Interview with Will Staple, May 14, 2004, Grass Valley Public Library, by Eskimo Pie Girl.
(Will Staple has two new books out in 2005 which are available at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco: "Luminosita Luminosa: New Poems by Will Staple" and "KLapperschLangenfrau: Heartbeat #11 from Berlin (English/German)"
EPG: So I was just wondering if you could give us a little overview of your life, some background.
WS: Well, I'm out of Oakland and went to Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. I was on the debate team and they wanted somebody to do Oral Interpretation of Poetry, and that's when I got real interested [in poetry]. I had written in high school, but I took it more seriously [in college]. I had Gary Snyder as my teacher at Berkeley, and also Dale Scott, another poet. And so I got interested in poetry seriously, I don't know why.
Gary was building his house and we were friends 'cus we were mountaineers, and so he invited me to come up and help. I met a whole bunch of other poets that summer. And then the people that worked on his house bought the adjoining land. It's gone through a lot of changes, but about half of us are still there. You've seen it, it's a cabin in the woods three miles down a gravel road, in the trees, about 113 acres shared by five households.
And let's see, I taught construction trades at Lassen College after I worked on a few houses in my neighborhood.
EPG: So did you live up by Lassen for a while?
WS: Yeah, I lived up there for a while, in fact, even before I built my house. And then I came down, let's see, Gary's house I guess was in '70, and I was teaching at Lassen in '71 and '72. Is that right? It's a little vague. Anyway, I built Allen Ginsberg's house about '74 with another carpenter and then his friend, Peter Orlovsky, and my wife Joanne. And that summer, I just threw up my $700 two-story shack. And then I got involved less in carpentry and more in Poetry in the Schools. I've been doing that a lot since then, for about 30 years or so. And through all this, I'd go to the Grand Canyon about once a year, usually in the spring for one or two weeks. And I still keep in touch with my friends in Berkeley, San Francisco. So even though it's a small place up here, I have some contact with the larger world.
EPG: So what is it like living up in the hills like that?
WS: It's very quiet, isolated. You have to make things happen yourself. If you want to have a poetry gathering, you have to invite people over to your own porch kind of thing.
EPG: So you have a lot of people come to visit you, like from out of the country, traveling poets or writers?
WS: I am SO happy when they visit. And I actually hike around the place more, showing everything off. And so there's a lot of hosting activity interspersed with long periods of being alone. I try to do my Poetry in the Schools in the cold part of the year so I don't have to use up my firewood.
EPG: So you travel around California a lot with the Poetry in the Schools? And you go into schools and teach classes? Like what ages?
WS: Yeah, for example, I'll go over to Ukiah for a week and teach three 4th-grade classes for five times. That's a typical thing. In the local schools, I don't do it all in one week; I spread it over six or seven weeks and we end up with a poetry slam. And it's nice to make my money as a poet because that's kept my interest alive even when my interest would wane as it sometimes does. And in the 80's and 90's, I did a WHOLE lot of Poetry in the Schools and in a way it's like working on a big mural where you have all these other people working on it. But, since I was doing so much of it, I sort of gave away my inspiration to others. And now that I am not working so much in the schools, I'm working more on my own work, because I'm in the last half of my life and there's a lot of poems I didn't get around to writing.
EPG: Well I don't know if I should say this, but I remember when I met Jim Dodge like 20 years ago, and he was teaching school and saying it in someways takes a lot out of you, always reviewing other people's poetry and trying to, I don't know, I guess really . . . spending your energy on other people's poetry.
WS: Yeah, you're solving other people's problems and not your own.
EPG: But then I guess it could get inspiring seeing young writers kind of light up for the first time maybe over words.
WS: And there's a lot of enthusiasm in the class. You know, if I get goosebumps, they get a "Poetic License." So we're all working to give me goosebumps.
EPG: So what about some of the other things that you're involved in? Like I take from reading some of your poetry that you're into Buddhism. And did that just come about maybe through Gary and some of those other people?
WS: There was a lot of Buddhism in the Bay Area when I was growing up and Gary was certainly a profound articulate voice. And I was more in to it than I am now. And I got involved . . . partly it was the Beats got me so interested in koans. But I never could figure out what they were. So I studied koans and went through the curriculum, it was about 600, 700 koans.
EPG: So is that like a religious curriculum, an informal one?
WS: It's not so much religion because you don't have to believe anything. But it's sort of showing that you understand the spiritual tableaus that are being presented, and showing them by personalizing it. And coming up with a non-intellectual answer that's obvious once you figure it out.
EPG: So was there some kind of a text that you read that guided you that had these 700 koans?
WS: Well, I studied in Hawaii for a long time. And I'd go over there several times a year, and I had a teacher.
EPG: You had a mentor.
WS: A roshi, they call it. And then I studied at the little temple next door, between Gary's and my house, with another younger teacher. And once I finished my koans, I didn't like . . . I liked the spiritual revelation part, but I didn't like . . . it was time for me to break with the teacher, move on. And I didn't like the little bit of . . . oh, well . . . I still go back to the Zendo, but not as often. I'm not so caught up in it.
EPG: You think it's kind of elite or something?
WS: Oh no, no.
EPG: Constricted maybe?
WS: Well you're gonna find that in all groups, and being sort of a natural Daoist, I'm not so keen on having my behavior shaped or commented on from the outside. And so that probably has been an impulse not to like define myself by how a group or a teacher is looking at me.
EPG: Well that's interesting because in some of your poetry you kind of adopt this persona of kind of like this hapless lover kind of thing. You have this one whole chapbook called, "I Hate the Women You Sleep With."
WS: You mean, "I Hate the MEN You Sleep With." [laughter] But that would be a more interesting book! "Yes, just another California male whose wife ran off with a woman." Yeah . . . nothing quite so juicy.
EPG: [Laughing] But um, well . . . .
WS: Yes, that wound was so important to me. I loved my wife very much and it wasn't my choice for her to move on.
EPG: Yes, well it's very humorous. In some ways it's kind of a humorous persona for you. And you and Todd and Bill all have that same kind of a sense in that book, "Roxy." And in some ways it's very endearing.
WS: Yes! Now there's a strategy for you, unintentional strategies . . . by admitting your weakness and your cluelessness, you're also admitting your humanity. And the truth comes to all of us, it just takes longer for some. And I probably exhausted all the wrong answers before I got to the right one.
EPG: But then I noticed in your "nature" poems that you don't really have any kind of a persona like that per se, I mean there's still some of you in there, but it's more open. Actually one time you said [opens book and reads]: "I speak aloud to the shifting clouds/ . . . not caring if the clouds cared/ or if there was any entity there to hear me/ but simply to express my appreciation."
WS: Hallelujah! I couldn't have said it better myself!
EPG: [Laughter] So I wonder if that's maybe, as opposed to all the human world and all the trials and tribulations of relationships, if that's why you turn to nature in some ways. You don't have to explain yourself [to nature].
WS: Yeah, it certainly has . . . I mean you have to bring any antagonism in that relationship, yourself, to it. And Nature lends itself to that open receptivity. Yeah, I wouldn't have written so many sad love poems intentionally. That's just the material my life gave me. And I tried to find some humor, redeeming insight, you know with whatever I was given. But that is a real good dichotomy that you bring out. Both of those things are there.
EPG: Let's talk about the anthology. How did that come about, the Roxy thing?
WS: That was Bill's idea. And Bill and Todd did a lot of work on it, and I really like Bill as an editor, and they had some really good ideas and it became more of a group thing as it went on. It's hard not to feel defensive when some of the poems that you really love are criticized, but I had enough of them so that we could both be happy with the choices we came up with.
EPG: So that's kind of unusual to be in an anthology with a couple of other people, and you guys toured around a little bit doing readings?
WS: Yeah, we still haven't done the Bay Area, but we did a lot of Sacramento and this area. And it's great to read with others. And I usually read last, so they've really warmed up the audience by the time they turn them loose on me. And it's much easier to take care of a third of a program than the whole program. And luckily, I still like their poems. The worst thing that can happen is you don't like your confederates' poems. So that particular book works because the theme and the mood are similar [among all three poets].
EPG: Something similar for me, just a few weeks ago, I just read with two older women. And then tonight I'm reading . . . I think both of the women poets I'm reading with are younger than me. But it's just like, within a couple weeks time. . . .
WS: How old are you?
Off the record.
EPG: [Laughter] So, I don't think I've ever read in a trio like that, and now all of a sudden, I am.
WS: Yeah, I had an early book, "Coyote Run," with two poets. They were both guys. But, it was fun reading with them too. There was a theme there.
EPG: So your own poetry chapbooks, you had some of them translated into Italian and other languages?
WS: I went to Europe with a friend. And then she came home, and I continued on.
EPG: You stayed there for a while?
WS: Yeah, two months. And, there was a book that I had published here, "The Only Way to Reduce Crime Is to Make Fewer Acts Illegal." And temporarily, I got some advice that this book . . . at this time in California that it was illegal to criticize the police. This is 1997, '98. And they just withdrew that. The Supreme Court in California reversed that in August of 2001. So, for a period there I couldn't . . . it wasn't . . . ironically, you think of California as being a liberal state, but I was looking for translators for that book. And the Germans like such books, coming out of Fascism. And also, the United States has lorded its democracy over the Germans for so long, they love criticism. If you can imagine. And then they wanted to see my other works, and there was the book you mentioned, "I Hate the Men You Sleep With," and also a new book that the editor from Germany selected for a reading I gave here, in California, but was published in Germany. And there was this contest, and they asked if I had any other books, and then I had this one other book, "Dr. Montoya's Medicine," which is inspired by Johnny Montoya, Havasupai Indian with a 3rd-grade education but real world-class mind and humor. And for some reason the Germans love the Indians partly because there's a hopefulness about primitive societies that they don't have because they've just had thousands of years of blood and tyranny. So, in 1999, I was awarded the Engpol Median International Award for those four books. It wasn't a performance, it was just those four books and they were looking for books between 1991 and '99. Well, because of that award, I was invited to other international readings in 2000, in Switzerland where the audience was wider, there's a lot more poets reading. And it was there that I got the newest book, "Numinous Luminosity (Divine Light)," translated, "Luminosita Numinosa," into Italian. And it was last year, in '03, that a beatnik house, I guess you could say that, in Germany, was interested in publishing one of my works. And they picked one of my first works, "Passes for Human." So that's gonna be done in German (under the title "Raddlesnake Woman" by Stadtlichter Press in Berlin). And I like the idea of being published in other languages. It shows that I'm writing something that's deeply human and can be appreciated by people all over the world. And the other thing, this culture in America, I could be an overnight sensation, tomorrow, and then be forgotten in two weeks. And a lot of great poets get out of print, and a lot of not-so-good poets stay in print. So it's hard to trust the culture to keep my hard work . . . you know, I worked hard at getting these jokes or insights or poems and so it does feel good to me to spread myself around. And now it's starting to move and I've talked to someone in Switzerland about another book in French. So the good thing is that you get to go a lot of different places and meet new friends and then if you follow up on the friends, they will actually take you in for three or four days. I'm sure there's a down side too . . . oh yeah, the downside to this is, in some ways it's almost more fun to be an almost successful marginal poet. Because when you become a little more successful, but aren't handled by a major company, you turn out to be a book salesman, lugging around these heavy books. That's what I did last year. I didn't find it so fun. But I did sell a bunch of books. I'm sort of in that, "Internationally acclaimed, but still selling my books to individual bookstores" kind-of-stage. Nothing happens in Europe, also . . . see, I'm not computer literate . . . but I have to be there to make it happen. I gave no major readings last year, but I set up some good readings for next year.
EPG: So you have to set up your readings?
WS: Well I have to be there so that people are aware of me. And a lot of who I am depends on my presence. I've never been very good as a self-promoter. There are some good poets that are good self-promoters.
EPG: It's hard for a lot of poets to promote themselves, and that's why a lot of really good poets kind of squander away their talents because nobody knows about them. When you give your readings, is someone standing there translating?
WS: Not usually. I think my readings have improved by reading in Europe because I have to rely on telepathy. And I have to rely on my hands and my body motions. And I have to be almost over-articulate and a little slower. However, I did read in Beeskow (E. Germany) with translations into both German and Russian, which was most effective.
EPG: So most of them understand English over there?
WS: Yes. Now in certain cases, I will ask a German friend, "What's the meaning of 'coot,' 'old coot'?" Or, "How do you say 'gratitude and sincerity' in German?" And they say that [for me]. So that when it comes up, they're ready for these words. So I've had to look at my work in a different way. But, a lot of people take English . . . when you're speaking English to a foreign group, you have to be more articulate and make sure just with your pace. Anyway, I'm not being very articulate about trying to be articulate.
EPG: No, that's alright, I understand it. So what about when they translate it on the written page? Do you work with them? Do they ever ask you for a more clearer definition of certain words? Or like, maybe some type of American colloquial phrase that they don't understand?
WS: Yes, in a few isolated examples, but mainly what I like best is finding somebody that has a rapport with me already that wants to translate. And usually what they tell me is, "I feel the same way as you do." And, but I will say this about the readings. With this new book, I've loved those times that I have read with an Italian . . . have been wonderful. And I'll usually . . . I've read with an Italian woman at Powell's in Oregon and I let the translator pick the poems, also, because there's so many poems, so that they have something they're enthusiastic about. And then I read in English . . . it could be done a different way . . . but I read in English and they read in Italian. And what happens is, the poem gets to sink in deeper because Italian is very much like . . . it has Latin cognates . . . and so the real poem comes in and it's somewhere between the two languages. And then you get more space for each poem.
EPG: And then it fits in with the title of the book, "Numinosa."
WS: Yeah, it sure does. One more point about my view of translation. When in Beeskow, my line from my poem was "who strokes with a shy smile." The German translated "strokes" as with a whip, the Russian as a sexual stroke. I told them to leave their versions both of which were permitted by the actual words of the poem. My intention was just a limited version of what the words of the poem said.
EPG: I just wonder like, living up here, and living in the hills, is there more of a sense of camaraderie, and sharing with other people. Like if you need help with something, you can depend on your neighbor and stuff like that.
WS: I think in general that's been true. And I think it was especially true when we were younger and all building our houses. And that still exists now, but one has to make the effort not to isolate oneself. And for a while, when everyone was having kids, the parents would hang around the parents of whoever their kids were friendly with. That maybe happens everywhere. And I tend to hang out still with the single folks.
EPG: [Laughter] That's why we're here today.
WS: Well since you asked me about Buddhism [earlier], I just wanted to say this. Uh, I think the beatnik poets that are still active and alert, have a daily practice. They may not have any teacher, but they do have some kind of sitting practice. And I know this of Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder. There's some others that I'm forgetting, Phil Whalen until he died. They all just had some kind of sitting practice. And I think this does give you longevity. And it's just one more technique that a poet might want to have in his or her quiver.
EPG: Well I've wondered, maybe on the opposite side of that, like Lew Welch, if he maybe couldn't have benefited more from some of that. You knew him?
WS: I knew him, and this is exactly what he said the night before he became missing. I was over at Gary's having dinner with Lew. And Lew said if he had only just sat down and done his sitting he thinks he would have been more stable. But on the other hand, Lew had such a great open heart for everybody. And that was more his practice, and he would pull himself away from whatever he was doing to be with whoever was needing. And so I didn't know him as well as many other people, but we were both Leos and . . . .
EPG: Well from reading some of his letters to Gary and other people, it seems like he would come up to the hills to kind of refresh himself in a way to get away from the city. But then it seems like he kind of fell into this isolated despair kind of. And then he would go into the city and go on some kind of a wild jag. I don't know, there was just something about him that really touched me. He was just so open and happy and then he would kind of fall into these pits of despair. And I just wonder . . . a lot of poets seem to be that way, very emotional in a way. I don't know why that is that a lot of poets are that way. It probably would be good if they did more sitting meditations. It seems like that would center them.
WS: And then of course in the woods, you've got physical activity which is almost called for--firewood, garden--just that little bit of half hour a day watering, kind of thing.
EPG: Yeah, 'cus poets are so quote mental.
WS: Yes, there should be some way to break out of that.
EPG: Well you said that you were into "mountaineering." Is that actual mountain climbing with ropes and pitons?
WS: Yes, on my 18th birthday, with a friend, I climbed the Matterhorn.
WS: Uh huh. In Switzerland. Without a guide. And I did that in my early twenties.
I was just out there to test myself, not to compete against other people. That's a good way to get out of that "mental" category.
EPG: I used to go rockclimbing in high school. We went to Yosemite. It was just so . . . I just loved that hanging by the tips of your hands and feet up on the side of a cliff. There was something about it. And making it to the top of a really hard climb, there was just such an epiphany when you get up there, and your reward is this beautiful sight of the landscape below you.
WS: Hallelujah! I want poems like that!
EPG: It was very physically challenging. But I was always more into physical stuff before I came to poetry. I scribbled a couple of poems in high school, but didn't really start until much much later.
WS: Well what made you take it seriously?
EPG: Poetry? Um, I don't know. At that time in my life, in my late twenties, I just, I think I needed something. I'd been in the work world and been successful and all that for ten years, and then I felt like, "Well what else is there?" And somehow, poetry was presented to me, and it was a way to be totally creative and totally wide open. I could do anything I wanted with it. And it was mine. Something that nobody could take from me.
WS: And you got to have a say. You got to be heard in a way that the culture normally doesn't allow folks to be heard.
EPG: And for me, I was very inspired in some ways by Nature, and compelled to write. Like the day before I wrote my first poem, I went into a bookstore and for the first time in my life looked at the poetry on the bookshelves. And I got Wendell Berry and Michael McClure. And I read those poems late into the evening. And then the next morning, I got up and wrote my first poem called, "The Death of Man." It was about how man was going to kill himself off and Nature would finally be able to recover.
WS: Oh yeah. I had one of those. I even cried when I wrote it. But at least, I had decided what was gonna happen. At least I could summarize the mood.
EPG: And that somehow really . . . I don't know . . . maybe I felt like I was saying something important, or there was a need for somebody to say that.
WS: Or maybe you were making a magical tool with your words? That helped you and that would make you be reminded of it and possibly to help someone else. You see, like these poems, "I Hate the Men You Sleep With," or whatever, they don't show a persona that's been successful, you know. And so many people, especially if they're insecure, wanna seem successful, have a good image. I don't think that . . . that doesn't give any information to someone that's valid, and so you're always trying to be something that you're not. I've always found it's easier to accept how you are, warts and all. Heartache and everything else. But I think I'm a little less despairing. And that might have to do something with living in Nature. It's hard not to . . . any dissatisfaction you have to bring to it. The garden is not your enemy.
EPG: That's totally true. Because I sometimes feel that when I'm around people, I start getting angry at them or blaming them or projecting or something like that. But when I'm alone or out in Nature, then it's like I don't get into an argument with anybody. And I can't blame the trees. So then I really have to kind of deal with whatever issues . . . become more clear I guess. And they become more simple for me in a way. Human beings to me seem very complicated. And modern society and everything.
WS: Yes, I'm not so confident in modern society, computers and things like that. But, I'm totally satisfied with how things are going. And I've got plenty of time to process whatever I'm gonna process.
EPG: See, like I don't feel like I have enough time to process. And living in the city, I just feel this aura of everyone rushing around. It is almost something physical that you feel. And even when I go up into Nature, it takes several days for that kind of, the din, or the roar of the city to diminish. Because even when I go up camping, I keep thinking, wow, I should be doing something, and I'm in this really sped up mode or something. And just to sit there and look at the trees . . . .
WS: Yes, and then the other side of that is me being up there for weeks at a time and needing to either go to Berkeley or spending a lot of time in the library just to get out and interact. So we're both coming to the same place from different angles.
WS: So is there anything else [more questions] in your book?
EPG: No I don't think so. I think that's it.
WS: Yeah, I liked those quotes you used. I had never thought of that, the dichotomy of, "I Hate the Men You Sleep With," the realization she didn't want to arrive at, and just accepting nature and being grateful.
© Will Staple and Eskimo Pie Girl, 2004