Interview with BT Shaw | Paulann Petersen


Interview with BT Shaw for The Oregonian

BT: I have about a week to put the Q&A together. I thought we'd try sending email back and forth over the next few weekdays, see where we land.

The editors allow me between 500 and 600 words for the final piece, so I edit for clarity and space, always aiming to keep sense. tone and, as much as possible, sentences intact. Too, I often keep the conversations going way past the word count, then choose the questions and answers that are most interesting.

With that in mind, here's an opener: The set-up to my question is too long and I'll cut it somehow for the column (to give you more room!), but here goes anyway:

This summer, one of my students described a draft she had written as "confessional" because it mentioned, in one stanza, her grandfather. The class talked for a long time about the difference between "personal" and "confessional," how a poem that uses actual detail can be personal without being confessional, how we can "make up" seemingly personal detail to great universalizing effect, how skeptical many of today's poets are of anything that resembles personal detail.

Serendipitously, a piece by David Orr in the New York Times Book Review explored the same subject the next week. In it, Orr wrote, "What's curious is that poetry's 'emotional truth' is so often equated with actual truth which is to say, poetry is perceived as conveying genuine information about the author's innermost self. But the concept of "the personal" is hard to pin down because it can involve both personal feelings (which are subjective) and personal facts (which aren't)."

Kindle, your new collection from Mountains and Rivers Press, seems to dance around personal detail, drawing close in one section, cutting away in another. I'm wondering how your relationship to personal fact in your work has changed since your 2002 debut, The Wild Awake?

PP: Sorry for the delay. I was called for jury duty yesterday and spent the whole day at the courthouse, then was part of a reading at Powell's in the evening.

Yours is a good question. A worthy question. I've thought a great deal about it the past few years, often because of a question or plea for help from someone in a workshop I'm teaching.

I'll get a reply to you sometime today. And if what I have to say doesn't seem fruitful or particularly engaging to you, then we can take another direction.

A note: I didn't choose the poems for Kindle, nor their sequence. This book evolved in an unusual way (for me). Ce Rosenow had written to me a couple of times with some very supportive remarks about my work. A year or so later, I noticed (when I was putting poems together for A Bride of Narrow Escape) that I had a large number of short poems. I thought There's easily a whole book of short poems here. And then I thought of Ce. Her publishing forte is short poems, mainly Asian forms, but she's published several Cid Corman's collections too. I wrote to her, asking if she'd be interested in looking at a ms of my short poems. She said yes. I decided to send her more than she'd need, with the idea that she could then have room to pick and choose. She was delighted with that prospect. (When Erik Muller heard about the process, he remarked "That's every publisher's dream.") Over the course of a year and a half or more, I sent her new short poems, as they emerged. By the time Ce decided on the book's contents, she'd considered at least twice as many poems as what appear now in Kindle. So the tone and trajectory of this collection belong to Ce, too.

Another, ironic, off-the-record note: Once I knew she would definitely publish the book, I got serious about sending that pool of poems out to journals (the ones not already published in a mag). A number of them were accepted. But of those new acceptances, only one was a poem that Ce also chose for Kindle. Ha!

I'm much more comfortable with "personal fact" than I was years ago. Mostly, this change has resulted from a realization—a deep and steady belief--that a poem assumes a life of its own on the page. A poem is its own creature, with its own body, a physical body of sound, an architecture of concept and imagery.

It may carry details of my actual life, but those details aren't its life. When I read the poem aloud, I give it voice. For the minute or two or three it takes me to read it, the poem is lending me its life.

I do take comfort in this. I'm not just explaining or revealing my life when I read the poem. I'm voicing the poem's life. The poem--even if it's not particularly successful--is bigger than me.

I agree with David Orr. When we insist on equating emotional truth with actual truth, we impoverish ourselves as readers and writers of poetry. Yes, cultural appropriation and other ethical missteps are real perils. But ultimately, a poem's value lies in emotional truth and integrity, not in verifiable fact.

BT: Thanks, Paulann. Do you mind if I use the story of Kindle's incarnation (but not, of course the sending-poems-out part, which is funny in both the smile way and the oddness of life way) in the intro to the piece? Or I may wind up asking a leading question before we're through...

Anyway, I apologize for the delay. It's been a stupid day in a series of stupid days. Let's keep going on this topic for a question or two, see where it leads (if you don't mind...I think it's a subject that's important not only to writers but to readers). Thanks again. Here's a follow-up:

I like the notion that a successful poem outgrows the facts of its inception, that the news it delivers is less about any particular person and more about what it means to be human. Still, though, there are degrees of personal revelation. In Kindle, for example, "Carried From the Current" begins, "My house near the Willamette / is only blocks from that river" while an ekphrastic poem like "Breugel's Babel" reveals a personal stance, perhaps, but no personal fact. What role do you believe factual personal detail plays in art, and what risks do you see in using it?

PP: You're welcome to use the story of Kindle's incarnation. It's a story that a number of my writer friends find unnerving. They ask, "What was it like?" (to cede that much power to the publisher). And it was a very different experience.

In reply to your follow-up: I remember, years ago, hearing Robert Hass assert that poets could be divided into two categories: poets of metaphor and poets of metonomy. For him, poets of metonomy used the particulars of an everyday life to stand for the whole, while poets of metaphor went delving underground, reaching into the underworld. Either way, poetry is asking the personal to transfigure, transmute.

For me, the power of metaphor is irrefutable. A metaphor is a creature of transformation. A metaphor makes a huge, stunning leap, equating two essentially unlike things, making them one. A poem may start with or incorporate personal detail, but I'm most satisfied when it makes that chthonic plunge into the realm of metaphor. For me, the risk in relying on factual, personal detail would be the risk of remaining on a merely factual surface.

In my estimation (and the poet is usually a notoriously poor critic of her own work), "Carried from the Current" makes that plunge in its last stanza. "Breugel's Babel" does it in the first line.

Also: I'm looking again at what I sent you yesterday—dashed off pretty quickly. One part would be more accurate if it said "The poem--even if it's not completely successful—is bigger than me."

I'll be home tonight, and I'll watch for anything else from you.

And right now, I'm fixing on the term "personal revelation," which is quite different from "personal detail."

I'll ponder a bit more on personal revelation and get back to you if something emerges.

BT: Please, do, feel free to elaborate on personal revelation.

PP: Now I'm remembering Leonard Michaels saying that no one's writing can escape "the stench of the personal." It's virtually impossible for writing to not reveal something personal about the writer.

I've written and published plenty of poems that reveal "facts" about me that I'd probably circumvent in everyday conversation. But in each case, those bits of personal history or private revelation found a vehicle for expression in a poem's sound form and figurative language and imagery. The poem offered me a way to go beyond the facts that occasioned it.

BT: But also: When poetry is, regardless of detail, a personal thing, how was it to turn the creation of the book over to a publisher?

PP: I was able to turn the shaping of Kindle over to the publisher, Ce Rosenow, because I could see--early in the process--she had a remarkable vision for the book. As she sent me succeeding versions, I realized how well she knew the poems she'd chosen, how carefully she was linking one to the next. Throughout, she was ready to hear any objections I might have, and ready to make changes if I insisted. But I decided to step back and see what she put together. I came to trust her book-shaping sensibilities.

I was revising the poems all along, but not at her direction. With the exception of a few mechanical questions, she left the individual poems to me. She did want a different title. I disagreed, and she said OK. We worked together on the section titles. I can't say I turned the creation of the book over to her. I created, then revised the poems she chose for the book. Ce Rosenow created their shape as a collection.

Another thought: Kindle could be a completely different book. Given the number of poems in the pool I originally gave to Ce, she could have chosen an entirely different set of poems. There's at least one shadow book under Kindle's existence. Maybe two. Maybe three. Or more. I like that. Proof positive: ours is an amazing universe of multiplicity.

BT: Here's two more (possibly the last two), plus would you please include a short bio (where you were born and raised? how long have you lived in Portland? any upcoming workshops you're teaching?):

PP: I was born in Portland, lived here until I graduated from Franklin HS, then lived in Klamath Falls for many years, then moved back to Portland in 1991. I'm an Oregonian, through and through.

I'll be giving two workshops for Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark this fall: a methods workshop for teaching creative writing in the classroom, and a "Reading Culture" workshop for people interested in Turkey. Also a workshop in Klamath Falls.

BT: How do you think poetry has shaped your life...and vice versa?

PP: Poetry reading it, writing it, teaching it is the current that moves my life. It carries me, buoys me along. When other activities (however worthy or engaging) keep me away from writing for too long, I begin to feel unwell. That malaise is obviously a kind of withdrawal. When I'm experiencing it, I think of "disease" in its original meaning: dis-ease.

BT: What are you working on next?

PP: I've been working on a manuscript of poems (currently titled The Voluptuary) inspired by Whitman. Although Whitman is my birth-name, I didn't read Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days from cover to cover until a few years ago. Walt Whitman's expansive, ecstatic embrace triggered an outpouring of poems from me, many of them addressed to him. I'm a member of a Whitman family. Lucky me.

BT: I'm shaping the final version, hoping to file by tonight or tomorrow morning, and I realize I neglected to ask you about being part of Whitman's family. I assume you mean literally (and not just literaturally). How so? Great-great-great what?

PP: I think I said "part of a Whitman family." Genealogists, now that they have DNA to help them, claim that people who have surnames in common can trace their ancestors back to a common blood lines (this was in a wonderful New Yorker piece a couple of years ago). My father's name was Paul Whitman. For 21 years, I was Paulann Whitman. Then I foolishly gave that name up.

I'd love to be able to determine the actual connection to Walt Whitman. My Whitman great grandparents were, I believe, from the same part of the world.

BT: And another question has occurred to me (I don't know how or whether I can work it in, but here goes): How has being a lifelong Oregonian shaped your poetry?

PP: Well, I did have the great good fortune of living directly under the Pacific Flyway for almost 30 years. That might be a good enough answer right there.

But I think the effect of landscape, homescape is both deeper and more oblique. Oregon is mountains, ocean, high desert, rain forest. It's the hotsprings in Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, the Church of Elvis in downtown Portland, pelicans on Klamath Lake, herons in Oaks Bottom on the Willamette. Oregon is abundance, variety vast and gorgeous. It teaches me inclusiveness and gratitude. Oregon encourages a wide embrace.

BT: Can you stand one more?

Your work with Friends of William Stafford is well known and garnered you a Literary Arts award in 2006. But Kindle is dedicated to Dorothy Stafford, not Bill. Why?

Or put another way, is there something about Kindle that speaks to your relationship with Dorothy Stafford?

PP: Bill's work (and his life and work are seamless--he bore witness in his every word and action to his pacifist, pluralist beliefs) is a profound influence in my life. But--although we were friends--I can't say I knew Bill well.

In the last ten years or so, Dorothy has become a close and beloved friend. She's an extraordinary person: luminous, funny, compassionate, and remarkably wise. I dedicate this book to her as a small tribute, an expression of gratitude, respect, and love. Her good company is a boon in my life.


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