Literature Professor Lubomir Terziev: ‘Poetry saves me from meaning’

September 04, 2022 Kristiyan Nachev
Literature Professor Lubomir Terziev: ‘Poetry saves me from meaning’
Professor Lubomir Terziev is a famous Bulgarian poet and a professor who teaches Literature and Composition classes at AUBG. Before becoming a professor, he taught English at the English High School in Varna and at the Institute for Foreign Students in Sofia. Terziev obtained his PhD from Sofia University and was a full-time professor there for about 25 years. Then, he came to AUBG, where he implemented many interesting teaching methods in his classes and initiated the AUBG Poetry Club. Read our interview with Professor Terziev to learn more about his experience and what brings him inspiration.

What are the three most interesting things the AUBG community should know about you?

This is a difficult hierarchy, isn’t it? The three most interesting things… First of all, I am a very slow reader. I am a believer in slow reading. I think it’s really important to pay attention to the rhetoric of a text. It’s not only about content. It’s also about the rhetorical figures. So, that’s why I read very slowly and I take pleasure, especially when it comes to literary texts, in savoring the beauty of words. Quite logically, I am also a slow writer. And, that’s why I don’t publish much, but because there is this perfectionist strake I cannot eradicate. I feel that I can afford to write when I know I have something to say. And it’s not easy because so much has been said, especially when it comes to the writers that I am concerned with – the Romantics. The third thing is that I want to believe that I am an intellectually curious man because I try to learn something new every day. And, that’s what I try to convey to my students, even in my freshmen’s composition classes. I try to encourage them to learn something new every day. Actually, in Exposition last year I introduced this as a practice. I shared with them what I had learnt between our weekly meetings in class and invited them to discuss something that they had learnt. How do I learn? In many ways. For instance, I read The Guardian – my favorite paper – every morning. And, there’s always something you can learn in The Guardian. I mean, they publish articles on practically everything. These are the three things – the slow reading, the slow writing, and the learning thing.

If you have to describe yourself with one word, what would it be and why?

Well, I basically spent like 15 years of my life working on one of the Romantic poets – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a self-reflective man, that is thinking about his own thoughts. This is something that I think characterizes me – this critical thinking that happens within my mind. I ask myself questions, I try to challenge my attitudes, my biases.

When did you first become interested in Literature?

Well, I got interested in Literature from an early age – reading those fairytales and having those fairytales read to me. But I developed this passion for Literature, which then became my profession, maybe in high school. I went to the French Language School in Varna. With my peers we talked about writers like Camus, Sartre, and Ionesco. So, that’s how it all happened. One of my friends’ father was a sea captain and he would bring back to Bulgaria books in French that we otherwise had no access to. Little by little, I came to think that this is an intellectually stimulating and exciting field.

Prof. Terziev giving a poetry presentation at Panitza Library

What is your academic background and experience obtaining a PhD from Sofia University?

Although I got attracted to literature in high school, I wasn’t really certain about my future career path. I was an A student. I had As in many subjects. I wish I hadn’t been an A student because it would have been easier to focus. I loved math, actually. And one of my regrets is that I didn’t follow math. Now, I dabble in quantum mechanics. I watch these videos, but when I get to the formulas, they lose me.

At some point, however, I don’t know how it happened, I chose English as a degree. In English Philology, that’s what we call it in Bulgarian universities, there are two branches – linguistics and literature. I never had doubts that my choice would be literature. Then, after teaching English in Varna at the English Language School, I sat this competitive exam in Sofia and I got a job at the so-called Institute for Foreign Students, which is actually the period that made a teacher of me. The job was very demanding. I was supposed to teach English to adults six hours a day. I had to prepare all this content, six hours – between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Looking back, I always think this period is probably the one that contributed most significantly to my growth as a teacher. And, then, little by little, I came to love teaching. I don’t know how it happened. I realized that I am fit for this job. Then I moved to Sofia University after another competitive exam. It was then that I started working on my PhD, which took me a long time because, as I already said, I am a slow reader and a slow writer.

What was the first work position you have had? How has your career developed since then?

I taught English for two years at the English Language School in Varna. Then I moved to Sofia where I taught English at the Institute for Foreign Students. Then I moved to Sofia University where I worked for something like 25 years. At some point, I happened to be at a Fulbright conference, where I gave a presentation on how I teach creative writing. Three days after that, I received an email from Steven Sullivan inviting me for an interview for an adjunct position at AUBG. After this interview, I was hired at AUBG. I started teaching composition, and year after year, I combined these two jobs. I was a full-time professor at Sofia University and an adjunct professor at AUBG until 2016. Then I applied and got a full-time position at AUBG.

At AUBG, I teach Shakespeare, the Romantics, and a 200-level course called Landmark Texts. I also teach these core courses – BritLit 1 and BritLit 2 – and the composition sequence – ENG 101 and ENG 102.

What are some of your teaching and research interests?

Well, in terms of interests, it’s easy. I’m working currently on a long text, a monograph. It is devoted to Romantic poet William Blake and I hope that I will be able, after all the grading is done and everything, to complete this project, this summer. So, that’s my current research interest. I also write about different teaching methods. More specifically, I’m interested in why teaching literature matters. In terms of teaching, I try to be flexible, I try to learn from my students. I read the evaluations very carefully and I take them very seriously. In class, engaging the students is my prime concern. Well, one of the easiest ways is probably through visuals, but I am a believer in text. I try to find alternative strategies. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But I try to think of new methods all the time. I tell this to my students: “When you are a public speaker, your enemy is boredom.” So, avoiding boredom is what I really try to do. If boredom sets in, then I think the whole project falls apart.

What professional moments and student achievements make you feel accomplished?

What makes me feel satisfied is when I see that there is this give and take, the two-way process. If I’m the only talker in a class, I’m not a happy man. I try to provide some basic information and then I try to engage students in discussion. And, when students respond, I think that the class was successful. But when they don’t, I start asking myself questions: What did I do wrong? What happened? Why wasn’t it interesting? Why did I fail to motivate them? So, yes, that’s the most important thing. That fills me with satisfaction – when the students get engaged, when they are responsive.

How can you describe your typical workday at AUBG?

The pandemic changed a lot, but in terms of my teaching experience, yes, it’s different, of course, but, I don’t share this opinion that online teaching is inferior to face-to-face teaching. I know that face-to-face has many advantages. One of the things I miss is actually walking in the classroom, which I do a lot. At the same time, online teaching has its advantages, too. Sometimes I feel that distance, paradoxically, creates a more intimate atmosphere.

Back to your question. Well, pre-Covid19, I would arrive at my office like 90 minutes before class. I am an early bird. I get up early. So, I usually have classes at 9 a.m. I would be in my office at something like 7.15 a.m. and I would do preparation. This is last-minute preparation. I will have prepared on the day before, but then the very last minute, I go through my notes and I take a look at how exactly I am going to structure the class. So, that’s how I used to spend my mornings on workdays. Then, I would usually have two sessions, after which I would have one-on-one conferences with students. This is probably to me the most gratifying part of the job. This is something peculiar to AUBG. I really think it’s a great thing – this personal contact with each student. You get to know what these students’ interests are, you get to know them. At the end of the day, after a dozen conferences, you are absolutely drained. So, that was a typical workday for me before the pandemic.

If teaching was not your profession, what would have been?

Maybe five years ago, I would have answered this question differently, but now I wish I had pursued a career as a theoretical physicist or a cosmologist. This is really inspiring – how did the universe emerge, how did this all happen, what was before the Big Bang? Theoretical physics definitely appeals to me. This involves mathematics, of course. The other career I wish I had pursued is neuroscience. Studying the workings of the brain – that’s amazing.

You have written poetry in Bulgarian. You are also the author of some scholarly articles. What inspired you to write these texts and what is your motivation to continue writing?

I have written two collections of poetry, actually. One of them is called The Art of Procrastination. The second one is called Correspondences. I have prepared a third book, by the way. It will be published in two or three months.

Why do I write? Well, that’s a very difficult question. I wrote many of my theoretical texts because I’m interested in analysis and also because it’s part of my job in academia. But when it comes to poetry, it’s difficult to lay my finger on the initial motivation. What motivates me to write poetry is the chance it gives me to organize my most interesting ideas. If I don’t commit them to paper in the form of poetry, these ideas evaporate. Through poetry, I try to capture these otherwise “vanishing apparitions,” as P. B. Shelley calls them.

You are a co-founder of the AUBG Poetry Club. What is poetry for you and how do you see the development of this club?

Well, I find that some of my students are genuinely interested in poetry. And I had this idea that we could, instead of analyzing literary texts, which is what we do in literature class, we could just take pleasure in voicing our favorite poems. Poetry is also about enjoyment. It’s about experiencing the beauty of the written word, which I talked about at the very beginning of this interview.

So, I thought that we could start a club where we don’t necessarily go deep into the meaning of a particular poem, but we just enjoy reading it. We are still developing the original idea, but  for now, someone just shares a poem, sends the I’m-looking-for-a-partner message to which someone responds, and these two people read the same poem. Two readings of the same poem are never the same. And then, we try to discuss which reading conveyed what kind of emotion. But it’s mostly about enjoying poetry, reading, voicing poetry.

If I were to go beyond clichés, a great line from a favorite poem of mine actually comes to mind. Archibald Macleish is the name of the poet. There is this poem by Macleish called ”Ars Poetica” where he says in the closing line, “A poem should not mean, but be.” I think it’s a very important line. In other words, sometimes poetry for me is a way to construct meaning, especially when I write it. At the same time, poetry saves me from meaning. It allows me to go beyond meaning.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

The Italian phrase “dolce far niente” means “the sweetness of doing nothing” in English. I enjoy just relaxing and reading, of course, at the same time. After a long day of classes, spending some time by myself, just letting my mind roam, is a pleasure. This is what I love doing in my spare time. I love watching movies, too.