Of Stories and Storytellers
There are few love affairs with literature that begin in laboratories. But that is exactly where a young Lawrence Tjernell was spending much of his time when he first developed a love for the written word.
As an undergraduate student, Tjernell witnessed magnificent instruction in pursuit of a teaching career in biology. However, to “save sanity” after untold hours in laboratories and lecture halls, he attended literature classes covering Faulkner, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Joyce, Vonnegut, and Shakespeare.
“And so, my taste for literature was sharpened,” said Tjernell.
“Everything in this world—and much of what’s beyond—is embodied in literature,” Tjernell explains. “History, psychology, war, love, religion, politics, science… it’s all there. How could I not be drawn to it? Literature expands all things: the contradictions, the confirmations, the lies, the passions, and the truth and beauty of all of it.”
Upon graduation, Tjernell, with his Bachelor of Arts in Biology, entered a graduate program in English literature… and the rest, as they say, is history.
An Illustrious Career
Lawrence began his teaching career at San Jose State University, where he taught for five years, followed by a three-year period at Foothill College. Finally, he landed at College of Marin (COM), where he was initially hired to teach English basic skills on the Indian Valley Campus.
In addition to basic English, composition, and literature, he went on to teach personal computer operation, digital design and document production, as well. He served three years as the college coordinator for the Tech Prep program and launched COM’s internship program for high school students. He was a member of the United Professors of Marin and wrote and published the union newsletter.
In literature courses, Tjernell recalls guiding students through ethical dilemmas, moral questions, spiritual debates, and revelations of beauty. “Seeing students challenge themselves and ultimately emerge with insight or a glimpse of real beauty made all the teaching far more than merely worthwhile.”
However, he says he found the greatest delight in his more technical courses covering basic English skills like grammar, usage, punctuation, and vocabulary. “Students struggling to express their thoughts, fearful of an ignorance of the ‘rules,’ sometimes unable to progress in their major studies were wonderful to work with. Their growth and confidence took bounds and leaps, and I won’t ever forget the many smiles that appeared once the confidence grew.”
Tjernell’s full-time work at COM spanned from 1980 until 2015 – an illustrious 35 years at the College, and a 43-year teaching career!
After a year of retirement, Tjernell launched an independent, small-press publishing company, called Longship Press.
“As a teacher of literature, I came to understand that the treasure offered by fine books was invaluable, incalculable,” he explained. “Poetry, the narratives of fiction, the imagery of imagination were all there, and thus, needs to be brought into the world. In my small and limited way, I wanted to be an agent of bringing it all out to the world, even if that ‘world’ was only the Bay Area.”
In just four years, the company published two poetry collections (Penumbra by Lisa Rappoport and Catwalk by Meryl Natchez), as well as the work of Louise Glück, Robert Hass, B.F. Fairchild, Javier Zamora, Jane Hirshfield, Terry Lucas, Gary Topper, and more poets, short story writers, and fine artists.
Additionally, Longship Press publishes the literary journal Nostos, which compiles poetry, short fiction, and art, usually around themes, such as “homecoming,” “elegy,” “family,” “loss,” and “the poetry of science.” Uniquely, Tjernell designed Nostos to include three to six pieces by each contributor so that an audience might gain better understanding of each writer’s range of work, technique and point of view.
In the initial six issues, the journal included works by at least five current and retired members of COM faculty: David Rollison, Jamie Tipton, Tony Johnson, John Marmysz, and June Yokell.
He credits his many conversations with David Rollison, “over some draughts of excellent Irish whiskey,” as being instrumental behind the scenes to the formation and endurance of Longship Press. Together they discussed poetry, the “beat’ scene in San Francisco, and life in general. Rollison even introduced him to Lisa Rappoprt, whose poetry collection Penumbra was released in 2019.
All his years at COM prepared Tjernell for his current venture. As a teacher, he reviewed books by various publishers and became familiar with the excitement and demands of publishing. He was further exposed to the book design, development, and publishing process when he taught digital design and document production. An English teacher with “an annoyingly sharp eye for grammar,” Tjernell felt confident in his skills as an editor. And so, in his final five years teaching at College of Marin, he prepared for retirement by developing a business plan.
The Stories and the Tellers
During his 35 years at College of Marin, Tjernell reflects on the talent of his fellow instructors, support staff, and students. “It was a rich environment to nurture me and make possible much of what has come since I retired.”
And even at Longship Press, he values the stories because of the storytellers.
“What I have discovered is that my interactions with the poets, the fiction writers, the artists, the printers and binders… the people themselves have been the biggest reason to start this company,” Tjernell said. “Everyone from the struggling poet in Berkeley or San Rafael to a United States Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award winners. These people have made this endeavor a magnificent adventure.”
“Thank you for the opportunity to tell the tale.”