In building 38 on the Cal Poly campus, there is an office where a 53-year-old man sits typing on a computer, wearing black socks adorned with multi-colored neon fish that do not match his cream V-neck sweater, or the salmon button-up shirt.
There is a wall behind the Macintosh where a poster of a young Bob Dylan hangs slightly askew, while Bela Bartok fills the office that is covered with posters of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
The man’s salt-and-peppered hair is in a ponytail, and shorter wisps blow in free arrays over his glasses. With gusto, he recites the opening stanza of a Dylan Thomas poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day/rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
This is one of two Dylans, the other being folk-great Bob Dylan, who have had a major impact on the writing and life of the man reciting the poem.
The man is Cal Poly English professor James Cushing.
Cushing, a 17-year veteran professor of the English department, uses the influences of both Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, within their realms of poetry and music, in his own artful writing. Recently, Cushing had a second book of poetry, “Undercurrent Blues,” published from Cahuenga Press. Over a period of nearly six hours, Dr. Cushing talked about his writing, the Dylans, his love for jazz music, heartbreak and the mystery of life.
“Here were these two guys named Dylan, both coming at me (in 1965). One of them was of my parent’s generation and dead, and the other was close to my generation and still alive,” Cushing said. “But they were both talking about an ultimate meaning and language, and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot “fighting in the captain’s tower, while you don’t go gentle into that good night.” It was a pretty intoxicating brew for a young person at that time.”
Looking back, Cushing says that it was his experiences from a young age that helped shape a deeper look at life for him.
“In the middle of the birching culture explosions in L.A. I ended up going to an all-boys Christian military academy in the late 1960s,” he said. “I have had to get accustomed to, and find comfort and solace in, fun (but) seemingly arbitrary transformations. My experiences have told me that supposedly everything can change fast for no particular reason.”
An interest of poetry and the human voice started early for Cushing. On Dec. 16, in 1965, when he lived in Connecticut, his seventh grade English teacher, Isabel Teal, brought in an old-fashioned record player and an LP of Dylan Thomas reading the short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
“As I was listening to that record being played, a couple things struck me,” Cushing said. “One being that this is one of the most amazing things I have ever heard in my life, and it also struck me that this is what I wanted to do. I wasn’t amazed by it as a performer amazes an audience member; I was amazed by the sense that I recognized something of my own potential. I heard that (record), and knew that that is where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”
When Cushing was six-years-old, he received a record player and a typewriter.
“You might say that those things have been the two wings that have kept me aloft in a sense,” Cushing said, who still owns and uses the typewriter.
“I began writing poetry when I was 12 in a very conscious imitation of Bob Dylan an Dylan Thomas,” Cushing said.
He would put on one side of a Thomas album and the other side of a Dylan album and just type away as fast as he could and just letting it all out.
In 1964, The Beatles helped Cushing dive completely into rock music. Other great artists like Cream and Jimi Hendrix showed Cushing that he never knew existed.
“I kept noticing that the rock music I liked best used improvisation and had long jams,” he said.
It was rogressive rock that prepared Cushing for jazz. When Hendrix died, a newspaper ad introduced Cushing to the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring John McLaughlin. He later saw them at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, a club in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t know it was possible for sound to do that,” Cushing said. “I started looking around for music by McLaughlin, and he had done records with a trumpet player named Miles Davis.”
Cushing gave jazz a chance. Once he listened to Davis, everything changed.
“I remember picking up records I had bought two or three years before and thinking ‘Did I ever actually like this?’” Cushing said.
The first Davis record Cushing owned was “In a Silent Way,” because McLaughlin’s name was on the back cover. In 1972, Cushing realized there was “this huge room full of fascinating stuff” in jazz music.
After graduating from UCSC in 1975, he got a master’s degree and doctorate from UC Irvine by 1983. The following year, he moved to the Central Coast and took a job in sales.
In 1989, there was an opening in the English department at Cal Poly, where Cushing was offered a job. Almost two decades later, Cushing still teaches English and creative writing. His passion for teaching writing and literature are still evident from his days as a student.
“When Mrs. Teal brought in the record in 1965, it completely changed my life,” Cushing said. “If I can do that for someone else, then I have passed something on that is really valuable. It is ultimately impossible to tell what impact a teacher has on a group of students, but what I hope happens is that I get to expose some people to some extraordinarily rich, marvelous and life-enhancing things. That is really my goal.”
But Cushing also wants to reach his students on a more personal level than that of just a teacher.
“I see so many young people feeling down, worried and upset, and if I can help them find their real core of self, which is what (writing and music) have done for me, then I think I am living a legitimate life,” he said.
Cushing’s fellow professors agree with what he does as a professor.
“I tell all of my students that they should not leave Cal Poly without taking at least one course with Cushing,” said Dr. Kevin Clark, English professor and head of the creative writing department at Cal Poly. “All teachers have their own way of ‘professing’, but (Cushing’s) perspective is more divergent than most. His presence and his language and his teaching expression are all imbued with this temperament that relishes atypical understanding – but not simply for the sake of being atypical. It’s for the sake of grasping as much of the ungraspable universe as one can. He’s not one of a kind; he’s many of a kind, at once.”
Cushing’s love for jazz music shows in his writing. In the first part of “Undercurrent Blues,” Cushing entitled and engrained the poems with inspiration from standard tunes of the jazz repertoire. He wrote them in such a way that if you knew the song, the melody or the words, a jazz rhythm can easily be found between the lines.
“The true answer (for writing in the way I did) is that I felt the universe giving me a nudge in that direction,” Cushing said. “Loving jazz and music as much as I did, that by using these songs, I felt that I was able to bring something extra to my own experience.”
Cushing wants his poems to be resonant with the lyrics of the songs and the mood of the melody.
“What I’m trying to do in any one of these poems is to create an emotional situation in which the reader has some complex, new feeling that they might not have had before,” he said. “I hope that feeling leads to some sort of epiphany about possibilities of love and knowledge and meaning in the world. You might say that writing is a non-rational trance state for me,” Cushing said. “I am hoping to bring my readers to a similar sort of state too, where it intensifies the real.”
It is this state of mind which Cushing harnesses in his writing and life.
“I sometimes think of (my poems) as working in the same way dreams work, in the sense that dreams can have a very powerful effect on you for the rest of the day or your life, even though the effect is never entirely clear,” Cushing said. “People ask me why I write, and I respect the question, but if I were able to give a full, correct and open answer to that, I probably would not need to (write), because I would understand my own motivations well enough for them to no longer be interesting. For me, there is something that is a pure and undiluted pleasure in taking a page of words and trying to make it so the result is something that is beautiful, entrancing and mysterious as a dream.”
Cushing wants to use his writing to create a space where he can live without fear.
“People who read my poems and enjoy them say that one of the things they enjoy is sense of the sudden leap, which is not a plummet to danger but a leap into strangeness and that is alright.”
Cushing still immensely enjoys jazz music. He hosts a weekly jazz show, “Miles Ahead,” on Thursday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. on KCPR, 93.1 FM. He also hosts a Wednesday show at noon entitled “Bob Dylan’s Lunch,” which is one hour of just Dylan songs. Both of his poetry books are available through Cahuenga Press.