Creatures of Place: An Interview with Poet Paul Willis
TOJ: Could you describe what the process of writing a poem is for you?
PW: The process feels like a necessary release. Wordsworth’s way of describing a poem as a “spontaneous overflow” gets it right. Of course, revision must follow—and often, lots of it. Then comes the determination of whether the poem is any good, and this takes time. Sometimes I will like a poem for sentimental reasons—because it reminds me of someone I love or an important experience I’ve had—but a few months or years will go by and I will realize that the poem itself is soft or confused. Then I either have to abandon it or revise again.
TOJ: Each of your poems seems to indicate a specific place. Do you find yourself more influenced by some places than others? Do you think that location is important for writing? What are some of the key places that have shaped your life and perspective?
PW: I grew up on the edge of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. From a very young age I liked to wander around by myself in the hills of the Coast Range behind our house. In high school I started hiking and climbing in the Cascades, and in college I started guiding trips in the Sierra. For some reason, I have always been drawn to mountains, and the mountains of the Pacific coast, from California to Alaska, have always felt like home to me. I’ve spent some time in Illinois and New York and England. These places have felt alien, though I know they are home to others.
I think it is important to feel located. Wordsworth had his Lake District, Berry has his Kentucky hills, Snyder, in his heart of hearts, is still out in Yosemite, “running the ridges like a wolf.” We are, finally, creatures of place. Perhaps natural revelation only operates over time. To actually read what Bernard of Clairvaux calls the book of nature, perhaps we have to settle in, the way one might sit by the fire for several days to read an entire Victorian novel.
A poem, then, can become a way of connecting myself to a specific place, a way of naming that connection—and specific places can be a means of sacramental connection to God.
TOJ: What were the themes of your earliest poetry and writing, and have you seen a shift in themes as it has developed? Do you have an example of your earlier poetry?
PW: My earliest published writing is a pair of eco-fantasy novels, NO CLOCK IN THE FOREST and THE STOLEN RIVER. My brother calls them “Narnia comes to the American wilderness.” Lewis is certainly an influence here—but also Edmund Spenser and John Muir.
I started writing poems a bit later, when teaching at Houghton College in New York with the poets Jack Leax and Jim Zoller. My first poems were rather confessional—they often dealt with the pressures I felt as a young teacher and a young father. They also tended to be more formal in structure, as much of my education had been in Renaissance literature. And they also tended to be not very original. Whenever I could throw in an allusion to a great writer, I would do so. Then someone pointed out that my poems needed to be in my own voice, not a patchwork of borrowings. So I have been working on that ever since.
Here is an old love poem, a sonnet, which works out a very self-conscious conceit.
Your Heart Is Made a Waterfall
Your heart is made a waterfall, and I
would gladly slip away across the brink
to plunge the waiting pool amidst the sigh
of green bright bubbles rising as I sink
down to a floor with granite pebbles lined,
each shining gently in a wat’ry light.
Deep currents soft as willows will I find
that, silent, swirl me round and lift my sight
unto a canopy of spreading foam
far tingling overhead in brilliant shade.
So quietly I float and wafting roam
till slowly toward the surface wreaths I fade:
but there you meet me in a lacy roar
and plunge me to your green bright depths once more.
As I look at this again I notice the archaic diction and syntax (e.g. “swirl me round,” “lift my sight,” “wat’ry light,” “wafting roam”), something I would now avoid. This sonnet would also be an example of a sentimental favorite, as it reminds me of a place and a person I love very much. As a poem, though, it is a bit ostentatious.
TOJ: What people have influenced your writing? Do you have any favorite writers?
PW: I’ll just name the three Williams: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Stafford.
Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is much more redemptive than that of his peers, who for the most part were writing satirical comedy. I like his warmth of vision, his belief that we can forgive and change and become a new community. I’m interested in the fact that this change occurs in a forest setting in many of his comedies.
While Shakespeare is the one who manipulates the green world as a dramatic device, Wordsworth is the one who knows and enters that green world in a personal way in his poetry. I date my real beginnings as a poet to reading THE PRELUDE on an 8-day solo backpack trip in the San Rafael Wilderness near Santa Barbara.
Stafford is the great encourager of all contemporary poets. By his example, he gave me permission to just try this strange thing called poetry. Whether or not we become great poets, the writing of poetry in itself is a great life-giving activity. As a conscientious objector, Stafford spent most of World War II at a civilian public service camp in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. I will be hosting a reading of his work in January on the site of this camp in Los Padres National Forest.
TOJ: How do your spiritual/religious beliefs shape your observations about nature and creation?
PW: Like Hopkins, I am a sacramentalist. It seems to me that one of God’s mysterious ways is to uniquely express himself through his creation. I am also an advocate of wilderness preservation as a way of respecting this natural part of God’s witness. Wilderness, of course, is not a scriptural ideal. For that we look to the garden in Genesis, or to the mingling of Eden with the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. The ideal in scripture is of human beings in fruitful, working relationship with the land and with each other. The catch is that we are fallen gardeners (not to mention bad neighbors). Taking pains to set aside wilderness, then, becomes a way to limit our ruinous touch. As Hopkins says of our relationship to the creation,
“. . . even where we mean / To mend her, we end her. . . .”
As the sabbath limits our work in time, wilderness limits our work in space.
Becky Crook currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She occasionally teaches English as a second language, works as an independent editor, and continues to improve her German. She writes poetry and short stories (in English), and her essay, “Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Dating an Atheist in Seattle” is featured in our new book, “God is Dead” and I Don't Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagments with the New Atheism.
Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. His poems have appeared in Poetry and Wilderness, and his most recent collection is How to Get There (Finishing Line Press, 2004). He is the author of Bright Shoots of Everlastingness: Essays on Faith and the American Wild (WordFarm, 2005).