By David Biespiel
Poet Vern Rutsala ’56 has just received one of the most prestigious recognitions in American letters. Far from resting on his laurels, the retired English professor is still hard at work.
It was early afternoon on a blisteringly cold, rain-soaked Saturday in November, and Vern Rutsala ’56 was sitting in the living room of his three-story Northeast Portland home, dressed in a well-worn flannel jacket, chain-smoking. “Poetry is fundamental to any culture we have a record of,” he said. “It’s a human activity that’s essential to our natures.”
Our conversation took place a few days and light years away from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, where, earlier in the month, he had been feted with a medal, a plaque, and a gala celebration for being one of five finalists for the National Book Award. The nomination was for his most recent volume of poetry, The Moment’s Equation (Ashland Poetry Press, 2004).
Although I’ve been a working poet in Portland for 10 years, I realized that we’d never met (we’re two poets who tend to keep to ourselves, I suppose). So I was curious to ask Rutsala about his life and career—a career that has lasted 40 years and took root when he attended Reed in the 1950s. To prepare, I’d re-read all of his books. The rough concerns of Rutsala’s career can be found even in the opening lines of “Gardening,” the first poem of his first book, The Window, published in 1964:
Waking, afraid to touch
Sensing something just outside the self, alert to nuance, situated in a perpetual state of awakening, keen to the suffering of others, and seizing language as a form of sowing and harvesting—all of Rutsala’s future concerns are in that first sentence.
And as we sat in his dimly lit living room all through that Saturday afternoon, I had the feeling that Rutsala’s attention to the ordinary facts of life has always been deeply felt, earnest, and lucid. “I like writing that’s accessible,” he said, stabbing out a cigarette butt. “All good writing is clear.” Listening to him, I realized that his poetry is a lot like him—determinedly unpretentious. Read the iambic lines from one of his earliest poems, “Asylum,” written when he was a student at Reed—“Perhaps a drunken bus/will smash the plaster hours of the afternoon” —or lines from a recent poem, “Portland Hosts the Second Coming”—“At most we expect a touring company—/the original cast scheduled for Seattle—/which is exactly what we get”—and you see that Rutsala’s tone and demeanor and style have been remarkably consistent, even doggedly so.