smart-assness, as more of a way not to scream expletives at them. I refused to accept their definition of what it meant to be a teacher. I created my own definition. Even if some of that definition was simply a defiant rebellion against my fellow teachers.

I do think a lot about what I am doing both as a teacher and writer. So, I imagine I am attempting to be authentic in what I am doing. I question whether my praxis (my beliefs correspond with my actions) is authentic..not just me going with the flow because that is the easy way to go about life. As I said earlier, I am never sure if what I do is effective or worth doing at all. I will fluctuate between thinking I am a decent teacher, or writer, to thinking I am a fraud, fooling everyone, even myself. 

And that is the point I think of life: to try to be brutally honest with oneself, to never settle back and assume you know what it is all about, because one can never know. Which is not to say that we should not try to understand our lives, we should always be trying, even if we know we shall never know. Embrace the vast absurdity of the universe with a passionate intensity, not matter how pointless. It is the process and the awareness of the life you are living that makes the life have meaning and be worth living.

A Haiku a day for a Month

A little more than a month ago, one of my work mates proposed that she, a math teacher, and myself write a haiku a day for a month. After 37 haikus (I wrote more than one some days), I am going to stop the exercise. I think that my fellow English teacher proposed the undertaking in order to make her write everyday. I do this already, so it did not motivate me to write. I did find it a calming activity most days: a time to stop and think about what was in front of me either physically, mentally, or spiritually. However, it also deflected my attention away from other poems I had been working on. Usually I post about 15 or so poems a month (sometimes even pushing to 20). In October, because of the haiku event, I posted 38 new poems. I like haiku, and like writing them. Usually I make up parameters for my writing in an arbitrary and random manner. During the exercise, I used the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, although I have in the past ignored that stricture focusing more on the brief flash of attention than on a numbers game. Figuring the syllable count is more of a guideline than a law. I don’t plan on giving haiku up; I’m just not going to sit down each day to write one. I have always written in small snatches of time, never having the leisure to write for extended lengths during the day. So, haiku, and imagism, lend themselves well to going from start to finish in the brief time I have to write. However, I also like spending time in my head as I go through the day, thinking about a longer piece. Therefore, as I stated at the beginning of this ramble, I am going to end my participation in the project. Thanks to all of you who read and liked the work I have posted over the last month.

(October 31, 2019)

My 30th Year of Teaching


(part one)

I never wanted to be a teacher. Yet, I am about to start my 30thyear teaching in public schools in Texas. I have worked in four middle schools and three high schools, taught 7ththrough 12thgrade, taught newspaper, yearbook, English 7th-12thgrade, pre-AP English (8th-10th), Gifted and Talented middle school English, Advanced Placement Language and Composition, Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, Dual Credit English through Austin Community College, and The University of Texas at Austin. I even taught a German class for a semester. This year I will be teaching four sections of Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, and for the first time a creative writing class, as well as a film studies class, also for the first time. With an average of 150 students a year, I will have had contact with 4,500 students in my classrooms. My first students, 7thgraders in Beeville, Texas are turning 43 years old this year. It is possible that their 13-year-old children could have been in my class at one point in the last decade.

Over time I have come to like teaching, although every year I think about quitting and doing something else, but am never sure what it would be that I could do.  Every few years for the last 30, I start to think I am pretty good at what I do, then something happens to make me realize that perhaps I am not as good as I think. Teaching is a humbling profession.

As a high school student I would have scoffed at the idea of becoming a teacher. The last thing I wanted was to return to school after graduating. Now I feel at home the most when I am in a classroom, either as a student or as a teacher. I left high school to become a journalist, but a professors advice to find the victim’s mother to get a good quote, drove me that same day to change my major to English. I like to write, although my first English advisor told me cynically and accurately, “One does not necessarily learn to write in English.”

Right out of college I worked as a baker at a local bakery in Austin, Texas French Bread. It was only for a few years that I worked there, but it still holds some of my fondest memories. One morning  (4am) on the way to work, as I waited on the stop light to change, I thought I should do something with my English degree. When my shift ended at noon, I walked over to UT and found out what I needed to do to become certified to teach in Texas.  A bit more than thirty years later, that quick, almost whimsical decision at a stop light led me to where I am now, teaching at an all girl public high school in Austin, Texas— and my life’s work.


(My plan is to write about my life as a teacher over the course of this school year. Topics will be determined pretty much in the same manner I decided to teach—through chance and whimsy).

Art Opening

Austin, Texas: circa 1980
We were at an art opening, somewhere downtown near the warehouses where small machine parts were stored, before the buildings were turned into fashionable bars for the newly minted college graduates looking for places to spend their first independent incomes in one of the spasms of gentrification Austin has endured for the last 40 years. But that was yet to come. It was an old building, bare walls, no heating, or air-conditioning. The owner probably rented out the space cheap for the length of the show. Bits of cheese on crackers, tortilla chips and salsa were available to carry about on small paper plates. Generic jugs of red and white wine were scattered about the table, as well as a galvanized tub filled with the ubiquitous Shiner Bock. Blondie, The Police, or some other cross over “punk” played on a home stereo someone had set up in the corner. The artists were local college art professors trying to seem relevant to the to the gaggle of students who were there for the free beer and wine, before heading out to their own parties with live local bands. I wandered the room pretending to look at the art on the walls. The prices were too high for my part-time job and rent. Most were abstract, with a few figurative pieces trying to have an exotic southwestern feel to them. But even at 20 they felt forced and derivative.  I thought about the painting by Fantin-Latour, Un Coin De Table, where Verlaine and Rimbaud were sitting at a table with contemporary Parisian artists. The story went that one artist refused to be in the same painting as that nasty boy (Rimbaud). So where he sat the artist put a vase of flowers.  I wondered what Rimbaud would think about the conversations the students and professors were having, the fawning praise, the studiously ironic responses. I felt callow, and slightly embarrassed. I left quickly, saying I was going out for a smoke, and went home for the night to write.

(August 11, 2017)

Growing Up with David Bowie

David Bowie meant a lot to me as a teenage boy growing up in South Texas. He was cool, but not by any means the stereotype model of a male I was offered in Victoria. I was an introverted bookish boy who liked to write. Sports and, the measure of a man in my high school, football, held no interest at all for me.  I was accused of being gay, because I liked Bowie, wore Bowie t-shirts, had Ziggy written across the back of my school class shirt. Plastered on my bedroom wall was a full size poster for the Man Who Fell to Earth a friend had given me one year. Bowie’s androgyny was what I wanted, not the testosterone driven cowboys of my hometown. Bowie made it all right to be different. To not follow the norm. I listened to Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust repeatedly when my sister brought them home from college one summer when I was still in middle school. The first album I ever bought with the first check I ever wrote from my first bank account with the money from my first job flipping burgers at Wendy’s was David Live. It took two and a half hours of work then to pay for the double live album. I soon had all of the rest of his recordings. I was lucky enough to see him perform three times: on my 18thbirthday in Houston during the Heroes/Low tour, in Dallas for Serious Moonlight, and finally in Austin for Glass Spiders. I have only been affected by the death of a celebrity the way I am today once, and that was when John Lennon died. Patti Smith will be the same, may she live forever. However, Bowie and his music helped me early on to define my identity, and with his passing I realize that those early efforts of mine to become me would not have occurred as easily if it were not for David Bowie.  On the long commute to work this morning I listened to the entire Diamond Dogs album. In Rock and Roll With Me, Bowie wrote: “I found a door which lets me out.” I found a door to myself through David Bowie.

On Writing: a reflection during a Heart of Texas Writing Project Advanced Institute

The difficulty with writing is that you must sit down and write. There are so many other things to do with your life besides write: shop for dinner, watch TV, wash the dog, change the cat box. All things which must be done, and do not require you to think about yourself. When you write, you must think about what you are writing. Word by word. You must sort out the jumble in your head and write something down. It is all very linear.  As soon as you write something, then thirty other possibilities open up.
Like now for instance, I read recently how in quantum physics (or mechanics), at any given moment there are millions of possibilities that could happen in any number of infinite combinations, but only one of those events will happen in the space/time in which you are a part. It’s called the singularity. It is as if, I imagine, you came to the fork in Frost’s poem and as soon as you stepped down one of the paths, the other vanished, if not physically, then ceased to exist as a metaphorical possibility.
Now to put this back on the trail I started down earlier, as each sentence comes to its moment of singularity, it opens up whole new infinite sets of numbers of directions to depart from.  As soon as one singularity is reached, it vanishes and the writer is confronted with the next choice. This becomes even more complex, as I go back and re-read what I have written. Unlike and like the moment of collapse into a singularity in physics where the infinite other space/times disappear, in writing one can always go back and try a different universe without a sigh of regret. All the other possible universes can still be accessed through the power of revision. But of course as soon as you change one thing, then the story you were on vanishes as another emerges.
A couple of weeks ago I ran across a writing exercise, at UTTpoetry, that was intriguing enough that I tried it. I was given two sentences from a 19th century novel completely unknown to me. I had never heard of the book, never heard of the writer. In the novel, the two sentences appeared one after the other.  The writing task was to insert my own sentence between the two given sentences, maintaining whatever narrative flow I saw between the two. Once that step was accomplished, I had to insert another sentence between the first and now new second sentence, and then another between the new second sentence and the third sentence, which was formerly the second sentence. The third step was to repeat this process, inserting two new sentences between each of the sentences in the text. Then again, and again, until I had 17 sentences total.
What was interesting, at least to me, was how the narrative grew and became transformed with each new set of insertions. With the first round, I was pretty pleased, I had made a simple connection between the two sentences which changed what I had at first thought of as the meaning. This transformation continued with each new set of sentences. By the end the narrative which was there on the page, resembled very little, except for the first and last sentence, what I had been given at the start.  
It was amazing to me, not only how the story I imagined from the given sentences had diverged so farby the end of the exercise, but how each time a sentence was added it changed the meaning, the original intent vanished, and was replaced by new opportunities, and this constant state of flux was caused simply by the choice of direction I decided to take as I wrote a new middle sentence between each of the sentences.

Which brings me back to the beginning, what makes writing so difficult: there is never a set direction to take, as soon as one choice is made a million other possibilities collapse, while at the same time opening up a million more. The writer is always at the point of singularity by herself, possibly even embodying the point of singularity in herself, as she writes. The writer is both an opening and a closure. A door, an empty space between possibility.
(July 29, 2015)

What I Like About Writing

What I like about writing, either poetry or the essay, is that I don’t have to make sense. The writing makes sense on its own. The writing begins to make sense as I write, more as an impressionistic whole, a tone, a leit-motif if you will, which takes over the poem, or the essay. I remember watching a program on PBS about birth. When the millions of sperm finally end their race to the egg, as soon as one sperm comes in contact with the egg, the egg is transformed into an impenetrable barrier that all the loser sperm cannot breach. I see the same transformation happen as I write. I have one sentence down, which makes me think of another, and that second sentence then collapses all the other possible pathways the first sentence could have engendered, while simultaneously opening a myriad of new rabbit holes down which I can fall. Writing like this is exciting. As I progress, re-reading as I go, or rather as I become lost, I start to see that I am not lost. One can never be lost if one does not know where one is going, I guess.  There is not a straight linear progress, but it still has a form, more like the orgasmic organic transformations of the earth as the tectonic plates grind into one another, where the musings, thoughts of the writer reflexively bend back and out, an Escher-like reflowing; connections made where none were seen, imagistic moves, themed turns, poetic leaps down the trail of thought: Art. 

A Year of Postings

On February 1, 2013 I decided I would try to post something on this blog everyday. I thought I would fail, because finding time to write has always been problematic.  I figured I could supplement new poems and musings with older poems, after all I have been consciously writing poetry since I was 15. Luckily I do not have much writing still extant prior to the age of 22.
            With this post I am making my goal a reality. I have posted 492 times since this time last year. Not only did I post at least once every day since last year, I sometimes managed to post multiple times in one day. The self-imposed quota has made me do what pretty much all advice to writers from writers boils down to: write every day. Many days I posted something from one of my longer projects from the past: “My Book of Changes”, “If This is A Comedy, Why Ain’t I Laughing”, “Primogenitive Folly,” “115 Missing Days, or “Sonnet, a Renga.” But the majority of the time what I posted were new poems. Even when I posted one of my older works, I still wrote everyday.
            I make no claims to the quality of my poems. But as Charles Bernstein wrote, if you call something a poem, then it is a poem. It might be a bad poem, but it is still a poem. I think I am writing some of the best poetry I have ever written. Yes, that is an arrogant statement, and easily mocked. I don’t have a problem with that; I write poetry.  I like what I write. I want others to read it. Like it, don’t like it; get it, don’t get it: It doesn’t change what I write or think about. I put thought and conscious effort into each poem. I try to write with skill and craft in each line I lay onto the page. I enjoy the hurdles of self-imposed structures, coupled with random chance and whim.
            Ultimately, writing everyday has given me a space to think about the world and my place within the life I have managed to carve out. It has made me more attentive to my thoughts and normally roiling emotions. If nothing else, this has been a positive influence, forcing me to examine the vicissitudes of my condition with a more contemplative eye.
            I will continue to post as I write. I am currently working on a project with my sister Donna Neal, the visual artist, based upon the tarot pack. So, the poems should still come on a fairly regular basis for a while. I am not going to worry too much if I miss a day or two along the way however.  I hope some of you have enjoyed the flood over the last year, and will continue to read what I write.

(January 31, 2014)


it’s always and never just about dying
to write out the life I find myself in
as if by happenstance I arrived here
rather than a chain of simple choices
and long obsessions which dragged me along
unwittingly devoid of any will
beyond the briefest yes and no response
to uninspired trivial decisions
come work at Wendy’s the bakery this school
I did and there I was and here I am
adrift like a leaf upon a slow creek
hung up momentarily on a root
or twirled backwards into my own eddies
lost in my handwriting upon this page
(September 23, 2013)