Students in Jack Ledbetter's creative writing courses often recite his edict: "You have to write a lot of bad poems before you can write one good poem."
Ledbetter should know. "Watchers," by J.T. Ledbetter, was awarded first place among 1,441 entries in the poetry division of Writer's Digest magazine's 1990 writing competition. And since 1965, hundreds of his poems have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and poetry anthologies nationwide.
"It reminds me," Ledbetter mused, "of Thoreau, who said, 'I have a library of a thousand volumes, 800 of which I wrote myself.' "
Although Ledbetter moved to Southern California at the age of 10, he still draws inspiration for his writing from childhood experiences on a farm in Greenville, Ill. He was born, he said, "in a great big ole front room that was kept for funerals and births."
In the tradition of Irish and Irish-American writers before him, Ledbetter is a great raconteur. He exploits the narrative voice in free verse to tell stories mainly about farm life in southern Illinois and Nebraska.
"There is a lot of darkness, non-communication in my poems," he said. "It's often Gothic, with women standing against windows looking out at the farm that's disappearing in the dark rain. The husband's out in the barn throwing hay down to the cows, and there's a dog prowling somewhere in the timber. The snow is wisping over the cellar door. All those images of auctions, old farms falling apart, and people moving into town are in my poems."
Ledbetter said he discovered the magic of poetry in junior high. "My teacher began to read 'Evangeline,' 'this is the forest primeval,' and I was hooked. Of course I didn't know what a forest primeval was, but it sounded great," Ledbetter said.
"I had also fallen in love with little blonde, blue-eyed Laura Lee Applegate. So the paradigm for seventh and eighth grades was me writing poems for Laura Lee--who thought it was smashing--and me getting beat up at recess by William Craig Miles--who thought it was unmanly to write poetry."
Since joining the English Department faculty at Cal Lutheran University in 1970, Ledbetter has been a mentor to hundreds of students. Voted Professor of the Year in 1988, he continues to be a popular presence on campus. He has been described by his students in terms ranging from "sexy" to "knowledgeable and having a kind heart."
Ledbetter has been married 36 years and has three grown children. Since his ordination as a Lutheran minister four years ago at age 52, he has even performed marriages for students.
Darcy Culley, 21, took Ledbetter's creative writing course last fall. "He always reminds the class, just because he may not like something, doesn't mean it's not good. He often admits he's not the God of Poetry," she said.
Furthermore, Ledbetter would like to disabuse people of the notion that only poets are sensitive. "Anyone can appreciate a sunset, a kitten, or the softness of a puppy's tummy," he said, "they just may not try to express it."
To encourage students, staff members and alumni to express their thoughts and feelings, Ledbetter established the Mark Van Doren poetry award and the Morning Glory, a magazine showcase for poetry, short fiction, photographs and art. The submissions are anonymous until after selection by seven editorial student staff members and Ledbetter.
During the 20 years of its existence, the Morning Glory has received several national awards for excellence. It has received All American status--college literary magazine top honors--for the past 10 years. Last year it was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Associated Collegiate Press.
Ledbetter advised aspiring writers to write and to read widely.
"If a poet is not willing to keep writing when absolutely nobody is willing to look at your work, then don't bother," he said. "So many of my students aren't willing to read because they think that they have interesting things to say and that's enough. But, they need to read what has already been said, and who said it. Otherwise editors won't consider their work and will just laugh."
Ledbetter added emphatically, "There is no substitute for paying your dues."
Recognition is satisfying, Ledbetter conceded. But to him communication with a reader, who in turn, can identify with his subject pleases him more than anything else. "Somebody had read my poem about a desolate farm couple in the latest issue of the Cresset magazine. The fella came up and said, 'I've seen those people. I know them.' " Ledbetter smiled and said, "That's what I like to hear. That's praise enough."
A SUCCESS STORY
Elizabeth Hurt, 52, of Camarillo took Ledbetter's class last fall. She recently won Cal Lutheran's annual Mark Van Doren Poetry Award, and several of her poems appear in the current volume of the "Morning Glory." She said, "I was astounded to win as a re-entry student." Hurt, who is majoring in English, said: "It's been a process, not a goal. I've been doing this because I wanted it so badly. And Dr. Ledbetter was an important part of the process for me. He is a wonderful teacher. He has creative energy and love of the subject that has its own momentum."
The following poem by Elizabeth Hurt is a product of Ledbetter's class.
"On Raising Children"
I tried to neatly hammer down
The nails given me;
But one protrudes--deflected all my blows,
And now and then I stub my toe on her.