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Bugler: An Interview with Tod Marshall

The new Washington State Poet Laureate on why poetry matters, the insidiousness of the “Hidden Deep Meaning,” and why Spokane is a writers’ town.

  • February 18, 2016
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  • Feature
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  • By David Haldeman

Tod Marshall looks out of place in a conference room.

His dusty green flannel, brown boots, and scruffy face don’t quite fit with the clinical whiteboard behind him, which is covered in scrawls from a planning meeting. His fishing-themed baseball cap says “Reel Life.”

Marshall is at Humanities Washington’s office after having been named the new Washington State Poet Laureate for 2016-2018, and his earthy appearance seems to match his poetry. His latest collection, Bugle, is practically smeared with soil: Its verses are filled with the meadows, trees, dirt, and waterways around his Spokane home. But while his poems sometimes contain flowers, they’re anything but flowery—death, decay, and violence fill his organic landscapes as naturally as lakes, rivers, and rocks.

“I always think about the brutality of nature as one in juxtaposition with human brutality,” he says. “The brutality of the world of nature is usually connected to necessity. There is no cruelty there.”

As the new face of poetry in Washington State, this juxtaposition could be particularly resonant for a state proud of its natural beauty yet fearful of nature’s wrath—where the Cascades and Columbia River coexist with earthquakes and wildfires.

Marshall’s passion for the outdoors and his humble personality immediately dispel the image many still have of poets as isolated academics or tortured loners. Sure, he’s a Gonzaga professor, winner of the Washington State Book Award, and can quote Whitman by heart, but he’s also an avid fisherman, active community volunteer, and frequent user of the term “folks.” In short, Marshall contains multitudes, and seems to embody both Washington State’s strong intellectualism as well as its ruggedness.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Marshall grew up uprooted. His father was a struggling salesman and the family moved constantly—sometimes at 1:00 a.m. He estimates he lived 19 different places by the age of 16.

As a teenager, Marshall took on what he describes as some “ne’er-do-well” behaviors, yet “managed to graduate from high school and stay out of jail.”

[Marshall] seems to embody both Washington State’s strong intellectualism as well as its ruggedness.

Though a good student in college, Marshall was “a soccer player guy” who was generally directionless. It wasn’t until he was well into college that the diligence of a nun at his Catholic college stirred an interest in the humanities. While doing an independent study with one of the Sisters, Marshall decided not to do the work and simply fake his way through a one-on-one lesson. When he spotted her in the library, she was diligently preparing for their discussion, surrounded by piles of notes and stacks of books on philosophy. “She was going the eleven yards for that meeting,” said Marshall. “Obviously guilt kicked in, but also a wonder about that passion for learning started.”

Shortly after, a fiction teacher gave him Hart Crane’s poem, “The Bridge.”

“I had no clue what the poem was about. I had no clue what sentences meant within it. But the sounds of the poetry stunned me and intoxicated me. I got great pleasure out of just saying some of the phrases in the poem.” Marshall told the teacher this, and he encouraged Marshall to take a fiction writing class. It was there that he “got the bug.”

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Photo: Mike Hipple

Now 48, Marshall has lived in Spokane since 1999, where he has taught English at Gonzaga and written three poetry collections: Dare Say (2002), The Tangled Line (2009), and Bugle (2014), as well as two books of interviews: Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets (2002) and its follow-up, Range of Voices (2005).

Last year was a particularly good one for Marshall: In addition to winning the Washington State Book Award for Bugle, he received the Humanities Washington Award, and was then appointed Washington State Poet Laureate by Governor Jay Inslee, succeeding outgoing laureate Elizabeth Austen. For a recent full-page feature spread on Marshall, the Spokane Spokesman-Review appropriately titled it, “Tod’s Time.”

As poet laureate, Marshall will spread awareness and appreciation of poetry — including the state’s legacy of poetry — through public readings, workshops, lectures, and presentations. He also plans to publish a book featuring poems he collects from Washington residents during his tenure.

“I hope to share poems with people that can help bridge our experiences of living in the world. I also hope to instill the possibility of making them. I think that hearing other voices is important—listening is such a significant part of living a full and rich life.”

He also has a particular interest in reaching rural audiences, who may not have access to the cultural institutions of larger cities.

His outdoorsy nature is a good start. And hidden underneath his flannel is a t-shirt printed with a haiku: Barn burned down. Now I can see the moon.

 

What is it that poetry specifically can offer that other artistic mediums cannot?

The first thing that comes to mind is the accessibility that language provides; most everyone has some facility using language, and that’s what gives everyone an entry point to poetry. Maybe that’s why it’s also one of the oldest forms of cultural expression. Poetry has been around for a long, long time and in a variety of different cultures. Language is used to tell, to borrow a phrase from [Ezra] Pound, “the tale of the tribe,” and I think that marked language—language shaped in a certain way—is connected to rituals and a kind of cultural memory. Poetry served in that capacity for a long, long time, and so has this kind of deep and rich history that ranges from a whole host of ritual dynamics to religious dynamics to various epic tales of migration and heroism around the world. So I think that there’s almost this deep attraction.

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Marshall with previous poets laureate Kathleen Flenniken and Elizabeth Austen. Photo: Mike Hipple.

Though I was never taught this explicitly, I sometimes feel like a poem is a puzzle that needs to be solved. That I am looking at this language and there is a meaning there, and I need to figure out what that meaning is. It’s like it just turns into Sudoku. I am still trying to eradicate that side of me that thinks there’s some meaning hidden behind this…wall.

The phrase that my students often use is “What Stevens is trying to say here is…,” or “What Williams is trying to say here is….” No, they’re not trying, they said that here. But the reason that students say that is that they’ve been told that. My friend Nance Van Winckel calls it the “HDM” approach to teaching poetry: “Hidden Deep Meaning.” I think that’s a great phrase. The idea that a writer is sitting down and saying, “Oh, I’m going to hide something in here, some deep symbolism about this Oedipal dynamic and blah, blah, blah,” is ridiculous. What’s happening is language is layered and nuanced, and often a poem can mean in a few different directions simultaneously. But I think we’re taught not to be comfortable with multiplicity and ambiguity and mystery. And the reason we’re taught that is because it’s really difficult to standardize that knowledge on any sort of outcomes. And [ambiguity] is also something that, as a culture, I think we’re pretty uncomfortable with.

The HDM method killed my love of poetry for a long time. Reading Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in eighth grade, this teacher told me, after I offered a plausible reading, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s nothing that turns someone off from poetry, or art at large, than saying, “You’re not part of the club, and you can’t be part of the club until you do the things that I want you to do to be part of the club.” And so that breaks my heart, the hidden deep meaning of it. I hear about it so many times.

We’re taught not to be comfortable with multiplicity and ambiguity and mystery. And the reason we’re taught that is because it’s really difficult to standardize that knowledge on any sort of outcomes.

And once it becomes a quiz subject, the engagement with poetry fades a little bit. I always think about all the different ways that we can engage a poem. The language of the poem, the imagery of the poem. I love poems that are intellectually challenging. I love poems that are about visceral subject matter. I love poems that are nonsense and playful. A person that I often quote, Ed Hirsh, said “We need all of our poetries.”

Does poetry have an image problem these days?

I think that it depends who you ask. I think statements like, “Is poetry relevant?,” “How does poetry connect with pop culture in general?” “No one buys poetry anymore”—all those issues are longstanding historical questions. There have been defenses of poetry written for centuries now, and poets are always really eloquent about stepping up and talking about how important their art is. Shelley of course asserted that poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world—which is a really silly pronouncement in some ways, but also one that, in my better moments, I believe in. If you measure impact or measure image in the way we are acculturated to measure things in 2016, poetry might be marginalized. I don’t know that marginalization is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to the arts. It’s often from the outside that you get critiques that end up being important. But anyhow, that’s a very economic scale. Spoken word dynamics are prevalent in every city in this country and even in small towns, as are open mics, where people share their poems with one another. It’s curious that one of the most popular musical forms in the last twenty years, rap and hip hop, is more language driven than necessarily instrumentally driven. I wonder if that’s a way that poetry has evolved in the last thirty years: as more central to our culture than many of these other [artistic] modes we might talk about. I mean, how many people have listened to Kendrick Lamar verses Bach in the last couple of years? You know, I think those who assert that poetry is no longer integral to the culture assume a fairly narrow definition of poetry. I like to assume a more wide-ranging conception of poetry.

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Photo: Mike Hipple

It seems like Spokane has really taken off in terms of writing talent. Is there something about the city or the area that you draw inspiration from? Or that you think is conducive to attracting writers?

I don’t know that I can point to one dynamic. I think that the list of writers is pretty substantial. We’re talking about Jess [Walter], Sam Ligon, Sharma [Shields], Nance Van Winckel, you can go on and on. The first kind of pragmatic-slash-logistic answer that comes to mind is that it’s cold in the winter, so people stay inside and actually get work done. But I don’t think that’s it. There’s another part of me that wants to idealize and romanticize the kind of saltiness of the city. There’s a certain ruggedness. One of my favorite lines about Spokane is that it’s a blue collar city with no industrial base. And I think that struggling dynamic creates some energies that could somehow lead to art, because art often exists in those crucibles, those moments of conflict. But I think that might be silly idealization, because there’s no less struggle in Seattle or Tacoma or wherever.

I don’t know what the answer is. I know that it’s wonderful to be a part of an art community. In Spokane I hear people constantly saying how supported they feel by the other writers in town. Having that dynamic [is better] than everyone just competing with each other for the next big thing. And another aspect of Spokane: I would give up some of the cultural dynamics that you get in a big city for the standard of living we can get in Spokane for what seems like a pretty modest income.

Why advocate for poetry?

I see poetry as a metonymy for art in general, and it is a specific mode that I have some abilities in. But I think the arts in general allow access to our understanding of ourselves and others that we don’t get access to otherwise. And part of that is connected to the mystery that we were talking about earlier. Art forces us to not know all the answers that are at our fingertips so frequently, and from that we can emerge from that state of unknowing with a different view of ourselves, a different view of the world around us, and a different view of others. Chris Howell said in talking about the dynamic of reading a good poem, “I know that I’ve read a good poem when I look up from it and the world I look up to is different from the world that I saw when I entered the poem.” So advocacy, for bringing people to the possibility of that immersion, is really important to me, especially to those for whom art isn’t a given. Demographics play a significant role in access to the symphony, access to plays, access to poetry. The work of Humanities Washington, and the work of so many different organizations across the country to make it so everyone can realize the possibility of a full inner life, there’s nothing more important than that to me.

The Washington State Poet Laureate program is sponsored by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA. Find events and follow Tod at wapoetlaureate.org.

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