William Pitt Root's numerous publications include Trace Elements from a Recurring Kingdom, named a 1995 "Notable Book," by The Nation, and a finalist in the Pen West Poetry Award. Other books of poetry are Faultdancing (1986); Invisible Guests (1983); Reasons for Going It on Foot (1983, Pulitzer nominee); In the Worlds Common Grasses (1977, Pulitzer nominee); Coot and Other Characters (1977); Fkeclock (1977); Striking the Dark Air for Music (1973, Pulitzer & National Book Award nominee); The Storm and Other Poems (1969, Lamont Prize nominee.) reissued in Carnegie Meltons Contemporary Classics series spring 2005. He has published over 250 poems in such journals as The Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, The Nation, Commonweal, American Poetry Review, Triquarterly, Poetry, among others. His poems have been anthologized many times, including in And What Rough Beast: Poems at the End of the Century 1999, Fever Dreams: Contemporary Arizona Poets 1997, Men of Our Time: Male Poetry in Contemporary America, Voices of Conscience, Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust, The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology and in The New Yorker Book of Poetry. His work has been translated into many languages and broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Having recently retired from Hunter College, William Pitt Root and his wife, poet Pamela Uschuk, live outside ofDurango near the San Juan Mountains, frequently traveling to give readings and workshops.
turnrow Co-editor Jack Heflin interviewed Bill Root over a period of two weeks, January and February of 2005.
Jack Heflin: In "Rehearsing our Audience with the Infinite: Notes on Poetry and Related Matters," which is included in your feature in this issue of turnroo), you mention in one item that you write poems because you "never learned to play blues harmonica or flamenco guitar, and I've had to make words my instruments or be riddled with the silences of a music I could not otherwise tell." I've heard many poets express this same longing. Could you talk about that?
William Pitt Root: Well, some answers have, pardon the expression, deep roots. When I was a kid I'd prowl my father's farms near the Everglades on weekends and all summer. That world—those worlds, really, since half of it was the natural world and half was the mixed realities of stoop labor and mid-century truck farming—, that world struck me as more real, more substantial than most things I experienced with my friends. I'd watch everything, the crops being planted, growing, the harvest; the animals and birds and bugs and fish everywhere. And I'd watch the people who worked the farms. Sometimes I worked with them, so I could, as my father so often put it, "learn the value of a dollar." When I once made the mistake of retorting, "A dollar's just a hundred pennies" it wasn't long afterwards I found myself leaning over a halved 50 gallon drum mixing up pesticide with a broom handle under a Florida sun so hot it rendered everything mammalian into pure sweat.
Who worked his farms were the white people I sometimes heard referred to as "only a step above white trash," and the people then called coloreds or Negroes, some of whom my father respected, some of whom he did not; and there were the Cubans and Puerto Ricans, flown in specifically for harvest season. Only this last bunch actually lived on the farm, in ramshackle shelters that were little more than tin roof, walls, and floor. That was the late 40's, early 50's, by the way, and not so very long ago, just outside New Paltz, New York, I saw identical shacks for the current migrant laborers there. Anyhow, my father spoke highly of the Caribbean workers, their speed and endurance and uncomplaining natures. Mostly they spoke Spanish. "Racing Spanish," it was so quick. I'd watch them when they worked and after work, too, when they'd build a bonfire out of stumps and roots dragged by horse or tractor over to their quarters. The fires, less for the heat than the smudge that kept away mosquitoes, were also partly for the light (there was no electricity in the quarters) and partly for the camaraderie. By that firelight they'd play music, on anything at hand—wooden crates, dry sticks, oil drums, bottles, cans—and they'd sing and later on sometimes they'd dance. There weren't any women, of course, but it was fabulous to see. I admired and envied them. Their lives seemed so fully charged. We couldn't talk much with each other but when they sang, when they danced, no translation was necessary, there was no invisible wall.
I longed to join them but my father absolutely forbade it. Worse yet, by and by I realized that anyone among the workers who did befriend me was soon gone from the ranks, either traded to another farmer or shipped back where he'd come from by my father. I knew most of these guys were sending money home to their families. I was deeply deeply shamed when it dawned on me what was happening. I never learned why he did what he did. It may have been anglo chauvinism, it may have been homophobia, I just never knew. But even though I didn't dare go around those people anymore, I'd already been infected by their love of music. Nights, as I report in my poem "Sea-grape Tree And The Miraculous," I'd listen to a hidden radio tuned to the Havana station until finally I slept and that music, from scarcely a hundred miles away, continued to pass into my spirit via dreams. Ever since then the mystery of Spanish, in particular, has always seemed to hold the keys to great secrets of life, secrets I couldn't even guess at as a child. What I did understand early on was the pairing of beauty and intensity in that tongue.
Probably most any poet considers the musical element of poetry, the melopoeia, to be among the most mysterious aspects of language. Self evident, yes, but most good mysteries start there. Like almost any stimulus which evokes a predictable response, it's still difficult to analyze or articulate—humor, eroticism, intimacy. What The New York Times recently referred to as "an earworm," an amygdale. A little phrase or expression you cannot easily put out of mind once it's found its way in. "Death shall have no dominion," says Dylan Thomas, then some wag points out the rhythmic rhyme with "Yes we have no bananas" . . . and that's a fatal corruption of the original, consonant in certain aural ways, contrary at every other level— linguistically, semantically, tonally.
Anyhow, the techniques for quickening the synchronicities of impulse and chance by which language's mnemonic qualities are enhanced don't merely make poetry memorable; they make it unforgettable. As images are unforgettable, and melodies.
JH: I wonder if musicians are equally envious of poets?
WPR: I guess we'd have to ask musicians, and I suspect each one would have a different way of saying No. There's something both honorific and hopeless in the idea of the "poet"—it's a tension between the elevation of a life-risking tightrope walker and the buffoonish slackrope walker. We all love the poets who've got both, who can regale us with gravitas then make us laugh. ... I doubt musicians spend much time envying poets. The betterones already are poets—just not literary poets, unless they happen to be named Robert Burns. Or Leonard Cohen. Or that latterday "ol' possum" name of Zimmerman.
JH: How close can poetry come to the expression of music?
WPR: Pretty close, but just in flashes. John Logan's line "Islands high as our inland hills" always struck me as close to divine. Marianne Moore's entire "The Jellyfish" is music. More sustained is Poe's "The Raven" and that does approximate language aspiring to the condition of music. But Poe's word music refers less to its referents (through onomatopoeia, for instance, though when he does choose to use it he can achieve textbook perfection) and more to itself, than nearly any other poet I can think of. Except maybe Southey, in his drippy waterfall poem. Certainly Dylan Thomas at times "sang in his chains like the sea," and Hopkins, and Eliot, Roethke, Yeats. . . . And my wife, Pamela Uschuk, describing the cries of howler monkeys in the jungles near Palenque as "their leaf-lit love whoops." Such stuff is not just onomatopoeia; it's a discharge of energy in one medium such as language that provokes a similar discharge in another such as music.
JH: In another item from "Rehearsing our Audience with the Infinite," you reflect upon the consumer mentality of America. "In any culture where people would rather hear songs than sing them, no wonder commerce replaces community, and idolatry succeeds creativity." It's a frightening thought. I recall an essay by Adrienne Rich in which she laments this same passing of a "sensual vitality," the diminishing participation in everything that we might consider the amateur arts. Is this elemental necessity of living in part what motivates you as a teacher of creative writing?
WPR: Sure, "sensual vitality" can be part of a writing class. Or a life drawing class, or a music lesson. In writing, when it's not there you know the inspirations and ideas aren't really saturated, aren't taking root. But in a class that's really cooking, we traffic in hardcore candor; that can be sexy, not because it's racy but because it's intimate. And intimacy's got a sexual trace.
As for consumerism, and mall culture...the negative elements now so obvious are dull to repeat, so let's consider the other stuff going on, such as internet as a venue for garage bands, backyard bands of any stripe, even individuals who can make websites of their unknown music and have hundreds, even thousands of "strikes," an e-audience greater than many commercially recorded artists could garner from the sales of CD's. I don't trust the overall influence of the internet but not to recognize its powers to amplify nearly any human impulse imaginable would be myopic.
JH: What can and cannot be taught in creative writing programs?
WPR: Skills can be taught; talent can't, certainly genius can't. Literary origins can be explored, contexts recreated, friendships struck up, professional connections for the future established. Audacity and daring can't be taught although a savvy teacher probably will learn how to get out of the way and inflict minimal damage, should such qualities manifest in a student.
I once visited Yannis Ritsos at his home on an island off Turkey and in the course of things I asked what advice he might give to help a young poet. He looked me in the eye and declared, "But there's nothing that can help a poet.. .and nothing that can harm a poet, either." This came from a fellow who spent decades as a political prisoner, saw hundreds of his poems and the thousand pages of his only, unpublished novel burned, whose works were banned, whose friends were tortured, killed, and who ultimately emerged a national hero, unembittered and intact. I felt stupid for asking such a question, and grateful for receiving such a response.
JH: As a young poet, what poets did you study with? From whom did you benefit in the most?
WPR: My first creative writing class, at University of Washington, was with Leonie Adams, an excellent minor mid-century poet. I was a freshman and I had to work full-time so I only attended a couple of classes before arranging, bless her, to submit all my work directly to her during office hours. I knew nothing, no one. Names such as Thomas, Stevens, Eliot, Williams, Moore meant nothing. I'd read a little Byron, I'd read Hamlet. And, by chance, I'd soon read the two Hughesses: Ted and Langston. I liked both but it was Langston who first excited me. His poetry was to me like the music I'd heard around those bonfires in my childhood—it came from a culture different than mine, somehow more vital, and yet it was accessible and simply brilliant. Shakespeare in Harlem. The Weary Blues. A Dream Montage. Although Adams encouraged me, modestly, I didn't take another writing class until my would-be girlfriend steered me into her class. It was David Wagoner's fiction course. All the girls liked him. He was handsome and managed to affect an image of Marcello Mastrionni's character from La Dolce Vita as he elegantly gestured and looked elegantly pained. Now don't get me wrong—he was a good teacher, but, as a guy, it was hard not to dislike him: he had everything we wanted. Good looks, good books, a good tailor, and a beautiful wife. It was quite unforgivable. That, by the way, is rather the same emotion and language I heard Roethke use about Richard Wilbur, during the single class of his I was allowed to attend. That's a whole other story.
After my B.A., I studied nights at U.W. with the much beloved Nelson Bentley and then with William Dunlop, a young Scot poet who started our first session "If there is anyone in this class who is a genius, or who thinks he is a genius, I'm giving you two minutes to get out—because either way there's nothing I can do to help you." I loved that course. It was demanding. I began to learn useful things about craft and dedication. And how cool it could look if you were wearing a tweed jacket to toss your tie over one shoulder and pretend that you hadn't.
JH: You also did graduate studies?
WPR: Instead of going to Vietnam I chose to go for an MFA, a brand new degree in the mid 60's, at UNC—Greensboro because I'd read a little Randall Jarrell I liked very much, both poems and criticism, and he taught there. He died shortly after we arrived. Maybe suicide, maybe not quite. But Fred Chappell and Robert Watson were there as poets and Peter Taylor was teaching fiction; during the second year, Alien Tate came as visiting writer to lecture in poetry. Fred was an absolute wizard—he knew instantly what you'd tried to do and why it didn't work yet and said so in a no-nonsense way that somehow did not offend. Bob Watson was always an interesting figure as well, both for the charms of his own work and for the charms of his wife, Betty, a real painter from Manhattan. Tate was a living fount of first-rate literary gossip and a fine example of how a poet might bear hisjoie de vivre late into life without losing a jot of his dignity. There was no nasty jostling for position in the MFA classes; none of the teachers would've put up with it. We were there to write, not to snipe, and write we did. I loved it. So did my wife, Judith. After our divorce a few years later, she returned to UNC—G to take her own MFA there although she already had earned an M.A. in creative writing from Oregon. After brief stints teaching at Slippery Rock and Michigan State I went to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow for study with Wendell Berry, the visiting writer. That was an experience. He was remarkable. Both the most literary man I'd known, and the least, with a whole other life, outside the university, as a farmer in Kentucky. In a sense, I suppose, Wendell's example completed a sort of circle for me: my father was killed when I was only eleven but I always knew he'd never have approved of my being a poet. He didn't even like it when my mother read books. But my father did admire good farmers. And Wendell, incorporating the finest qualities of both passions, showed how both could coexist.
JH: I wonder also if you might elaborate on your comment about "twentieth century assumptions about the legitimacy of detachment" and its influence upon the arts.
WPR: I was thinking of the gap between indigenous techniques of craft, where success was initially a matter of identifying with spirits associated with the effort and instilling into the pipe or weapon or garment some trace of one's own spirit to empower and authorize the production, as opposed to the modern doctrine of "aesthetic distance" (E. Bullough, 1912) which recommended an objective experience of a work of art without regard to the artist. For a traditional native person—Maori, Lakota, Masai—, the latter experience would be literally dispiriting. First peoples everywhere tended to live communally, cooperatively, and when they engaged in what we call artistic productions (terms like "art" and "artist" came very late to these peoples, came from outside their own cultures) it was always understood that the infusion of one's spirit into the object was its chief source of power, therefore of worth. Even well into the 20th Century, the southwestern Tohono O'odham tribe (formerly Papago) placed great value on making songs, but only songs received during dreams were believed to have any worth. Only they were fully inspired by spirit.
Derrida? Deconstructionism? Eet's not even go there—they are hauntless houses! And despite endless academic explanations of concepts such as aesthetic distance, finally it's the Blues, or cante jondo, otfado we will seek out, it's Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith we will go to when we wish to be sanctified, Janis Joplin, Sylvia Plath, or Joy Harjo if we wish to be moved. Prosodic expertise is precious, rhetorical skills are priceless, but it's good to bear in mind that these elements are the kindling, not the flame. And when it comes to matters of the disoriented spirit or the wounded heart—and it always does come to that—, sterilized technicians need not apply.
This might be a good place to cut off. We've come full circle, back round to music once again. As Roethke put it at the end of The Far Field, "Dance on, dance on, dance on."
JH: One more question. You were recently in Hawaii? Did you take your surfboard to the beach?
WPR: Yes I did, and one month shy of my 63rd birthday I got up on my first try, at Waikiki. I got up the second, third and fourth times, too. Photographic evidence, however, suggests the possibility of fraud: I look very like a statue in a wetsuit bolted to a surfboard; a statue, I regret to admit, rather less resembling Nureyev, say, and rather more resembling Stalin.
JH: Any new tattoos?
WPR: None you'll ever see, Jack.