Joe Chaney

Michiana Chronicler

Joe Chaney is a poet living quietly in South Bend. He is director of the Master of Liberal Studies Program, an interdisciplinary degree for community leaders, life-long learners, public intellectuals, and people with a range of academic ambitions, at IU South Bend. Whenever possible, he travels to far-away places.

Ways to Connect

L. Calçada / AP

In my ongoing fascination with the concept of emptiness, I’ve been trying to understand a few basic things about nuclear physics. I see the problem of emptiness as similar to the problem of time—a question of the improbable and accidental nature of existence. Enormous distances, like enormous time-spans and pervasive emptiness, create the experience or concept of desert places—inhuman environments and inexorable threats.

Anja Niedringhaus / AP File Photo

As a child, I dreamed of greatness. I wanted to be a major league baseball pitcher, but I’d have settled for quarterback on an NFL team. Basketball also attracted me, especially Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers. I would have loved to play for the Lakers. Season by season, I practiced these sports with my friends. I possessed some skills. Pitching a rubber baseball against a wall, I could hit the same mark over and over. My football passes were accurate. I was small, but I believed that I would grow bigger.

Mike Roemer / AP File Photo

I’ve always been a football fan. I’ve played football. I collected football trading cards. My brothers and I once received Christmas gifts of football helmets and shoulder pads. So it may surprise you to hear that I’ve launched a movement to change the culture of American football. My idea is simple: teams should cooperate.


I recall shopping at my local grocery store back in late March when the seriousness of the coronavirus was first becoming obvious to everyone. I pushed my cart into the paper products aisle to discover: no toilet paper! Another shopper was already surveying the empty shelves. He looked at me and asked, in disbelief, “What does toilet paper have to do with the pandemic?”

Terry Chea / AP

In American myth, swamps are threatening places whose stagnant waters conceal alligators and snakes, if not slimy monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In Hollywood westerns, by contrast, the desert represents a hard, honest purity, a moral ground that tests the souls of individuals. In the desert, you can see for miles, everything is clear, but a swamp closes in around you. In southern chain gang escape movies, the swamp is something you fall into and can’t escape. The swamp is a popular image of the unknowable, the mysterious, and the corrupt.

Years ago, a friend of mine had a favorite menu item at a carry-out Chinese restaurant. The proprietors, who barely spoke English, had put their young daughter in charge of the register. The girl noticed that my friend always chose the same dinner. Once when my friend picked up her order, the girl smiled knowingly and said, “You like it!”

New York State Sex Offender Registry / Associated Press

We’re told that public benefits create moral hazards because they make people dependent on the government, and there’s nothing worse (according to this common theory) than giving a poor person the sense that they don’t need to work for a living. But great wealth, which we too easily value as something to be desired in and of itself, presents a more dangerous risk to the democratic values we cherish as Americans.

Fred Kaufman/AP Photo

Friendship is one of life’s great gifts. Last weekend I drove to Cincinnati to see my best friend, Dan, who has had heart trouble for several years. I’ve known him for all of my adult life. We met in college during my first semester. I was seventeen—young enough that he knows me by my childhood name, Joey, as if he’d been a neighborhood kid. Our memories are intertwined. We share a long history of personal references. Although I’d had a few close childhood friends, Dan was the first person who shared perfectly my enthusiasm for literature and art.

Indiana Department of Corrections

I, like many Americans, have a relative serving time in prison. Ten years. People like me don’t usually talk about it. I recently visited him. If you’ve watched prison movies, you have some idea of how it feels to go through the security process and finally hear the big metal door close behind you, leaving you on the inside without a key. That’s a faint taste of what the prisoner feels when being locked up for the long haul.

Tristan Savatier / Getty Images

Recently, work took me to Las Vegas, where I lodged at an off-strip hotel with a casino. I was there for a popular culture conference, and I found myself paying attention to the most popular activity in town. The casino, with its roulette wheels and blackjack tables, its keno screens, and its rows and rows of video slot machines, occupied a sprawling first floor. From the front lobby, you moved down to the Starbucks and then on to the gambling floor.

Joe Chaney

Recently I promised to give a poetry reading with the stated plan of dividing my recitation between poems about dogs and poems about cats. I’d thought I’d written plenty of poems about both, but when I began to list them, I noticed that my cat poems merely mentioned cats. Cats were images and ideas. They figured as symbols. The poems weren’t about the cats, and the cats weren’t characters. They never did anything interesting.

The dog poems did fit the bill. Here is a typical one, called “Bali Dog”:

Bali Dog

We were lost among rice fields near Ubud

A Dog's Bath-Time Drama

Nov 30, 2018
Joe Chaney

This week at my house we performed the biannual washing of the dog. Our dog Luna has a sort of self-cleaning mechanism—not just the licking, but also fast bacterial janitorial work, or something like that. Her fur is short and sparse. Only very slowly, or hardly at all, does she become sour-smelling as the season progresses. She does have a certain doggy love of goose droppings. She rolls in them, and she seems very pleased with herself afterwards, knowing that she can show off this distinctive perfume to the neighbor dogs.

People can become depressed on social media, threatened by comparisons with other people whose celebratory photos of successful children, talented pets, and wonderfully full heads of hair seem like bragging. None of that bothers me. I’m a private person and an introvert, and I find that the new American culture of virtual reality suits me well. I’m comfortable with language, and I’m a fast typist. This combination makes me something of a chatterbox online. I was never a popular kid in school, but in a text-driven culture, my English-major skills have value.

The Gift Of Enthusiasm

Aug 17, 2018
Joe Chaney

Never underestimate the value of becoming enthusiastic about something in life—especially a hobby, a more or less purposeless enthusiasm not involving any striving or wishing. Here I’m not talking about an amateur sport like golf, which imitates the competition of everyday life, its thrills, frustrations, and disappointments. Last spring I had the honor of hosting a Japanese drummer, Erika Fujii. One day we went to John Adams High School at the invitation of the marching band percussion director, Charlie Lawrence.

Facing the Tiger

Apr 13, 2018

The best art is not tame, but wild, like a caged animal whose enclosure seems at first to be a protective barrier but expands and grows around us, so that almost before we know it we are alone with the tiger. Such art convicts us of our inadequacies, helping us to live with a refreshed sense of honesty. It makes us more serious about our lives. This happened to me in Tokyo last year, and I’ve been reliving the experience all this week during the visit of Taiko drummer Erika Fujii.

Tony Krabill

Before the winter weather hit, my wife and I were deeply into the quest of finding a new house. Nothing is forcing us to move. Maybe we’re driven partly by consumerist urges. Clicking through online photos of dens and kitchens and sunrooms and backyards, we were looking for the right combination of features. We were patient shoppers. With each day we were getting a better sense of what we wanted, but as we clarified our goals, the flaws of particular homes seemed more significant, causing us to hesitate.

On Formality

Dec 29, 2017

My resolution for the new year is to become more formal. As a professor, I have to decide whether my students should call me Professor Chaney, Dr. Chaney, or just plain Joe. My bias has been toward informality. I came up in the profession in California, where informality is the rule, and when I first arrived at IU South Bend, many of my students were actually older than I. There were many non-traditional students in those days. Now my students are much younger, and they seem to need and want the formal distance, along with the idealism that it can foster.

Wonder Woman in America

Nov 3, 2017

The recent sexual harassment scandals involving movie moguls and other powerful media men has led to thoughtful commentary on the sexualizing of women. We hear how some of the male perpetrators regularly discussed the sexual appeal of female performers. Call it the “locker room talk” of the news and entertainment business. Outside the locker room of executive offices, this evaluation encourages women to strive for attention from men.

The End of the Road

Sep 8, 2017

Back in the early 2000s I dreamed of writing a novel, but I wanted to set the story in the early 1990s to avoid scenes in which people sat composing emails. I didn’t want my characters to type out messages and then, at best, maybe hesitate dramatically before hitting “Send.” That’s what it’s like to be hung up on realism. Many authors still have their characters meet in person for extended conversations, but that’s a nostalgic take on our real lives.

Go Go Swallows!

Jul 14, 2017

My dream came true this summer when I got to attend a Japanese baseball game in Tokyo on a student “free day” during an overseas study program I co-directed with my Japanese colleague Yoshiko Green. I wanted to know how the quintessentially American game translates to Japanese culture. In the States, baseball reflects our individualism and our obsession with measurement. It’s a team sport in which individual players determine outcomes in a direct way – unlike football or basketball, in which the whole team executes coordinated “plays” and every player’s motion counts.

Death from a Distance

Mar 29, 2017

I’ve never been one for murder mysteries, but lately I’ve spent much of my “down time” watching the kind of British detective dramas that run on PBS stations – series like Inspector Lewis and Grantchester. In such shows, idyllic English villages and towns suffer an astonishing number of grisly murders.

This week is framed by two events that seem to be in tension with one another. Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and today is the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. The simmering tension between these two events boiled over in the conflict between Donald Trump and Georgia Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis. That conflict reveals a troubling trend in American culture.

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. The turkey dinner reminds me of the pilgrims at New Plymouth and the rich cultural contributions of the native tribes. I think of the Revolution and the achievement of the U.S. Constitution. Although I acknowledge the harshest and most disappointing elements of our history, what sustains me always is the sense that our Constitution can change and has changed over time, opening new freedoms for African Americans and women, for example.

Now is the time

Oct 7, 2016

Now is the Time

Joe Chaney


Aug 5, 2016


"Temples and Shrines"

Jun 10, 2016

    Temples and Shrines

How to Make America Great

The drama of presidential politics has overwhelmed the country this year, giving rise to the hope or fear that one candidate or another can single-handedly transform American society. Some look for a savior. Their opponents fear a dictatorship, because tearing up the Constitution would seem to be the only way to realize the dream of a final solution to our woes.


"Dog World"

Feb 12, 2016


  Dog World

Joe Chaney

The Gift of Christmas

Jan 29, 2016