How William Pitt Root Worked His Way Into The Job Of Tucson's Poet Laureate (Among Other Honors)
By Margaret Regan
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: A HALF-CENTURY ago, when the poet William Pitt Root was a kid growing up on a farm by the Florida Everglades, he felt he was living in two separate worlds. He was the owner's son, but he was entranced by the workers.
"I used to hang out with the hands," remembers Root. "They were blacks, Cubans. They were my favorite people. At night they'd be singing, drinking. My father's friends were incredibly boring. They were interested in golf!"
Fast forward to Root's college years in Seattle, where he found himself negotiating a similar social chasm. His dad had been killed in a car accident when Root was 11, and his mother had moved the family to Washington state. They had no money, so Root worked his way through the University of Washington, putting his burly body to good use.
"I was a bouncer in black clubs. And I was going to school. These people (at the clubs and the university) didn't even talk to each other. I'd go to the Sweet Chariot and speak about Garcia Lorca. But neither side was interested in each other. I was interested in both sides." And as a poet, Root says, "I've tried to write both sides."
Root's ease in both the aerie environs of literary poetry and in the blue-collar precincts of the working class just may be why he was selected as Tucson's very first official poet laureate. In the brand-new post, which Root says he's still inventing, he wants to "open doors to people who don't feel comfortable with poetry." He got his first chance on the early August day that Mayor George Miller awarded him the one-year job.
The ceremony was to take place at a regular city council meeting. For the occasion, Root had written up a fine metaphorical proclamation full of legalese whereas's along with unabashed exhortations for Tucsonans to take to poetry. The poet laureate-elect arrived to find the room crowded with irate citizens on hand to vent about the SunTran strike. Before they could castigate the council, the crowd members were obliged to listen to Root's poetic speech declaiming such whimsies as "poetry can go toe to toe with tejano."
"I read the proclamation and I caught them by surprise," Root says. "It looked like people were enjoying it. Afterward, in the park, I was having a hot dog and people came up and said they liked it."
It's just such chance encounters with poetry that Root envisions in his new, strictly volunteer job. He met with the Mayor again Friday, September 12, to outline his laureate platform. Following his inaugural Poetry Crawl one July night through the saloons of downtown, Root intends to push for more Poetry Slams. ("Most academic poets look with some disparagement on the form. I have no problem with it.") He envisions poetry billboards, poetry 'zines, poetry on the Net. He wants to launch trilingual readings in which poems will be read in Spanish, in Tohono O'odham and in English. He and his wife, the poet Pamela Uschuk, will lead an Extended University course for local teachers, teaching them to teach their colleagues how to teach poetry to schoolkids. (A recent elimination of a state requirement for children to write poetry was part of the motivation for naming a poet laureate.) He's lined up some formerly homeless poets to speak at a Festival of Hope in November. Through a project for wayward kids, he hopes to entice at-risk teens to savor the joys of poetry.
"I believe in poetry as a refuge, as a launching pad," Root declares. He speaks often and easily of the "intensity" of poetry, of an intensity that for him approaches the sacred. At 55, iron-haired and barrel-chested, he's pretty intense himself. During our interview, a monsoon rain was drenching his small, 1920s house in Sam Hughes. But instead of hunkering down inside a cozy interior brightened by a painting by his friend Bruce McGrew, Root insisted on sitting in the back yard under a tin-roofed ramada, the better to enjoy the sounds, the sights, the smells of rain. His rain room, he called it.
At this stage in his life, Root has impeccable credentials on both sides of the poetry divide. He's the author of eight books of poetry, the first five collected in the volume Trace Elements from a Recurring Kingdom, published by Confluence Press. He's been published widely in magazines, including such highfalutin' venues as The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. He's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (three times), the National Book Award, the PEN West Book Award; he's won the Pushcart Prize three times and all manner of important grants. For 11 years he's been commuting every week from Tucson to New York City, where he's a full professor in the creative writing program at Hunter College.
But then he's also worked in the bowels of ships in Seattle, chopped rocks underground in the San Manuel mine north of Tucson (the poem "White Boots" came straight out of the mine), loaded trucks in North Carolina, and been poor enough to qualify for indigent health care. Through it all, he's turned to poetry.
"There are two ways people come to poetry," Root says, "through suicide or love." He himself was initiated to the pleasures of the poetic through a near-brush with the former. "As a high-school senior, I was depressed, reading Hamlet and saying, 'Yeah, that's right.' I wrote a poem about my despair...The teacher encouraged me to read it to the class. I began thinking of things I hadn't before."
Root's mother hoped he'd go to work after high school to support her and his siblings. He did make a stab at the workingman's life, hiring on at the Seattle shipyards, mucking out water in the bilge, "breathing air that could have dry-cleaned your clothes." Said the young poet to himself, "The hell with this shit," and forthwith took himself off to college. At Washington, he got his first chance to observe a real poet at work, in the form of Professor Theodore Roethke, a man who alternated between being "a madman and an angel-tongued poet. His life was a mess, but his poetry was wonderful."
Then the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro set Root on the permanent poetry career path. Without it, he says, only half-joking, "I would have worked at Boeing Aircraft." After grad school, a series of grants allowed the peripatetic poet simply to write. Write he did, publishing several books and picking up some Pulitzer nominations. But he found, as poets do when the grants run out, that he was "doing well in the career, but you don't make money." For years he wrote and supported himself marginally by manual labor and through such poetry jobs as Poet in the Schools on the Navajo, Hopi and other Indian lands, teaching here and there at colleges. Finally, after 20 years of living at near-poverty level, he decided to go into university teaching full time.
The teaching, he finds, "is very hard on your writing: talking about writing (to students) draws on the same pool of energy." He and his wife are committed to living in the West, which provides him with sharp desert images, such as "an earth abrupt as hawk and sky" in "Song of a Hawk's Glance," or "Mount Lemmon...looms brooding above the murk like a monstrous omen," in "Anamax Open Pit." But the commuting to get back to the desert each week also takes its toll. "I try to write on the plane, but the laptop mostly is the world's most expensive pillow," he grins.
Once in a while, though, his journeys nourish his writing, inspiring, for instance, the line "I speed along knowing the true journey is on foot..."
And the teaching gives him the chance to share prized poetry with young students just opening their eyes to the beauty of the written word. Poets he admires include Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, his friend Joy Harjo and Maya Angelou, who "throws a lifeline" to his mostly minority, mostly female students in a way more highly rated poets do not. But he also teaches those he considers the best of the modern poets: Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, whom he's translated, and his all-time favorite, the Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz.
In his own poetry, which has been praised by the likes of Joseph Brodsky, "I'm interested in catching a sense of how life feels for people who are living life intensely...Poetry is a way of amplifying things. It extends something essential about your better presence."
William Pitt Root will give a free reading of his works at the kick-off reception for the UA Extended University Writing Works Center fall semester. The reception is from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, in the Murphey Gallery at St. Philip's Church, 4440 N. Campbell Ave., at River Road. He will also lead a month-long advanced poetry workshop, through the center, in October. For more information call the Extended University at 626-4444.
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