Author and A2 Pioneer Instructor Jeff Kass Contemplates the Working Life in "Teacher/Pizza Guy"
What do you do?
It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.
When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).
Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:
…were you trying to paint the sea? A place
for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring
friend who brings you cookies and iced tea
and listens to you without judging…?
This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.
Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”
Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.
Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius,
will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.
Q: Tell us about your path to becoming a writer and teacher, starting with how you first became interested in writing.
A: I’ve loved to write ever since I was a little kid. I believe my first publication was a self-illustrated chapbook in first grade, called War. It included insights such as “War is bad. People can get killed in war.” I continue to stand behind those sentiments. I was an English major in college (Yale University) with a concentration in creative writing, and I wrote my first (unpublished, fortunately) novel as an undergraduate. It was a thriller called Hooks, about a female serial killer. After earning a Master’s in Journalism (Columbia University) and working in sports talk radio during its incipience in the early '90s, I decided to go into teaching after I was fired from a truly awful station in Southern California (KMEN Sports Radio), where I was castigated for having too much of an “East Coast” persona on-air, and deemed through (pre-social media) fax machine-feedback a “pinko communist fag” because I supported the national championship-winning women’s basketball coach at USC (Marianne Stanley) in her quest for equal compensation with the school’s middling men’s basketball coach.
Becoming a teacher was, in fact, a kind of trash-talk-esque endeavor. I’d long held friendly arguments with my teacher/mother about educational issues, and after running my mouth so extensively, and after moving up to the Bay Area to join my then-fiancée who was the crew coach at Mills College in Oakland, I figured I had to back up my opinions with some action. I quickly learned that teaching relied on many of the same skills as talk radio -- managing the “on-air” clock, entertaining the audience, and coming up with interesting topics to discuss. Because I found joy in all those things, I was a pretty good teacher from the jump and actually earned recognition as Northern California’s New Teacher of the Year.
However, the very next year, I decided to radically alter my teaching style. I did so because I attended the first-ever San Francisco Youth Poetry Slam, produced by my brother James Kass and his start-up non-profit organization, Youth Speaks. What I witnessed at that poetry slam changed my life. While I’d considered my students generally engaged my previous year of teaching, I’d never seen their level of commitment to language and literature approach the passion I saw in the youth poets that night. I revamped my curriculum to bring slam poetry both into my sophomore English classes and creative writing classes, urging students to write frequently about the issues in their own lives and the world around them, and then bring those poems into the public sphere through performance.
Of course, I was asking them to do something really scary, so, in order to get buy-in from them, I started writing poems myself and competing in the adult San Francisco Poetry Slam just to show them that if a nerd like me could give it a try, then surely a bunch of them could, too. I’ve more or less continued teaching and writing poems, and encouraging youth to perform them, for a quarter-century. I learned the craft of poetry through the poetry slam world, absorbing the art of incredible writers like Patricia Smith, Regie Gibson, and Kevin Coval. I’m most proud of my work helping my brother to build the national youth-spoken-word movement, which has helped foster the talents of today’s emerging literary superstars: Danez Smith, Nate Marshall, Angel Nafis, Franny Choi, and so many more. For me, the journey has been one of marrying teaching young people how to write with creating opportunities for them to present that writing to the public and my own growth as a writer and person. What makes this book so painful is that on some level it’s a public admission of failure. While I know I’ve done good, sometimes even ground-breaking work as a teacher and pioneer in the organization of the youth-spoken-word movement, and I’ve been moderately successful in terms of publishing and commendations of my own writing, I nonetheless came to a point at age 50 where I had to take an additional job delivering pizza in order to support my family.
Q: Why pizza among all the possible service industry jobs for your third job?
A: I love pizza. I also had too many speeding tickets at the time -- mostly from rushing my son to hockey practice -- so I was disqualified to drive Lyft or Uber, which is what I do now for additional income. I honestly did not have the creative energy after a day of teaching to try and do something like tutoring, or consulting on college essays, or freelance technical writing, not if I somehow wanted to keep writing myself. I also wanted a job where I could work nights so I could still spend afternoons with my family. Delivering pizza ended up being what could somehow be woven into my already crazy schedule.
Q: Your poems juxtapose teaching and delivering pizzas, such as interactions with students and the care that employees put into fulfilling pizza orders accurately, like in the lines, “…we ache / to make at least one choice you made today work / out the exact way you want it to,” in the poem, “The crime.” Furthermore, the description on the back of your book says that “…ideas for these poems were initially scribbled onto the backs of pizza receipts or scratched out during precious free moments amidst the chaos of the school day.” Did you write these while working your three jobs in 2016-17, after that year, or a combination of both?
A: I pretty much wrote them throughout that insane time in my life and edited them the following year while I was trying to put a manuscript together. I’ve long been a kind of an in-the-moment writer, especially in regard to poetry. Formulating poems in response to lived experiences or whatever else is happening in the world at any given time, is the way I reflect and learn how to grow as a person. Being open to trying to find understanding in what happens around me has made me a much more interesting and happier adult, someone who attempts, as I urge my students to do as well, to “slow down the world and take a second look, and a third….”
Q: Your jobs both inform and relate to your writing, with pizza delivery as a source of inspiration for Teacher/Pizza Guy and with teaching students to write as a counterpart to your writing. Do you feel like your jobs distract from or complement your writing? Or both? Describe your writing process.
A: Both jobs help me navigate and process the world through my writing. I am most alive when I am paying attention to the happenings around me, thinking about them, looking for humor, pathos, and irony in them, living in a way where I continue to grow, learn and evolve. I hope to be like the great poet Stanley Kunitz who wrote so very late in his life, “I am not done with my changes.”
I will say that this past school year, 2018-2019, was my first since moving to Michigan in 1998 where -- if you don’t count writing on the side -- teaching was my only job. While not having an additional job -- I was still waiting for enough speeding tickets to fall off my driving record so I could start driving Lyft -- caused my family significant financial distress, it did allow me to do two important things: 1) spend additional time with my daughter during her last year of high school, and 2) teach with a lot more energy, creativity and, most importantly, compassion. When not being totally exhausted throughout every school day, I found that I had a lot more patience and empathy to devote to my students, and thus, I was a much better teacher last year than I was during the pizza-year, that’s for sure.
In terms of my writing process, I do see writing as a kind of archaeological act. It’s about observing, digging, uncovering. I often have an idea for a poem, essay, story or plot-point in a novel, and I’ll let it kick around in my head for a few days before I start typing, let it percolate. Then once I hit the keyboard, I’m off running. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to be able to utilize the 10-15 minutes writing time I give students in class to write my own pieces, to get going right away without screwing around on the internet, for instance. I love getting into the flow of conjuring language on the page and while I almost never have a four-hour block of time or anything close to it, I’ve found I can crank out some pretty solid stuff in a short, intense amount of time. I am also a serial reviser. If I can’t get going on anything fresh, I revisit poems or prose in progress and edit. Pretty much any writing I present to the public, whether at an open mic or in a publication, has been revised 20-30 times.
Q: Your poems are autobiographical, and so the speaker in the poem appears to be you. Do you identify as the speaker? How did you develop this style of writing poetry?
A: I generally do identify as the speaker. Poems have always been about true, lived experiences for me. Prose is where I create fictional moments. I think that’s because I do come out of the slam world and also because as a teacher, it’s long been my goal to persuade my students to believe that their stories matter, that their ordinary lives are extraordinary and worth reading, writing, thinking, and talking about. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t believe that about my own. Of course, part of what this book is trying to do is give voice not only to my own challenges, but to the struggles of all teachers who have to work second and third jobs, to try and shed light on what that means for our educational system when you have exhausted teachers dragging themselves through what’s already an intense school day. There are zero moments as a teacher where you can fail to try and give your best effort. The 30-plus teenagers in front of you need you, rely on you, and have absolutely no patience for your mailing it in. Nor should they. Educating the next generation of citizens is a public trust and if we don’t do it the best of our abilities, the entire of our society suffers. That kind of responsibility feels monstrous at 7:45 am after working until 5 am the night before.
Q: These poems highlight issues with minimum wage and service industry jobs that rely on tips. They tell personal stories of being shorted on tips when delivering pizzas. Lines such as, “A university professor earlier tipped five dollars / on a ninety-seven-dollar bill,” (in the poem, “The manager talks about getting engaged”) exposes how a small tip means that a person doesn’t get paid adequately. What prompted you to include these challenges around making a living in your poems?
A: It's a tragedy how little current American culture values its public educators. I know I do good work, that I can make kids who claim not to like reading or writing care passionately about both those things. Our current political leaders -- on both sides of the aisle -- do not understand what happens in classrooms or what today’s challenges demand. The mental health of our students is at crisis levels. To start, we care way too much about standardized tests, and we give way too much homework. Teachers should not have to apologize for wanting to be paid in a way that allows them to support their families without taking on additional jobs. Our work with the children of our country is hard and it’s getting harder. Nobody benefits from teachers being exhausted. In my own small way, I hope to open up conversations about what’s happening in our schools these days and how important it is to treat our educators with respect and to value them in terms of compensation and benefits. Why, for instance, does the market pay an advertising executive, or a skilled plumber or contractor, more than a highly skilled teacher? We need to talk about how we value our educators. Hopefully, this book moves that conversation forward.
Q: Tell us about your work with the Neutral Zone. You spend all day with students as a teacher, as you note in a poem that you teach almost a thousand classes a year, and then you also founded and direct the Literary Arts Programs at the Neutral Zone. What needs do these programs fill in this community? What do the students gain, and what do you learn from the students?
A: Well, I retired from my work at the Neutral Zone at the end of that same school year. It was time for new leadership in the Literary Arts program, and I couldn’t be happier that Molly Raynor has taken over that responsibility. I will say that I believe that work is some of the most important work that can be done in any community. Young people need to be heard and have their views respected. We saw the power of the Parkland students a year ago when they spoke up about gun violence and their voices are representative of a generation of thoughtful young people committed to improving the conditions of the world they were born into. Working with young people on their writing helps them develop the skills and confidence they need to become leaders of influence and consequence. I devoted my life for 20 years to doing that work at the Neutral Zone and I continue to try and do it to the best of my ability in the classroom.
Q: The last poem, “Another school year, another email,” leaves readers with the advice, “Choose bliss.” Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your book? What do you want readers to know?
A: The poems were hard for me to write and they’re hard for me to read. I’m glad I get to tell these stories, but many of them are personally painful to revisit. I tried to find joy, light, and humor in that difficult, difficult year. I don’t wish the multiple-jobs-having life on any of my students. I want them to be healthy, happy, and satisfied with the directions of their lives. That’s not always how I’ve felt about mine and the choices I’ve made, but, while I wouldn’t want to relive that year, I’m glad that living it brought this art into the world.
Q: What’s next?
A: I have another novel coming out in the spring with Fifth Avenue Press, the first in a series of young adult novels about a high school field hockey team, called Center-Mid. I want the series to be pretty intense sports novels for girls, not books about the softball player who falls in love with the quarterback, but girls who take their sport seriously and play to win. Of course, the girls have to deal with contemporary high school issues as well. This first book is about a field hockey player who is caught in the middle of both a sexting scandal and a racial conflagration that threatens to divide her team. In addition, she has to deal with her own flagging grades, nagging loneliness, and alcoholic mother as she hopes to drive her team to a state championship. I’m currently writing the second book in the series, I Got Fly, which deals with a different player on the same team who is dealing with undiagnosed OCD and anxiety, at the same time as she’s questioning her sexual identity.
After I finish that novel, I had planned to write a sequel to my thriller, Takedown, but, more and more these days, I’m leaning toward diving back into literary fiction and writing a kind of lost-American-in-the-age-of-Trump thing. We’ll see.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Jeff Kass reads from "Teacher/Pizza Guy" at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm.