On being a poet: an interview with Carlos Reyes

William Stafford referred to Carlos Reyes as a “connoisseur” of the “many strange, tangy things that happen in the Northwest.” His writing career stretches back more than 40 years; most recently, Reyes has been honored with the Heinrich Boll Fellowship (2007), which gave him two weeks to write on Achill Island, Ireland, as well as poet-in-residence at Lost Horse Ranger Station in the Joshua Tree National Park (2009). An avid traveler and translator, his knowledge of labor, the land, and the daily struggles of everyday existence inform his work. I was honored to sit down with him a few months ago in a very loud and crowded Portland coffeehouse to talk about his recently released collection of new and selected poems, The Book of Shadows (© 2009, Lost Horse Press). During our conversation, Reyes spoke candidly about his life as a poet, and how his ability to describe what he does for a living has shifted with time.

DJ: You’ve been at it for a long time. I read an interview you just did with BT Shaw, where she asked you about choosing the poems for this collection. Was that difficult?

CR: My editor really wanted to lean on some stuff that had already been in books. I was more interested in poems that hadn’t come out in book form. I’ve worked with the editor before. We’ve always had something of a tugging match. Our negotiations usually revolve around a couple of drinks of whisky . . . on his part at least — I don’t drink. So we had some pretty healthy discussions about certain selections.

DJ: Why is it important for a poet to have a person who gives another perspective when putting together a collection?

CR: In this particular instance, it’s rather unusual. When I first started publishing, I would usually just take a box of poems to an editor and say, “OK, do what you will.” As I got more mature, I realized I didn’t want all of that responsibility in someone else’s hands. I wanted a part in the selection. I had to declare my independence, say things like, “Look, I understand what you’re saying, but this particular poem has a certain meaning to me.”

Editors see a lot of stuff. They get something of an edge or bias, especially people who are used to working with writers of a certain caliber. Then they come upon someone such as myself who’s past a certain point and is willing to hunker down and say, “I know what you think, but that’s not what I’m doing here, and I don’t want to lose what I’m trying to do.”

I was very insecure for a while. I don’t have the usual background of a poet, or of someone who writes for a living. Maybe this is kind of dangerous to say, but I don’t have the formal background, the MFA . . . I didn’t go to Iowa, didn’t study writing. The only writing classes I ever took were in short fiction at the University of Oregon years and years ago.

DJ: Was there a point in your life as a poet where this sensibility of not having a certain degree stood in your way?

CR: If you write, and I think this is especially true for poets, you’re always on the edge between being sure and unsure. “What the hell am I doing? Why am I spending all this time doing something that may or may not ever amount to anything?” I used to get a little bit of that laid on me, but not so much anymore. Not necessarily from my close colleagues, but from other people.

A long time ago, I was the faculty advisor for the poetry committee at Portland State. Certain people would say things like, “You’re not even in the English department, what the hell are you doing here?”

Unfortunately, there’s a question of legitimacy about being someone who simply has written but doesn’t have a certain degree. I’ve been writing for 40 years. Maybe there’s something there that may or may not equal an MFA. Who knows? Sometime around 1976 or ’77, I thought maybe I’d go to the University of Montana and get an MFA. I talked with some people I knew, and they said, “We’d love to have you, but why?” After you’ve created a body of work, it’s kind of silly, unless you want to become a teacher. I already tried to teach. So I never got the MFA. Maybe it took me a bit longer to get where I am because I didn’t come from that world of workshops. I just tried to figure it out on my own.

DJ: Did you seek out mentors?

CR: I sort of picked them along the way, but not in the traditional sense. I’d become interested in their work.

I was interested in Robert Creeley. He was one of my models, if you will. When I really got into writing, guys like Creeley and Gary Snyder came off as really impressive. To a certain extent I’m still following Creeley’s footsteps. Looking at his later poems, he uses these really short lines, as opposed to what you see from a lot of contemporary poets using really long, Ashbery-style lines.

Other people have come and gone without me really thinking about it at the time, but looking back I can see their influence. In the ’50s, the first poetry I ever really read was W.D. Snodgrass, who’d just won the Pulitzer Prize. It turns out, Snodgrass and I . . . and I never talked to him face-to-face . . . we actually corresponded for a long while. He was a mentor, not because my writing was anything like his — he’s definitely more traditional with regards to rhyme and meter — but he impressed upon the possibilities of being a poet, the idea that you could lead your life as a poet, which is as good a way to lead your life as anything else.

A number of my influences have been rather oblique or subtle. Impressions have come from a person’s work as much as what their work was about. Here I was trying to figure out life as a poet, and I’d take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. And that’s still the case, to a degree.

DJ: It sounds like you came to an awareness around something Snodgrass said, that you could lead your life as a poet. At what point did you accept that as a truth?

CR: For the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve come to consider the fact that the focus of my life is on writing poetry. It took me a long time to get there.

I come from a family where if you literally weren’t working with your hands then it wasn’t legitimate work. For 40 or so years of being a poet, and being a lot of other things as well, when somebody would ask me what I did for a living, I’d say things like, “Well, I’m a poet but I’m also a land surveyor.” And they’d say, “OK, land surveying . . . let’s talk about that.” About 10 or 15 years ago, I started saying, “I’m a poet,” If that was as far as the conversation went, then so be it. I wasn’t going to try and prop myself up with things like, “Yeah, but I’m also a medical translator.”

DJ: And you’ve taught in residencies?

CR: Yes, but I don’t do it as much these days.

DJ: What have you seen in the last 20-25 years with regards to how students take to poetry?

CR: I used to not feel this way, but I think a lot of it nowadays has to do with the electronic age and the visuals that pop up on screens. There’s been some kind of change. Of course, my grandson is nutty about games, but he’s also a great writer and a prodigious reader. But I don’t think this is the case for most kids, and even adults, who are really tied to their screens.

Last year in one of the schools, I was passing out paper with poems on them when a young guy said, “You should just put this up on screen.” Part of it is my own bias, I suppose. I work on a laptop, but I still print things out to read. Computers are useful, obviously, but the screens get distracting.

DJ: Don’t you think there’s something to the art of scratching and editing on paper? A sort of tactile connection between the words themselves and the process?

CR: I do, but I’m not the best example. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the electronic age, and swore I’d never have a computer. Now I’m not sure what I’d do without one.

I do like that scratching around. I’ll still go out in the backyard and write by hand. I recently bought a manual typewriter, but I don’t even know if I could actually get away with the act of typing. It’s a lot of work. Eventually you wear yourself out, especially if you’re putting together a manuscript. It would take forever. I can’t figure out how people wrote fiction before computers? Or maybe computers make the whole act too easy, which can have a critical effect on quality.

DJ: Maybe Hemingway’s first draft was like a fifth draft when you factor in his level of attention? As if he had greater intention regarding what he put down.

CR: I think in the old days, people wrote more carefully. And I mean the physical act of writing on paper as much as more focus on what they were writing. Professors would write everything out then have someone typed it up, which presupposes that the typist could actually read it.

In a way, technology has made us lazy. We’re less careful. All we need to do is hit a few buttons and change everything at once.

DJ: Going back to The Book of Shadows, when you had the chance to review your old work and your new work, how do you feel about your recent writing compared with pieces from 30 years ago?

CR: In some senses, I’m still writing the same way, but I look at things a bit more carefully.

When this book came up, I realized that many of the older poems wouldn’t stand a whole lot of change. Also, I believe there’s something not quite genuine about looking at something 30 years after the fact and saying, “Oh, well, I’ll just rewrite this.” I think certain things need to stand, no matter how frail or awkward, as a kind of example of a period.

A few people tried to talk me into correcting some of the older poems. I just felt there was a kind of grittiness or rawness, an awkwardness that had some value I wanted to keep, rather than going back and rewriting things to “make them better.”

No one’s ever convinced me to do this. My wife’s an editor. She likes to mention things about punctuation. Well, I have no clue about punctuation. So of course I can go back and punctuate a poem . . . maybe it would make it make more sense. But when I was writing this or that poem to begin with, punctuation wasn’t part of the process. Of course there are a few places where I went back and added punctuation, tried to make things a little nicer, but for the most part I’m not that interested. The spark that was there when I wrote a particular poem is different now. To go back and rework it just isn’t that interesting to me.

DJ: Was there a certain period in your career you enjoyed more than others?

CR: At any moment I’ve enjoyed it as much as any other moment, because there’s nothing like the individual spark behind a particular poem. I think I’m enjoying my current writing more than anything, which isn’t to say that my work has earned any more or less critical acclaim, whatever that is.

DJ: Acclaim’s elusive.

CR: People do review my books, but not that much. A very good friend of mine said this about The Book of Shadows: “This is a really good book, and you can be sure it’s not going to get the attention it deserves.” I’ve come to accept that.

I never thought the book would be reviewed in the New York Times Review of Books, for instance. They’ve got all the books they can handle, and how you get a book reviewed in there is beyond me. Frankly I don’t think it’s that important to the kind of writing I do.

One thing I’ve learned after so many years is to be happy with what I’m doing, and to realize that, for me, this is important work, whether anyone else thinks so or not. The writing itself has value, and that’s what’s important, whether or not it receives critical acclaim.

DJ: Was there a point when acclaim was more important?

CR: Absolutely. Anyone who’s ever written feels that way. You want to be noticed. You want somebody to say, “This is good,” or to give you some sense that what you’re doing is valuable in some way.

There was a time, before publishing got so big, where you’d send poems off and an editor would actually write back and say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad, but it’s not exactly what we want.” Some people still believe that if you send work to a publication that you’re going to get some sort of response back. It’s become so overloaded with so much stuff coming and going, that you might get a piece of paper that says, “This isn’t right,” and maybe someone might sign it.

When you’re younger, you’d like to be in magazines like Field or Atlantic Monthly. When you get a little older you realize it’s more complicated than that. If someone is offering $500 for a poem, they’re looking for someone who will give their publication a little more credit.

DJ: Do you remember the point where you got over that and finally decided that it’s just about the writing?

CR: Probably in the last 10 or 15 years. That’s all part of coming to the conclusion that no matter what I do, any kind of fame or money that comes along in the process is no longer important.

A fellow writer used to ask me when he’d see me, “Carlos, why are you doing this? And don’t give me any of this bull about honor or nobility.” It used to frustrate me.

DJ: How would you answer that question now?

CR: I’m doing it because I think it’s important. And I like it. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to conduct your life, whether or not you earn a dollar.

I used to be very defensive, always trying to explain what it was I did. Some people would get it, but most people wouldn’t. Most other writers would get it, but still there were some that didn’t.

People don’t know what being a poet is all about, especially if you’re just trying to be a poet and not an entertainer, which is a whole different art form and way of thinking. I’ve forever tried to explain what it is that I do, and quite often I’ve just copped out. “Oh, you know, I drive a bus . . .” People could relate to that. Now I just tell them I’m a poet because that’s what I am.

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