AM: Jim, thank you for doing this interview. You recently came out with a book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law. You’ve been researching and writing about lawyer poets for some time now. What is it about lawyer poets that fascinates you, and what is it about this type of person that makes him or her unique? In other words, what makes a lawyer poet different from a doctor poet like, say, William Carlos Williams, or a banker poet like T.S. Eliot?
JE: I first got interested in lawyer poets about 12 years ago when I was introduced to the work of a southern writer, John William Corrington. I found Corrington’s life and work fascinating, and was puzzled by the fact that he was an accomplished poet—as well as a novelist—when he took up the study and practice of law. I had trouble getting my mind around the fact that Corrington was a poet and a lawyer. One reason was that I held some of the usual stereotypes of lawyer and poet. These endeavors—poetry and law—don’t look, at least according to the stereotypes, as if they have much in common. Lawyers and poets appear to us as different as day and night. I was intrigued by this idea of one person embracing such different—or seemingly different—endeavors. When I decided to write about Corrington, I knew I needed to think through this idea of being a lawyer and a poet, a poet and a lawyer.
My fascination with lawyer poets lies in how our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law. There is, I think, something intriguing about the joining of such differing enterprises in the life of a single person. I don’t want to claim that there is anything unique about lawyer poets, or that the joining of law and poetry creates a unique kind of person. What is unique is how the idea of a lawyer poet changes our sense of who we are as lawyers (that is, those of us who are associated with the legal profession), and how, when our legal colleagues turn out to be poets, we have an open invitation to read their poetry, and for many of us, that means a pursuit of a genre of literature we thought we had no need to pursue.
AM: I want to come back to Corrington in a minute. He’s someone I’ve grown to admire, and I have you to thank for introducing me to his work. First, though, I’d like to discuss your book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law. You published several lawyer poets in it. How did you decide which poets and poems to include?
JE: I discovered the work of all the lawyer poets whose poems appear in Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law during the decade that I tried to identify all the lawyer poets in the U.S., from the first days of the republic. It got to be something a bit more than a research project. I simply wanted to know every lawyer I could identify throughout our history that had taken up with the muse. Along the way, I began to collect a rather substantial list of contemporary lawyers who write and publish poetry. I started reading the poetry and then began to publish the best of what I found in the Legal Studies Forum, a journal I’ve edited for over 15 years now. I might note that most lawyer poets do not write poems about the law and the practice of law and I did not seek out law-related poems. We have a long history of legal verse and most of it is rather bad. What I found in the work of the lawyer poets I was publishing was an occasional poet and an occasional poem about the practice of law that sounded right to me. After publishing the work of lawyer poets for a decade, I found, looking back on what we had published, that the lawyer-related poems held up quite well. And, I found that they looked still more interesting when they were collected and laid out poem to poem. It dawned on me that I had published the best lawyer-related poems in the past 50 years, and that the poems deserved their own anthology.
AM: One of the poets in the anthology is Michael Blumenthal. Is he still teaching at West Virginia University College of Law? I don’t think I ever heard the story about how you two connected.
JE: When I first got started on the lawyer poets work, I was corresponding with Marlyn Robinson, a reference librarian at the Tarleton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law. Marlyn compiled a short list of lawyer poets for me, and she mentioned that a poet named Michael Blumenthal, who was then living in or around Austin, had once been a lawyer.
Blumenthal was one of those lawyers, like Archibald MacLeish and John William Corrington, who become lawyers and then realize that what they really want to do is to follow their literary pursuits. I began reading Blumenthal’s poetry and it became clear that he was by no one’s estimation an amateur. In fact, his poetry was so good and his abandonment of the legal profession so apparent, that I didn’t try to connect him for fear that as a major poet he would have little interest in being identified as having any association with the legal profession. And to complicate matters, whenever I did give thought to contacting Blumenthal, I found that he was a poet who seemed to have no permanent home.
I continued to read Blumenthal’s poetry, and then moved on to a collection of his essays, a novel, and a memoir. There is, I think, something rather daunting, at least for me, in trying to contact a major writer. Then, one day, I was working with a Canadian writer on an introduction to a memoir of Roma Goodwin Blackburn, a Canadian lawyer, when she happened to mention Michael Blumenthal. I asked her how she knew him, and she said she had recently corresponded with him to obtain permission to quote one of his poems in a book she was writing with her husband. I told her that I had been wanting to contact Blumenthal but could never quite track him down (not adding that I hadn’t really tried all that hard). She told me he responded to her request promptly and seemed a pleasant enough fellow.
If I have the time right, that was probably in 2005. I sent off a note to Blumenthal and found not only that he was pleasant but seemed interested in the fact that I had found my way to his poetry by way of the fact that he had once been a lawyer. We continued our correspondence, and I decided to devote an issue of the Legal Studies Forum to Michael’s work.
In 2007, we published Correcting the World, an issue of over 440 pages of Michael’s poetry, essays, and fiction. Michael had not, in 2007, when we published the LSF issue devoted to his work, fully addressed, in any of his writings, his decision to leave the legal profession and take up his life as a literary man. I asked if he’d be willing to do that in an essay for the LSF issue, and to my surprise he agreed to do the essay. I talked the powers that be at the law school into inviting Michael to the law school to present his essay, “The Road Not Taken-Twice.”
At this point I still had not met Michael, although we had been working on the LSF collection of his writings for over a year. Michael’s presentation was quite engaging, and it dawned on me that we needed a stronger literary presence at the law school than I was able to provide; what we needed was a poet-in-residence. And now, the delicate part: Would Michael have any interest in thinking about a visiting appointment at the law school? I knew that he was moving from university to university as something of an itinerant professor holding endowed visiting positions, and I thought we might interest him in a stop at the law school. To my surprise, he seemed intrigued by the idea, and the next thing I knew, Michael Blumenthal was a visiting professor at the college of law. He has now been a colleague for several years, and I’m now even more convinced that every law school needs a lawyer poet in residence.
AM: Do you ever try your hand at poetry? I’ve found that, for me, it’s hard to read a lot of poetry without trying to write it myself.
JE: I will have to admit that I am not a poet. And yes, there are times, when I’m reading poetry, that I imagine that in some reincarnation I will end up, somewhere down the line, as a poet. I’ve written a few poems, and I’ve written just enough to know that poetry requires experience and skill that I do not have. I admire the poets I read enough to know that I need to leave poetry to those who are driven or led, in some way, to be poets. My friend and colleague, James Clarke, a rather prolific poet and retired judge in Canada, has encouraged me to write poetry but I take his suggestion to be a gesture of friendship that discounts the steep learning curve that I’d face as a poet.
AM: I can relate. I once hoped to gain the experience and skill to become a poet, but I gave up at some point. Do you ever feel lonely working on poetry and the law? What I mean is, do you ever feel as if you’re going against the grain, doing something different and even unappreciated by some in the legal community?
JE: My work with lawyer poets has, from the beginning, been an exhilarating endeavor. And I must say, I have not experienced the work in a lonely way. Initially, when I began to identify the hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who had turned to poetry throughout history, I had the sense that I had descended into a vast underground cavern populated by the most exciting unknown persons you could imagine. John William Corrington (who died well over a decade before I discovered his work) was only the first of these exotic—and yes, I think, initially it felt like I was dealing with some exotic creature, something like a hilltribe elder from a remote village in Burma. I felt like I had stumbled onto a new world and a new way to think about “law and literature.” Law and literature had become, in my discovery of the lawyer poets, an introduction to lawyers who practiced literature, just like they practiced law. One doesn’t feel lonely living amidst these wonderful ghosts!
Then I began corresponding with contemporary lawyer poets. I didn’t have all that much success in inducing them to talk about their lives as lawyer poets (with a few notable exceptions, Michael Blumenthal being one of them), but I did find that lawyers were interested in talking with me about their poetry. If I had not started publishing the poetry of lawyers in the Legal Studies Forum, things might have taken a turn toward the lonely. I began to spend considerable time reading poetry and trying to figure out how to think about what I was reading and how to talk to poets about their work. Keep in mind, I did not grow up reading poetry, and with the exception of Wendell Berry and Robert Bly, had really not read poetry. So, novice that I was, I was entering a new world and that produced its own excitement. As the years rolled along, I found that I had been befriended by poetry, and that poets were becoming my friends. I mentioned my friendship with Judge Clarke, and this is a friendship that arose from my efforts in publishing his poetry. A similar thing happened with Michael Blumenthal, who is, as you know, now a colleague. There are countless other friendships of just this kind—built around our regard for poetry—that working with lawyer poets has made possible.
Do I think of my work as going against the grain? In all honesty, I don’t. I see my work with lawyer poets as being another expression of the rich history of lawyers engaged in literary enterprises. My work is not against the grain, it is the grain.
Am I concerned that this work is unappreciated by the legal academic community? I can’t say that I am. In an essay, “Why Write?” that appeared in the Journal of Legal Education last year, I noted that “Law teachers dance to the beat of different drummers. We are driven by different visions of legal education as we adopt, adapt, and advocate a law school’s regime of training.” I’ve never let what my colleagues do (or think they are doing) confine my vision of what a lawyer’s education might be, or what it should be. If I had sought appreciation for any of my work as a teacher, I would have given up writing many years ago. In fact, if it were appreciation that drove me, I would never have undertaken my work with lawyer poets.
AM: You’re right: it is the grain. I agree completely. And I’m glad you mentioned your essay “Why Write.” I read it recently and was planning to ask you about it. In fact, it was that essay—and in particular the line about “a note of sadness”—that brought about my previous question. What I wanted to ask you about, from the essay, was your colleague’s assumption—I think you refer to him as “Randy”—that everyone in the legal academy is writing for the same reason. Your point, I think, is that all writing has a rhetorical purpose: sometimes it’s to persuade; sometimes it’s to explain; sometimes it’s just a tedious exercise to gain tenure; and sometimes it’s to delight and explore. Some of us can’t help writing. I sometimes find myself at the kitchen table, and instead of enjoying my meal I’m panicking because this is time I could spend reading and writing. I was wondering if you could say a little more about this colleague’s assumption and whether it’s systemic or shared by many others.
JE: In my Journal of Legal Education essay “Why Write?” I was puzzled by a colleague’s notion that he had somehow failed as a scholar because legal colleagues didn’t pay what he thought was enough attention to his writing. My colleague assumed that if you write about a legal doctrine in an informed way the world—that is judges, legislators, law professors—would take note of the work. I found my colleague’s assumption that when we write the world should pay attention to us a bit puzzling. I had always assumed that for the most part what we publish in law reviews gets little or no attention. Most of us don’t write law review articles that are celebrated for changing the law or offering new perspectives on the law.
In my case, much of my writing has been about legal education. I never had any notion that in writing about legal education my colleagues were going to change the way they think about legal education and legal training and begin to rely upon me for guidance. Consequently, I had the sense that in my writing—and I’ve written far more than most of my colleagues—I wasn’t trying to change the world, so my writing did not depend on an appreciative audience. Why, then, should I bother to write? I remember talking with one of my law school professors about writing—who was both prolific and recognized—when I first went into teaching. I knew when I decided to teach that I’d have to write and publish law review articles. I knew, following the scholarship of the professors that I had in law school, that some of them were scholars (and writers) and some of them were not. I was curious, when I talked with Robert Sedler, who had been my teacher in conflicts and in constitutional law, what prompted him to be so prolific as a writer. Bob Sedler told me something I’ll never forget: “Jim,” he said, “the reason I write is that I’ve been puzzling over something and I’ve been reading what has been written about it, and I realize that what I really want to have said about the subject, said in a way that responds to my concerns, has simply not been written. I write to compose something that I would have found valuable and interesting if someone other than I had written it.”
I think Bob Sedler’s notion has left an indelible imprint on my thinking: I write to say something in a way that I think it should be said. Now, does this mean that all of my writing is exquisite, and the answer is clearly no. When I revisit my older work, I have no doubt that what I wrote could have been said better. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that I said it as best I could; I made a down payment in the writing in living up to Bob Sedler’s notion that you write because you want to say something in a different way than what you find that has already been written.
I don’t think I said, and I didn’t mean to imply in my essay, “Why Write?” that my legal colleagues all write for the same reason. Quite the opposite. I assume that my colleagues write for many different reasons. There are undoubtedly some colleagues who write only because the job requires it (and, unfortunately, after they get tenure, some colleagues manage to get away with writing little or nothing at all). Other colleagues write because they want to think of themselves as scholars. This idea of being a scholar never quite caught on with me. For the first decade or so after I started teaching, I wrote to address a particular problem or concern, often something in or about my teaching. Then, somewhere along the way—and I think this came as I began to teach literature and narrative jurisprudence courses—I began to think about writing as writing, or as you put it, writing as a rhetorical endeavor. I wasn’t writing in the rhetorical sense of trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ideas (and yes, there is always something of that whenever we write), but writing as an experience of writing and writing in furtherance of the idea that if I paid particular attention to how I write, I might actually be a writer. I confess that I am far more drawn to the idea of trying to be a writer than to the fantasy of being a scholar.
AM: There is no doubt in my mind that you are a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you locate readers in particular settings, no matter what the topic of your essay is. There’s one essay you wrote that begins by talking about how you’re sitting at home waiting for the mail to arrive, and then you head out to the mailbox once the mail arrives. It’s that sort of thing—very subtle—that I’ve always admired in your work.
One of the reasons I went to West Virginia for law school was because I had read your essays when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was an English major, so it didn’t take me long on Google—or whatever interface or browser we were using in those days—to find your work. I remember thinking, “law school can’t be all bad with people like this in it.” I even remember emailing you before I went to law school, and you and I talked about a number of things.
As for scholarship, there are those who write about others, and those who write so that others will write about them one day. You fall into that latter camp, I think. One day, people will be writing about your essays and thinking about your approach to pedagogy.
We should probably be wrapping up soon, so just a couple more questions. Since we’re on the topic of pedagogy, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the future of legal education. It seems that every week now there’s a major article lamenting the decline of law schools or highlighting some law school “scam” or scandal. Many people are predicting that several law schools will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future, and there can be no doubt that there is an overabundance of lawyers, that law school and law school textbooks are too expensive for most young people, and that the legal job market is very tough today. How does all this impact the future of the legal academy?
JE: Allen, I remember quite well our correspondence before you took up the study of law. That kind of personal interaction with a prospective student is unusual. In other disciplines, students often seek out particular teachers and attend schools because of a desire to study with a particular teacher. Law is unusual in that sense. Students go off to law school with the idea of studying law and becoming lawyers; they don’t think all that much about who their teachers will be and the differing conceptions that their teachers have about law and the practice of law. I know that you came to law school with the idea of studying both law and literature, and I know just how rare that situation is. Most students with a literary interest expect to put their literary work on hold while they are in law school. If they made me King of legal education for a day, I think I’d mandate that every law student be exposed to the idea that the law too is a literary enterprise and can be viewed from a literary perspective, and that a literary perspective might be a prism through which we can see our lives as lawyers with better clarity.
I’m afraid I can’t offer anything new, startling, or subversive on the future of legal education. My focus in the past fifteen years has been on my own teaching, writing, and the make-over of the Legal Studies Forum as a literary journal. Some semesters I have almost no students sign up for my courses, and other semesters they arrive in plentiful numbers. I have never quite been able to figure out how that works. I am still intrigued by how my own teaching works (and what to do when I admit to myself it sometimes does not work). I am still writing about what I teach and how I try to teach it. The more I focus on teaching, the less I think about the future of legal education. I sometimes think we’ve lost our bearings in legal education, but we have been so hell-bent on doing that for some 60 plus years now I no longer see it as a problem that awaits us in the future.
AM: This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope we get a chance to have another one like it. It’s been so long since I’ve been back to West Virginia that I’d like to ask about the changes to the law school and how the weather and a few friends have been, but I’m mindful that we’re doing this interview not for my personal benefit, but for the benefit of readers, so I’ll hold off. We can have those other conversations another time.
I’ll finish by asking if you could say a bit about what Legal Studies Forum has published lately, and what it has in store for upcoming issues. Since you mentioned your role in transforming Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, I’d also like to ask you about the history of the journal. It strikes me that the journal itself probably hasn’t told its own story, and the journal is so interesting and has been around for so long that its story needs to be documented.
JE: Allen, I noted earlier in the interview that I had transformed the Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, and I think that is also a fair description of where the journal is at today. We publish poetry and fiction by and about lawyers, and we have also published memoirs, autobiographical essays, and traditional literary essays (for example, a 2013 issue was devoted to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). This year we are publishing two collections of poetry (two issues of the journal, each issue devoted to a single poet), a novel, and an issue of miscellany that focuses on “Lawyers and Literature.”
You asked about the history of the Legal Studies Forum. I have been tempted for a good many years now to write what I know of the history of the journal, and having failed to do so, I have tried to encourage some of those who were involved in the founding of the journal to write the history and have been unsuccessful on that front as well. The history of the Legal Studies Forum is of interest to me because the journal has played a rather central part in my life as a writer and as a teacher. Maybe this interview will get me back in the notion to work on the history.
The Legal Studies Forum (LSF) got its start in the mid-1970s as a newsletter of a newly formed organization called the American Legal Studies Association (ALSA). ALSA has, unfortunately, been defunct for a good many years now, and the remaining remnant of that old organization is the journal.
LSF first appeared as an ALSA newsletter in 1976. In 1977, the newsletter became the ALSA Forum and was published under that title until 1984 when it was retitled the Legal Studies Forum, the title the journal still carries. I have given thought on several occasions to changing the title of the journal to reflect its present literary bearings, but I have a fondness for the old title and have never been able to bring myself to give the journal a new name.
The journal slowly evolved from an organizational newsletter into a “forum” that in its published form looked like it had been printed in someone’s basement. It most definitely had a homemade look and that sense of being marginal has followed the journal to this day (and I have done little to have it otherwise). So, the journal didn’t begin as a journal, it began with ALSA, an organization created by colleagues in the Department of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The UMass department of legal studies was created by Ron Pipkin, John Bonsignore (now deceased), and Peter d’Errico, who were trying to escape the business school where they were teaching business law.
The early 1970s was a time when the antinomian streams flowing in the academic disciplines—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—were subjecting the disciplines to challenging changes. We had begun to hear talk of breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and we were beginning, in the mid and late 1960s, to see the appearance of new interdisciplinary programs: women’s studies; African American studies; environmental studies. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin developed the idea for a stand-alone Department of Legal Studies that would make it possible for UMass students to major in law the way they would philosophy or sociology. Their approach to legal studies was interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. They wanted to establish a beachhead for legal studies that would stand apart from the kind of vocational training and empty philosophical posturing they associated with legal education. ALSA and the Legal Studies Forum represented legal studies as one of the liberal arts; the study of law was viewed as being a humanistic discipline. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin, with uncanny foresight, viewed legal studies as an interdisciplinary crossroads with law being a central focus. What the founders of ALSA could not foresee is that legal scholarship (and to a far lesser extent, legal education) would undergo the same kind of sea-change with the arrival, in the late 1970s, of Critical Legal Studies, feminist jurisprudence, and law and literature (with variant strains of legal storytelling and narrative jurisprudence).
ALSA was founded as a home away from home for colleagues who were teaching law in the various social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology) and in the humanities (philosophy and history) who had some reason to identify their work with law as well as with the core discipline that defined their university existence. Some of these teachers were law-trained, and some were not. The folks at UMass begin to think that the legal studies program they were pioneering might be the basis for legal studies programs around the country. The late 1970s was also a time when paralegal programs were beginning to appear in undergraduate studies, and teachers in these programs were looking for an intellectual home base. Interestingly enough, in the early days of ALSA there was a concern that the legal studies movement—and yes, there was some notion that a “movement” was underway—might drift in the direction of paralegal programs, and you can be sure that Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin had no desire for that to happen. They didn’t discourage paralegal teachers from participation in ALSA, but the ALSA mantra for their own Department of Legal Studies—and for the journal—was always: interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. That was enough to keep the paralegal folks at bay.
I should note that while the UMass-Amherst folks were always thinking about teaching law outside law schools, indeed, they argued that it was the very fact that law was so often taught only in law schools that underscored the need for a legal studies movement, they were always more than welcoming to the few law teachers that became involved in the organization. I was one of the early “outsiders” to cast my lot with ALSA, but not the first. Wythe Holt, the Marxist legal historian, and a law professor at the University of Alabama, is the only known legal colleague who attended both the first ALSA conference in 1977 and the first Critical Legal Studies conference held at the University of Wisconsin, also in 1977. Wythe published several articles in LSF, with one article appearing in the second volume of the journal when it was then the ALSA Forum. I attended the second ALSA conference in 1978 at Rutgers, and gave my first paper at an ALSA conference in Pittsburgh the following year. J. Allen Smith, at Rutgers law school, one of the old “law and literature” men, was also involved in the early conferences and published several articles in LSF in the early years. (We were doing law and literature articles in LSF before “law and literature” picked up momentum in the early 80s.) David Papke, who obtained a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Michigan, 1984), now on the law faculty at Marquette University, attended the early ALSA conferences, and served as editor of LSF (1990-1996) before I took over as editor. Judith Koffler, another widely-respected law and literature scholar, appeared at most of the early ALSA conferences.
ALSA failed to survive but it did succeed in one sense: The ALSA conferences were lively affairs, with a degree of informality and a sense of collegial extended family, that made it possible for me, and colleagues like Judith Koffler and Wythe Holt to find like-minded colleagues. (I should note that both Koffler and Holt ended up as visiting professors at West Virginia and both would have remained on the faculty if it had not been for the short-sighted decision-making of my colleagues.) ALSA, and now LSF, have been most successful in helping to create a community for colleagues who think of the study of law as a liberal art.
Is there a “legal studies movement” in existence today? I don’t think so. Have the ideas and ideals associated with the “legal studies movement” found their way into legal education? I think they have. This immigration of ideas has taken different forms: the humanistic legal education movement (1977-1985), the law and literature movement (now commonly attributed to James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination published in 1973, a movement that gained more attention in the late 70s, early 80s, and has now gained the status as a “school” of contemporary jurisprudence); Critical Legal Studies (CLS arrived in legal education at the same time ALSA was founded, and is now, so far as most of us can see, given up its corporeal existence).
I don’t see anything these days to suggest that anyone is talking about a “legal studies movement.” The one person that persists in writing about “legal studies” is Austin Sarat at Amherst College. In the last 20 years, Sarat, writing about the teaching of law as a liberal art in undergraduate schools, has been a one-man legal studies movement!
Did the “legal studies movement” spearheaded by ALSA change law school training? I think the literal answer is no. What happened in legal education, as I have alluded to here, is that legal scholarship (law reviews/law journals) now routinely publishes interdisciplinary work. In the past four decades (that happen to span the years that I have been teaching), there has been, shall we say, a “greening” of legal scholarship that encompasses the interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic approaches that my UMass-Amherst colleagues and LSF tried to focus on. Unfortunately, the UMass model for legal studies did not find widespread adoption, and the liberal arts perspective in legal education, notwithstanding the greening of legal scholarship, is still a marginal enterprise.
AM: Jim, thanks so much for this very interesting, very informative interview. I’ve really enjoyed this.
JE: Allen, I greatly appreciate your continued interest in my work and this rare opportunity to present in more detail what I have been trying to do as a teacher, writer, and editor. Thanks for all the effort you have put into making this interview possible.