I first write poetry? In a box of things Mother
had kept I found a poem in my childhood scrawl, this just a few
weeks ago after her death. I don’t remember writing that poem
about geese flying over the farm in fall, but apparently I did.
It’s sort of fourth rate William Cullen Bryant, although I’m
sure I had never seen “Ode to a Waterfowl” at that time.
So I guess I would have to say that occasionally I was trying to
write poetry from an early age. I do remember trying to write short
stories, imitations of the ones I had read in Sports Afield. (Yes,
hunting magazines used to print fiction.) I remember showing a couple
of those efforts to my eighth grade English teacher who was also
the basketball coach. I doubt that he had much interest, at least
I don’t recall any encouragement. (He had us memorize an alphabetical
list of 42 common prepositions: about, above, across, after, along,
I enrolled in a fiction writing course during my junior year in
college. I don’t recall there being any poetry course, but
I could not have conceived of myself as a poet then anyway. I wrote
a story about finding a dead body called “Sing, Damn It, He’s
Dead.” It attempted to deal with the same experience of “The
Third of September in Sixty-Three” (p. 62 in Loose Change).
So it’s only taken me forty years to find the form for that
subject. I’m sure I wrote a few poems during my college days,
and I read a lot of poetry, of course, but I didn’t sustain
the attempt to write poetry until I began teaching juniors (thus
American literature, my great love) at Topeka High School in 1965.
I suspect that teaching poetry caused me to begin to understand
the form of great poems more richly than I had previously, thus
I began to “get it.” I went back to graduate school
in Lawrence in 1969 and by that time had accumulated a small collection
of things. None of those ever saw print, but I did show them to
my major professor, John Willingham, who died not long ago. He returned
them saying, “You know, some of these are pretty good.”
I did not know that. Nothing could have been harder for me to conceive
than being a poet. It was so alien to my formative experience.
On the way back to the farm after passing my oral exams for the
M.A. degree, I heard something new in my head and began writing
it down. It was the first version of “Getting Into the Act,”
which is in Familiar Ground. Incidentally, “Excursion”
(p. 58 in Loose Change) is a refinement of that first poem. I knew
when I read over the first draft that I had hit upon a treatment
that was mine in a way nothing I had written to that point had ever
achieved. And I was off!
So I guess that gets into your second question: I should say that
I was doing lots of finger exercises until 1970 when I first began
writing poetry that felt right, then I began sending pieces out.
The old Kansas Quarterly was the first magazine in which I was published.
I would have to look up the year. By the mid-seventies I was committed
to the craft with a sense of confidence: I was a poet. If vocation
means you make your way doing it, then I have never pursued poetry
as a vocation. Teaching has been my vocation, but the dividend is
that, as a teacher, you are usually teaching yourself more than
anyone else in the room. I was always “practicing” the
craft in the sense of studying rather intently the question of how
does the poem work. How did he/she do that? Not that you imitate
others’ performances on paper, but it sinks into the mind
and affects what comes forth in personal expression. Early on, I
held the conviction that showing kids how poetry and fiction worked
was more useful to them than trying to coerce acceptance of my interpretation
As to my HCC teaching, at a community college the English department
is essentially a service department. I spent most of my time teaching
young people how to write straightforward nonfiction prose. “Essays”
as they are loosely called. That is a kind of salt mine labor, marathon
reading of student papers week in and week out. Often my best students
were not in the least interested in writing for its own sake. More
times than I like to remember I was told by students I was helping
to enroll, “I want to get my English out of the way.”
Like a roadblock, or a tooth extraction. But I caused a good many
students to re-evaluate reading and writing, a most satisfying conversion
when it happened. Since we taught some literature in the second
composition course, it was heaven to show them things about poems,
stories, and a novel that they had never understood. “I didn’t
know it could be like that” can apply to more than sex. I
did teach an introductory literature course from time to time, a
creative writing course, and a course in mythology, a very useful
exploration for me personally.
I guess I should confess that I found teaching immensely satisfying
when it succeeded. I made a number of life-long friends from among
my students, and I didn’t really want my writing to be a vocational
necessity. I liked the privacy of writing, even of publishing. When
I came here, no one else on the faculty was writing poetry, or publishing
it. Now there are a couple of young poets on the staff. I don’t
think publicity would have done me any good, and certainly not the
pressure to publish which university writers feel. I’m just
not built that way psychologically.
As to that home place, yes, the land where I roamed as a kid is
still in the family. I (and my wife) bought some of it from my grandmother’s
estate. My brother and his son eventually assumed a land contract
on the folks’ place after Dad retired from farming in his
late seventies. My nephew lives in the house where I grew up, but
when my parents had to leave the farm, something irrevocably changed
in my relationship to the place. You know, things change and you
change with them, like it or not. I feel closest to a small pasture
on the hill across the river and above the farm where I roamed with
my dog as a kid. (Tom Averill knows the place.) I still camp there
in good weather, but as I grow older I go there less and less. Yet
it’s forever vivid in my head, or my heart.
I would say that my poetry usually springs from personal experience,
treated by imagination, or laundered through imagination by the
catalyst of emotion. Camping under a night sky, rambling in windy
grassland in glorious privacy, and so on – the experiences
generate a kind of ecstasy that I spin out into words as a matter
of habit. Maybe it’s that sense of loss that motivates me
most strongly. You know, to salvage something of the beautiful sense
of being fully alive in unmediated connection to a landscape, and
a part of that is always a consciousness of mortality. But since
I’m not writing autobiography, I can allow the reconfiguration
of literal experience to express some sort of performance of what
the actual engendered as an end product of feeling -- how the experience
felt. I mean, one has to find an equation for the richest states
of consciousness. Otherwise, we are trapped in abstraction: I was
happy, etc. I think of O’Keeffe, painting a visual equation
for how a flower or a bone makes one feel if one truly sees it,
sees it in the fullest possible sense of perception --- that’s
what it’s all about. To wake up to that “o’erbrimmed
moment,” as Keats put it, so that life isn’t wasted
in the dullard’s quasi-perceptions. What did Adrienne Rich
say, “The real question is whether or not human life is possible.”
My prejudice is that many human beings never achieve it.
I think Stafford has influenced me in ways I can’t even
explain. I know that I can be reading his poetry and suddenly have
a flash of possibility in my own mind that has no discernible relationship
to what I’m reading in his work. It’s strange. When
I hear others talk about Stafford, I think I hear something of that
from them too. No one I can think of offered such a generous invitation
to participate in the art as he did. I think its causes are mysterious,
maybe even metaphysical. No wonder some people think of him as saintly
(something he would reject with that look of his). What people are
trying to express is a sense of gratitude for his inclusive generosity.
They are so coercive because the inclusion is so intelligent and
authentic. There is no patronization in him, ever, no artificiality.
The real thing!
But as for others who influenced me? Well, my mother, first of all.
She read to us every night when I was a child. Since we didn’t
know that children have short attention spans, we listened until
she stopped reading, or we drifted off to sleep. I particularly
remember the Thornton W. Burgess books, I think they were, these
animal stories with neat little morals at the end. I don’t
remember a one of the morals, but I remember the sound of the prose
and the nature of the characters: wise Grandfather Frog and wily
Reddy the Fox and the rabbit, a bit goofy, always stumbling into
trouble. I don’t remember his name, but it wasn’t Peter.
Mother had two years of college before she married and her unfinished
teacher preparation had stressed the importance of reading aloud
to children, so she did that. But other poets? I suppose we were
all seduced by modern criticism and T.S. Eliot in college. It was
not until I began teaching that I realized how far my sense of life
was from his (and lucky for me). I remember William Carlos Williams
writing in his autobiography that he felt betrayed by Eliot. You
know, here he and other American poets of his circle were trying
to make an authentic American poetry, and Eliot defects from the
whole imagist/ no-meaning-but-in-things school to a filigreed language
that requires footnotes. So I would say that W.C.W. was an influence,
his example as much as his art perhaps.
I read the American poets -- Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, E.A. Robinson,
and one way or another they seeped into my sense of poetics. I mean,
of course there was the consciousness of academics, taking and giving
exams, etc. but I’m not sure how direct that influence is
on one’s own poetry. It’s more subtle than that, I think.
Whenever I have realized that I was writing something that was perceptibly
influence by another poet, I stopped writing it. Later poets provoking
deep admiration, if not influencing me directly, include Elizabeth
Bishop and Alan Dugan, even Robert Lowell. At one time I read a
lot of poetry by contemporary Midwestern poets, but I can’t
say they influenced me. At least I’m not aware of it. Harley
Elliott of Salina has been a long-time friend, and we exchange poems
in letters, have for years. I often take his suggestions for changes
that a poem needs, much more than he benefits from mine, I suspect.
I’ve just been reading a good bit of Jonathan Holden’s
work, and his intelligence is refreshing, invigorating, but . .
. I guess I’m too old to be influenced. The last book of poems
I read that really set me back on my heels, and it’s been
a while I confess, was Linda Gregg’s Too Bright To See. She
went to Greece and took a little stone house and stuck to her business.
What she did for that place is what I want to do for mine, would
like to do for mine: create that charged sense of being alive in
a particular locale. So it’s a parallel path of desire more
than influence that I get from reading others’ work. It’s
encouraging to see anyone succeed in doing the kind of thing one
would like to do for one’s own life and time.
I see I anticipated your next question. That wasn’t the most
recently read book, but it’s one that certainly sticks with
me. I just re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer for
a Kansas Humanities Council book talk in Kansas City in September.
I value books that take up the real issues that face us, rather
than the issues politicians use as distractions. She initially majored
in biology and writes so well about our environmental dilemma, and
it is a bit didactic at times, I admit. I just read William Kloefkorn’s
memoir of growing up in Attica, Kansas, in the forties and fifties,
At Home on This Moveable Earth – just a wonderful little book
(from the University of Nebraska Press). I read Jim Hoy’s
Flint Hills Cowboys not long ago. Great stuff! And I will add that
many of Tom Averill’s short stories stick with me, rich in
authentic detail and wisely humorous. I should mention a book that
I re-read when I’m feeling trapped and defeated: Edward Abbey’s
Desert Solitaire. E.L. Doctorow has a collection of lectures he
gave at Harvard that I find reaffirming. And The New Yorker when
it’s good. Holden’s poetry I mentioned. Michael Pollam’s
The Omnivore’s Dilemma struck hard, a nonfiction book about
our food production recommended to me by Tom Averill, incidentally.
Well, you can see that I read as if at a Smorgasbord. As my daughter
says, who reads twice as fast as I do, “So many books, so
little time.” My favorite plays are Hamlet and The Glass Menagerie,
since I’m naming names here.
I am not trained in music. My sister is, teaches piano in Des Moines
and plays beautifully. So I confess that folk music still appeals
to me most of all. As a painter named Walter Anderson said, “The
first poetry is written by farmers and sailors who sing with the
wind in their teeth.” “The Erie Canal” and “John
Henry” and “The Old Chisolm Trail” – those
kinds of songs have always appealed to me. So I like music that
employs those American elements – much of Copeland’s
work, and “The Grand Canyon Suite” – I reveal
myself as narrow and unsophisticated. (“America the Beautiful”
should be our national anthem in my humble opinion. And I’m
so glad we have “Home on the Range.” Maybe I’m
but a step or two away from General Grant who said he could only
remember two tunes: “One is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and
the other one isn’t.”) By the same token, I will add
that I like a good deal of Stephen Vincent Benet’s attempts
to make that raw American experience into art – “The
Mountain Whippoorwill” and “The Devil and Daniel Webster,”
etc. Celebrations of that American possibility caught me at a formative
age, and I am entrapped to some extent. (I like Duke Ellington’s
compositions quite a lot, an American original.) What I hear now
seems too often about nothing but making money. I cannot shake that
anachronistic conviction that we should aspire to something noble.
How can one talk fanatically about the dignity of life on a planet
where almost a billion people don’t even have access to clean
drinking water? It’s ludicrous. The globe cannot sustain our
numbers for long, and people talk about nine billion in another
half century or so. I’m just as glad I won’t be around
to see it. I think of Faulkner, someone whom I read almost in total
once upon a time, and his Isaac McCaslin who sees the Big Woods
going down to ax and saw, sees the land running out with his own
life and speaks of the punishment of our free will turned to unbridled
destruction. Deeply moving language; and you know, he wanted to
be a poet first, and he is in a way
I have read a great deal of the literature about and by Indians
(“feather not dot” as my urban nieces say for clarification).
I feel a little bit like a reservation Indian, having lived a life
that has vanished and is essentially incomprehensible to contemporary
Americans. So Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses is a book of
poems that has stayed with me. Scott Momaday’s The Way to
Rainy Mountain is, I agree with Tony Hillerman, an American classic.
Sherman Alexie’s work is congenial, especially The Summer
of Black Widows, which I realize now is the latest book of poems
that really impressed me. – and it still some time back.
For all the criticism heaped upon it, I think Black Elk Speaks is
an important book. “It is in the darkness of their eyes that
men get lost,” Black Elk says. And what a life! He knew a
life without white influence, was at the Custer slaughter, traveled
to Europe with Cody’s Wild West Show, and lived into the 1950s!
-- Well, there’s no end to this.
I don’t know that I have a favorite movie. It’s easier
with books. The Great Gatsby is an American masterpiece that I cherish.
It’s so good that it can’t be made into a successful
movie. So I guess I’ll try to think of untranslatable movies.
-- It would depend on the context, I guess. Of the world I knew?
“Hud” brilliantly adapted from (as much inspired by,
as adapted from) Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass
By is a superb film. No one else has gotten the Great Plains onto
film the way James Wong Howe did in that movie, but you have to
see it on the big screen to know that. (His wife, Sonora Babb, grew
up in eastern Colorado, where my mother did, and wrote a fine memoir
called An Owl On Every Post.) Apocalypse Now! is a brilliant failure
about the horrors of war. I think of many movies I like. For the
sake of brevity, since I’ve gone on too long about most of
your questions, I’ll just name The Treasure of the Sierra
Madre. That seems to me as fine a performance of the film medium
as any I can recall. Some of its effects may look crude now, but
the shape of the story, the pace, the acting, and finally what it
dramatizes about human folly – who has done it better? (Although
I will add that The Hours just knocked me back on my heels, to name
a recent movie that’s fine. I could almost quote Dickinson:
I know it’s poetry when it takes the top of my head off. )
But I know little more about movie making than I know about music,
so I don’t speak to that with much authority. – Oops,
I see I turned questions eight and nine around.
I have written fiction. I wrote a couple of novels, neither of
which ever quite worked, although I did have some interesting, if
tantalizing, adventures with Harper & Row back in the eighties.
From that I finally winnowed three long stories, one of which I
thought really worked. I lost a novella competition because, the
judge said, you can’t publish a book without a “sympathetic”
character in it. My reading of that was, This is too dark for us.
And it is dark, but I think it works. However, writing that much
fiction and getting one successful story from it surely means you
don’t really know what you’re doing.
I wrote a number of short stories, but only two of those have been
published. I put copies of those in the mail for you. Both are inspired
by actual experiences. My cousin and I did get thrown from a ran-away
horse when we were kids. The narrator’s childhood self is
an invented version of me, but I never said the things he says.
What I was most interested in was a treatment of those movie fantasies
from the six-gun westerns of my childhood, i.e., the loss of innocence,
that most preoccupying of American themes. “Tricks”
was an attempt to get my uncle’s genius with trick horses
onto the page; the story line is probably inspired as much by Hemingway’s
bleak failures as by anything. **
In short, I learned a lot about fiction from all that writing, and
most of all, I learned that I don’t have the knack for it.
But I gained greater respect for those who do.
Well, that’s a start. If something above doesn’t satisfy,
send back another question in pursuit. I’ll offer what I can.
October 24, 2006
**P.S. I took a graduate course in fiction writing when I was working
on the novels, and “Tricks” was put before the seminar
one week. An urban woman asked, about the boy’s insulting
request that the stallion be made to stand on his front legs, “Isn’t
that hard for a horse to do?” Yes, dear, very hard. (I sometimes
got the feeling that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.)
And speaking of formal study, I took a couple of courses with Bruce
Cutler at Wichita State University in the late seventies –
he later left and died in California several years ago. I learned
a lot from Cutler about the mechanics of poetic construction.
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