Poetry, writing, and reading are what makes this celebrated CHC professor tick.
Song on repeat: “It’s a great day to be alive” by Travis Tritt
Guilty pleasure: All pleasures seem guilty and also portal to divine epiphany.
Coffee or tea: Coffee
Hometown: Hollywood, California
Favorite memory at the CHC: In my book, I have a recipe for lemon meringue pie. One year, some of my students went to the kitchen of the CHC and made me that specific pie and brought it into class. As everybody sat on the floor eating it, they talked about food justice, memories and anything in between. It was better than I have ever made it.
Barbara Mossberg writes poetry on the fly. Eco-literature captures her imagination. Drama, for her, is a way of life.By all accounts, the CHC professor of practice in literature has led a passionate academic life. She’s been an instructor, a liberal arts college president, and an author. Throughout her career, she has lectured and led programs in 20 countries.
Her efforts have helped shape her teaching at CHC, bringing a level of light and laughter to her students. Her latest book, “Here For The Present: A Grammar of Happiness in the Present Imperfect, Live from the Poet’s Perch,” came out two years ago. We sat down with Mossberg to talk about her writing, her career in higher education, and her approach to life.
If you were a book, what kind of book would you be?
It would have to be a book that people love to hold and carry about. I’d love to be a beloved children’s book – a kind that means so much when you’re reading it, but also when you’re growing up. I would love to be one that people turn to for inspiration. Something that gives readers support and nurtures them at times of fear.
Who inspires you?
Winston Churchill. What’s really remarkable is looking at somebody in a leadership position and the role that writing played in their life. Churchill had the conviction that the Nazis were a threat, so he had to convince people to go to war and risk their lives. He would write these speeches to the people and it’s fascinating that he won a Nobel Prize that wasn’t the Peace Prize. He won the prize for literature. Looking at his writing, he knew how to use it to move people and for his own resilience. He really inspires me as a person who lived his life with courage through literature.
What led you to become a writer?
I’ve been writing as long as I’ve known how to read, which has been a huge inspiration in my life.
I would be in my room reading and hear my family ask for my whereabouts and say: “Oh, you know Barbara. She’s probably somewhere reading.” My happiest day was when I became old enough to check out six books from the Pasadena Public Library. I was publishing poetry at 12 and performing plays for my family by the campfire.
What’s the meaning behind your title, “Here For The Present?”
The title is inspired by Beverly Cleary’s book, “Beezus and Ramona.” It’s 4-year-old Ramona’s first day of school and she walks up to the teacher who tells her to “sit on this chair for the present.” Excitedly, Ramona sits all day for a present while the rest of the kids play. Finally, the confused teacher comes up to her and asks: “Why aren't you joining the other students?” Romana says, “because you told me I was going to get a present.” The teacher empathetically cuts to the chase and explains that she meant for her to sit momentarily. It’s a joke right, but at the same time it’s not. Honoring your consciousness by being present really is a gift. Our lives are temporary and brief, so when we are fully conscious, then every moment is a gift.
How do you personally live in the present?
I live in the present by looking at everything with the expectation that it could be a poem. Very often, in the middle of things, an idea will come to me. So I write it down on a napkin. I have so many poems that I have written in parking lots, including many poems in my book. Writing poetry is about what you observe and think about the world. I start the day off with my students by giving them a prompt to write a poem about. They tell me that they are writing sonnets and how that helps them see things with more options. At the end of the poem, you’re forced to slip whatever you’ve been complaining about and have a new idea about it. I have them talk about the problems in the world which they then articulate eloquently.
What’s your teaching philosophy?
That there really isn’t any learning in any field of knowledge that isn’t expressed through writing. That writing is transdisciplinary. If we can figure out how to translate what’s in our own heads to somebody else and have them understand us, then we are able to honor our discipline. It’s my hope that the way my students write and communicate can be shared and understood by the world. In that way, our learning and writing will become part of the civic consciousness that empowers people. I like to tell my students about John Steinbeck who won a Nobel Prize for literature as a marine biologist. All kinds of people can change the world through writing.
How do you think creative writing helps your students?
Writing can help my students no matter what their major or field is. Creative writing means expressing your mind, conscience, and heart by figuring out language. When you do that, you can be effective in whatever community you’re participating in. You could be in a family and you’re making the case for why the family should go to Disneyland. You could be in an organization and writing about why you should be funding medical supplies for veterans. Or it could be for bringing down a dam to save the fish. Whatever it is that you’re doing, you need to be persuasive and use your language with authenticity and honor.
What's one of your favorite parts about teaching at the CHC?
I am so blessed with my students. Whether they’re first-year students or seniors, they walk into class eager and grateful to learn. I used to lecture for 500 people and I loved it, but here it’s different. The CHC didn’t tell me as one of Cinderella's stepsisters to cut off my perfectly good toes to fit in the little glass slipper of a department. It said, “teach what you like” and I get the chance to teach students about what I do. My students get to express their knowledge through play performance. Well, where else could I do that? The CHC allows every faculty member to teach their passion and to share what’s essential, which transcends academic boundaries. The thing about teaching at the CHC is that it’s a real community. It’s a place of great shenanigans and of learning.
—Interview by Keyry Hernandez , Clark Honors College Communications
—Photo by Ilka Sankari, Clark Honors College Communications