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Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2009

Faculty Author: Charles Bachman

Poetry, the music of words, eludes efforts to define and describe it. That is especially true of English professor Charles Bachman’s most recently published book of poetry, The Strange Lives of Mr. Shakovo.

Each of its 81 poems is discrete, yet Bachman envisions them as a narrative moving from beginning to end. Mr. Shakovo—“Shakovo” is a name Bachman invented more than 40 years ago—begins his story wondering whether his own personal metamorphosis will come to pass.

Although Bachman began writing poetry at age 12, he never expected to write a poetic narrative. However, his career has been marked by a willingness to go through the doors opened by chance. After coming to Buffalo State in 1965 with a specialization in comparative literature, he developed an interest in American drama. That, in turn, led him to an interest in American literature.

“I was using a huge anthology that included poems by Native Americans,” he said, “and I thought, ‘What could be more American than that?’” So he pursued Native American literature and taught the first course in that subject at Buffalo State.

At the same time, he pursued a career as an operatic baritone, performing with many Western New York groups including Opera Rochester, Artpark Opera, and many choral groups that performed classical works, oratorios, and works by composers such as Gershwin. He also performed with two now-defunct Buffalo opera companies.

Several years ago, when opportunities to perform in opera diminished, Bachman was asked to teach a course in contemporary poetry. Having written poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he thought teaching the class might be an opportunity to revisit poetry. “I seldom had the urge to write a poem while I was singing,” he said. “It’s as if the singing expressed whatever it is that poetry expresses now.” These days, he sings professionally only a few times a year.

As he immersed himself in contemporary poetry, he found himself writing poetry again. The result in 2006 was If Ariel Danced on the Moona collection of funny poems, serious poems, poems about nature, and poems incorporating Native American beliefs. His poetry has also been published in the Kansas Quarterly, the Carolina Quarterly, House Organ, and the Hazmat Review.

Bachman said that his colleague Jennifer Ryan, assistant professor of English, first suggested a collection of the Mr. Shakovo poems. Bachman began to sketch out a sort of plot, and decided early on that Mr. Shakovo would come out of his peculiar metamorphosis with a larger interest than merely himself. Nanabozho, the trickster figure in Ojibwa culture, emerged as an essential character with whom Mr. Shakovo identifies. “Many Native American cultures have the character of the trickster,” said Bachman. “All of them are also culture heroes.”

As Mr. Shakovo journeys along, he encounters lions on the lawn, unmentionables in the laundromat, and the Burger Dog. The Strange Lives of Mr. Shakovo is available at the Barnes and Noble at Buffalo State Bookstore.

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Read previous Faculty Author stories from the Bulletin:
Lisa Marie Anselmi
Lisa Forrest
Joëlle Leclaire
Gerald Nosich 
Peter Ramos
Allen Shelton

Read previous Faculty Author stories from the Insider:
Felix L. Armfield
Kimberly A. Blessing
William Engelbrecht
Gerard J. Puccio, Mary C. Murdock, and Marie Mance
Thomas C. Renzi
Jean E. Richardson

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