Muffy Bolding: What is the first thing you notice about a poem when you read it?
And, are you of the mind that poems need to be heard as well as seen?
DeWayne Rail: Actually, the first thing I notice is the
way it looks on the page. Some poems are ugly on the page, and I have a hard time even
reading them. But, yeah, I have to hear a poem read aloud before I can really understand
it. I really need to hear myself read it, if that doesn't sound too weird. Perhaps that's
why I read so many poems aloud to my students. I like to run my voice over the syllables,
you know, and hear myself say the lines a few different ways before I can grasp what's in
When did you first start writing poetry, and why? Was it
the whole "to impress chicks" thing, as Charles Simic so unashamedly and
refreshingly admits was his primary motivationor was your reasoning purer and more
vestal than that? (although I find myself quite hard-pressed to find a reason purer than
DeWayne Rail: I started writing stuff at a very young
age. My father and grandfather were both great story tellers, and I think I began writing
poems as a way of fitting myself into that tradition, of being like them. In high school I
wrote poems to amuse my friends, but even there I was aware of my debt to the stories I
had heard at home. None of the stuff was very good, but the impulse was there. It doesn't
seem as if there was a definite time at which I started to write poems.
While an undergrad at Cal State, Fresno in the late
1960's, you studied under the poetic instruction of Philip Levine... as well as alongside
several classmates who would eventually go on to carve out extraordinarily successful
careers as poets, including Larry Levis.
I adore the story you tell about how Levinewhen
finally fed up with a class that was not enthusiastically participating in the day's
discussionwould saunter to his desk, take an apple out of the drawer, and in
retaliation, proceed to sit and loudly and purposefully crunch on it to fill the
resounding silence. Besides "The Phil Levine/Granny Smith Showdown", what was he
like as a teacher, and did his writing and teaching methods in any way influence your own?
Actually, Levine produced the apples from somewhere deep in the pockets
of his jacket. Suddenly he would just reach in his pocket and pull out an apple and then
eat it. It was the most marvelous act. He ate it with such aplomb and self-possession,
with such elaborate relish. The most accurate thing I can say about Levine is that he was
more of an electrical phenomenon than anything else. When he came in the room, it was as
if someone had turned on a powerful current, and the air would just about hum. He was very
directive in his teaching. He said what he meant and he pulled no punches. What more could
you ask? Some people couldn't take it, I guess, but those of us who could loved it. I can
remember going to the coffee shop with Bob Jones, Chuck Moulton, Jimmy Baloian, and Larry
Levis after class. We would sit there and repeat the things Levine had said, you know,
trying to imitate him, and laughing ourselves sick over the incredible wit of the man.
I could never sleep after one of his classes. I would lie in bed, and my
arms and legs would literally just twitch as the electricity ebbed away. His writing and
teaching both influenced me a lot. I loved his poems, but I didn't want to sound like him
at all. It was a different voice, you know, Detroit, not me at all. But in teaching, I did
want to be like him. After a few years, though, I realized I just couldn't pull it off.
You can't be a Levine imitator with an Oklahoma accent. The vowels are just too slow. What
I did keep from him was the refusal to lie. And I think I learned a wonderful eclecticism
from him. He was very good about appreciating different voices and different approaches to
poetry, within the limits of good sense, of course.
||When I was a kid I had the
theory that you should eat the dessert of a meal first, then proceed to your next favorite
thing, and so on. My reasoning was that the world might end suddenly, or you might die of
a heart attack... I still think it makes a lot of sense.
Who are your favorite poets to read? To teach? Who are
My favorite poets to read right now are Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and
Stephen Dobyns, and those are the poets I like to teach. My influencesthe early
ones, the ones that matterwere Frost and Roethke.And maybe almost equally Stafford
and Larkin, if that isn't too strange a brew.
Has the "perfect" poem been written yet?
Yes. Evidently, several have been written. I say this because a few
years ago I was told that I had written a perfect poem by the editor of a very prestigious
journal, but he said the last line of the poem needed to be changed. I changed it, and he
said it was even more perfect, but he was tired of publishing single perfect poems in his
journal. He said he liked to publish a group of at least 4 or 5 perfect ones by any given
writer, and that I should study his publication to see what he meant. So, hell yes,
perfect poems are pretty common, or at least they were at one time.
Many of your poems are earthy and rural, and frequently
invoke your father and the world of the Oklahoma Dustbowl that he inhabited... in what
ways did he and that world influence your work, and your poetic (and perhaps life)
Well, I don't think we ever get away from the images and symbols of the
first few years of our lives. Gaston Bachelard has that wonderful book, "The Poetics
of Space," where he writes about houses as a kind of matrix out of which your
imagination develops. I think this is especially true of people who are sensitive and
artistic. For example, I've lived in California so many years now, but I still consider
the weather, first of all, in terms of what it might do to or for the crops in Oklahoma.
There's a limitation in this, sure, but there's strength in it, too. It centers you. You
know who you are. So that world, and my father, are present in every moment of my life.
Sometimes I just laugh out loud when I hear my father's rhythms and phrasing in my own
voice. Latelyit may be a function of agingI find myself using the vocabulary
and dialect I grew up with. This is comical to my wife and children, and we all laugh over
it, but, truth to tell, I think it has been a strength in my poems.
You have been teaching poetry for nearly 30 years. Given
that hindsight and experience, in what ways have poetry students changed in that span, and
is their approach to the study and writing of poetry different than when you began? If so,
how have you had to adjust the methods you use to teach them?
I don't think the good students have changed much. It's odd, though. The
enrollment at the community college where I teach has doubled, at least, in the 29 years I
have been here, but the number of students who respond and catch fire has pretty much
remained the same. The average student has changed tremendously in that time period. They
dislike reading more, are less willing to be interested in things outside the
entertainment culture. And they have been encouraged in their insularity by the popular
culture itself, so much so that they take pride in it. So, I haven't changed my methods
all that much. I've become kinder, I think.
What do you think of the value of the poetry workshop
setting... in regards to both the beginning and the advanced writer?
I think poetry workshops are wonderful and necessary for the development
of poets. Where else are they going to learn? There is so much artificial wisdom around,
you know, poets who have had the advantage of years of workshops suddenly deciding that
the poet must learn directly from life. Well, life goes on all the time, even if you are
also taking a poetry workshop. And, of course, bad workshops and bad teachers are
everywhere, but you have to have the sense to get away from those and find good ones.
Do you have a favorite poetic form to read? To write? To
I don't have a favorite poetic form to read, but I have had tremendous
luck teaching the sestina. It's a mystery to me why it works, but it does. Every semester
the students complain like hell, and then they turn in some wonderful stuff. Most of us
have only one good sestina in us, however. I have never written one.
If you weren't a poet and a teacher of poetry, what
instead would you choose to do with your life?
Lord, there are so many attractive possibilities. I love visual art so
much I would probably choose to be an art dealer. I can't draw or paint, so that's out.
You name it, I've wanted to be it at one time or another.