Propped behind Rutsala on the afternoon I visited was an enormous poster of his prize-winning book—a souvenir pinched by his sister from the National Book Award ceremony. Next to it was the medal awarded to all of the finalists—Olympic in size and weight.
As Rutsala opened a new pack of Marlboros, he reminisced about poets he has known. There was the Halloween night in Minneapolis when Rutsala was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota during the ‘60s, and the doorbell rang for a four-year-old trick-or-treater. Looming behind her was her father, John Berryman, who just happened to live up the street. Later in the decade, Rutsala shared podiums with Allen Ginsberg and Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly to protest the Vietnam War. “The anti-war readings were always well-attended in Portland,” he said with pride. Being a Portland poet matters to him.
It is this pride in the local and the locale that fill the room when Rutsala tells these old stories about protesting Vietnam, because Portland’s poetry scene is the one he’s been active in almost continuously since his youth. He likes how laid-back the literary life is in Portland, that poets are friendly to each other, and that it’s okay to harbor one’s solitariness, something necessary for a writer. “I like that it’s okay for one to be content to be just local,” he said.
But looking at him, immersed in poetry talk, a life-long student of the art, a believer in poetry’s importance in human experience, I could see and admire that what has really mattered to him has been the writing, not the public scene. “I like to throw the blob of words on the page, then come back, maybe days later, to see what is still possible in the poem,” he said, taking a last drag on his cigarette and exhaling. “Then I’m able to shape it. Most language is trying to sell us something or deceive us. Poetry doesn’t try to deceive.”