Rutsala was born in McCall, Idaho, in 1934, moved to Portland in the early ’40s, and went to Milwaukie High School where he was a star quarterback, president of the student body, and also began to compose his first poems and stories. He went to Portland State University, then transferred to Reed as a sophomore. While at Reed he turned inward and focused exclusively on his writing. He fell under the tutelage of Professor Kenneth Hanson, one of the region’s better-known literary figures.
Hanson had an extensive personal library and, recognizing Rutsala’s drive and talent (Rutsala was the first student at Reed to write a senior thesis based on his own poetry), Hanson invited the younger poet to borrow any book he wanted. Rutsala immersed himself in the leading poetic voices of the period: Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Howard Nemerov, John Berryman, Philip Larkin, and especially Elizabeth Bishop (“so unpretentious, so accurate, so precise”). All of these poets put a premium on clarifying difficult emotions, something Rutsala has also come to value.
“People turn to poetry in times of crises,” Rutsala said. “Clarity is essential.” Accentuating this last point, Rutsala’s face brightened: “Accessibility matters, but it’s okay if poems are complicated or difficult—sometimes our emotions are complicated and difficult, too.” Starting up another cigarette, Rutsala paused a moment to fiddle with the box. Behind his gigantic glasses his face appeared not so much wizened as roughly confident. As he talked, I thought of lines from a recent poem of his called “Specter”—
The helplessness imbeds its
—and I realized that when he said emotions are difficult he meant also that it’s necessary for a poet to respond, emotionally, to what’s difficult, to unveil—“rubbing hard against”—the hard truths of living.
Following graduation from Reed, Rutsala worked as a longshoreman because the pay was decent and the hours afforded him time to write. Then a stint in the army, much of it in Munich where he was originally trained as an MP but got work on the army newspaper—another windfall because it gave him an office with a typewriter, and, because the paper only took three days to put together each week, he had plenty of time to write.
Following the army, Rutsala attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he studied with Paul Engle and Donald Justice and befriended fellow students and poets such as Michael Harper, Lawson Inada, and Stephen Berg, who co-founded the American Poetry Review. “He seemed more mature than the rest of us,” Marvin Bell says of Rutsala at that time. “He seemed already to have an aesthetic that fit him, while the rest of us were still shopping.”
Anything could have happened to a young poet at that point in his life—a young poet, that is, in Iowa City, with healthy artistic aspirations, plus a wife and the first of three children at home. But when Rutsala’s parents took ill, he came back to Portland to look after them. Justice had written ahead of Rutsala’s arrival, and word got to the poet William Stafford, who was teaching at Lewis & Clark College, that Rutsala was in need of work. Hired at three-quarters time, he became full-time soon after, and settled into a professorial lifestyle that afforded him time—decades—to write.
Rutsala taught at Lewis & Clark for more than 40 years and throughout that time he kept at his own poetry, working on five or six poems at a time, writing “as often as possible.” Frequently that took place after midnight when his house was quiet, the family was asleep, and he had what he needs most, “a long stretch in front of me with nothing to do but write.”