Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Conversation with Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall

Tod Marshall
Maya Jewell Zeller

This interview was conducted over several email exchanges in February 2016. Tod was a gracious and generous conversationalist.

MJZ: Tod, I first encountered your work via your 2002 collection Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. I was a graduate student, coming to understand how, collectively, this group of poets—two generations removed from the Modernists—would speak to varied aesthetic approaches. If you were to make a new collection of such conversations, beginning in 2016, who would be your ideal list of interviewees?

TM: It’s a little weird that you asked about this; Tony Leuzzi (Passwords Primeval, a collection of interviews) and I are part of an AWP panel this spring that focuses on the literary interview. Consequently, the two of us just finished interviewing each other about similar sorts of things; in Range, I tried to give shape to what seemed an overwhelming project: how to choose twenty poets from so many possibilities, and to tell the truth, accident and geography played as much of a role as anything; I started the book in grad school in Spokane, and I finished it more than ten years later—in Spokane. But to get to our question: I’d get rid of the lineage framework and just focus on a wide range of poetic practices and a wide range of personalities: Cathy Park Hong, Dorothea Lasky, Robyn Schiff, Matthew Dickman (I’m trying to stay outside of Washington), Douglas Kearney, all roughly of a similar generation; oh, wait, I’m doing it again. I don’t know, Maya; there are so many fine poets doing so many worthwhile things. I can tell you some poets that would have fit into the book with whom I didn’t get to speak (and would have loved the chance): Norman Dubie, Jane Hirshfield, Sharon Olds, C.D. Wright. Did you know that she picked Dare Say for the University of Georgia Press? I never got to thank her in person. Such a brilliant and original poet.

MJZ: How about if the range of voices were limited to Washington State? (And yes, you can have that project idea—I’d love to see this book!)

TM: Won’t be by me. My interviewer days are over, I think. I have an untranscribed recording with Tomaž Šalamun that I might bring to publication; losing him is another sad loss for our poetry community. Anyhow, if I were magically to get the energy to undertake such a project, I would love to talk with Lucia Perillo again. Tim Ely (an artist/poet of sorts). Rob Schlegel. So many others. Don’t make me choose!

MJZ: Looping back to my first question: you’ve always been interested in Modernism, and the book Wright chose, Dare Say, tackles this. Is it fair to say that Modernism is still a major influence with which you’re obsessed?

TM: Well, modernism was my primary literary area for my PhD, and so I was pretty steeped in it from 1992-1996. As in, immersed. So, because I was working on the interview book then, it seemed natural to make that connection. I think, though, as far as my own writing goes, Dare Say exorcised that obsession. That first book is so full of stuff; it’s the rag bag that Pound talks about in his opening riff to the Selected Cantos. Except it ain’t so much a rag bag as a museum: Bach and Botticelli, Kandinsky, Van Gogh and Apollinaire. Stevens. And other “leftovers”(as I kind of rename all those cultural markers in Bugle). I love teaching modern poetry, and the poems (and art) still speak to me, but when I need to get my own writing going, I’m more likely to pick up Gilbert or Hugo or Bishop or something from the stack of living poets that I try to keep near my desk.

MJZ: Speaking of living poets, how would the Modernists have felt about social media? You’ve confessed to having a discomfort with social media yourself, but now, in your new position as WaPL, you have a Twitter account, an active Facebook profile (both as Tod and as PL), and a Humanities Washington media guy. How do you see yourself using social media platforms to lead people to poetry and the arts?

TM: Well, I guess the social media stuff for me comes down to two things: the time investment (substantial) and the meaningfulness of the contact. It’s great for spreading information and making an initial contact; it’s not so great for any sort of intense or memorable dialogue. Elizabeth Austen gave me some great advice a few days ago; she said to remember that I was appointed to this position because of me, that people want to directly interact with what I hope to share about poetry. All of the other stuff is just a tool to make in-person contact happen. As for the moderns: I suspect Pound would have loved it. He would have been a beast on Twitter: @il_duce, I suppose. A fun game: Twitter names for the modernists: @hurthawk @lovetheplums @realtoads @ghosts_thattap @notherethere @thethe @dempoliceman @wearyblues @harpandaltar. And so on.

MJZ: Perfect. In your first reading as Laureate in Spokane, you said that poetry, and the other arts, “engage the awful energies of the intellect.” Is that different from the ways that academia in general engages that intellect?

TM: Hmm. I guess what I meant was that poetry has a host of different energies that it can use to impact us: the texture of sound, the evocation of an image, the web of allusion, the rawness of emotion, and through the awful energy of the intellect. I think that it’s a mistake not to recognize that there are many great poems that demand that we bring our brains to the page. Sure, that demand can be intimidating, but it’s usually the case that several of the energies I’ve listed are at work. Hence, a first entry point to a great poem like “For the Union Dead” might be through just noting the great phrases and their musicality—both to the ear and through the mini workout they can give the lips, teeth, and tongue. The vivid images might be a second sparking point. Eventually, though, a reader might arrive at investigating the historical background of the poem and think about civic duty, civil rights, the commodification of the bombing of huge cities in Japan (and so on). That work involves brainwork. I hope that the layered impact of how a poem might reveal is not too different from how our classes at the university might work.

MJZ: Layered impact—yes. I’ve heard you read on numerous occasions, and I’m always delighted at how the musicality of your language comes trumpeting off the page (and how layered the poem is beyond that). I’m especially taken when a poem reveals an emotional vulnerability—like in “Birthday Poem,” a piece I’ve read aloud to several friends, only to look up to find them crying. What are a few poems that move you?

TM: Thanks, Maya; that’s very generous of you. I can’t get all the way through June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” without being moved: “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name.” Countee Cullen’s “Incident” always moves me: “Of all the things that happened there / That’s all that I remember.” Philip Larkin’s “High Windows”—

And immediately                                            
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:      
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Jeez, what a brutal poem on that “long slide” that is our dwindling life. Li Young Lee’s “This Room and Everything In It”—heck, many of Li-Young’s poems yank out a little bit of your heart (“The Gift”—!!). As far as shaping that vulnerability within a poem—that’s a hard, hard thing to do; “Birthday Poem” began as a parody of the PNW school of dead deer poetry, but over the course of drafting it (and the smart help of my editor), the poem became something else entirely. Everything is constructed in a poem, and so even an apparent “intimate” revelation, what might be seen as vulnerability, is still very much within the poet’s shaping.

MJZ: You have said that “mystery is a good thing.” From where does your duende originate? Will you talk a little about your childhood in Kansas?

TM: Hmm. Well…hmm. I was born in Tonawanda, New York. My parents were young—17 and 19, I think, when I was conceived. Kids. They both came from households with various levels of dysfunction, and, not surprisingly, my father’s alcoholism shaped my early years (he’s now 25+ years sober); we moved a lot, sometimes in the middle of the night; lots of DUIs for him and all that attendant stuff—and one of those moves took us from the Adirondack Mountains to a place as strange as Wichita, Kansas. I was six. We lived in a motel for a few weeks. I imagine my story isn’t that unusual. Our family struggled. I lived from six to thirteen or so in a trailer park; again, not a big deal, but the thing that made it a bit more challenging for me was that was the 70s, a time of “gifted” programs; I tested in to one, and it put me with all of the “gifted, talented, and creative” kids—95% of whom were also fairly wealthy. I was stigmatized; that period of my life probably entrenched issues connected to class and privilege with which I still wrestle. When I was a teenager, I started acting out to get attention—minor crimes and substance abuse stuff. I got in trouble a few times, and I got lucky a few times that I didn’t get into more trouble. I’ll take the Fifth on the details. In Wichita, I hurt people and didn’t respect too many things, and I got hurt, too. It took me a while to figure it out (30 years? Still hoping to do so?), but I think the duende—although that word seems kind of melodramatic when talking about oneself (Lorca connected it with intense dancers and bullfighters; I’m talking about street racing in Camaros and drug abuse and misdemeanors)—might have shadowed me one morning on the South side of Wichita. I found myself on the street, strung out after a few days of poor behavior, and I felt pretty intensely that the universe was always hungry, and it could take me like that. And why shouldn’t it? That realization shimmered things a bit—death suddenly was the mother of beauty. And then I probably went and spent my last few quarters on a Zip Trip hotdog and started walking to where ever I was keeping my clothes. A few weeks after that, I got a phone call to go play college soccer at a small school in Michigan— Siena Heights University (lots of Dominican nuns). I went. Somehow it worked out. Many of the people I called friends back then didn’t make it out of there. I can’t recall too many details—or, to put it more accurately—some details from that period come back to me through poems, but that sensation, that shivering moment on a Wichita street, that sense of how freakin’ large and indifferent the world is—well, that stuck with me.

MJZ: You’ve called Bugle dark. While I wouldn’t say this collection is “light,” I can point to your frequent language play—playfulness that in some ways undoes the dark, and at other times compounds it, makes it more eerie (for example, a rhyming sonnet about a friend’s suicide taps into a genre that relies on tension between form and meaning).

TM: I guess that I see the “brassiness” of Bugle as working in two ways—as a sort of nervous laughter, that human twitch that happens when we see something so awful that we don’t know quite what to do, and as a sardonic gesture toward the reader that lets the reader know that the maker knows: “see all this terrible stuff? It ain’t that bad; I can slant rhyme off of it.” It’s kind of a puny bravado. Bugle isn’t any darker than the air we breathe: dead bodies in the river, children brutalized by sexual predators, disconnect and various forms of abuse— of language, of substances, or each other. The thing that frightens me is how that stuff is no longer spectacle—or, more accurately, is only spectacle, is not felt with any visceral sensation, any gut-wrenching horror.

MJZ: You have particular through lines in all three of your collections. For example, in Dare Say, section III of “Botticelli,” your long poem, is called “Primavera” (and the long poem itself follows poems titled “Storm,” “Lightning,” and “And This, Following the Weather”). In your newest collection, Bugle, your poem “Primavera” begins “Spring is coming, that storm,/ prophetic incubator.” (Bugle also repeats several poem titles within one collection—I’m a fan.) Talk about repetition and obsession, in your work and others’.
TM: I like the books talking to each other, and there is a lot of that— muddiness and weather-y stuff, musical stuff; it’s something I work at. Within a book, that repetition is absolutely essential to me; leit motif is, of course, an important practice for the modernists, and I think that it’s probably my greatest borrowing, but that’s not that unique of a practice. One of the poems that I’m most proud of is the first one in Dare Say. I became obsessed with the Goldberg Variations and Bach and was working through a great stack of literature connected to the concentration camps. I tried to rewrite Bach’s musical piece as a sort of recurring dirge, and although I don’t think it completely does what I’d hoped, I still stand by it. A handful of words function as musical motifs, and they get used and reused through homonyms and functional shifts. “Flex” and “mud” are two words that I probably overuse. I also have a mannered tic toward accretive catalogs, those long lists that heap details.

MJZ: Yes. In her March 2015 Rumpus review of Bugle, Julie Marie Wade claims that the collection “contemplates what we think we know about nature, music, human frailty, and human triumph,” that the “book is full of [reveilles/ wake-up calls].” Is this a fair characterization of what you wanted the book to do? Is this also what you want to do in your role as PL—wake us up to poetry?

TM: That was a great review. Very smart and generous. I’ve read several of her reviews, and she is a good writer and a sharp critic. So, yes; she said many insightful things about Bugle. The “what we think we know” is probably crucial in that sentence about the book. That’s usually the problem: that we think we know too much, and it lulls us into complacency. I think that “waking people up” to poetry would be a fine goal for a PL. Sam and Kathleen and Elizabeth did great work of that sort, but there’s always more to be done—of course, that’s challenging when there are so many forces putting us to sleep. Remember the Stafford poem? “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”—

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

MJZ: So. You’re a teacher, a writer, a mentor to new poets, you serve your community in myriad ways, and you still manage to play basketball with Jess Walter on Sundays.

TM: Well, I’ve always been high energy, but let’s be honest. For every forty hours that I put in working on poetry stuff, helping students, service work, raining jumpers on Jess, there are billions of people that put in 40 hours of mind-numbing, bone-bruising labor. My life is very blessed, and I think that the best way that I can recognize that blessing is to work as hard as I can at the labors that I do that somehow pass as work. MJZ: Do you consider yourself to be an introvert? How do—or will—you balance your need for solitude with others’ need for your presence?

TM: This will be a tough negotiation. I don’t know if I’m an introvert, but I do value solitude. I thrive on being out in the woods or on a trail or along a river, figuring out where to cast, getting lost in that one action. You know, that sense where the clatter-chatter turns off for a bit, and you become action, the doing. Moments like that don’t happen much when you’re having to negotiate various social dynamics. But I knew what was going to be asked of me when I signed up for the job, so to speak. The people at poetry events are there because they want to be there; if people have come out to support poetry, then I owe it to them to do my best to make their time spent worthwhile, and I can’t do that as an introvert (for more on this dynamic see the previous answer: I’ll have plenty of time to seek solitude after my gig is up).

MJZ: Enough about you [“forget you!”].

TM: Thank goodness.

MJZ: Let’s turn back to the work of others. You often quote Ed Hirsch: “We need all our poetries.” In your opinion, which poems or poets are underrated and deserve more attention?

TM: Well, Jeffers probably deserves more attention. His poetics and subject matter were very counter the energies of the era when he wrote. Going way back, I love the prose poetry of Thomas Traherne. He was doing Blake before Blake did Blake (late 17th century England). Robert Sund’s poems should be known beyond the borders of our state. When I need to mix things up in my own poems, I go to weirdness: Mina Loy, early Merwin. A poet we hosted at Gonzaga a few years back, George Ecklund, is doing some very unusual and energetic things in his poems. Cid Corman is a poet not many folks know; his contributions to American poetry (from Kyoto after the late 50s) are substantial; he was one of the first translators of Paul Celan. William Bronk. Lorine Niedecker has been discovered, I think, and is no longer “underrated.” She’s great. George Oppen was a touchstone for a while. Some of these folks have become more mainstream, but the list shows that I enjoy ranging about—from the narrative and discursive energies of Jeffers to the paratactic textures of Oppen.

MJZ: This echoes earlier claims in your Introduction to Range of the Possible, when you stressed your interviewees’ “emphasis on the need for variations in the art.” How will you work toward reifying that inclusiveness in your new role?

TM: It’s not too hard, I think. I try to remember that to keep “the line from thickening,” poetry has to undergo constant renewal. So, I hope that as WaPL, I convey to people that I’m excited by all of the ways that poetry is written and spoken and performed. Poetry in Motion, a fun film from the 80s by Ron Mann, emphasizes this point—the video has Bukowski, Waldman, Ginsberg, The Four Horseman, Snyder, Creeley, Shange, and so many various voices. It’s a cool project. I think that it’s going to be important to listen to what people outside of “poetry world” think about poetry; unlike Ezra Pound, I think that it’s very important that we do not punch readers in the face: we can challenge readers, sure, but as Whitman asserted, we need great audiences for poetry—the best way to make that happen is to be a good audience member yourself; listen to others’ works; attend readings; try to understand different visions of what poetry is.

MJZ: In a blurb on Poets & Writers, you say you “think that it’s best not to know where a poem or essay might come from and, of course, not to anticipate the next sudden swerve of where it might go. Cultivate possibility through a willed variety of influences.” I like this as a dictum for young writers, but as I’m sure you’ve found, people often need direction. What specific resources would you recommend for teachers in our school systems?

TM: Well, it depends what they are teaching. I just came upon a textbook, Sound Ideas, by Eugene McCarthy and Fran Quinn. It emphasizes the energy that can blossom when poetry is approached as a performative art, as a sound texture and a field of meaning. Lots of the time, tracking terminology and ferreting out figures of speech can mute the poem, relegate radical alliterative chains and soothing tunes to a non-concern. That’s too bad. Donald Hall writes about this a lot, of course; so do Pinsky and Hirsch and Laux: the music of poetry is important, and it’s part of why children love poetry. As teachers, we need to try to avoid pushing the mute button. That’s a great first step.

MJZ: Agreed. What if someone approaches poetry—as many of us do—outside of school systems? In a recent radio interview, you mentioned how rap and performance poetry embody the spirit of the beat poets, saying that it’s just “another incarnation of that energy,” and that you admired the way it makes “gymnastics with language.” In addition to those more popular venues, or through schools, where should young—and new—poets begin their study?

TM: Well, I was riffing on Carl Sandburg who praised the beats for their counter cultural energies. Rap and Hip Hop and Spoken Word and Slams all celebrate incredible brilliance with language: word play and sound texture. That’s all good. Maybe young poets should begin their study by memorizing the poems they love; if the poems impact us, we should show them the courtesy of “taking them by heart,” show them the hospitality of entrance into our identity. I think that many music enthusiasts do this all the time; memorable poems are as easy to take in, to graft to our being (I’m borrowing some of these ideas from George Steiner). Yeats was sometimes quite snobbish, but he was onto something important when he said “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Studying: painstaking application. But that sounds so severe: if a young person wants to find poetry, he or she should just go look for it in the library; sit down in the stacks and start peeking into books. I’ll bet something cool happens.

TOD MARSHALL was born in Tonawanda, NY, and grew up in Wichita, KS. He studied English and philosophy at Siena Heights University, earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University, and graduated with his PhD from The University of Kansas.

Tod’s books include Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets (2002) and the accompanying anthology, Range of Voices (2005); and poetry collections Dare Say (2002), The Tangled Line (2009), and Bugle (2014),which won the 2015 Washington State Book Award. Tod’s work has been published in many journals, featured by prominent websites, and appreciated by a wide variety of audiences. He directs the Writing Concentration program and coordinates the Visiting Writers Series at Gonzaga University, where he is the Robert K. and Ann J. Powers Endowed Professor in the Humanities. He also serves in several mentorship capacities with Eastern Washington youth. In addition to his public work, Tod enjoys backpacking and fishing and spends about a month of every year in a tent.

In February 2016, Tod Marshall became the fourth Poet Laureate of Washington State. Sponsored by Arts Washington and Humanities Washington, the Poet Laureate “serves to build awareness and appreciation of poetry—including Washington’s legacy of poetry— through public readings, workshops, and presentations in communities throughout the state.” Learn more about the Poet Laureate program at

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