Walking into his creative writing class, it’s immediately apparent that there is something different about professor John Smelcer.
Maybe it’s his laid-back jeans-and-a-sweater style, or the way he speaks to his class like his friends. But students agree that signing up for his class was a great decision, and that Smelcer is by far one of the most interesting teachers on the Binghamton University campus.
Or maybe “interesting” is an understatement. Most of us at Binghamton love to complain about the bitter-cold winters, but no one knows cold weather better than Smelcer does. Raised in Alaska, Smelcer lived in temperatures as low as -70 degrees.
“On my walk to elementary school, I’d have to avoid herds of wild buffalo,” he insists with a laugh. “Alaska is in my blood. No matter where I live, I’ll always be an Alaskan foremost.”
Given the title of an “Alaskan literary treasure” by Alaska’s former governor Jay Hammond, there is no doubt that Smelcer is a true Alaskan native and a celebrated writer. Better known by his publishing name John E. Smelcer, this BU professor is less about strict teaching, and more about connecting with his students.
With a cup of coffee in hand, he strides into class each morning with more energy than the morning before. Despite it being 8:30 a.m., it’s hard to fall asleep when Smelcer initiates personal discussions that are easy to relate to.
“He always has something new to say that’ll make you want to engage in his class,” said Kyle Ross, an undeclared freshman who’s enrolled in Smelcer’s writing class.
Inspired by great literature, Smelcer throws his passion into his work.
“Thomas Carlyle once wrote that, ‘A good book is the purest essence of the human soul,'” he quotes as his eyes light up. “Now that’s something inspiring.”
Although he can now list seven different college degrees, Smelcer says that his academic performance in high school and even undergraduate school was only “mediocre.”
“It wasn’t until graduate school that I decided who and what I wanted to be and applied myself.”
But when he did apply himself, he was successful. In 1989, Smelcer had his first book of poetry published. And in the two decades since, he has been an associate publisher and poetry editor at Rosebud, one of the premier literary magazines in America, where he has edited and published work by famous authors Allen Ginsberg and Stephen King, pop icons Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney and even world leaders like The Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II.
“The Dalai Lama’s work keeps getting rejected,” Smelcer said to his class one morning with a chuckle. “I honestly don’t think people believe that the Dalai Lama actually wrote it.”
Smelcer’s work has been praised by Noam Chomsky, J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Elie Wiesel and many other intellectual and literary giants.
However, Smelcer’s accomplishments required patience.
“I was so proud of my first book — years later, I bought up or stole every copy I could find and burned them,” he said, sitting back comfortably in his chair. “I sucked. Good writing takes time, like a fine wine or whiskey. At 48, I’m only now beginning to be a good writer.”
When asked what experience changed his life forever, he hesitated, but then proceeded to share a very personal memory.
“The suicide of my younger brother [happened] the same year I began teaching,” he replied.
He added that sometimes he feels like he’s living life for two people, thus fueling his hard work and dedication to his craft even more.
Although it seems like Smelcer has already had a prolific career, he is still searching for newer, greater opportunities in the future.
“I want to travel more, living and teaching abroad in Ireland, Scotland, England, Greece, Italy, Australia and just about every place on the map,” he said.
Sure, his desire to travel the world may seem like a dream, but for John Smelcer, it seems that anything’s possible. We can take a little piece of inspiration from this remarkable English professor, and how he turned his unique life story into something tangible for students.
“I’m a true lifelong learner,” Smelcer said. “So much to learn, so little time.”