An Interview with Patty Wixon

Start each class reading a poem to your students, regardless of the subject of the class.

Patty Wixon’s first chapbook, Airing the Sheets (Finishing Line Press, 2011), followed several decades of her poems appearing in literary journals (Hubbub, Rendezvous, Moving Mountain, Windfall, The Enigmatist, and others) and anthologies (most recently Deer Drink the Moon (Ooligan Press, 2007) and What the River Brings (Fae Press, 2012). Two of her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Since her retirement as a teacher and school administrator, she has been a part-time researcher in the William Stafford Literary Archive and produced ninety-five CDs of audio recordings of Stafford’s readings and workshops over five decades. She was the first president of the nonprofit organization, Friends of William Stafford, and first director of the statewide Oregon Writing Project.

For the thirty-four years she has lived in Ashland, Oregon, she’s been involved with bringing nationally renowned writers to the Rogue Valley to give community readings and workshops for students and teachers. She has been a longtime poetry coeditor of the public radio guide, Jefferson Monthly.

EB: What does it mean to you to be a poet?

PW: I gain the most pleasure out of being with others who read and write poetry, those with a similar obsession for constantly seeking words that sharpen the connections with all my senses, everything around me.

EB: When did you first begin writing poetry, and why?

PW: I had a great aunt who lived in New York (I lived in Spokane, WA) and encouraged me to write letters to her, beginning when I was in the second grade. When she discovered I liked to write little poems, imitating examples from my books of nursery rhyme, she said she’d send me 25 cents each time I sent a letter with another little rhyme. In high school some friends and I formed a writing club in which we’d select a subject and then vote for who wrote the most successful poem on that subject—such as the funniest poem or the saddest or with the weirdest character. I’ve continued writing poetry all my life, even when I had to get up at four in the morning to write before my children awoke and the day’s daily tasks began.

EB: Tell us a little about your work with the Friends of William Stafford and the Stafford Archives?

PW: I helped organize the nonprofit organization Friends of William Stafford, served as the first president, and stayed on the board of directors for ten years. One of the most rewarding projects was curating an exhibit of sixty-three broadsides of William Stafford poems and broadsides in his collection by other poets. The list of poets read like a Who’s Who in American poetry over several decades. This exhibit was shown in libraries, galleries, and schools throughout the United States for nine years.

Regarding the Stafford Archives, I assisted Vince as needed with whatever project he was working on. In fact, we’re still doing that. Also, over the years, I was responsible for the production of two commercial CDs of Stafford readings his poems, “William Stafford: The Last Reading, August 13, 1993” and “The Unknown Good in Our Enemies: William Stafford Reads Poems of Reconciliation,” both of which still sell. I also spent over three years working with hundreds of audio recordings of Stafford’s workshops, class lectures, readings, interviews, and speeches transferring them to CDs (assisted by Ashland sound engineer Frank Sullivan). I combined these on to 95 CDs with liner notes, track numbers, chronological records, listing of the number of times individual poems are read among the collection, and other data, now all part of the Stafford Archives and available to researchers. Also I have helped with some writing for Archive publications, the most recent Feeling at Home, a series of interviews with William Stafford’s widow, Dorothy Stafford.

EB: What advice would you give to teachers wanting to encourage young poets?

PW: I could give some ideas for improving specific poems young poets bring to a workshop or even just quietly to a teacher, but instead I want to say something general that exposes all students to poetry, maybe kindling some interest in a student who hadn’t previously even thought about writing poetry: start each class reading a poem to your students, regardless of the subject of the class. Kate Kennedy, Ashland High School science teacher has done this for years. Or to provide a real connection with a poem each day—especially if you’re teaching literature or a writing class, begin each class having students copy down a poem you’ve written on the white board or have on a screen when they enter the classroom. You’ll find innumerable benefits—beginning with a few minutes of quiet (while they’re copying) to focus everyone’s attention. The biggest payoff is providing students a connection with the work of other poets.

EB: Who are your poetic heroes?

PW: I have many poetic heroes and often it’s the poet with a new book I’m currently reading—for example, Head Off & Split, poems by Nikky Finney, and Toi Derracotte’s latest book, The Undertaker’s Daughter. I enjoy seeing how her poems differ from those I read when she was in Ashland a couple of decades ago. Sometimes a poem submitted to Vince and me for Jefferson Monthly will have a subject or a line that reminds me of some other poet’s poem and I’ll go to our shelves of poetry books and pull out an old favorite and read from it again. When I’m working on a poem, I may suddenly recall a line from a poem by another poet (Heather McHugh, Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Alberto Ríos, Li-Young Lee) and I reread several of their poems searching for that line. When I hear of new books of poems, I’m eager to read them (Ingrid Wendt, Allan Peterson, translations of Ritsos and others by Paul Merchant, Lisa Steinman) and some poets each month in Poetry or The American Poetry Review, or in Hubbub. I reread poems when a favorite poet dies—this year Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, Wislawa Szymborska. I’ve heard many fine poems this month at many local readings celebrating National Poetry Month. You can see I could go on for pages.

EB: Do you have some writing goals for 2012?

PW: I have two collections I’m working on. I hope to finish one of them, or perhaps start a third. And, of course, the goal of all poets I know—to get the next acceptance from a literary journal. Poetry is part of my life that’s always a work in progress.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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