After this year’s Wordstock, the biggest book & literary festival in the Pacific Northwest, Poetry Northwest editor Kevin Craft interviewed David Biespiel, who was editor during the magazine’s tenure in Portland, OR. [Read more about the magazine’s history here.] Biespiel founded The Attic Institute in 1999, an organization which sponsors a stage at Wordstock featuring poetry readings, film screenings, panels, and more. The following interview navigates some of Biespiel’s thoughts on the purpose and position of The Attic Institute, the role of poets in contemporary American society, and the presence of social/political issues in the content of poetry.
Kevin Craft: You’ve called the Attic Institute a “literary think-tank.” What does that entail? Why does America need a literary think-tank?
David Biespiel: Doesn’t it? I mean there are think tanks for science and for social change, for economics and for political agendas, that span the partisan spectrum, for philanthropy and for public affairs, for advanced research and for immigration studies. And more. What they all have in common is that they are factories for ideas. And that’s what the Attic Institute is working toward becoming in addition to our buffet of writing workshops. Long a haven for writers, the Attic helps writers develop their creativity in both philosophical and pragmatic ways through small groups, classes, workshops, longer-term programs, and our individual consult group. But we don’t just advocate the art of omphaloskepsis — you know, the writer as navel gazer. The civic world is an essential pressure in a writer’s life (I wrote about this subject in my essay on poets and democracy, “This Land Is Our Land,” in Poetry magazine in 2010). It’s important to me that we provide a place for writers to navigate their imaginations alongside an interest in the civic and cultural dramas that characterize our age. The Attic experience inspires a writer to focus on the interior life, yes, but only as it exists within the context of a cultural and democratic landscape.
Let me put it another way. Until recently, the Attic Institute sent this message to writers: “Be a writer out in the world and when you’re ready to be accountable, come on up. Then when your workshop is over, go on back out and be a writer.” That’s a good program. It’s a fine method. It works extraordinarily well so long as the primary goal is the improvement of a manuscript. Thousands of writers have come up here for just this sort of accountability and community. We have long trucked in inspiration and motivation. And we will continue to foster just that sort of experience. But the times call for a new paradigm for how a writer engages the world and develops his or her voice. They call for a new model to gain the depth needed not only to write well but also to think well, imagine well, create well, even to live well. As essential as workshops on craft and method are, I believe that writers require much more in order to develop one’s most essential strengths and talents, to grow as an imaginative artist, and to invent stories and poems and all those things that — to be honest — never before existed until a single writer wrote them down. Never existed. Not once in the whole history of humanity. Until one writer wrote them down.
KC: Support for writers in a community of writers–I get that. I’m curious, though, what writers can bring to the civic conversation that’s different than, say, what informed policy fellows at the Brookings Institution do. Who will turn to a writer for policy advice? Put another way–how do you envision writers participating more directly in this “new paradigm” of public engagement? Shall we Occupy Fleet Street?
DB: If one subscribes to the value that every sector of civic activity in American life must be professionalized, societized, authorized, or guilded then, no, a poet or for that matter no one else in America who is not inducted into the league of societies has cause for interaction with a Brookings or Hoover fellow or whatever when it comes to policy analysis, intimate contact with political professionals, or expressing the urgencies of special interests. The opposite must be true, too, that the political fellow has no cause for interaction with the poets, or poetry, or the virtues of one of human history’s oldest arts. That really is the current state of affairs, is it not? By and large? We’re divided by cultural assumptions and cultural passions. I mean, there are exceptions, sure, but c’mon, we have become so sorted into our political and cultural boxes (NPR v. FOX, red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods, the continuation of a 50/50 electorate) that we have lost–or are at the pathetic risk of never locating ever again–our ability as a democracy to integrate ideas that come from competing economic values and political assumptions. Integrating, not destroying. Integrating, not paralyzing. You ask, what can writers bring to the conversation? Our primary skill set, for one thing. Clarity. Insight. Metaphor. Three skills our public discourse deeply needs today. Now at the Attic Institute, we’re not insisting that any writer be required to engage the civic arena in any way or at any time. We value both the Emily Dickinsons and the Adrienne Riches, the Yves Bonnefoys and the Vaclav Havels. Barack Obama, by the way, was a hell of a writer before he became president.
But we also want all the writers who come up here to consider that the interior life cannot exist isolated from the melting pot of cultures or politics or, especially in America, class and race. The equation isn’t either/or. It isn’t be civically engaged or be a petty bourgeois. It’s to allow the many to speak through the one. And to inspire the one to speak to the many. We tell our writers, set the bullhorn on #1 or set it on #9, but a bullhorn comes with the job of writing and the writing must be alert with clarity, insight, and metaphor. At the same time, we say, hey, stanza three doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the poem, and chapter 7 may be the true start of your novel, and you’re going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about your relationship to your sister when you work on your personal essay. All the intricacies of composing poems and stories and essays and memoir are at stake for writers at the Attic Institute. Primarily so. So it’s my belief (and I’m just one writer) that the interior and the civic feed each other. But they shouldn’t feed on each other. As I was suggesting earlier about our failure to integrate for the greater good, that scientific discourse is seen in purely cultural, even partisan terms in our political dialogue–that factual circumstance is a travesty. But here’s the thing: a single poem, for example, or a single novel, embodies one of the most democratic utterances we offer to our fellow citizens (we call citizens readers in the workshop, right?). The literary voice is the embodiment of individual dignity. Because both writing and reading require mutual interaction, the literary is communal. That’s the paradigm I’m reiterating. The writer’s interior consciousness is tethered to the aspirations of other people.
KC: I see. The writer as mirror of our essential, irreducible human complexity, the pluribus in unum, and vice versa. The writer as conduit for nuance in a media environment that thrives on polarity and factionalism, where nuance is seen as weakness, liability. I’m not sure being a writer has helped President Obama much lately, at least in terms of public messaging, though I have no doubt it’s made him a more thoughtful, deliberate man. In the 10th Anniverary September 11 issue of The New Yorker, George Packer wrote, rather bleakly, that we’ll remain a house divided, stuck in our red boxes and blue boxes, till death do us join. You seem more optimistic that writers can help reshape the public domain, to outfit civic discourse with empathy, clarity. Is this an innate optimism, or do you see something that Packer doesn’t? How has public engagement made a difference in your own writing?
DB: Pertaining to the first part of your question about the broadcast political entertainment media’s fetishizing partisan factionalism, I agree with President Clinton who said recently in a Financial Times profile by Simon Schama, “there is money in hot air.” Even if I wanted to shout back at him: “You obviously haven’t spent much time with the poets where there is plenty of hot air and not that much money.” I’m honestly not sure whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the state of our national affairs. Hard to be optimistic, I have to confess, ergo the George Packerites. And, hard to be optimistic when you look back over American legislative history and you recognize other eras of deep and at times even intractable partisan division, most famously embodied in the 19th century decades leading up to the Civil War and our national failure to find consensus over slavery dating back to the Constitution Convention. More broadly, in every era, when income disparity increases, extreme partisanship does too. When income disparity decreases, say, in the period after the Second World War when the middle class was experiencing expanding economic opportunity, partisan division levels off. But today, we’re in a period of severe income disparity, and so conservatives make as their principle policy position the protection of the wealthy and liberals make as their principle policy position the protection of the working and middle classes. Meantime, there’s just too much money to be made in a hot air civil war fought everywhere across the political entertainment media. That’s Glenn Beck as Little Manassas and Keith Olbermann as Vicksburg.
But let’s also say that being pessimistic is simply not an option. We have to spend more time not less time analyzing our current divisions or hand-wringing with Packerite fatalism, and instead imagine into the universe a better functioning civic reality in the United States. And so there’s the second part of your question, about a relationship between public engagement and writing. Speaking for myself, my political opinion writing is so notedly focused on the contemporary electoral, presidential, and legislative dramas, I’m not sure how I would, or even would want to blend it with the poems I write. One feeds the other, I just take that for granted. I’ve always tried to avoid letting my will do the work of my imagination and beyond that I don’t worry about it too much. I think W. B. Yeats advises us about this very problem — now Yeats a poet who I admire both for this poetic genius and his civic engagement. But I will say this in answer to your question about how public engagement has or hasn’t made a difference in my writing: I’ve begun to think much more seriously about audience. The creative writing workshop is famous for steering writers away from questions of audience. I’m close to outright rejecting this paradigm. I think it’s essential that a writer focus deeply on what range of emotional and intellectual impression he or she wants to have on a reader and wants that reader to experience. I mean, readers aren’t neutral. At their best, they’re predisposed to comply. At their worst, their overtly hostile. So I think it’s worth considering the question of how do I inspire a reader to feel what I want hope they will feel and how do I make a communal pact between my poems and my readers. That’s public engagement as literary engagement, notwithstanding Frost’s dictum: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
KC: So perhaps there’s optimism in refusing pessimism– in seeing that it’s always been so and yet we muddle through? I sometimes see that as reassuring, sometimes not. I mean, does Sisyphus feel anything but eternal agony, always fighting the same fight, always having to start from scratch? Ignore that question. It’s the curse of progressives to believe in arguable progress, no doubt. Was it Thomas Paine who said time makes more converts than reason? Perhaps thinking clearly about audience can open up the public face of poetry. But at it’s worst, that argument polarizes into “accessibility” (think Ted Kooser and Billy Collins) vs. “experimentalism” or “avante-garde-ism” (think Cole Swenson or Michael Palmer), into lay audiences vs. a confraternity of specialists. Is there a better way to think about audience than that? How do you balance the need to say difficult things with reaching or engaging a broader public?
DB: I don’t expect poetry will ever achieve the status of a mass art. As for the question about accessibility and obscure difficulty: There’s a difference between a public following and a critical following. Safe to say that a Billy Collins has the former, and a Michael Palmer has the latter. I also think that the points on the continuum of poetry readership — accessible v. avant — aren’t that far apart. Poetry is in many ways a very conservative art. Is Ted Kooser a humanist but Cole Swenson isn’t? Both are. Is Kooser really that much more romantic than Swenson? No. I think that poets have far more in common than we acknowledge and formal differences are like fashion statements. As I like to say about American politics, whether you’re a hawk or a dove, both are still birds.
I won’t trot out the names of all the poets that I feel exemplify the “say difficult things with reaching or engaging and broader public” but two come to mind: Robert Frost and Czeslaw Milosz. But they’re great poets — in their own languages and their own national cultures and in other languages and cultures. Maybe that’s the answer to your question. Billy Collins and Michael Palmer are both pleasurable enough to read in their fashion. But neither is Walt Whitman — and he’s a good poet to conclude on. I’m not sure we will ever be as optimistic about America as Whitman was in the 19th century even during the decades leading up to the Civil War. But he changed American poetry’s subject and its formal ambition. Now, asking “where is that poet today?” is the wrong question. No one in the middle of the 19th century would have said it was Walt Whitman. Or Emily Dickinson. Paine’s statement can be amended: Time makes converts about the importance of a single poet more than contemporary book sales do. So be highly accessible or be highly avant. Either is OK. Write what interests you and bring forth the imprint of your imagination and mind to your work. What else can be expected of a poet in his or her poems? But let’s not forget this: To devote your life to writing poetry is to be the most optimistic creature on earth.