CONCEALED WEAPONS PROVE SURPRISINGLY USEFUL IN TEXAS TECH PROFESSOR’S CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOPS
Lubbock, Texas--It’s a Tuesday afternoon in March, and Dr. Curtis Sauer is leading his level one Poetry Writing Workshop on the third floor of the English / Philosophy building. Sunlight washes over the clutter of backpacks, books, and notebooks. He’s gathered the students into a semi circle. The class is working through a poem by junior English major Arlen Kammerer. The students have pointed out lines and images that work, others that don’t, and made some suggestions on word choices and line breaks. Now it’s Dr. Sauer’s turn to summarize the class’s work and add some comments of his own.
Sauer eases into the critique. “I know you’re fond of the verb ‘squirm’ in line four,” he says, glancing over his glasses at Kammerer, “but that’s pretty average compared to the language of the rest of the poem. I’d suggest trying something else there.”
Kammerer suddenly straightens in his chair. “Wait a minute,” he says firmly. “I’m drawing the line on that one. I reckon I’ll be keeping ‘squirm.’”
In less time than it takes to recite “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Sauer reaches inside his jacket, rips his vintage Smith & Wesson .38 Special out of its shoulder holster, wraps one arm around the neck of Kammerer’s girlfriend Cassie Watson, and points the pistol at her temple. A startled Kammerer reaches for his own weapon, but it’s too late.
“Okay, I’ll change it,” he says, adding meekly, “any suggestions?”
Sauer’s voice is steady. “Change it to ‘writhes,’” he commands. And when Kammerer stares blankly, Sauer presses the barrel closer. “Now.”
Kammerer nervously scribbles the change on his manuscript, and Sauer sets the shaken Watson free. Sauer works his way through the rest of Kammerer’s poems without incident.
With the recent passage of a Texas law permitting concealed weapons in Texas university classrooms, professors in the Texas Tech Creative Writing Program are working to turn what might have seemed a crisis into an opportunity. Dr. Sauer, called “one of the best gunslinger poets in America,” by Sam Snead, Chairman of the Creative Writing Program, is a pioneer in that effort. “Nobody works harder at his craft than Dr. Sauer,” Dr. Snead says. “He’s down in the firing range every morning from seven to nine.” Time Sauer once spent poring over poems and preparing lectures on line breaks and image-making is now spent drawing and firing in the underground shooting range beneath the English / Philosophy building. On one recent morning Sauer worked on his quick draw from a seated position, whipping the pistol from his shoulder holster again and again until the movement was smooth, the shots accurate and consistent.
The National Rifle Association was correct, Sauer admits. Even with a roomful of concealed handguns, the wounds have been minor, most of them the result of warning shots ricocheting off classroom walls, and all but a few have been treatable using the classroom first aid kits. Though Sauer himself walks with a slight limp, the result of a disagreement over a line break that was resolved with an exchange involving small-caliber handguns, he remains a staunch advocate of violence, or at least the threat of violence, in the classroom.
“What’s been most gratifying,” Sauer says, “is how quickly and enthusiastically students adapt my revision suggestions. An outbreak like the one you witnessed today,” he continues, “is unusual. Most times if I say this poem should be in iambic pentameter, the student starts scanning immediately. If I say read a sonnet, they read a fucking sonnet. If I say Pound’s Cantos by Thursday they’re ‘setting keel to breakers’ by class’s end.”
Unlike some of his colleagues, Sauer embraced the change in classroom protocol. “I usually try to fire a few warning rounds when I’m introducing the syllabus. Then I’ll graze a particularly contentious student during the first workshop. Nothing serious. I just crease a little flesh—just enough to get my point across.”
It’s little wonder, given Sauer’s pedagogical prowess, that his students are winning prizes and publishing poems at an astonishing rate. Sauer’s teaching evaluations are similarly excellent. He wins accolades even from students he has maimed. Kurt Verlang, a second year student in the PhD in Creative Writing Program, is quick to credit Sauer. Speaking from his room in Memorial Hospital, he is effusive in his praise. “I remember,” he says, “the first time I brought a poem into workshop. Dr. Sauer wanted me to consider a change in form. I mean, he wanted me to recast my long line poem as a prose poem. I said, ‘Over my dead body.’ I was young and cocky. What did I know? In a second, he had his weapon out, pointed straight into my face. ‘That can be arranged,’ he said. I’ll never forget it. We haven’t had a disagreement since. Well, until this week, when I resisted turning a simile into a metaphor and he winged me. But it’s nothing, really.” He holds up his bandaged left arm. “I’ll be back in class on Thursday.”
Sauer readily admits his marksmanship left something to be desired at first. “In the first couple of weeks, I took out a couple of windows, a blackboard, grazed a T.A. But twelve hours a week in the firing range have done wonders.” Such diligence will, Sauer hopes, serve him well in his upcoming tenure review. “I haven’t actually published any poems in a while, but I’ve won several quick draw competitions both locally and nationally.” More telling—and more useful for his tenure prospects—Sauer has not been drawn on in the last four weeks. Sauer goes up for tenure in the fall. Asked about his prospects, he taps his concealed weapon. His lips curl into a thin smile. “Oh,” he says, his eyes shining, “I think we’ll do just fine.”