Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

3. David Wagoner, Interview

November 16, 1998

Dan Lamberton: What I came to talk to you about is something I’ve been asked to do. The Washington Humanities Commission has a Speakers’ Bureau that goes out to small towns, and to universities, and to whoever wants it. They have 20 speakers who circulate through the state, and go everywhere from Twisp to Neah Bay. And they’ve asked for a lecture on the history of Washington State poetry. To speak on poetic history except in a kind of chronological way is difficult to organize, except to talk in terms of people.

David Wagoner: It begins with Theodore Roethke. I can’t think of any poet whose work has survived in anthology except for Roethke.

Lamberton: You yourself have been agent and witness to a great deal of change in this region’s poetry. How has this regional poetry changed before your eyes?

Wagoner: In my view—and it’s limited, of course— the heart of poetry in Washington State has been the creative writing program at the University of Washington. And as it grew, more and more of its graduates—a number of whom were publishing nationally—and even if they weren’t publishing had backgrounds now that transcended the region and could pass that on to their students. And more and more of them stayed and taught in regional schools, at the community college level, at the college and high school level.

Gradually, there was a kind of saturation of more intense reading in contemporary poetry, and a rise in skills in writing. People came from all over the country to take the writing courses at the University of Washington and then didn’t go away. It sort of fed on itself. This is true of Western Washington, Central Washington, Seattle University, Eastern Washington, University of Puget Sound—all of these, in my opinion, to a lesser extent than the University of Washington—fed this kind of fountaining, of wising up, of increased skills in writing poetry. Little magazines grew up. Poetry Northwest may have had something to do with it, as well as Willow Springs in Spokane. Then, at a later stage, small presses began attracting and demanding good work to be printed. Copper Canyon and Dragon Gate and Gray Wolf—all these presses began to publish poetry and there was a greater awareness.

It must have been happening elsewhere, too, because over the years students—many of whom came from far away—were also better. So they had been learning through the Poetry in the Schools programs, through all of this change that came about after the Second World War—when there were public readings of poetry, more outlooks for poetry, more magazines, wising up to what was corny, and everything became better.

Lamberton: When my brother-in-law was in third grade, his mother sent a poem he had written to Roethke, and he still has the letter than Roethke wrote back to him. It’s a kind letter to a little boy, so someone living out in the Okanogan Valley knew about Roethke. . . .

Wagoner: How does that happen? It’s hard to say. . . . I think he was the trigger. His winning national prizes, of course, got him into the newspapers, and he became a role model for a lot of people who never met him, probably.

Lamberton: He wasn’t a low-profile man, either.

Wagoner: No. He was the first living poet I saw, at Penn State. It had not occurred to me, until I was a senior in college, that it was possible to be a poet. And not anything else. I had written a trunkful of poetry, but I thought it was a pastime, a kind of avocation. But when I saw a living, walking poet who was a teacher, then I thought, well, this is what I have to do. And my life changed. This has happened to a lot of young writers.

Lamberton: You’ve had that effect, too.

Wagoner: Have I? I don’t know what kind of example I am. . . . I haven’t been in the mad house yet.

Lamberton: No. You have. When I talk to people who have gone to school here, you’ve been a great influence. Especially for people who talk about the ear and the importance of sound.

Wagoner: Well, Roethke did it to me, and to Jim Wright and to Dick Hugo and Carolyn Kizer, and we pass it on.

Lamberton: You weren’t waifs when you came out here, in the 1950s. There were a number of good writers who came out here. Were you attracted out here by each other. Did you know each other?

Wagoner: No, Roethke was the catalyst. James Wright came deliberately from Kenyon College in Ohio to study with Theodore Roethke. Dick Hugo was the only local accident. He was a local boy, but he came to the University for Roethke’s workshop. I got my job out here because Roethke recommended me. I had never been west of the Mississippi. I came out here, in 1954, because Roethke got me a job. So I owe it to him. . . .

Lamberton: Now, Carolyn Kizer was from Spokane.

Wagoner: But she was living in Seattle and took advantage of the workshop. She has always been aware of where the action was, and she knew right away.

Lamberton: Who else? Tess Gallagher was local, too.

Wagoner: Yes, I think she was a student of Roethke’s in his last semester, and she became a student of mine afterward.

Lamberton: I think, probably, that Raymond Carver reached a different group of people in some way. You hear about him some as a poet, but not as much as what’s happened here at the University.

Wagoner: Uh . . . I would have to agree.

Lamberton: Has this been a good place to be a poet?

Wagoner: For me, absolutely. It has for me, the central shock of untouched nature. I came from a place where nature was ruined, and here the natural world was still in a pristine state, in some areas. You could go and find them easily. It’s not as easy to find them now, but in that sense for me it has been wonderful. And the University has been very good to me, too. Teaching itself has been part of a three-way interchange in my life—editing, teaching and writing. Any energy I put into one of those seems to come back to me in another form from one of the others in this three-way cycle. I can always be one of those. I am never hatless. Sometimes I try to put two on, and it doesn’t work too well. The chance to teach and edit in equal proportions has helped me as a writer tremendously.

Lamberton: Have you ever written about editing?

Wagoner: No, not for publication. I’ve talked about it in interviews.

Lamberton: I’ve read the Michigan series on poets on poetry and I’ve often wished I could show people an example of what you’ve taught people through prose. . . .

Wagoner: I wouldn’t know what to say about editing. It comes down to some very similar kinds of judgment to those you exercise in class. I mean, what is a good poem? How do you recognize a good poem? Or how do you recognize what’s wrong with your own poem? The three questions are close knit. When I read poetry manuscripts for Poetry Northwest, I look first for the ear. It really has got to be persuasive if the writer doesn’t have control of the rhythm. It really has to be fancy metaphor-making and/or story telling or real novelty, because if it doesn’t have the right sounds and rhythm, it’s sort of hopeless, it’s going to fall apart.

Lamberton: Let’s say you’re talking to a small community group, in Twisp, or something, and you speak of the ear, and someone writes a few poems on the side and wants to be better, how do you tell someone to develop the ear? By reading, I suppose. . . .

Wagoner: Yes, if you haven’t been gifted with a good natural sense of the music of speech. I try to talk about it in class, too, and it takes quite a while, as you may remember. One of the first steps is controlling the tempo, being able to slow down the line and make it slow in the reader’s ear, and to speed it up, or to make a joyful noise under the Lord, to get out of neutral. The more experience I have and the older I get, the more I seem to recognize the correlation between what a poet does and what a trained singer does. There are many connections between singing a song right and making a poem right. So if you think about pitch, register, volume, tempo . . . these are what you must control, or try to. In some poems it’s more crucial than others, and in some parts of poems, it’s more crucial than in other parts of the same poem. But if you don’t have that skill, if you can’t make those modulations and changes and switches in speed and intensity, you aren’t going to reproduce the human voice with its passionate and dispassionate changes.

Lamberton: Singers have the beginning benefit of notes over their lines that say, hold this and hold this. But then the interpretation is beyond that. . . .

Wagoner: Right, and, of course, the poet has to be his own composer, and his own accompanist.

Lamberton: I’m not sure this is a question that is discussable, but does a place affect sound? People like to say so, editors like to say so, sometimes, in anthologies at least, or journalists will say there is a Northwest sound, but what in the hell is that?

Wagoner: Oh, I don’t think there is a Northwest sound. I don’t think there is a regional characteristic. I think that the boundaries of Washington State are an accident, in literary terms.

Lamberton: Is wilderness or birdsong a factor . . . that’s all universal too, isn’t it?

Wagoner: Sure. There are birds in New York City. You just have to look for them a little harder, probably. And poets are so mobile these days anyway. Is Denise Levertov a Northwest poet? I don’t know that she belongs any more to this region than she belongs to California or New York City.

Lamberton: She tried to defend the Northwest as a place for a certain sound.

Wagoner: Well, sure, and she spent many mornings looking at Mt. Rainier and felt good about it. Sure, it changed her work, probably, a little. But it certainly didn’t make her a regional poet. We can claim her, and it’s fun to. I still get awards as an Ohio poet. Got one last year. I won the Ohioana Library Association prize for the best book of poems. I’m an Indiana poet, too. I’m in anthologies of Indiana poetry.

Lamberton: I took your poem, “Their Bodies, to the students of anatomy at Indiana University,” and posted it on the door of the cadaver room in the medical school where I was working. . . .

Wagoner: Oh really? Where was this?

Lamberton: At Loma Linda Medical School in Southern California. . . .

Wagoner: I’ll be damned. . . .

Lamberton: And it stayed there. It may still be there. . . .

Wagoner: Did anybody read it?

Lamberton: Oh, I’m sure. It was on the main door.

Wagoner: Who was the poet . . . Phil Appleman . . . did it at Indiana . . . he went and put it on the door at Indiana Medical School.

Lamberton: Who knows where you are? I told some students to read it. I was the vice president for academic administration there. Anyway, there it sits. . . .

Wagoner: Thank you.

Lamberton: Some poets want to claim that they are conduits for nature, that their ear is affected by their closeness to the natural world, but it seems to me that it’s like trying to hear God in prayer, if that’s what you’re trying to do. How do you know what it sounds like?

Wagoner: Oh, I have no idea about that. I’m not sure I know what those poets mean. I’d have to see what they’ve said about it. I, at times, have felt akin to Kafka in wanting such a silence as doesn’t exist in this world. He was bothered by noises, and I have been too. I wear earplugs when I work. I don’t like to listen to things when I work.

Lamberton: I got very suspicious of people who talked about nature as being their identity in terms of sound. I know onomatopoeia and place names and the sound of a football in the woods can mean something, but that could happen anywhere. . . .

Wagoner: I would consider this just some kind of eccentricity, and I don’t blame them. If they want to say a pair of pajamas inspired them, it’s fine with me. If they feel good about it. There have been all kinds of weird uses of cigarettes and beer alone. Stephen Spender said he had as many as five cigarettes lit at the same time at his writing desk as he put up a smoke screen between him and distraction.

Lamberton: I think about some of the work of Gary Snyder and Olgo Broumas at times and others who seem to want to blend into a sort of beautiful cohabitation with the natural world and almost quiver to try to get there, and the poems show that. . . .

Wagoner: Yes, and when I read the notebooks of Thoreau, and read about his experiences, I recognize a great deal of my own . . . his creek waiting, his immersion in ponds, his joining mating toads, his following groundhogs, his bringing home a huge mushroom almost as big as he was . . . the absolute joy as though he had found the treasure of the earth, a huge snapping turtle. Yes, there is something, there is a kinship I feel with people like this, and with Gary Snyder, too, whose experiences in the wilderness have been probably more intense than mine. He lived as a fire watcher. I’ve never done that.

Lamberton: I know years ago when I was a student in Montana when Hugo and Bill Kittredge and Dorothy Johnson, the western novelist, and all those people were around there on Wiley Street, it was the first time in my life that it ever dawned on me that literature could be good and be local. I was a young man and I had always thought that literature came out of New York or London, and it was a real revelation to find that out, that there could be great literature out of your home. And I think it still would be a revelation for a lot of people, which gives me the inspiration to do this.

Wagoner: Yes. You know, when I think of those evenings back in the late 1950s at Carolyn Kizer’s, sometimes there would be Stanley Kunitz and Dick Hugo and Jim Wright and future Pulitzer Prize winners, and we thought we were just sitting around talking about poetry. When I think of all the prizes that groups has collected later, it surprises me, it amazes me. When Dick Hugo gave the Roethke reading here, he in his introduction, mentioned how we used to sit around and gripe about the eastern establishment. And he said to me in the audience, “You know it occurred to me the other day, Dave, that we are the eastern establishment.” I was the editor of the Princeton University Press poetry series and Dick became part of the Yale Younger Poets Series. We are the eastern establishment. . . .

Lamberton: Someone said that your literature has arrived when you can just talk about your home and what you love. How did Poetry Northwest get started?

Wagoner: A Canadian named Darrell Pritchard inherited a little money from the death of his mother and wanted to start a magazine, and he was a friend of Carolyn’s and Dick Hugo’s, and Nelson Bentley’s. They became editors and he was the publisher, and he published one issue and ran out of money. So Carolyn took over—and she didn’t have much money either—and ran it a little while. It began in 1959. Carolyn ran it into 1962 on her own. I think in 1963, she got help from Robert Heilman, the head of the English Department, who then affiliated it with the University of Washington. She remained the editor, and the University took over the printing, and I don’t know what their financial arrangement was. Then in 1966, she was offered a job as head of literature for the National Council for the Arts in Washington, and grabbed the chance of course, and asked Heilman to ask me, or something of the kind, and Heilman asked me whether I would take it over as half my work for the English Department. And I said Yes, to Carolyn’s astonishment. She thought I didn’t ever want to be an editor. I just didn’t want to be someone else’s editor. If it was my magazine, that’s different. So I began in 1966.

Lamberton: Did you know what to look for at first? Were you stunned by the number of things that came in?

Wagoner: No, I had never seen the influx. That was the only time, that first six months or so, that I solicited manuscripts. There was enough for another issue and a half when I took over, so there was some elbow room. After that, it’s all been out of the slush pile.

Lamberton: What percentage of those things come from just this region? You publish people from all over the world. . . .

Wagoner: It’s not a terribly large percentage. Maybe one out of ten from this area.

Lamberton: Have you changed your idea of a good poem over the last 30 years?

Wagoner: Well, I have enjoyed the luxury of having better submissions. I think the magazine has improved in quality. There were some very good submissions early, but it was irregular, in a way that it is now not irregular. I haven’t had ever to publish a poem I didn’t think worthy of publication in order to make up an issue. And I have almost no backlog, and haven’t had now for something like eight or nine years. I am making it just, maybe, the week before. . . . You don’t have to wait to appear in Poetry Northwest.

Lamberton: How many submissions do you consider per issue?

Wagoner: I publish approximately 38 poems per issue. It’s under 160 poems a year. In order to publish 150-160 poems, I have to read between 15,000 and 20,000 a year. I have to read 100-120 poems to find one.

Lamberton: Are most of your submissions from the MFA class?

Wagoner: It’s hard to say. I can recognize some of them, you know if they come from Iowa City, chances are. . . . But not most, no.

Lamberton: It’s amazing how many people are out there writing poems. . . .

Wagoner: I sometimes think everybody is.

Lamberton: You’ve said that the poems in your magazine have gotten better. Is part of that attributable to how you’ve changed in thinking about poems?

Wagoner: It’s very hard for me to say. Robin Seyfried, who was for nearly 20 years the managing editor and who has recently resigned because of a lack of funding, she and I are doing an anthology of Poetry Northwest, a 40-year anthology. We’ve got a contract with the University of Washington Press to do it. And she is going to do the bulk of the collection, simply because I am blind to it, not good at recognizing the best work in Poetry Northwest. She is much better at it than I. So the bulk of the collecting will be hers. But we are at work at it and it will be out by next year.

Lamberton: When you say you are blind to it, that fascinates me, because, personally, when I look at students’ work, I’m often times so generous because of the energy they’ve put in and the work they’ve done, that it takes me quite a while before I get much of a critical eye. I get thrilled by their work and their desire. . . .

Wagoner: Something in me as an editor is so glad to see a really good poem, that I can now look at this poem by John Smith or Mary Brown, and remember how I felt when I opened the mail and there they were. And the joy seems equal. One of these poems may be better than the other, but I can’t tell which one is. It’s hard.

Lamberton: Another question is kind of like that. It goes back to this state again. When you came here, the Northwest was different from what it is now. Seattle has certainly changed, its urbanity is more international. And environmentalism has become an urban celebration. So you have the wilderness coming into the city, and the city losing its wilderness. But, has that changed how you felt about writing about it. When you came over here and saw the lush, ever-growing countryside, and now you are. . . .

Wagoner: and now I’m a suburbanite. No. It hasn’t. Because I can still go the places where I can feel renewed. They’re still there. And I can write about my memories, too, with as strong a reaction as something experienced yesterday. I’m going through a lot of old notes, and I have a shelf of material that I haven’t dealt with yet. I have many poems that are waiting for me to write and all I have to do is muster the right frame of mind and energy. I can begin again, no matter where I am. I can be in Florida. It doesn’t matter.

Lamberton: One last thing—You’ve talked about listening to music or singing as a guide to learning poetic arts. Are there people you turn to, or people you like to listen to?

Wagoner: Well, I grew up on German leider. . . .

Lamberton: You’re mother was a singer, wasn’t she?

Wagoner: Yes, she wasn’t very good, but she was trained. She could read music and had broad experiences singing. I do listen to singers, like the Italian singer Cecelia Bartolli. When she sings, I’m a puddle on the floor . . . I’m less enthused about opera than I once was, but I listen to the operas of Handel and Baroque music is a passion. Henry Purcell.

Lamberton: Now, you wrote about Indian songs, which is way on the other side. . . .

Wagoner: Yes, primitive music. I am very attracted to that, because it’s so closely connected with the language. Poetry and music then are still so close together, and the dance. They are one, almost. . . .

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