McFarland, Ron(ald Earl) 1942-
McFARLAND, Ron(ald Earl) 1942-
PERSONAL: Born September 22, 1942, in Bellaire, OH; son of Earl A. (in sales) and Maxine (a homemaker; maiden name, Stullenburger) McFarland; married Elsie Watson (a teacher), January 29, 1966 (divorced, 2002); married Georgia Tiffany (a teacher and poet), 2003; children: Kimberley, Jennifer, Jonathan. Ethnicity: "Scotch-Irish and German." Education: Brevard Junior College, A.A., 1962; Florida State University, B.A., 1963, M.A., 1965; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ph.D., 1970.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—Department of English, Brink 122, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83843. E-mail— [email protected]
CAREER: Educator and poet. Sam Houston State College (now University), Huntsville, TX, instructor in English, 1965-67; University of Idaho, Moscow, assistant professor, 1970-74, associate professor, 1974-79, professor of English, 1979—, director of creative writing program, faculty advisor to literary magazine Fugue. Moscow Arts Commission, chair, 1980-81. Exchange professor, Ohio University, 1985-86. Gives poetry readings and conducts workshops. Consultant to Idaho Commission on the Arts.
MEMBER: Western Literature Association, Pacific Northwest American Studies Association, Academy of American Poets, Hemingway Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grant from Association for the Humanities in Idaho, 1983; Idaho State Writer-in-Residence, 1984; Burlington-Northern Faculty Achievement Award, 1990; Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Prize for Fiction, 2000, for "Different Words for Snow"; Midnight Sun Poetry Chapbook contest winner, 2000, for The Mad Waitress Poems; "Best of the Best from the University Presses" citation from American Association of University Presses books committee, 2000, for Understanding James Welch; Pecan Grove Press award, 2001, for The Hemingway Poems; University of Idaho Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Achievement, 2002; John Gilgum Award for Poetry , Mochila Review, 2003.
(Editor with Paul K. Dempsey) American Controversy, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1968.
Certain Women (chapbook), Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1977.
(Editor and contributor) Eight Idaho Poets, University Press of Idaho (Moscow, ID), 1979.
Composting at Forty (poems), Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1984.
(Author of introduction) Dixie Lee Partridge, Deer in the Haystacks (poems), Ahsahta, 1984.
(Editor and contributor) James Welch, Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1986.
The Villanelle: Evolution of a Poetic Form, University of Idaho Press (Moscow, ID), 1987.
(Editor with Hugh Nichols) Norman Maclean, Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1988.
(Editor with William Studebaker) Idaho Poetry: A Centennial Anthology, University of Idaho Press (Moscow, ID), 1988.
David Wagoner (monograph), Boise State University (Boise, ID), 1989.
(Editor with Franz Schneider and Kornel Sjovajsa) Deep down Things: Poems of the Inland Pacific Northwest, Washington State University Press (Pullman, WA), 1990.
The Haunting Familiarity of Things (poems), Singular Speech Press (Canton, CT), 1993.
Norman Maclean (monograph), Boise State University (Boise, ID), 1993.
Tess Gallagher (monograph), Boise State University (Boise, ID), 1995.
The World of David Wagoner, University of Idaho Press (Moscow, ID), 1996.
Understanding James Welch, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 2000.
Ballgloves (chapbook), Polo Grounds Press (Cincinnati, OH), 2000.
The Mad Waitress Poems (chapbook), Permafrost Press (Fairbanks, AK), 2000.
The Hemingway Poems (chapbook), Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio, TX), 2000.
Stranger in Town: New and Selected Poems, Confluence Press (Lewiston, ID), 2000.
Catching First Light: Thirty Stories and Essays from Idaho (includes "Different Words for Snow"), Idaho State University Press (Pocatello, ID), 2001.
William Kittredge (monograph), Boise State University (Boise, ID), 2002.
Ron McFarland's Greatest Hits (chapbook), Pudding House Publications (Columbus, OH), 2003.
Also contributor to anthologies, including Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry, 1981, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, and 1995-96. Contributor of numerous stories, articles, poems, and reviews to periodicals, including Poetry Northwest, Willow Springs, Spitball, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, Greenesboro Review, Rattapallax, Cream City Review, Tampa Review, Weber Studies, Christian Science Monitor, and Shanandoah. Literary editor, Snapdragon, 1977-87; Slackwater Review, poetry editor, 1979-80, general editor, 1981-82.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Portable Idaho, a new anthology of Idaho poets and writers; Subtle Thieves, a collection of poems; Confessions of a Night Librarian, a book of short stories; research on Hemingway and various American Indian writers.
SIDELIGHTS: Ron McFarland, a former Idaho State writer-in-residence, is an author whose interests range widely through literature, the arts, and sports. McFarland's publications include critical texts on American authors, poetry about Idaho, baseball, and Ernest Hemingway, and a scholarly work on the villanelle. He has won awards in all of these areas: his short story, "Different Words for Snow"; his poetry collection The Mad Waitress Poems; and his literary criticism book on the writings of James Welch all received awards in 2000. In a review of McFarland's Stranger in Town: New and Selected Poems for the Midwest Quarterly, Richard Holinger praised the book as "a pleasurable read" that appeals through its "colloquial flavor and rhythm of natural speech." Although he has resided in Idaho since 1970, McFarland grew up in Ohio and Florida, and his youthful experiences there factor into his work.
McFarland once told CA: "As a writer I suppose I'm a 'jack of all trades, master of none,' the going euphemism for which is 'eclectic.' In poems I generally try to catch a small dramatic moment, usually centering on a character with a distinct voice. Lacking the wit of John Donne, I've resorted to what I hope is my own brand of whimsy (poor man's wit). I've written about everything in my poems, stories and nonfiction from hotdogs to hide-and-seek, and from Florida to Idaho, but women tend to frequent my writing as characters (though I claim to have no special wisdom about them).
"I admire the obvious aural jubilee of Wallace Stevens, but my own manipulations of ear come closer to the subtleties of William Stafford, Richard Hugo, or David Wagoner. My poems and stories generally reflect a comic vision of life, one that is not exceptionally intellectual, despite my academic background and vocation. When I give a reading I like to think that most of the audience has heard, understood, and enjoyed my writing. Generally, I want them to recognize that poetry can be fun and that it doesn't have to be arcane or esoteric or difficult to be good. I'm also pleased to hear some laughter from time to time, though I don't pretend to be a comedian. I admire Ezra Pound's dictum early in the ABC of Reading: 'Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man.'
"When it comes to my scholarly dabblings, I give full vent to my own meandering interests. What seems curious to me about a poem or story or book is what I write about, neglecting blithely what the supposed needs of scholarship or new waves in critical theory might be. I'm not very concerned whether I make a 'worthwhile contribution to scholarship.' I do try to use good scholarly techniques, to conduct responsible and mature research, and to offer honest and (I hope) interesting observations or insights. Aside from that, I follow whatever spoor I discover.
"For example, if Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Fish' or Sherman Alexie's latest novel intrigues me so much that I want to make an account of it, I follow through, even though my supposed area of expertise is seventeenth-century English poetry. I try not to neglect the seventeenth century, which is my first literary love, but there, too, I've been whimsical. The interrelationships between science and poetry have provided subjects for a number of my investigations (Jonson and magnetism, Edward Herbert of Cherbury and optics, poems dealing with tobacco), but I've also dealt with mythological references and with close textual studies (repetition in Donne's poems, for example). Since I teach both modern and seventeenth-century poetry, as well as Hemingway seminars and courses dealing with fiction as diverse as contemporaries from sub-Saharan Africa or from the Pacific Northwest, it has been easy for me to encounter a wide range of subjects of interest to me—the villanelle, for example, and the work of David Wagoner and, for some odd reason, Longfellow's 'Evangeline.'
"Recognizing that mine would not likely be a major voice in criticism and that I am possessed of middling talents, I decided to indulge myself and to check out the various types of literary criticism. Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature has probably influenced me somewhat here. Why limit myself simply to a single 'extrinsic' or 'intrinsic' approach? Some works are well approached from the outside, so to speak, while others virtually demand emphasis on the text. Most, of course, require something of each. At any rate, that's how I've proceeded. I've always told myself that if scholarship got in the way or ceased being fun, I'd give it up, but I still enjoy it, and it sometimes offers welcome relief from the poems and stories I'm struggling with in a very different way. I told a friend once that it's like the difference between hunting squirrels and hunting unicorns."
McFarland added: "Although I have always written some journalistic prose, essays, and stories, I've turned increasingly to prose, especially to fiction and to creative or literary nonfiction, in recent years. I write some stories that I would characterize as modestly experimental, but my most representative story would be a first-person narration in which I exaggerate and outright prevaricate on details and episodes of my life or those of family members. Most of my essays, excluding literary scholarship and criticism, have a narrative line and a number of them involve hunting and fishing. I have also had some success and considerable pleasure with what some editors call 'sudden fiction,' the very condensed one-or two-page story."
Ron McFarland contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
It would not be altogether accurate for me to say that I became a writer, to the extent that I am a writer, because I did not stick with baseball, but it's plausible.
After graduating from Cocoa High School in 1960, I attended the brand new Brevard Junior College (now Community College) in my hometown of Cocoa, Florida, and I decided right off I was going to accomplish what I failed to accomplish at CHS. I was going to become a Big Man on Campus. This plan would involve making the great grades I did not make in high school, becoming a campus leader (whatever that meant), and making the baseball team. The last appeared to be the easiest of my goals, inasmuch as this would be BJC's first baseball team, and not all that many guys were trying out. If you look at the 1961 yearbook, in fact, you will see me standing with a dozen or so other ballplayers, glove tucked confidently under my skinny arm. I'm the guy with the flattop and newly acquired glasses. I'm the short guy with the look of hopeful confidence.
And yes, the coach said I could stay on the team, provided that riding the pine all season was acceptable. I envisioned subbing in for an inning or two, whenever, or if ever, we were at least ten runs ahead. Or, the coach suggested, I might be interested in editing the school's fledgling newspaper, The Echo, to be run weekly on a full back page of The Cocoa Tribune, the very publication I had diligently delivered for about five years, between ages twelve and sixteen. My name in print on a regular basis. A byline. The awesome power of the printed word. I knocked the clay from my cleats and embarked upon a life of letters.
What turned me into a writer right away was the fact that my staff, all of us volunteers, of course, was remarkably erratic, not to mention under-talented. We all tried. We did the best we could. But one week the social editor's piece would be mysteriously missing, and perhaps the sports editor's piece would be there, but in fragments. Meanwhile, I would be busily converting official memos from the Dean of Students into news stories and writing what I then thought of as pithy and sometimes scathing editorials. For years I kept the scrap of blue stationery to which a kindly lady from North Carolina had taped two dimes and requested copies of my "wonderful" editorial on whatever-it-was.
My own favorite editorial was a blistering indictment of the BJC bureaucrats for banning Bermuda shorts on campus, as per the request of an offended elderly lady who lived across the highway (Old US 1). I attended the prom that year, and when I introduced the college president to my date, he observed that he was surprised to see I was not wearing Bermuda shorts. The power of the pen. What a self-righteous bit of a prig I was!
Meanwhile, I was working three part-time jobs, one at the school library, one at the Office of Student Personnel Services, and one as an assistant librarian at the Cocoa Public Library. I was taking an overload of classes, having discovered myself as an "intellectual" the summer after I graduated from CHS, where I was anything but, and I was active in two or three clubs, as per my ambition to be a BMOC. Those were the days when two years of ROTC were required of all males in college, but only if the school offered such a program, and most junior colleges did not. Otherwise I'm sure I would have strutted my stuff as a martinet (cadet major at the very least).
Not surprisingly, I came down with a case of "temporary iron deficiency anemia," and my doctor advised me to stop "burning the candle at both ends." But I had read somewhere that even the geniuses among us use only a small percentage of their brainpower, and I felt equal to everything: I just needed to assert myself. I developed a taste for calves' liver and spinach. Although I have never been a "morning person," I became one for a couple of years at BJC, rising with the sun over the Indian River and with the custodians to rap out copy for The Echo. I remember watching from the editorial offices the shot that sent John Glenn into orbit one morning in February of 1962.
If writing on demand and under pressure helped motivate me from one direction, the free and quiet hours I had in the evenings as the "night librarian" at the public library contributed the time to indulge myself in poetic and other creative fantasies. No one in my family had been a writer and we had no tradition of story telling, but I had grown up with books. My mother read to me from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verse so often that the rhythms were embedded somewhere inside.
My father always seemed "literary" to me. We had a nearly complete set of Mark Twain, and my father could quote any number of passages from Thomas Gray or Shakespeare. It was many years before I realized that he did not, in fact, know everything. He had gone to college at Ohio University for a couple of years, enough perhaps to help him become a ninetyday wonder after he was drafted into the army during World War II, but after the war he had become a businessman. Not a very successful businessman, I might add, but my father always enjoyed sales. Part of my vaulting ambition in those days was to prove myself to my parents—firstborn son syndrome, if there is actually such a thing—and I am not altogether certain I have outgrown that impulse.
I also had a couple of those remarkable teachers everyone seems to encounter somewhere along the way. Philip I. Eschbach taught eighth-grade English, with a vengeance, I am inclined to say. A short man with an athletic build, wavy blond hair, and a thin mustache, he had been a pilot during the war and had seen some action (my father had been stationed stateside for the duration, at Love Field in Dallas and, of all places, in Hollywood, California). Mr. Eschbach taught us everything in that English class from how to home in a plane on a radar beacon and how fossils are formed to how to listen to grand opera (it was the first time I ever heard it) and symphonic structure.
But most of all Mr. Eschbach had us memorize and recite (not "blurt," but "recite") poetry. It began with three stanzas of "Dixie" and Robert E. Lee's "Farewell
Address to the Army of Northern Virginia." These were the days before integration, and Cocoa was still a small town in the South, as much renowned then (1954-55) for being the Saltwater Trout Capital of the World as it was for being home to the Atlantic Missile Testing Range. A small Confederate flag sprung from a red plastic heart-shaped holder in front of the class. As we took exams, Mr. Eschbach would pace up and down the aisles softly whistling "The Bonnie Blue Flag." But most of all we memorized poems: Tennyson, Browning, Longfellow—mostly the Victorians.
The other teacher who influenced me was about as different a human being as one could be from Mr. Eschbach (we called him "Colonel Eschbach," and I think he was a lieutenant-colonel in the Air Force by the war's end). Charles P. Ashford had been with the FBI during World War II, and he taught Spanish at CHS, where he also devoted considerable energy to radicalizing his students, although I suppose in those dangerous McCarthy days he simply thought of it as "humanizing" us. He it was who played the tape of Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl"—pretty heady stuff in Cocoa, Florida, ca. 1959.
Mr. Ashford was, perhaps, simply a progressive, or maybe he was a dangerous liberal, possibly even a "com-symp" or a "fellow traveler," as they were then called. A rumor went around one week that his place on North Indian River Drive was being staked out by the FBI, and a couple of us drove up to check it out. Sure enough, a very conspicuous black sedan with a couple of very serious-looking guys was parked just around the corner. Of course it may just have been a coincidence. At any rate it was no surprise that Mr. Ashford showed up at BJC in the fall of 1960 to teach Russian, a language with which I promptly fell in love, although additional study of it left me far from fluent. He also taught me freshman composition, and he served as advisor for the literary magazine, Penchant. I worked on the staff as an editor, and fortunately had the good sense to leave my own scribbling out of it.
I was not quite twenty when I left Cocoa for Tallahassee and Florida State University, where I would major in English and minor in history. I've dwelt on these years partly because they have become the focus of a good bit of my writing, of several poems, such as "Town Librarian" and "Ceteris Paribus," and of a series of essays and stories I am presently trying to collect into a book: "Confessions of a Night Librarian," "Cuba Days," "My Life as a Racist," "Home Cooking," "A Novel Set in Florida," and "My Career in Baseball" among others. I suppose these years, between fourth grade in 1951 and my graduation from BJC in 1962, were "formative" for me, so I think of them as particularly pertinent.
But who knows? I was born in Bellaire, Ohio, on September 22, 1942, to Mary Maxine Stullenburger McFarland and Earl Alexander McFarland, who is ten years older than she. My mother was a coal miner's daughter (my grandfather worked some thirty years underground and survived at least one horrendous disaster), and my father's father worked for Neff's Lumber Company and had a drinking problem. My father's mother was president of the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. My paternal grandparents died before I had the chance to influence their lives for better or for worse, but my maternal grandparents, the Stullenburgers, moved to Merritt Island, Florida, in 1952, where they owned a very successful service station with a mom-and-pop's grocery store that offered a rack of comic books. It included the "Classic Comics" comic series, which have also served as a "literary" influence. Some of the great classics of Western civilization I have read only in the "Classic Comics" version, and I am content to leave it that way.
My point is that my early boyhood years in Ohio were also formative in some ways. We left for Florida in 1950, after I finished the second grade in Barnesville, but we visited relatives in Ohio for years, and since 1985 my parents have lived in eastern Ohio half the year in an 1884 red brick schoolhouse they have converted into a home with a sleeping loft. My father's father taught there at the Chestnut Level School for a couple of years around 1900. Although I have now lived in Idaho for more than thirty-two years, some of my poems and stories go back to Ohio. "The Old School at Chestnut Level" is an obvious example, as is "The Family Farm," both from my third collection of poems, The Haunting Familiarity of Things; less obvious would be "At the Museum of Lost Toys," the opening poem of my new and selected poems, Stranger in Town. I taught for a year (1985-86) as an exchange professor at Ohio University in Athens, and a couple of my Ohio poems are included in Elton Glaser and William Greenway's anthology, I Have My Own Songs for It: Modern Poems of Ohio.
Like many writers, I have a hard time letting go of things. My fourth collection of poems is a baseball chapbook titled Ballgloves. But in the fall of 1962, when I began my junior year at Florida State, I temporarily relinquished Cocoa, Florida, and my nuclear family: my parents; my brother Tom, two years younger than I; my sister Susan, thirteen years younger; and my then-baby brother Dan, twenty years younger and the surprise and delight of my parents' later years.
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography made me into the conventionally "good student" I had not been able to be in high school. I studied his scheme for self-improvement and adapted it to my needs the summer after I graduated from CHS: so much time each day to study math (always my worst subject), science (I initially hoped to become a microbiologist), history
(probably my best subject), philosophy (I taught myself Plato and Nietzsche—badly), foreign languages (for which I fancied I had a "knack"), and of course "literature," whatever that was—the canon. I read most of Shakespeare's plays that summer. I saw myself as a sort of inspired autodidact.
During my years at Florida State (1962-65) I lived in a scholarship house run by the Foundation Scholarship Organization, a sort of cooperative living setup designed for the impecunious and academically promising. Thanks to scholarships and the FSO, I was able to get through without part-time jobs. I was focused on academic achievement: good grades meant scholarships. Period. My family was struggling financially. We were never exactly poor, but we were always strapped. My father was selling garden equipment and fences at Sears, and there was a second mortgage on our modest project house and worry over paying this or that bill. So I studied hard, my goal being to teach at a junior college or university. My brother Tom is now a librarian at Florida Tech; my sister Susan holds a doctorate in education from Emory University and teaches middle school in Stone Mountain, Georgia; my brother Dan teaches high school science in Plant City, Florida. The offspring of a salesman and grandchildren of a coal miner and a lumberyard manager, we have all become educators.
At FSU I played intramural football and basketball avidly, though not very well, I'm sure. I had a vague sense of myself as a frustrated jock. Too small to make the team in high school, I would not let go of athletics. One of the few Latin quotations that stuck with me from my two years of high school study was that of Juvenal: "Mens sana in corpore sano" [A healthy mind in a healthy body].
Florida State was then experimenting with the trimester system, so I was able to complete my B.A. in English in the winter of 1963. I loved learning, still do. Perhaps I had developed "intellectual curiosity." I admire that trait and continue to find myself amazed to discover it so rarely in my students. But I was always driven, an overachiever in many ways. As a Boy Scout it was important not only that I make Eagle rank, but also that I achieve it by age thirteen, and then that I go on to add a Bronze Palm, probably to convince myself it wasn't just a fluke. Playing trumpet in a very fine high school band, I started as third chair, next-to-last seat, but I stuck with it (doggedly) until by my senior year I was playing first chair (albeit fourth seat). The CHS band was the first high school band from the state of Florida to march in the Rose Bowl parade.
When I left Cocoa, my first true love, Jeanie, remained behind to finish up at BJC. She was very bright, an exceptional student of math (my bête noire) and Spanish. When she caught up with me in Tallahassee we'd been going together for more than two years. She took a good, hard look at our relationship and, as we said back then, she "gave me the shaft."
Heartbroken and doubtless on the rebound, while I was in the midst of my master's studies at FSU I became engaged to Linda, a Long Island sorority girl from another world. Her father, a steamship executive, told her he thought I was "intense." I took that as a compliment.
Although I had plans to write a thesis on Russian poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov and the Byronic Hero, I ended up taking the extra courses option and completed the M.A. in 1965, by which time I had
parted from Linda and become engaged to Elsie Roseland Watson, who was finishing her degree in social welfare. The action in Vietnam was heating up, but despite my boyhood fantasies of military glory, the result, I suspect, of memories of my father in uniform, or at least of snapshots thereof, and of my hero-worship of Uncle Stony, who served with the 10th Armored and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, I took a position as an instructor in the English department at Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, Texas, home of the state prison system's infamous maximum security unit known locally as The Walls.
During my graduate studies at FSU I made some stabs at writing poems, and of course I sent them out in a spirit of pride and high naivete to the New Yorker. And just a few weeks later, there was Eustace, top hat and high collar, studying a butterfly through his monocle and haughtily rejecting my poems.
On January 29, 1966, Elsie and I married. I was just twenty-three and she was twenty-one, both of us in love but too young to know what we were doing. We had, my father might have said, although he was too kind to say it, "not a pot to piss in." Or Elsie's father, a hardworking truck farmer whose land is located about twenty miles outside of Gainesville, might have said that, but he didn't. Perhaps if I had worked as intensely on our marriage as I did on my career and on my writing, it would have been happier and more satisfying for both of us. But despite problems from the outset, the marriage lasted more than thirty-six years, and it resulted in three wonderful children. We were of the generation and social class that generally did not regard divorce as an option.
Meanwhile, regardless of a heavy teaching load—and I loved teaching, from my experiences as a teaching assistant at FSU onward—I kept at it with my poems. My first publication was a pathetic little lyric that appeared on page one of a modest literary magazine called The Human Voice Quarterly in 1967. That same spring two more of my juvenilia saw the light in a magazine published in California and now many years defunct, The Bay Shore Breeze. As grateful as I was to those editors at that time, I am even more grateful today for the oblivion into which these poems have fallen, but I am grateful. The ingratitude of some writers toward the academies that have nourished them and provided their readership and toward the editors who have published their writing continues to surprise and irritate me.
The major achievements of those two years in Texas, however, aside from some fine bass and crappie fishing and a memorable vacation in Mexico City to make up for an abbreviated honeymoon in New Orleans, were a scholarly paper I read at the South Central Modern Language Association Conference in Austin on Eudora Welty's "The Death of a Traveling Sales man" and a freshman composition textbook coedited with my colleague, Paul K. Dempsey. Titled American Controversy, the book features twenty-four essays grouped under such topical focuses as "The American Dream," "Youthful Dissent," "The Affluent Society," and "What Is America?" Scott Foresman published the book in 1968, and it was moderately successful. We integrated rhetorical commentary on such matters as sentence structure, paragraph continuity, and supporting a thesis in a different typeface within the text of several key essays, and I composed a brief (about thirty pages) "Writer's Handbook" on mechanics as a sort of appendix.
Somehow, perhaps by ignoring my domestic responsibilities, I also found time to start a small literary magazine, Whetstone, which probably did not survive my stay in Huntsville. So began, I think, my varied and sometimes divergent sense of myself as a writer. Maybe I could make my mark as a literary scholar, or perhaps my future lay in the direction of some sort of applied pedagogy, and I remained haunted by the possibilities of poetry. Not that I would have even begun to think of myself as a poet.
About this time my brother Tom was being shipped off to Vietnam, where he would be at Pleiku in time for the notorious Tet Offensive. Possessed of a low draft number in the lottery, I was able to evade military service, and although my brother came home unscathed, I have always felt guilty about my nonparticipation. Like most liberals of the day, I did not agree with the government's rationale for involvement in the war, but I'm a "war baby," and I've been an avid reader of military history. I have large collections of lead and cast-iron toy soldiers and of army patches and insignia. But I have never been a soldier. When people ask what I think I'd have done with my life if I hadn't become an English prof, my standard answer is that I'd have been a career army officer.
Neither poet nor soldier, I thought of myself as an academic, so the proceeds from American Controversy came in handy when we moved to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where I was to spend three years (1967-70) acquiring a doctorate under the direction of the renowned Miltonist, Arthur E. Barker. My dissertation, however, was not on Milton, but on the minor, late seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne, specifically on the unusual half-prose, half-poetry of his "Thanksgivings." This serviceable dissertation was never intended to be or to evolve into a book, but it got me through in good time, and I was able to mine it for a couple of scholarly essays in the years to come. I discovered rugby at Illinois, and I loved it. We had a fairly competitive Big 10 club team, and if our first daughter, Kimberley, had not come onto the scene in October of 1969, I might well have lingered another year just to play rugby.
Also, I suppose, to fish the muddy rivers of central Illinois and Indiana in the company of my old friend and mentor, Professor Marcus S. Goldman, an emeritus professor of English and a brilliant angler of the old school. He had served with a Red Cross ambulance unit during World War I and had been gassed. He stayed in Paris for some years after the war to hobnob with members of the Lost Generation, so every excursion to the Kaskaskia or the Sangamon or the Embarras or the Wabash was a literary adventure, even though the red horse, freshwater drum, and carp could not compete with the saltwater species of my Florida boyhood.
By the time I left Illinois for what I thought would be a brief sojourn at the University of Idaho in Moscow, a couple more of my poems had found homes in minor literary magazines, and although I was far from good, I felt that I was becoming better at it. Still, my first calling and my surest road to tenure and financial security (I now had a family, after all, and was more broke than ever) was literary scholarship. One of my first acts upon reaching Moscow, which was frighteningly remote from any of our relatives and perhaps even from civilization as we knew it, was to float a $300 loan from the credit union. As I threw myself into my work, Elsie, I suspect, felt she had been thrown to the wolves.
I was hired as a specialist in seventeenth-century British literature, and one happy by-product from my years at Illinois was an unusual little article on Ben Jonson's play, The Magnetic Lady, which for some unaccountable reason Studies in English Literature accepted for publication. During the early 1970s I had pretty good luck placing critical essays on a variety of writers (Traherne and Welty, James Boswell, E. A. Robinson, Lord Herbert of Cherbury) in a variety of scholarly journals. I also scattered a few more mediocre poems in some less-than-familiar literary magazines (God bless the "little magazine" movement), and in 1973 I placed a couple of short stories in such magazines, the first being "The Day of Battle," which appeared in the summer 1973 issue of the Apalachee Quarterly. So here I was, age thirty-three in 1975 and in possession of tenure and the rank of associate professor. Despite my rather old-fashioned attitude toward grades, I was rewarded with undeservedly high student evaluations, so I'm sure I felt quite pleased with myself. I was working hard, putting in extra hours, serving on a slew of committees, and so on, and it was paying off.
Meanwhile, Elsie, who had worked as a secretary at The Walls in Huntsville and for the College of Education at the University of Illinois, was struggling under the burden of my paradigm of a happy marriage, which was even then some twenty years outdated. The birth of our second daughter, Jennifer, in December of 1974 meant that Elsie would be even more securely fixed as a "homemaker," whether she cared for that identity or not. I would work hard, be successful, and bring home the bacon, while she took care of the kids, cleaned house, and fried the bacon. It was to be another decade, however, before I began to sense even the beginnings of her dissatisfaction with our life, and by then our son, Jonathan, would have been born (April of 1980), leaving us with what the seventeenth-century prose master Sir Thomas Browne might have described as a perfect quincunx, a five-pointed figure shaped like the dots on a die, no doubt, as I visualized it, with me at the center.
Getting into Idaho turned out to be much easier than getting out of it, partly because the academic marketplace collapsed in the early and mid-1970s and partly because I found myself becoming more and more attracted to the region and less and less willing to move here or there for whatever reason. I have always been a small-town boy, from Barnesville, to Cocoa, to Huntsville, to Moscow, and not many universities are located in such towns—liberal arts colleges, yes, but they were not my métier. I've also been pretty much of a working-class sort of person all my life, the son of a salesman for Sears and the grandson of a coal miner. I haven't much in the way of social aspirations.
The outdoors, going back to my Boy Scout days, are very important to me, even though I would not classify myself as an "outdoorsman," and I soon fell in love with rainbow and cutthroat trout, although I have resisted becoming a fly-fishing purist, as is my son. Idaho in general and the University of Idaho in particular became a comfortable fit. The various chairs of the English department were willing to tolerate and even reward my work outside my area of specialization, so I evolved into a "generalist," as likely to publish an essay on W. H. Auden as I was to startle the world with a piece on John Donne. Even my poems and stories were accepted as grist for the mill, so why not indulge my whims? I could not be confident, however, that such lack of focus would be welcome just anywhere. Other universities might demand a scholar more fully committed to the seventeenth century.
Following my participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar on seventeenth-century poetry held at Princeton University in 1976 under the tutelage of Earl Miner, I began to place my poems with more frequency in the obscure magazines of the literary world, and I was invited to do gigs, as we called them, for the Poets in the Schools (PITS) programs in Lewiston. I also signed on as poetry editor of the newly established literary magazine Slack-water Review, founded by my friends M. K. (Keith) and Shirley Browning at Lewis-Clark State College, located about thirty-five miles to the south in Lewiston, Idaho.
By the end of 1976 I had placed about a dozen essays in scholarly journals in my field of supposed expertise and another half a dozen on other subjects. Moreover, I could claim ten short stories and at least thirty poems to my credit. At least quantitatively, my literary star was rising. I initiated a program of readings at Idaho (mostly poetry at first) in 1974, and I soon became acquainted personally with the best poets of that time who were writing out of the region: William Stafford, John Haines, Richard Hugo, and novelist James Welch. Because the English department was short of cash, Elsie and I fed and housed most of the visiting writers for several years at our place. Of course these visits proved more pleasurable to me than they did to my wife. In 1977 I started a small literary magazine, Snapdragon, which had a pretty successful ten-year run. Consequently, I was quite full of myself when Confluence Press agreed to publish my chapbook, Certain Women, that year.
"pity this busy monster, manunkind," begins one of e.e. cummings' best known poems, and then comes the superb line break for the word that completes the sentence, "not." I was busy, busy, busy, and I was about to get busier. Here is one way I assess my poems in Certain Women: Just five of the twenty-five appear in my new and selected poems. All of the poems in CW concern women, although I knew and understood nothing of women then, and I'm not much wiser now, at least on that subject. It just happened that when I surveyed the poems I cared about most back in 1977, a quarter of a century ago, most of them happened to concern women in one way or another.
One of the poems, "The Lentil Queen," remains a personal favorite for various reasons. The unusual woman described in the poem was farming her grandmother's acreage on the Clearwater breaks, and the afternoon I was "inspired" she was indeed wearing a leather hat, and she was smoking not jasmine cigarettes, as I write in the poem, but those godawfully pungent, hot-burning clove things from Indonesia. I imagined her combine would be a green John Deere. I like the lyricism of the poem, the sound-play that connects words like "peas" and "ease," "jewel" and "jasmine" and "cab." There was, and is I believe, something true and maybe even perceptive in my portrayal of her as fearless in her beauty and as "quietly relentless." The next year, 1979, I edited a selective anthology, Eight Idaho Poets, including my own work (unblushingly), partly in response to a magazine article in which the writer claimed Idaho could boast only four poets.
Beginning in 1978 I could boast of ten to twenty poems published each year, and they began to appear in more noteworthy magazines like Quarterly West, Willow Springs, South Dakota Review, Tar River Poetry, and Poetry Northwest. I believe I was finding my voice, a sort of seriously whimsical tone that feels comfortable to me and that seems consistent with my loose, paradoxical philosophy of "cynical optimism." I might mention in passing that none of my twenty or so short stories published prior to 1990 strike me as worthy or memorable. Whatever voice or mode I had discovered for my poems was mute for my fiction.
It was during the early 1980s, too, that I began to write what I would describe as journalistic essays, although some might now go so far as to describe them as "creative" or "literary" nonfiction. I would be flattered to think so, at any rate. I wrote several such items for the Rocky Mountain Magazine out of Denver and about a dozen for the local Moscow Magazine, renamed the Palouse Journal in 1984. These essays range from "How to Watch Rugby" and "Hooked on Steelhead" to "The Man Who Did Not Kill the Deer," a commentary on my ineptness at big-game hunting (despite having joined my fantasy football pals on their annual Great Elk Hunt for several years, I remain unblooded when it comes to big game). My own favorite among these exercises is "God, Flag, and Country," a feature I wrote about a John Birch Society meeting in Lewiston for PJ in the spring of 1987.
Of course I was turning out papers to read at such events as the Central Renaissance Conference in Bloomington, Indiana (April, 1983): "Tobacco and the Gentry in Renaissance Poetry." And I was writing book reviews and interviews (one with James Dickey, for instance, when he visited Moscow in 1979)—all grist for the scholarly mill. I was all over the place; I lacked focus. But that did not bother me. It probably should have bothered me, but I was by way of becoming a sort of writerly dilettante, and that self-designation, with its implicit self-criticism, is okay by me. I tell myself that while I do not have an exceptionally good or imaginative mind, I do have a restless one. Needless to say, for better or worse, I never experience that hobgoblin known as writer's block. I was still doing more with the pen, or the IBM Selectric, than I ever thought I would be able to do, and I had time to enjoy teaching my three classes per semester, playing poker with a group that started in 1970 (still going today), fishing, hunting upland game birds, and booting the soccer ball.
In some ways the game of soccer, which I discovered at age thirty-five, the summer of 1978 I believe, was the most delightful and valuable experience of my middle years. But in some ways it was also the most harmful experience. Of course I had no natural talent for the game, nor did I have the sort of expertise my teammates, most of them international students, had begun developing at age five or six. Moreover, I was about fifteen years older than the average player. I had kept in shape by running 5K and 10K races for several years, but while I was always more or less athletic, I was never an athlete. I think my greatest feat was turning in a 4:59 in the Moscow Mile at age forty-three. I fell in love with "the beautiful game," though, and I stuck with it, doggedly playing at the outside fullback (defender) position for more than twenty years, until a knee injury sidelined me permanently at about age fifty-eight. I'm sure most of my teammates wished I'd retired many years earlier, but I allowed myself to become obsessive.
At Idaho soccer for men is a club sport, and we competed with other club teams in the region, our nemesis being Washington State University. We played tournaments in Spokane, Washington; Missoula, Montana; and Corvallis, Oregon. I played soccer with remarkable young men from all over the world, some of whom had played for their national teams and professionally. The UI team varied wildly in its composition over those years, depending on which international students happened to show up: many Iranians in the years before the Ayatollah, Hondurans for a few years, French, Nigerians, Jamaicans, Dutch, Moroccans, Tunisians, Scots. It was wonderful. In 1990 I played with a seniors (over 40) team in Argentina.
But as I said, soccer was also harmful, and not just to my left knee. My obsession with it came at a high price. Soon I was going to practice three days a week and playing games on Saturday or Sunday, sometimes both and sometimes on the road. The time I spent doing everything from teaching and preparing classes to writing, fishing, and playing soccer was time I did not spend with my wife and growing family. I was out of touch. The kids were Elsie's job—everything else I did was mine. When I became faculty advisor and often de facto coach of the club team, I became even more distant from my family, which, I told myself, appeared to be doing just fine.
On top of all that, I was named Idaho's first state writer-in-residence at the end of 1983, an honor that carried with it an obligation to hold ten readings and residencies per year for the next two years, those to be held all over the state. The extra income ($500 per visit plus expenses) would be welcome. The announcement of my selection as state writer-in-residence (often misunderstood as state "poet laureate" which, in fact, the new post was intended to supplant) was greeted with considerable fanfare and media attention, particularly by the Boise Statesman, which ran a one-page feature with color photo that left me feeling like a celebrity, not that my ego needed any more inflation than it was getting from within my own psychic system.
And at least equally welcome was Keith Browning's decision to publish a full-length book of my poems, Composting at Forty (through an oversight neither the title page nor the copyright page bears a publication date, but it should be 1984). The cover and five sections of the book are illustrated with emblems from George Wither's A Collection of Emblemes (1635). A prolific but minor poet, Wither reminded me of myself even then. I was forty-one years old and just coming out with my first real book, but I was, like Wither, an indefatigable dabbler, un écrivain dilettante.
One drawback of being an English professor as well as a writer is that one always has perspective on one's supposed accomplishments, but I took some pride in
my small moments of writerly glory. The sixty-two poems in Composting at Forty (sometimes misread as "composing") range from self-declarations and what might be called family or domestic memoir, like the title poem, "'Fill 'er up, Mac'" (which looks back to my grandfather Stullenburger's gas station in Florida during the 1960s), and "Family Camp near Belmont, Ohio, 1948," to regional poems mostly located in Idaho. Some of these poems proved valuable to me in my readings throughout the state and are still signature poems of a sort: "Idaho Requiem," "Bad Lunch at Cottonwood, Idaho" (where I appropriate to myself an incident that Dick Hugo experienced years earlier), and "Palouse History."
The book includes several poems reprinted from Certain Women, but fifteen of the nineteen poems in the section that pertains to women were new. Of course I still had no real insight into the mysteries of the gender, as my personal domestic problems were revealing to me daily. While I was writing whimsical, sometimes outright comical poems like "Hide-n-Seek," "The Hanford Wives," and "Town Librarian," my elder daughter, who had been an outstanding swimmer and 400-meter runner in junior high, was developing an eating disorder, suffering academically, and rebelling in ways that highlighted and perhaps exacerbated the already existing tension in our marriage. What lessons do we learn from literature? And if the professor himself cannot learn them, are those lessons useful at all? How many times had I rehearsed with my students the folly of Emma Bovary in naively assuming that she could change her life by changing locale? Despite my awareness, I determined that the cure for our ills was a year at Ohio University in Athens, a town of similar size to Moscow, as an exchange professor.
Kim, I informed the dubious Elsie, could start all over as a sophomore at a new school. Jennifer would be in fifth grade that year (1985-86), and Jonathan would be starting kindergarten. The timing seemed right, and I had long wanted to test the waters outside the inland Northwest, despite my increasing awareness that Idaho was a good fit, at least for me. Watching Kim suffer from low self-esteem (as various counselors advised us), both Elsie and I had reflected on how unfortunate it was that we were raising our family some three thousand miles from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. My parents, with my father just past seventy, were refurbishing the old schoolhouse in Belmont County, about seventy miles to the east, so we would have direct access to them, and we could think of a run down to Florida, time and money permitting.
Predictably, this grand scheme backfired. Stuck in a claustrophobic apartment, for which we had swapped the use of our large and comfortable house in Moscow, Elsie was particularly miserable, and Kim struggled at Athens High School. While I enjoyed the department and the new friends I made at OU, the only long-term benefit was that Kim was able to defeat her eating disorder after treatment at the fine clinic connected with Ohio State University in Columbus, about sixty miles north of us. Jennifer prospered that year, and Jonathan seemed to be doing well in kindergarten, but it was hard for all of us. From family counseling, I came to recognize my culpability in what was happening, but I resisted doing much about it. I was deeply committed to my writing, to my career as a teacher-scholar, and to myself. Ironically, it was probably Elsie who gained most from it all, as she decided to return to school once we got back to Idaho, and went on to acquire secondary-school teaching credentials in English and then a master's degree, writing as a creative thesis a collection of her own very good poems.
When we returned to Moscow at the end of the summer of 1986, I plunged back into my mania for soccer and new writing ventures, this time an edition of critical essays on Montana novelist James Welch, the first in the new American Authors Series to be published by Confluence Press in 1987. I had edited a special issue of the Slackwater Review in 1981 on David Wagoner, and it served as a sort of prototype for the series: selections from the writer's work, new and reprinted critical essays, an interview, a photo gallery, and a bibliography and checklist of criticism. In 1988 I edited, with Hugh Nichols of Lewis-Clark State College, what was probably the most successful volume in that series, Norman Maclean, and I was fortunate to be able to carry on a correspondence with Maclean and to meet him before he died in 1990. His autobiographical novella A River Runs through It continues to fascinate me and to influence my writing and thinking, and in 1993 I wrote a booklet on him and his work for the "Western Writers" series published at Boise State University.
My other important accomplishment of 1988 was an anthology of Idaho poetry coedited with my good friend and fellow poet William Studebaker, an Idaho native (he was born in Salmon). Idaho's Poetry: A Centennial Anthology was intended to celebrate the territory's entry into the union in 1890, and the University of Idaho Press did well by it. The ambitious project features some 250 poems, beginning with a section of traditional and contemporary Native American verse, moving through a section of poems mostly published in newspapers during the territorial period (roughly 1860-1900), and culminating in a generous sampling of contemporary poets from throughout the state. The book required extensive research and editing on our part, and Bill's contributions proved to be invaluable.
The next year, 1989, I produced a booklet on David Wagoner for the "Western Writers" series, and in 1990 I worked with professors Franz Schneider and Kornel Skovajsa of Gonzaga University in editing Deep down Things: Poems of the Inland Northwest, an anthology comprising work by fifty-six poets from the Idaho panhandle and eastern Washington. Three poems by Spokane-Coeur d'Alene writer Sherman Alexie appear in that collection, two years before he was to break onto the national scene with The Business of Fancydancing. Also included are poems by Madeline De Frees, Mark Halperin, Carolyn Kizer, Alex Kuo, and Robert Wrigley.
In my work on that anthology I first came into contact with the poems of Georgia Toppe, then an English teacher at Mead High School in Spokane. Most of her
work is published under her maiden name, Tiffany. I met her a year or two later while teaching creative writing workshops in the summer for the Northwest Inland Writing Project in Clark Fork and Coeur d'Alene, and I became fascinated with her wonderful and often rather challenging poems. I was not to fall in love with her until many years later.
Although I continued to place critical essays on various subjects in seventeenth-century poetry throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, my interests had shifted for various reasons to modern and contemporary writers. Like my teaching, my scholarly interests have become increasingly de-specialized and eclectic. This may imply intellectual curiosity, or simply inability to concentrate. I suppose someone like me can be found in most college and university English departments: A person who appears to be into everything, a sort of academic flibbertigibbet and jack-of-all-trades. If there are writers who happen to be teachers and teachers who happen to be writers, I account myself among the latter. And editors: Starting in 1990 I began my connection with Fugue, a student-run literary magazine that has exceeded my ambitions and hopes, and that provides good editorial experience for our MFA candidates.
Now, at the age of sixty, I wonder what might have happened if I had stuck with my guns, assuming I had been able to decide upon the guns. Suppose, for example, I had jettisoned the critical work and the anthologizing, and even the short stories and essays, in favor of poetry? Or perhaps I would have been better off had I stuck to the critical mode. As it happens, my career follows a certain conventional paradigm: The best outcome of the publish-or-perish model, I think, is publication that arises more or less organically from teaching. After teaching David Wagoner's poems, I began to publish essays on them, starting with "David Wagoner's Dynamic Form" in a 1983 issue of Contemporary Poetry. This interest eventually culminated in a book-length critical study, The World of David Wagoner (1997). My investigations into the villanelle, which began predictably with class discussions of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" and Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," led to a book, The Villanelle: The Evolution of a Poetic Form (1988).
Hosting such visiting writers as William Stafford, Richard Hugo, Tess Gallagher, and James Welch, and meeting such writers as Sherman Alexie (first, when he was an undergraduate at Washington State University) and Robert Wrigley, Kim Barnes, and Mary Clearman Blew (now colleagues at Idaho), I found it something between natural and inevitable that I would start to teach a course on contemporary Northwest writers. It was also probably inevitable that I would write about them and their work. In addition to critical essays on Alexie and others, I have turned out booklets in the "Western Writers" series on Tess Gallagher (1995) and most recently on William Kittredge (2002).
My fascination with his novels led me to write the only critical book that has garnered any significant praise, Understanding James Welch (2000), which was named one of the "Best of the Best from the University Presses" by the American Association of University Presses. I would describe my critical or scholarly writing as mostly descriptive and informative, rather down-to-earth stuff. Writing about contemporaries, I find that paying attention to the often-slighted book review is essential. Although I have inquired into it upon occasion, my enthusiasm for critical theory remains slight.
One disadvantage about writing on one's contemporaries is that one never knows for certain about their radioactive half-life, canonically speaking. If in fact there is such a thing these days as a literary canon. Will writers like Wagoner, Gallagher, Kittredge, and Alexie be read by the next generation of readers, if there is to be such a generation? I am not particularly sanguine about the future of what we call "literary" or "serious" writing, but I content myself with the fact that this mode of writing has always been for me a labor of love. I am fascinated by it.
But then I am fascinated by many things: collecting stamps, for example, soccer, fly fishing, bird hunting, fantasy football. Maybe I should just settle down, but I doubt that I will. Probably the major advantage in writing about one's contemporaries is that one can hound them for details, and it continues to surprise and gratify me to find how forthcoming writers are. When I phoned David James Duncan to ask about biographical details for my essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, he was cooperative and good-natured about the intrusion. My writing on writers like Wagoner, Maclean, Welch, Gallagher, Alexie, and Kittredge would be significantly less reliable and informative had I proceeded without their assistance.
My second full-length collection of poems, The Haunting Familiarity of Things, was published in 1993 by Singular Speech Press, a very small, one-man operation in Connecticut. Editors like Don Wilson too often go unnoticed or unappreciated by those whose writing they have promoted, but having written my doctoral dissertation on thanksgiving, I would not want to be thought an ingrate. This collection of fifty or so poems, modestly formatted, was very important to me, not only because so much time had elapsed since the publication of Composting at Forty, but also because I needed some confirmation of myself as a poet beyond that provided by the many editors of literary magazines whose desks I have bombarded over the decades.
The poems Wilson published in The Haunting Familiarity of Things had appeared in more than thirty such magazines, ranging from the defunct and obscure (for example, Tin Can Journal and Redneck Review of Literature) to the better known and more prestigious (for example, Gray's Sporting Journal, Christian Science Monitor, CutBank, Cimarron Review, Ascent, Hayden's Ferry Review). Despite what I (at any rate) consider a very good record of publication in such magazines, I still find it difficult to locate a publisher for the next book, so perhaps my case may be taken as a cautionary tale.
It's probably an odd feeling for any writer to be moved, years after having done the writing, by certain poems or prose of his or her own composition. Or maybe the odd thing is not to be moved, or even remotely satisfied, with certain other poems or passages of prose. Over the years I have read "Ceteris Paribus," "Little Jack," "Burning the Bad Nuns," and "The Little Guys" at a number of venues, and they have all "gone over" well, perhaps because I have an emotional investment in them that I do not have in all of my poems. The term "investment" is one of the many buzz words or phrases of the creative writing workshop that I try to steer clear of: Show, don't tell! Is this ending earned? Are you married to that image? This doesn't speak to me. You don't have enough invested in these poems.
"Ceteris Paribus" (the once-familiar Latin for "other things being equal") reflects on my high school Latin teacher (also no longer a familiar item, at least in most public schools), and the students named in the poem were friends and acquaintances who may or may not have been in that class: Danny Ennis was there; I'm not sure about Wayne McLeroy, but he was a darned good football player, whatever number he had on his jersey—probably not 44, which I selected for sonic value. The poem is really a tribute to those teachers who seem to deny themselves certain of life's pleasures and who in the process manage to access some inner regions of their students' minds and souls. Was Midge Weaver such a teacher? Well, for me she was not, but that is not the point of the poem, which moves through some of my petty frustrations to more important observations.
"Little Jack" reflects in a condensed narrative on an uneasy moment in my high school days, when a local hood who actually went by the moniker "Little Ri chard" conned me into driving him out to Clearlake Road where he had stashed a case of illicit beer. I changed the name in the poem so it would not coincide with that of the singer and because it resonated well with words like "black" and "jacket." Ultimately, the poem concerns coming of age, child abuse, loss of innocence, and awareness of personal failure. Of the four poems mentioned above, "Little Jack" hews closest to the facts of the matter.
"Burning the Bad Nuns" was triggered by my annual torching of garden refuse. One spring as I set the fire I wadded up some newspaper and noticed as I was doing so a story about the arrest of some drug smugglers disguised as nuns in Latin America somewhere (almost surely not Peru, as I say in the poem for aural
purposes—afternoon/Peruvians). The rest of the "story" embedded in the poem, which is to say most of it, is made up. I was smoking a cigar that day, but I doubt that it cost two dollars. This poem is about as "political" as my work gets to be, and the following stanza is the most openly political moment in that poem:
Puffing my two-dollar cigar, I gave hardly a second thought to their Third World souls gone up in smoke or to their once proud families in disgrace, brothers living in squalor, their fathers dead from cholera.
Part of the play with the "two-dollar cigar" is intentional number juggling along with "second thought" to set up "Third World." I might well have invented cholera in Peru just to echo "dollar" and "squalor," but in fact there was such an epidemic there at that time.
Of these four poems, all of which are reprinted in Stranger in Town (2000), my new and selected poems, "The Little Guys" bears the greatest burden of imagination. I wrote the poem just as I was getting into my two-year term as state writer-in-residence, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts, which had created the position (a governor's appointment), featured that poem on a poster it designed to advertise my residencies. The black-and-white photo shows me sitting at my desk and looking very poetic. The poem was triggered by a news item to the effect that the bottom had fallen out of cedar sales in these parts, and I believe it blamed the local decline on improved harvests toward the coast. "Me and Jesse," and the speaker's dramatic monologue of course, are all concocted.
Does a writer get away with more in a poem than with prose? Credibility is important to me—verisimilitude, that is—in all of my writing. I have very little interest in sci-fi or fantasy. It does not bother me at all that some readers cannot distinguish the short stories from the narrative essays that make up Catching First Light (2001), my first book of prose. The narrative element in my poems is often fairly substantial, and I concur with Tess Gallagher's observation that "the narrative and lyric impulses in contemporary poetry have grown more and more indistinguishable" ("Again: Some Thoughts on the Narrative Impulse in Contemporary Poetry," A Concert of Tenses: Essays on Poetry, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986, p. 69). In fact, she suggests the need for a term like "lyricnarrative." Predictably, I wrote a number of regional poems during my tenure as Idaho's writer-in-residence, but while I recognize that they have special appeal in these parts, I do not think of those poems as exclusive to the state or the region. Publishers very likely think otherwise.
If I have experienced an annus mirabilis as a writer, the year must have been 2000. That year Polo Grounds Press in Cincinnati published a chapbook of my baseball poems, two of which were featured in a beautiful anthology, Baseball: The National Pastime in Art and Literature; The Mad Waitress Poems won the Midnight Sun Poetry Chapbook Contest and was published by Permafrost Press in Fairbanks; and The Hemingway Poems won a competition held by the Pecan Grove Press out of San Antonio. That year also Confluence Press, under the directorship of James Hepworth, who had introduced me to the writings of Norman Maclean a dozen years earlier, published my new and selected poems. Hepworth nominated the book for a William Carlos Williams Award (to no avail). That was also the year that the University of South Carolina Press published Understanding James Welch, so my ego was virtually staggering under the burden of its own weight. And it was the year that
Kim presented us with our first grandchild, Sara, born on my birthday.
Perhaps it is indicative of how I work that I managed to parlay my writing on The Hemingway Poems into a visit to the International Hemingway Conference in Bimini, The Bahamas. Actually, two impulses were working simultaneously: I was writing poems about Hemingway (sometimes in that postmodern mode wherein the writer treats an historical personage like a literary character), and I was also conducting research on poems written about Hemingway over the years, from Archibald MacLeish to David Ray. Those investigations led to a paper from which I read on Bimini and subsequently expanded into an essay published in The Hemingway Review.
In a way The Hemingway Review also contributed to my work on the chapbook, as it published a poem in 1997 titled "Altercation," which concerns the fisticuffs between Hemingway and Wallace Stevens in Key West in 1936. My interest in poems written about Hemingway connected me with poets like Gaylord Brewer and Donald Junkins who were also tilling that soil and prompted me to chair a session during which poets read their poems about Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Stresa, Italy, in 2002.
As a poet I think of myself as one who writes for that great American non-poetry-reading public. If it is true that the modernists, notably Eliot and Pound, took poetry out of the drawing room and placed it into the library, as William Carlos Williams declared, that is unfortunate, particularly because today more poets are writing more accessible poems than at any time since the mid-nineteenth century. Billy Collins's present status as U.S. poet laureate demonstrates my point, but former laureate Rita Dove is no less accessible, and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Dunn, although his voice is quite different from that of Collins or Dove, is available to anyone who cares to read him, and ditto for Sharon Olds, and Edward Hirsch, and Mary Oliver.
Although challenging and even obscure poets will always do their work and be available for those who prefer to read on a different plane, the mode of the day is otherwise. I admire and try to teach many poets I find difficult to read: Maria Rainer Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman. But most of us are writing poems that surely could be enjoyed by those readers who apparently prefer the novels of John Grisham, Danielle Steele, and Steven King. Most contemporary poets are not elitist, or esoteric, or even noticeably erudite.
When I sent my parents a copy of Certain Women twenty-five years ago, my mother wrote to me about how much she enjoyed them, but she was certain, she said, that she was probably missing all sorts of things. Subtle, arcane meanings, that is. No, I assured her, you are not missing anything. These poems really are that simple and direct. What I appear to be saying is just what I am saying, no more. Or perhaps I should have written, "alas, no more." Of course not all contemporary poets are as transparent (perhaps "superficial") as I, but I think what we all have in common is a fascination with the resonance and nuances of language.
I haven't much interest in trying to say something "original," something no one has ever thought of saying before in human history, but I am interested in saying things that are important to me and in saying them in a way that sounds like me. My poems have people in them—characters, if you will—and "I" (in one disguise or another) am often one of them. And usually some small drama is under way, as in the poems of John Donne, the seventeenth-century poet whose work means the most to me. Those who know me should be able to read most of my better poems, stories, and essays and say to themselves, "that sounds just like Ron McFarland." After all, if what I say is important to me, it at least might be important to someone else, and if the way I've written it sounds good to me, there's a chance it will sound good to someone else.
In the fall of 1986 I began participating in the state library's "Let's Talk about It" reading series in public libraries. As a visiting scholar I make presentations and facilitate discussion about the book of the evening. These events have taken me several times to communities like Sandpoint, Priest River, and Coeur d'Alene, and to other towns in the Idaho panhandle, from Grangeville to Bonners Ferry, from Genesee to Wallace. The University of Idaho regards such appearances as "outreach" activities. Retrospectively, however, I can see that with other activities in my life, LTAI offered me an escape from a marriage that, through no fault of my wife's so far as I can tell, was unfulfilling.
Why does a marriage of thirty-six years fail? Presently I am too close to it to speculate with much confidence. My counselors, predictably, informed me that the marriage had been disintegrating for years, and they did not blame it on Elsie or on me. But at this writing, some two months after the divorce in November, 2002, I mostly blame myself: my failure of intimacy, of affection, of love. Probably the catalyst was my surgery for prostate cancer (apparently successful) in November of 2001. Although I felt myself to be fearless throughout the ordeal, I must have experienced at least subconscious intimations of my mortality. I emerged from the trauma wanting my last years to be "different," and I felt drawn to my longtime friend Georgia, who had taken leave from her high school teaching position in Spokane to pursue her MFA in creative writing at Idaho. She was trained as a concert pianist at Indiana University, has been a dancer, and is a superb photographer. We married on the 31st of May at her daughter's home in Portland, Oregon.
Coincidentally, Georgia also has two older daughters and a son. My daughter Kim, who in her rebellious years often talked of leaving Moscow, now lives in Seattle with her husband Kenny and their wonderful daughter Sara. My daughter Jen, who is finishing her master's in English at Idaho, lives with her husband John in Genesee. Both are sheriff's deputies; she is a detective. My son Jon, who actually is an athlete and who accomplished almost everything in high school that I dreamed of accomplishing, is finishing his bachelor's in crime and justice studies and plans a career in law enforcement. My former wife Elsie teaches English as a second language for the International Programs Office at UI.
"So," an old friend and former student used to tease me, "what do you plan to do when you grow up?" Well, I am not sure I ever have grown up, or will, or
even want to. In one of his best-known stories Hemingway speaks of "The great American boy-men" ("The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber," The Complete Short Stories, Finca Vigía Edition, New York: Scribner's, 1987, p. 26). Perhaps I am one of them. Can one mature—age—without growing up? I see ample evidence that I am aging, and not all that gracefully, but no, I am not confident that I have quite grown up.
My immediate writing plans call for me to unearth a publisher for the Florida stories and essays I mentioned above (Confessions of a Night Librarian) and another publisher for my next book of poems, which I've titled Subtle Thieves, from Milton's sonnet on his twenty-third birthday, which begins, "How soon hath Time, that subtle thief of youth." Bill Studebaker and I are presently working on a new anthology of Idaho writing, Portable Idaho, and I've received a sabbatical leave for the spring semester of 2004 to write a critical study of inland Northwest (Rocky Mountain) memoir. Pudding House Publications, edited by Jennifer Bosveld in Columbus, Ohio, recently invited me to submit a dozen of my poems for a chapbook in their fine "Greatest Hits" series, so I know where my next book is coming from. It includes several of the poems mentioned above. I'll keep on teaching the courses I love: Hemingway seminars, contemporary Northwest writers, seventeenth-century British prose and poetry, and who knows what else? And like all writers, I suspect a novel lurks somewhere inside me. I'm curious to see how eager it is to get out.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Chiron Review, fall, 2001, p. 43.
Choice, December, 2000, p. 708.
Midwest Quarterly, summer, 2002, Richard Holinger, review of Stranger in Town: New and Selected Poems, p. 367.
Weber Studies, Volume 17, 1999, Ron McFarland, "With Sharon Olds in Idaho."
Western American Literature, February, 1995, p. 381; summer, 2001, pp. 100-101.
University of Idaho Web site,http://www.uidaho.edu/ (May 12, 2003), press releases, December 6, 2000, and February 2, 2001.