After four decades in poetry’s vineyard (more like “poetry’s wilderness,” he joked), after publishing 11 poetry collections to various attention (sometimes a lot, sometimes none), and after earning solid national recognition (including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize), Rutsala said that being a finalist for the National Book Award made him very pleased. Still, he said, he was “not overly disappointed not to win.” The prize was awarded to poet W.S. Merwin, but merely being nominated put Rutsala at the top of American poets for the decade, and solidified his reputation as one of Reed’s most prominent literary graduates, a pantheon that also includes Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch.
“Anything that happens good to a poet is a windfall,” Rutsala said of the National Book Award nomination, lighting another cigarette as the rain grew noticeably louder against the sturdy house. “The job of getting your books published can be hell most of the time.”
Rutsala’s voice is radio-deep. His big glasses sit lightly on his moon-shaped face. He knows how to sit comfortably, settling deep into his armchair. In his seventh decade, he’s a poetry veteran, having weathered long periods between books twice in his career—11 years elapsed between his first and second book, 10 years before this last one.
At the beginning of our interview, I asked, “Do you mind if I take notes?” “No, not at all,” he replied. “Do you mind if I smoke?” With the windows sealed tight, being in that room was like crawling inside of a cigarette, like swimming in an ashtray.
Although I don’t smoke, I enjoy watching people smoke. Rutsala does it with calm intensity, hand moving back and forth easily from his mouth to the ashtray, unthinkingly, the smoke seeping from his lips and hanging suspended in the air around him. All of it punctuates a blunt style. The shape of it, the movement, marks him as the sort of poet who doesn’t have to be asked if the process of writing is its own reward because one knows implicitly that the answer is yes. And it’s that pleasure in the process—not prizes or medals—that has obviously motivated him to continue writing and publishing. It’s no surprise that he’s got two new manuscripts in the works already.
“Some poets are poets only when it suits them,” says the poet Marvin Bell, who met Rutsala in the ‘50s when both were graduate students at the University of Iowa. “But Vern’s life as a poet has been one of constancy, vision, and stamina. Vern is a poet every day. He has an eye for the extraordinary in the routine, which is to say the gist of human reality.”