Jeff Kass has been a dynamic fixture of the Ann Arbor literary scene for several decades now. He has been a charismatic teacher at Pioneer High, and several of his students have gone on to national reputations as poets and writers. He coordinated the youth programming at the Neutral Zone for many years and still managed to get some books written–poetry, short stories, and a novel. His new book, Teacher/Pizza Guy, lets us know that things got hard enough one winter (2016-17) that, despite his other two jobs, Kass had to work nights delivering pizzas for Cottage Inn.
This might sound like a scenario that leads to a collection of very bitter poems, and Kass doesn’t spare public school bureaucracies or wealthy customers who stiff pizza drivers on their tips. But the book is also filled with affection for troublesome students, his colleagues at Pioneer, and his fellow drivers. Even customers who order pizza at 2 a.m. get some love:
I am fifty years old and exhausted.
I look for meaning in every ice patch on every sidewalk.
I try to hold onto every spark and somehow keep it flickering.
When I head out into the night in my
food steaming in a navy blue bag on my passenger seat,
I need to believe you summoned me and I will arrive.
You need me and I will provide.
It’s funny on first read, but in the end it doesn’t feel ironic.
All these poems tell stories, often in long lines with direct language. Much of the book alternates poems from Kass’s life as a teacher with his moonlighting at Cottage Inn. A sort of elegy for a fellow teacher who died too young is followed by the funny “Making the first milkshake.”
“I don’t take yearbook photos anymore” is the poet’s complaint against his own aging, but it is mostly free of self-pity and ends, “Who says the world needs // visual documentation of my decline?”
My favorites are the love poems, some of which are buried in other, longer poems. These speak of his love for his students and colleagues but also–despite all this fatigue and occasional bitterness–for his family. In “The manager talks about getting engaged” the young boss–Kass’s former student–asks him “Did you do anything special?” The poet doesn’t want to respond, wants to keep this moment his own, but in the end he shares it with his readers:
It was in Santa Cruz
and we were on this bluff and the wind had that kind of chill like somebody
pressing fingernails into the hollow of your back so I gave her my sweatshirt
and she looked at me … and we
could hear … and she started nodding her head and I said
what are you saying yes to?
But I already knew.
Kass reads from Teacher/Pizza Guy at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10.