reed magazine logowinter2006

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Writing Experience

A Rutsala poem—whether about childhood or domestic life, about political or economic struggle—is ultimately a record of having lived, and lived with quiet awareness. In his work, it is as if the act of writing itself can lift him into a state of royalty (“a royal dragon of possession,” he says in the poem below) where he can possess, yes, but also be possessed by, that experience. A brief song of praise, such as “The House at Night” from his 1976 book The Journey Begins, is a fine example of Rutsala’s generosity and healing insight.

Everyone has gone away, buried
in dreams. It is still. The house
is mine. I let go and fill
the space, moving at first
with the stealth of dust, then
rolling from corner to corner like surf,
inhabiting each square foot,
is packed, pumped up like
furnishing all the rooms. The house
a tire, even the dead air
near the ceiling is mine as I
expand, become a king, a whale,
the royal dragon of possession.
Finally, I am the house, tasting
the wood’s swirled grain
in my veins and feeling nails
bite where the blueprint said yes.


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.”

Poet David Biespiel has been a Reed Visiting Writer (Fall 2005). He has published two books of poetry, Wild Civility and Shattering Air, and is the editor of Poetry Northwest.