Depending on who interviews him, poet Donald Revell can be either an intimidating or inviting presence.
Maybe both at once.
Revell, 53, who will read from his poetry at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Gonzaga University, has written 15 books. If that doesn’t give you pause, then take a look at the 1996 interview he did with GU professor Tod Marshall.
Their 10-page talk is equivalent to an entire course on the meaning of poetry.
But apparently Revell, a professor of English at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, is quite capable of talking at the level, high and low, of those who interview him. When I called his cell phone on Tuesday, he couldn’t have been more gracious.
We talked about various things, from the notion of holding two opposing thoughts at the same time to his 12-year-old son’s love of Thoreau. An edited version of the interview follows:
Revell: Thank you for calling.
Webster: I’m very glad that we were able to work out the time zones here.
R: (Laughs) Yes, they always befuddle me, and boy do they certainly confuse people back East. They’re always calling at ungodly hours of the morning, thinking, ‘Oh, well.’ ”
W: My wife spends time in Florence (Italy), and there’s nine hours different. We’re always missing each other.
R: It’s hard. I remember when my wife and son went to China – we adopted a little baby there – and, boy, trying to keep up with them for those two weeks.
W: I noticed that the area code on your cell phone is in Nevada.
R: That’s right.
W: You’re teaching at the University of Utah but you live in Nevada? How does that work?
R: Well, it doesn’t work as well as it did before 9/11 (laughs), but I’m a full professor and I have a lot of say in my schedule. So I can usually get the whole week done in two days. I’ll usually fly up on Tuesday, and get everything done on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then just fly home. One semester a year I teach only one class, once a week, so that semester is in and out real fast. Mostly I teach graduate students, so they just send me their poems and their endless complaints and aspirations by e-mail. You know, so I can deal with that.
W: I tried to prepare for this interview by going back and looking at the 1996 interview that you did with (Gonzaga University English professor) Tod Marshall. After reading that I thought, “Hell, I don’t know if I wanna talk with this guy.” It was like I was thrown back into Donald Wesling’s Contemporary Poetry class in 1974 at the University of California, San Diego, and there I was studying poetry all over again. And I was reading that, thinking, “My god, this is what Ph.D.s talk about on this level.” It was intimidating.
R: Well, Tod’s really gifted. He’s a great soul and a great mind, too, almost from the get-go. Because I’ve known him since he was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas. And he was just as smart as a whip and not at all arrogant or pushy. He just really cares about things, and if he doesn’t know something he’ll go to the trouble to study on it and figure it out. He’s just one of the best people I have ever known in this business. He’s one of the good guys.
W: I quickly got past my intimidation by reading through the interview and finding in there things that I think are just incredible insights. Because one of the things that I always ask poets in this day and age is how relevant is poetry, why should we listen to poets, just as a way of being provocative. When I was reading your saying such things as “Poetry is trying to put a stop to people lying to themselves” and “We should sit very still and be very rigorous with every syllable we pronounce,” I was having little epiphanies.
R: It’s amazing. I find myself always returning to that sort of simple aspiration in my teaching as well as my writing that it is, in fact, possible to tell the truth with words. You know, that they have not necessarily been so disgraced or distorted by rhetoric and, you know, culture and commodity and politics, etc., that it still is possible to tell the truth in words. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy, it doesn’t mean that it’s always accessible instantly. But just that faith that it’s possible will drive you to write and to read poetry, to try to read something that’s true.
W: The thing is, that sentiment seems to exist in a whole world of contradiction. People will read poetry, and they’ll say, “Well, gee, that’s so hard to understand.” And then they’ll listen to the words of politicians, and they’ll say, “That’s really easy to understand.” But the politicians exist in a world where everything basically is a lie calculated to make you think in a certain way. So what is easy and what is hard to understand there?
R: That’s the thing, because people sadly have gotten into the habit of being lied to, so they find it easier to believe a lie because it doesn’t ask them to consider that it’s true. Whereas the poem is sitting there, the poor little pipsqueak, saying, “No, no, I really mean it!” (Laughs) And then you have to pay this kind of attention that you don’t ordinarily pay. When people watch the news or listen to a speech, their eyes glaze over and they realize, “I don’t really have to pay attention.” But the only thing that’s hard about poetry is it’s not obscure, it’s not dishonest, but it asks you to believe that it’s true. And that’s what’s hard: Because we’ve lost the habit of not being lied to. That’s why in a sense poetry, the best of it, is in fact simple-minded. There’s a simplicity to poetry that I think confuses people.
W: I ended up blogging two of the passages out of that interview in which you were talking about the prism and, you know, how the prism in itself doesn’t do anything but it reflects light and helps light reflect its true self.
R: It shows you what light really is.
W: Exactly, and you’re equating that to poetry. And then I referred to your poem “Election Year,” which I also found online. And it had that effect on me. Because I read that poem and got to those final lines, and I went, “Wow.” I wanted to slap my forehead, it was such a simple thought:
“I’ve never suspected: every day,
Although the nation is done for,
I find new flowers.”
R: It’s amazing how both things can be true simultaneously. It’s funny that you can both despair and be delighted in the same moment. And, again, that’s a truth that is so simple and so obvious in so many things in life. But when somebody puts it on paper, it seems paradoxical, when in fact there is no paradox. It’s merely the way it always is. Like you can be very angry with your child even as you adore it. You can say, “I’m exhausted but I wouldn’t miss a minute of this.”
W: There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago titled “What the Bleep Do We Know?” that was about quantum physics, and it made that very point, that on a very microscopic level two things do exists in the same place at the same time.
R: Right, right.
W: And it was saying that that shifts our understanding of everything.
R: And that’s what a line of poetry is, is just that you put two things on the same line, and there they are together. And that’s how to make a poem. Again, I’ve been teaching creative writing for years, and it seems simpler all the time to me, that it’s just putting one thing next to another and noticing that they are not antagonistic, they’re merely simultaneous. Whether it’s in sound, and you’re making a new kind of sound in a poem, something that maybe strikes the ear as original or a new idea, that it’s really very simple. Put one thing next to another, stand back and look at it. I love this movie I saw once of the painter Willem de Kooning painting. And it was so slow. He would walk to the canvas, put a stroke on it, walk very slowly back and look. Then he would go and put another brush stroke on it, and then look. And I learned so much from that, that it’s just putting something there, then putting something else there. You know we have that expression, “putting it on the line”? Well, that’s literally what poems are. You’re putting words on lines and saying, “No, I meant that. I put that there because I wanted it to be there.” And that shocks people, because most people don’t think of words as having that kind of material “stuffness” to them. That it literally is like a brush stroke: “I put that word there, and then I put this one right next to it, and that’s where I wanted them to be. They seem true.” It’s not hard.
W: How do you define that “truth”? Is it the truth that, say, you as the writer are intending to communicate to me the reader. Or is it the truth that I as the reader read in the lines that you put on the page? Or is it some combination of the two?
R: I think it’s a combination of the two, because I don’t necessarily start with something to communicate. I just find that something is happening between the words, that something literally is transpiring when I put the words on the page. So I’m finding it out at the same time you are. So, yes, my attention might have been seized by this or that, but once my attention was seized, I’m reading the poem the same time you are. I’m not really aware of writing it. I’m aware of its happening. And just as two people looking out the same window will two different things, it’s what was happening on the page. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I sure as heck saw it and wrote it down. So I’d like to think of the reader as a coauthor, in every sense.
W: It’s a relationship.
R: Right. Because poems aren’t rhetoric. They’re not an advertisement for anything.
W: Or they shouldn’t be.
R: Right, God help us. They’re just a way of paying attention to the world. And I didn’t create the world. That’s why I’ve always been a little nervous about the term “creative writing.” Because I certainly am not the creator. Whoever the creator may be, I know it’s not me. Whether it’s a committee or an individual, I haven’t the slightest idea, but I know it wasn’t me. I didn’t make the world, but I sure enjoy paying attention to it sometimes. And the poem is merely a record of that attention.
W: I’m not sure that de Kooning has every spoken to me. But I do know that there was a time that I was sitting in MOMA in front of Jackson Pollack’s “One.” And I told myself I was going to sit there until I got it. And, after about an hour, the painting spoke to me. Suddenly I could see something in that that I could not see in Pollack’s work, say, pre-1950 and after 1954. Right there at that moment, what he was doing with that limited time, that spoke to me.
R: Well, your attentions converged at that point. And there would be no way to account for it. Like why do you suddenly appreciate a composer whose music you could never appreciate before? What happened to your ears that now you can hear those sounds as music and not as noise? Why do you see those shapes and colors as a composition and not just a chaos? Something happened to your eyes that you’ll never know what it was. Something changed in your life, and that accounts for what suddenly seems good. Next time you’re in New York, stop by the Whitney Museum. There’s a de Kooning painting called “The Door to the River.” Oh, golly, that’ll get you.
W: I’ll make it a point.
R: Sometimes I pay my admission just to sit in front of that painting for a half hour, and then I leave (laughs).
W: So when you come to Gonzaga, what are you going to be reading from?
R: I’ll probably be reading both from my selected poems, which is a sort of fattish book called “Pennyweight Windows,” and I’ll also read from my new book, which is called “A Thief of Strings.” It’ll probably be an overview of everything I’ve done for the past 30 years or so.
W: I was looking on your university Web site, and your favorite film is “Jules and Jim”?
R: Oh, yeah, yeah. I just fell in love with it as a teenager. My parents were both French, so French seems to me to be the language of simplicity and childhood and stuff. It just seems that it’s endlessly accurate, that movie. And I like Truffaut because he’s not ashamed to be goopy from time to time and to wear his heart on his sleeve.
W: Particularly when compared to the other New Wave guys, Godard for example. I have to admit that I connect much more with “400 Blows.” To me that has the greatest ending.
R: Where he’s running by the ocean?
W: Exactly, and he turns back and look at the camera and you cannot read his expression. Is the expression, “Well, I got here and this is all there is?” Or, “Where do I go now?” Or, “Oh my God, it’s everything I thought it was gonna be.” You just don’t know.
R: That’s a wonderful film. I was crazy for Truffaut.
W: Then one last question I wanted to ask you – your favorite quote is “The son is but a morning star.” That’s Thoreau, right?
R: Yes, the last sentence of “Walden.”
W: And what does it mean to you, that line?
R: Well, it means that, if you’re paying attention, sunrise is a continuous event. You know the way the morning star comes up just before the sun? So if the sun is a morning star, that means that there’s another sun about to rise. And that there’ll be a sun after that one and after that one – that’s it actually sunrise always. And what you think is the sun is about to be replaced by an ever more brilliant sun. It’s the most hopeful line that I’ve ever read in literature. In more ways that one.
W: I couldn’t have put it in those words, but that’s exactly how it worked on me.
R: My poor son. I home-schooled him for a couple of years, and he must have read “Walden” about three times (laughs). But it’s good. He dutifully, even happily, now wears his Thoreau T-shirts. He believes in it. He’s always pointing to his chest and saying, “Inner light.” He had a good time with home-schooling, but it was almost all Jefferson, Lincoln and Thoreau.
W: Stuff that’s not exactly high on the curriculum of any elementary school anymore.
R: No, sadly. But I enjoyed it. We had a good time. I look back on those days with exhaustion and happiness.