Montana State University

Spring 2009

Share this article

Mountains and Minds

MSU's master poet, fisherman and humorist talks about creativity April 27, 2009 by Carol Schmidt • Published 04/27/09

Photo by Kelly Gorham
Photo by Kelly Gorham

Greg Keeler is as ecumenical as any fisherman who calls Montana home.

Far from an elitist who will only fling dry flies at wild trout, Keeler fishes with equal enthusiasm for anything that swims, from the primordial paddlefish of Eastern Montana to the malodorous carp that are the bane of most fishermen. In fact, Keeler's most recent book, a memoir in which fishing plays a big part, is titled Trash Fish, and sports a big lunking sucker on the cover.

The longtime professor of English at Montana State University is equally diverse when it comes to creativity.

Keeler has been called MSU's troubadour of all trades, an Everyman who succeeds at a great many things. A prolific poet, who has published three volumes of poetry and three books, Keeler also has produced six plays, 10 tapes and CDs of his satirical songs, and has published scores of articles in popular and academic magazines and journals. He took up painting a few years ago, and his works are exhibited in Bozeman and Butte.

So what separates Keeler and his prolific creativity from a person who spends his or her off-work time vegging in front of the TV?

"Actually, I veg out in front of the TV, too," Keeler admits.

Yet, if there is a clue to the difference between him and others not prone to such pursuits, it is that rather than insisting on order before he can even think of being creative, Keeler says he finds order through the act of creating.

"I feel like I'm at loose ends a lot of times," Keeler said. "This helps me work it out; it gives me focus instead of (allowing) these ideas to keep running in my head."

Keeler said that creativity is subjective. He is not sure if there is a creative type of person, but he does believe many people don't create because there is a huge barrier of "what's the use?" that most people can't get through.

"With me, it's at least as rewarding to create something, even if it isn't perfect, as it is to passively enjoy something that's been created by someone else."

Keeler suspects that the roots of creativity may lie in individual desire. At least that was the case for him.

"Teachers, parents and friends fostered my desire to paint, write and sing when I was very young," he said. "Without them, my desire might have been focused in other directions."

Writing and poetry are just part of how I live.-Greg Keeler
Keeler recalls that he has liked to entertain others from a very young age. His parents were both college professors-his mom in home economics and his father also in English.

"My father would have friends over, and I would be recognized by adults if I would make jokes," Keeler recalls. "That's how it started. As a kid I wanted to be an artist or a fisherman. I wouldn't have said then that I wanted to be a writer."

When Keeler first started college at Oklahoma State, where his parents both taught, he pursued a degree in fisheries biology. One summer, while he was doing fisheries research, he decided to switch his major to English and his avocation to fishing.

"I started writing because of the oral quality of it," Keeler said. "That's why I like writing humor and satire, because it's good to get an immediate response."

Keeler earned his doctorate at Idaho State and first came to MSU in 1975 to take a temporary job in the Department of English. Before becoming the phenomenon that is now Greg Keeler, he said he didn't package himself well and was lucky to get the job.

Photo by Kelly Gorham
Photo by Kelly Gorham

"I was hired on a fluke and got to stay," Keeler said. In fact, Keeler almost didn't get to stay. After his first two years at MSU, his job was opened up and other candidates were brought in for interviews. Keeler found out about that when his job was offered, coincidentally, to one of his father's graduate students, who took a job elsewhere.

Keeler said the issue was that he wasn't publishing in professional journals, although he was making a name for himself, even then, by writing popular poems, sonnets and songs. Although Keeler endured some tough years at MSU, at one time hiring a lawyer to help him through a successful battle to gain tenure, his bitterness did not last long.

"In fact, this place has rewarded me," Keeler said. "It has been good to me for years." Indeed, Keeler has become one of MSU's most recognized professors in the humanities. He has received a Governor's Award for the Humanities and last year's designation as an MSU Distinguished Professor for the College of Letters and Science, as well as critical praise for his writings.

"In a way, this place has made me the way I am with writing and creativity, which is to not look at it as a career, but something that I do. It's not a hobby either. Writing and poetry are just part of how I live."

And writing poetry is something that Keeler still does regularly.

"There was a long time that I wrote a poem every day. The sonnets were just coming out. I wrote 450 of them when I could hardly do anything else because I was so messed up emotionally," he said of what he admits to being a rocky mid-life crisis that cost him his long-time marriage to his wife Judy, a former MSU adjunct professor of English. The two have since remarried. Keeler writes honestly about that time in Trash Fish.

"To get out of (the crisis) I turned to painting," he said.

Keeler said he started painting by buying a small learn-to-paint kit.

"At first, I said, 'OK, I have a job, so I can afford to waste paint and canvas while I learn.' So I went out and bought more paint and a bigger canvas."

Keeler progressed and found other people liked his acrylics. He said he likes to paint with acrylics because they are easy to clean up and he began painting in his kitchen. Nowadays he has a small studio in his garage.

"I'm still not invested in any of it, but I enjoy it," Keeler said. "Everything in painting is an illusion. It has to be. It's just paint.

"It is rewarding, painting a window on a little world. Music exists in space and time, and poems go out of print. So, sometimes I find working with paint to be the most rewarding because I have something to show for it."

Keeler said he believes there is some truth that creativity probably does lead to more creativity, in part because of resulting endorphins. "But whether they come from the process or the end result, I don't know... A lot of this is just a compulsion."