with Walt McDonald
OF GRACE: AN INTERVIEW
WITH WALT MCDONALD
was completed August 6, 1999.
are a successful
and prolific poet by any standard, having published over 1,800 poems,
in the nation's most prestigious journals. Yet your calling to
came rather late in life. What prompted you to start writing
in the late 1960's?
ago, my wife and I bumped into an old friend from the Air Force.
He asked me why I started writing. We had been talking about
ago when we flew together ÷ the dog fights in the sky, night
stars and in bad weather, the thunderstorms we had flown around, and
I said maybe some of all of that turned me to poems. I came to
late, though, as a middle-aged Air Force pilot. After some of my
friends went off to Vietnam, and one was shot down, then another, I
a need to say something to them, or about them. I had been
fiction for years, and I turned to poems when nothing else worked; my
stumbling attempts were like letters to or about the dead.
and a war I went to briefly, are two of about five regions that I keep
prowling; they're my background, part of what I am.
and publish as they are driven by various daemons ÷ economic
fire of inspiration; moral necessity; the desire to entertain or
vanity. Do you write out of some particular need? Are you
a search or a quest for something, to do something?
of a paradox of needs: the enormous hope of discovery and the continual
pleasures of play. A failed novelist (I wrote six before turning
to poems), I write for the pleasure of playing with words and finding
in poems. I write to discover, to follow an image and see what
I can spin from it, what tale develop. Poetry is one of the
in this fleeting world that brings me joy. It is not a "popular"
sport; but at its best, poetry is an ideal, a secular term reserved for
the best and brightest in life. A local spot promotion for the
of Architecture talks about the poetry of beautiful buildings. Of
football great Joe Montana, I've heard it said on TV, "When he was in a
playoff game, he was like poetry."
the poet responsible? When you write, to whom or to what do you
why do I write? I'm as vulnerable to vanity as Solomon and any
I know, often "Desiring this man's art and that man's scope," as
said. I go back to the book for assurance that working with words
is all right, even a good thing to do: "Whatever your hand finds to do,
do it with all your might." I take heart from Paul's advice:
you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord."
After his conversion, John Berryman wrote, "Father Hopkins said the
true literary critic is Christ. Let me lie down exhausted, content with
that" [#10 of "Eleven Addresses to the Lord"].
widely recognized as a "Christian poet." Is that a good
Does avoiding such a designation allow you to "fly under the radar" of
secular editors, critics and readers who have a low tolerance for
a good thing. The foundation of all my work is Christ; not one
would have come without that rock. But now, grappling with your
I wonder if I was wrong not to make that apparent somehow from the
It never occurred to me to explain two decades ago that everything I
was an aspect of my "awful rowing toward God," to borrow
Sexton's phrase. I simply took for granted that whatever I did
his. I've never tried to "fly under the radar," but only dozens
my 1,800 published poems have been in Christian journals such as America,
The Christian Century, Christianity and Literature, The Cresset,
Literature and Art, First Things, Image, Inklings, The Lamp-Post,
& Belief, Mars Hill Review, Presbyterian Record (Canada), Radix
and Windhover. Other poems with obvious Christian or
allusions have been in journals such as The Antioch Review, The
Carolina Quarterly, College English, The Dalhousie Review (Canada), The
Florida Review, The Missouri Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Poetry,
Schooner, The Sewanee Review, Tar River Poetry, TriQuarterly, and Windsor
more poems in recent years with obvious ardor and affirmation of faith,
it's probably because I'm able to accept the grace that I had felt for
decades I had to earn. Lately, texts I read for decades begin to make
"Throw all your worries on him, for he cares for you" (I Peter 5).
once claimed that "there can no more be a ÎChristianâ art
than there can
be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a
spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work."
Is Auden right or do you see your poems as forms of "Christian art"?
Paul in Romans 7:14-25 — completely dependent on grace.
All of my
poems grow out of faith, whether set in my native West Texas or our
adopted home in the Rockies, in Air Force cockpits, or Vietnam.
would be what they are without the habit of mind, the profession of
I make daily. I've never thought of myself as a chronicler of a
or apologist for a way of life. I'm open to the facts of my life
and the regions I know, but I don't set out to record them, or to argue
for a creed. The way I write precludes that — a poem at a
the game of the poem as I go along, finding whatever intrigues
A friend told me he can't stop writing about Vietnam and wishes he
could — but war poems keep coming. I can't squeeze off the flow
poems, either — although I never set out to write about Vietnam
guilt of surviving, or saving grace. I never set out to write
a locale, a person, or an experience of any kind. Whatever
whatever comes to the fingertips onto the keyboard, I work with.
Whatever my hands find to do, I do it with all my might.
of faith have wrestled with the relationship of doctrine or dogma on
one hand, and the calling of art on the other. Chesterton, for
argued that poetry is not prayer. And C. S. Lewis maintained that
"the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production
preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world." How do
you handle this tension between faith and art? Do poetry and
live harmoniously within your soul, or are they rough-and-tumble
was absolutely right. I've heard that Faulkner claimed
is worth "half a dozen little old ladies." I believe the
opposite is true: I believe Christ died for the worst of us, not for
the most splendid poems or sculptures or symphonies in the world — not
for all of Keatsâs odes, not even for Beethovenâs "Ode to
think Chesterton is right, also; poetry is not prayer — although
is daily and necessary sustenance for me and has been in every good
Iâve ever done — flying, teaching, writing, raising
babies. I wouldn't
want to start or finish work without prayer. I have three
and seven grandchildren; if not one of them reads anything Iâve
I'll not be bothered. Prayer, though — salvation —
that's what I
long for, for all of my darlings. For everyone.
relation between your need to fashion words and your love of the
Is your calling to manipulate language in any sense a product of your
of God, the Logos?
do? What is it for? A good poem expresses some of the
we all need. As James Dickey said of Roethke, "When you read him,
you realize with a great surge of astonishment and joy that, truly, you
are not yet dead." Good literature is richly entertaining, a
feast" — stunning, sometimes, and wonderful. But none of
best poems or stories or films offers lasting hope, an actual escape
the traps of sin and fear and death. Only "the greatest story
told" does that, for disciples. When did words first interest
I think back to my earliest memories of language, my earliest thrills
words. I must have been three or four, no more than five: I was
to visit my Grandmother no more than once a day. She lay in bed,
propped up, and read to me from a big book the most amazing stories —
Daniel in the lions' den; and a boy named David who grew up to be king
— and I was hooked on language a year before I knew she was
dying of cancer.
first grade, Miss Crump brought a man to class — a man in
moccasins without socks, a huge feather-headdress that fell all the way
to the floor. That man began telling stories, and I had never
such things. Magic! Like all the others in that winter
I sat there hearing amazing tales, thrilled out of my mind, believing
word. I don't even know his name. But I'll never forget the
splendor of it all.
poetry seems to express more openly the quest for — and the
mystery of — faith. For example, in Blessings the Body Gave,
that "what matters / is timeless dazzling devotion . . . the darkness
("The Waltz We Were Born For"). Do you recognize a change of
in your own work? Are transcendent concerns more pronounced in
quest for — and the mystery of — faith" has been there
all along, but devastatingly
so, at times — a sort of begging for mercy. In my first
some of the more obvious examples of the quest are "The Cave"
in Blue); "Mirror Image" (Working Against Time); "Goliath,
before Battle" (Anything, Anything); "Wrestling with Angels" (One
Thing Leads to Another); and "Hauling Over Wolf Creek Pass in
Flying Dutchman). I expressed that need for faith more
in "Seining for Carp" (The Flying Dutchman); "Charts," and the
poem in Counting Survivors; and "For God in My Sorrows" (Blessings
the Body Gave). If the healing mystery of faith is more
in the last decade or so — and I think youâre right — maybe
I have more of a feeling of grace, lately; for example, "Faith Is a
Master" — the poem that ends my 1999 book (Whatever the Wind
Donne said, "All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his
(John Donne, LXXX Sermons, 3, preached on Christmas Day, 1625).
central to much of your poetry. You told Christopher Woods in a
interview that "region" does not have to mean "geography," for it can
"an attitude, or a posture towards certain events." This seems to
agree with Emily Dickinsonâs poem that to make a prairie one
more than clover or a bee. In what sense is your art built upon a
is a metaphor of how it feels to someone to be alive at that time, at
place. I didn't write many poems before I came back from Vietnam,
so I may be wrong; but I think that's what poems become. I
poems from the regions I own ÷ or that own me. I think a
at least one region to keep coming back to. It may be a place —
Frost's New England, for example, or James Wright's Ohio, or Eudora
Mississippi; or in my case, Texas. A poet keeps prowling a
region until he or she begins to settle it, homestead and live on it,
eventually own it. What we see is part of what we become. I
never worry about finding subjects or running out of poems. The
come; it's just that simple.
happen to be on actual maps, that's coincidental. For example: I
called my twelfth collection The Digs in Escondido Canyon —
"Escondido Canyon" is a place only in the sense that itâs a
region in my
mind, and in some of my poems. There may well be one or more
canyons by that name, but none that Iâve written about.
fictions, as freely invented as short stories are — at least the
write, they are — and Escondido is one of dozens of places I've
adapted from dozens of landscapes I've seen and imagined.
I don't remember when I first tinkered with the word, but probably I
the sound, the taste of the sounds in the context of a poem; also, I
the meaning, "hidden" canyon, something that has to be looked for, on
plains. It's part of the imagined terrain of Texas that I keep
for images. The canyon I had in mind is on no map, other than one
that changes from poem to poem; I couldn't drive you to a spot and say
"Thereâs the hidden canyon I wrote about."
and others have suggested that the Plains are a kind of empty space
suited to encounters with the Spirit. In other words the prairie
is a place where "desert spirituality" can flourish as it did in
times. You have called the Plains "heavenâs
hardscrabble, flat land is "where heaven starts," you write. It
"suddenly fabulous," you say in one of your poems. Does this landscape
inspire a kind of "desert spirituality"?
years, Colorado was our garden of Eden. But after the war, we
it for the strangeness of flat Texas plains where we had grown up —
hauntingly wide horizons, the splendor of it all. T.S. Eliot
"The essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world
which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and
to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory."
book was published — mainly early poems about Vietnam —
asked, "Where's Texas in your poems, Walt?" I didn't know; I had
never thought about it. But I started looking around and, sure
I began to feel the call of that wild, semi-arid West Texas that I knew
better than I knew Iowa and Colorado, better than Vietnam. For
I had not considered this world to be my home. But when I let
my bucket in a plains region doomed to dry up, I found all sorts of
all sorts of poems, even if I could live to write for forty years in
suddenly fabulous desert.
your recent collection of poems, Blessings the Body Gave, I
if you are at heart a sacramentalist or an incarnationalist. Many
of your poems center on experiences in nature — on the ranch, in
Mountains, fishing, camping, etc. Does your earnest and
attention to the material creation lead you to invisible
Do you locate the holy or the transcendent in particular things,
inconsistently. I couldn't settle any debate. Poems, for
are "made things," made of sensuous details, the more vivid the
But I don't find either God or the devil in the details — only
of grace, and the squalor and waste of evil. My poem "Tornado
That Matters: The Texas Plains in Photographs and Poems) was only
some guy chasing a tornado — or at least thatâs what the
start of the first
draft seemed to be. Once I found that voice, that cowboy out
tornadoes, I rode along, trusting (with a happy faith that goes with
any poem) that whatever we found would be worth the journey.
poem, I didn't know I would find evidence of supernatural "force"
to Plainview, but accepted it gratefully, like all writing, as a
Louis Simpson said the aim of poetry "is to make words
I see, I remember thinking, when I saw the tornado emerge through words
on the monitor, developing like film in a darkroom:
They [People watching weather on TV]
know the force
I follow, the vacuum of black funnels
in flashes. They gasp like me
and breathe the name of God.
that last line, I felt I didn't need to say another word. The
I follow seldom leads me directly to words I expect to last, but
I hope, to the Word.
your life story (birth into a modest home on the Plains, your
heritage, your career in the Air Force; your late entry into writing
publishing, etc.) — do you now see these factors as helpful or
to your mission as a writer?
me to claim my own regions, which are all I'll ever have of God's
on this earth. There's an old saying: "If Texas is your region,
your region." So I write about what I know, about what intrigues
me — family, and my native region, flying, the Rocky Mountains
lived for years, and still, sometimes, a war. This way of writing
works for me, and so I'll ride it the way I would ride an only, ugly
horse — as far as it will take me.
I grew up
West Texas, and regional images and Biblical echoes are in my blood; I
grew up with a Christian heritage and embraced it as an adult, and it's
simply there somewhere in me, evolving — I hope — from
faith to faith.
I never set out to write a "religious" poem as part of decades of
My wife and I are in another Christian fellowship, now, rather than the
one of our youth, and I've found a richer sense of assurance; but I
that I'm any less productive than those first years of work. I
that more songs of joy come, though.
stories and poems from our own regions, I think we find what we really
want to say. I look back from time to time and admit gladly that
I've been doing the best I can do, prowling my regions ÷
sometimes my deepest
obsessions and desires, sometimes the most haunting memories of my life.
relationship between autobiography and your poetry?
said, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." I like what the
calls a poem ÷ "a made thing" (think of that: a made-up
I'm writing poems, not autobiography. In the sense that poems
some of my interests, obsessions, the regions of the mind I keep
sure. But almost only in that sense. Some details are
to the facts of my life than others, and biographical criticism assumes
a mirror between art and life. But it isn't so.
frank and undisguised, in a poem or a short story. Experience is
valuable for what it is; then the writing takes over. The persona
is there, but not the actual person I was, or what I did — not
pilot, or a real boy leaping from trees. I write to find
I didn't know I would find. A friend asked me not long ago if all
those uncles in my poems are really my uncles. He grinned, aware
it was like the naive query, "Is that a real poem or did you just make
it up?" Half wisecrack, the way friends talk, I said, "Yes, every
one of them — and I can't wait to invent some more."
an invention, a made (and made-up) thing. That's the wonder of
poems, for me: every poem is personal, yes — but every poem is
also a persona
poem, a little fiction. When I teach a Bible class, I never lie;
when I write, I lie all the time. When I ran across what James
said about the possibilities of "the lie" — invention and
voice ÷ I felt thrilled that what I had been doing on my own
extremely valid. As far as I'm concerned, Dickey was right, and
insights are brilliant. (Dickey's book: Self Interviews.)
is there in a poem, and the mask is in place, the lyric and narrative
work; but the actual person I am is not there in the poem, or what I
Nothing could matter less. My task as a writer is to try writing so
that readers will feel it was this way, had to be this way, it was sure
enough this way for them, when they read the poem. I think the
of a writer is to be interesting and clear, and in that sense to build
a bridge — but it's a bridge between a poem that feels real and
not between the poet's real life and the reader.
autobiography, but art; not merely facts of actual lives, but
not confession, but creation. Creative writing means discovery of
poems we wouldn't have found if we hadn't begun to write. If we
only on facts that "really happened," we're limiting ourselves, writing
only with "the left brain." We might come up with a poem, but
like trying to drill for oil with a cork screw, like trying to dig for
gold with a plastic spoon, like searching for Noah's lost ark or the
of Amelia Ehrhart's plane by reading essays about them.
between writing accurately about facts and events that "really
vs. imaginative or creative writing. I believe in the
of discovery, the rich and undiscovered oil fields and gold mines of
imagination — that reservoir of all we've ever experienced,
or read, seen in movies, or glimpsed, all of it jumbled together and
to be found.
buried inside us ÷ are regions we haven't touched for years or
or ever, except in hopes or dreams or nightmares. Those are the
and remnants of all we've taken in — the lost cities of
Atlantis, the elephants'
graveyard, the forgotten playgrounds and bone yards of our lives.
Down there under the pressure and heat of living are the images we need
for making poems ÷ some of them already diamonds, most of them
to stoke the furnace — and gushers of oil that would
our imaginations' engines longer than we could write.
work reflects a considerable awareness of your predecessors, various
poets like Eliot, Whitman, Roethke, Frost, Jarrell, and Dickey among
others. Have you consciously and deliberately moved away from
literary "fathers"? What writers today do you most admire?
graduate school, I've been a random reader. I'm excited by poems
and stories, rather than by writers. Looking back, though, I know
that some have influenced me because of the joy I found in so much of
work: James Dickey, Richard Hugo, James Wright, Theodore Roethke — and
other poets with strong imagery and stories and sense of driving rhythm
and powerful, compelling sounds. Earlier writers I admired even
trying to write poems were Frost and Whitman; Hemingway and Faulkner;
and Robert Browning; Donne, Hopkins, and Yeats; Steinbeck, Joseph
and Thomas Wolfe.
someone told me that T. S. Eliot was the poet; so when I began trying
write poems, I assumed that was the way it was done, and struggled
under a yoke of literary allusion. My crude understanding of the
art was to blame. Reading widely in contemporary poetry gave me
excitement by the mid-1970's to get started toward how I write
I served as poetry editor for the Texas Tech University for twenty
read journals voraciously, and loved every month. In the last two
decades, I've discovered with wonder hundreds of amazing poets; what a
rich time to be alive.
connection between style, idea and place in your work? I wonder:
If Frank Lloyd Wright could fashion a "prairie style" in architecture
design, could there be an equivalent "prairie style" in writing?
Do you see yourself as crafting a particular style? (Perhaps we
call it "hardscrabble" and "plains-spoken"?)
not a natural act, but has to be learned and practiced. I remind
myself to appeal to the senses. I like words that sound natural,
but juxtaposed to surprise or shock or delight. Words of many
are weak, like swinging at a baseball with a willow switch. The
of poems is in the single-syllable words, and vivid specific images
in vague, intellectualized abstractions. Abstractions are easy to
say, and usually flat.
between language that is utilitarian — merely for information
÷ and language
that tries to pack the maximum pleasure in the words. Utilitarian
is explosive — useful but going outward and gone, like a puff of
(e.g., yesterday's newspaper, or instructions for assembling a
Emotional language is implosive (e.g., poetry, fiction, and powerful
prose). Emotional language doubles back on itself, or implodes,
maximum pleasure — sounds, rhythms, images that conjure our
The best writers do that again and again, like good batters in the
A. E. Housman's dictum that poetry is not the thing said, but a way of
saying. Is this to elevate form over content? You are
increasing attention, so it seems, to the feast of sounds (internal
assonance, alliteration, etc.) Are you moving away from ideas to
formal properties of poetry? What is the relation of form to idea?
I respond more to a lean, hard-driving or compelling rhythm that's
accentual (Hopkins' "spring rhythm" is an extreme and brilliant
than to a dull use of traditional meters laden with abstractions as
and with forced or tired rhymes. But ah, when English prosody
what a wonder.
meter, then spent years trying to muscle-up the kinds of free verse I
to read. In recent years, I've worked about half and half on
and unrhymed poems. In rhymed poems, I'm trying to keep the
and ease of free-verse rhythms, although I work often with traditional
forms, also — including sonnets and villanelles —
learning the craft from
the beginning, in a sense. I'm still tinkering with rhyme and
adapting, working hard and often with joy.
and clanging or soothing sounds — but most of all, in a few
need more than catalogs, more than facts; I need to be stunned.
best poems yoke images together in unexpected ways — flints
to make fire. Such discoveries are the delights that a poem can
give — a resonance that lingers, and that — in the best poems — takes
I don't worry about the taste of words or the feel of rhythm.
first drafts is a wild adventure, and I'm just trying to spook up a
trying to lasso something curious and gripping to drag kicking and
back to the screen. Later is time enough to trade and whittle
trying to find the "right word, not its second cousin." I labor a
lot; indulgence is always a temptation: that is, lowering my standards,
my goals — being easy on myself, winking at mediocre lines,
good enough." I try to slam abstractions down, and stomp them;
stab them to death, and gouge out their eyes. If they still crawl
up my legs and bless me like the air I breathe, then I let them stay.
I do the
for awkward line breaks, easy adverbs and neutral nouns; I hold a poem
to the fire and try to burn away all chaff, all that isn't poem.
Rewriting is like tinkering with an old outboard motor that won't
just coughs and sputters; sometimes, I take whole stanzas apart and put
them back in the poem, tugging the cord until at last it starts.
asked, "Do poems in forms have to pay as much attention to line breaks,
content, and diction as 'free-verse' poems do?" In other words,
standards do you hold formal poems to — in terms of line breaks,
and intensity of language?" Well, the answers are simple: the
high standards, the same impossible goals, in terms of intensity,
and sounds; vivid and appropriate imagery; clarity; and
To aim for less is too easy.
already presumes that what it repeats, in a narrow, limited range, is
Every new sonnet promises it'll be worth our time, a new thing, new
in old wineskins. A long poem (whether meditative, narrative, or
experimental, like "The Waste Land," "Howl," or "Middle Passage")
presumes a great deal on a reader's time. If anything, a formal
or a long poem, should be more intense, better crafted, than a poem of
ten irregular lines that don't rhyme.
say to someone who justifies an awkward line break by protesting, "But
this is a sonnet!" Pound said, "A poem should be at least as well
written as good prose." Yes, and I think a sonnet should be at
as well written as good free verse. How would we respond to a
who refuses to pay his taxes because he's buying a Rolex; or robs a
store or mugs a little old lady, and protests, "But I need the money
a parking meter" or "to enter the good-citizen contest"? There
a time when the end doesn't justify the means.
said that at its core all poetry is elegiac. Particularly through
war, you have sustained many losses. You have written, "I am old
enough to value / loss" ("The Winter They Bombed Pearl Harbor").
You have also cited Faulkner's point that the writer has only one story
to tell. Is loss your one story?
everyone's story, after Eden? I think it was James Wright who
"Everything we write turns into elegy." Consider
stories, Faulkner's, Hamlet, or King Lear. Solomon said there's
new under the sun. How many of us have claimed what the old songs say —
and meant it — "I'll be loving you, always" — even though
we know, as Robert
Frost said, that "Nothing gold can stay."
it's true — "Everything we write turns into elegy." It may be a
simple lyric — about joy so intense we wish we could keep it
It may be
about grandparents, or children, or dead pilots, or friends missing in
action. Maybe it's music by Mozart, or a painting by Rubens or
about someone so lovely it breaks your heart ÷ maybe a model,
wife Saskia, who died long before the artist. In my poem
and the Art of Mercy" (in Counting Survivors), I wrote, "What
loved and pitied most was flesh / that's caught but never saved by
one story to tell," I don't mean being a Johnny-one-note; I doubt that
Faulkner meant it to limit us, either. Rather, I believe all
are "limited" to the exciting capacities of what and who they
"I gotta million of 'em," good story tellers say. There must be
many twists and variations on the one and only story each writer could
tell. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matt.
12). Some people, for whatever reasons, mock or parody or
a variety of writers they despise; but ridicule probably reveals more
the scorners' hearts than the art or artlessness of the ones they
If we're the offspring of Adam and Eve, we're also kin to Cain.
am a part of all that I have met," Tennyson's Ulysses said. I
what we want to write is already here, inside of us ÷ and what
says something about what and who we are.
"Was" from Caliban
in Blue you describe a set of photographs of your children,
pictures" which "stun [you] cold / with love." Love, especially
of family, seems particularly pervasive in your works. Are you
a "love poet" of sorts?
fits, I would more gladly wear that than any others. I love
a matter of life or death; but a good story or poem gives pleasures I
nowhere else. But not nearly as much joy as holding hands with my
wife in the park, or bending down to lift one of my granddaughters
my head and feel her hug my neck. I know the difference between a
poem and a person.
kids when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, and we had thought
what an old, old man he was. A couple of years ago, watching a
on President Roosevelt's life, Carol and I realized with a shock that
were now exactly the age that Roosevelt was when he died. That
we held hands a little longer; it goes so fast. Life is grass,
brief ÷ but abundant in so many ways.
face squarely the dark side of the human condition. "We are such
/ stuff as jackals feed / on" you write. Yet the fact of evil ÷
hardness of life — does not seem to extinguish the possibility
How is this possible? Is theodicy, the problem of evil, an
question for you?
of evil as fact. Paul quoted Psalm 44 in his letter to Rome: "We
face death all the day long; we are considered as sheep to be
But what enormous need and hope he combines in the context: "In all
things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."
upbeat, affirmative — have come during times of crisis; and
the darker glimpses, have come some days when I was giddy or even just
staying alive, when nothing particularly good or ill was happening to
Yes, certainly the problem of evil is an important question for
I admire those who face the facts, wherever they are, and cope.
who overcome the everyday with simple faith are my heroes, also.
There is a beauty, a splendor almost everywhere, and sometimes even I
are a professor
as well as a poet. How has the teaching of creative writing
your calling as a writer?
pleasures I enjoy as a writer who teaches is watching students discover
with delight some of the best poems they've ever read, or
That's why I got into this work, to begin with. As a young pilot,
when I applied to teach English at the Air Force Academy, all I wanted
to do was hang around some of the best-used language in the world, some
of the most moving, exciting words I'd ever heard — and to share
that for a little while, before the golden bowl breaks and the silver
snaps, I get to hang around words and see what happens — my
and words that spin off my own fingertips. We've all seen
make amazing discoveries in words. As teachers, we get to be
when it happens. What writer doesn't want to move us to tears or
chills or hugs or laughter? What writing teacher doesn't
to pass along a thrill like that?
poems ever surprise you? Are they ever "revelations" to you?
What keeps me going back to the keyboard day after day is a simple
that words will show me the way. For a while, I feel totally
I have no idea what's coming. I like that silence: I can feel
rise on my neck when I type a phrase that intrigues me — a sense
complicity, as if the words and I are up to something.
the wonder of discovery. "No surprise in the writer, no surprise
in the reader." He said it's a false poem, it's no poem at all if
it knows the ending before it starts; he said a poem begins in delight
and ends in wisdom; he said a poem is like ice on a hot stove —
on its own melting. Of course we don't have to listen to him, God
rest his soul, for he's dead. But I think he was right.
discovery ÷ at least, that's the only way I can do it —
and I never know
what I'll find. Until I'm into a first draft (sometimes only a
sometimes many lines), I never know if I'll be writing about hunting or
flying or about holding a joyful grandchild high overhead. I'm
when I write, eager and willing to find some splendid secrets, hoping
make some sense of what I find — maybe something I've needed all
maybe something so awful I wonder how I'll ever deal with it.
to the place we began. Do you feel a particular mission or
as a writer today?
the late William Stafford's line on PBS: "I'd give up everything I've
for a new one, for a new writing experience. . . . It feels so
to go through a succession of realizations through language, toward . .
. what? It's an adventure, an exploration, rather than crafting a
predetermined object." When I heard Stafford that day, the
hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I said, "Yes, you said it."
that writers are writers only when they are writing, and I believe
Therefore, no more summer school for me; I miss the money, but time is
quicksilver. Every spring and summer, I write as much as I can,
by August, I'm exhausted, but restored. Every day is a gift.