VOLUNTEERISM AT THE WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY POETRY CONFERENCE
By Lewis Turco
I had decided not to publish this essay, but yesterday morning, Monday, September 15th, 2014, I discovered in a posting on Facebook by Allison Joseph, that Kim Bridgford, the director of the West Chester University Poetry Center and Conference, has been removed from her position, and the conference for 2015 has been canceled. I am not quite sure of the reasons yet, but part of it seems to be that attendance has been falling, also that the administration and/or others are unhappy because the conference has lost focus. Its original purpose was to plug formal poetry, which it did very well at first. And then a political agenda took over and formalism receded into the academic background.
At the 20th anniversary in 2014 of the West Chester University Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania, Dana Gioia, co-founder with Michael Peich, praised the tradition of volunteerism that has been associated with the Conference. I am acquainted with this tradition, as I volunteered as a “scholar” rather than as a poet on the first occasion of the conference. The schedule was so badly managed that year that we “scholars,” including the late poet Alfred Dorn, a fellow formalist, discovered that there were no attendees when we got up to give our presentations. Readings and workshops had been so thickly scheduled that it was impossible for people to come hear us “volunteers.” When Dana Gioia phoned to invite me to the next conference, I asked him what his terms were. He replied that there were none. I declined to attend.
When I had been an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, as a member of the Student Union Board of Governors I was placed in charge of the Student Union’s guest writers series from 1956 to 1959. Over that period we invited many writers to campus including E. E. Cummings, Richard Wilbur, James T. Farrell, Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall, John Hollander, Philip Booth, and others. We gave them each an honorarium, provided them all with meals, accommodations and travel allowances. The only people we asked to read on a voluntary basis were faculty and students.
During the summer of 1959, after my graduation, I was invited to spend some time at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Yaddo gave all its guests meals, travel, and accommodations. No one was asked to “volunteer” anything except readings for the attendees and staff.
The following year, while I was a Graduate Fellow at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop from 1959-60, I was able to attend programs very similar to those I had supervised at UConn. All those writers were given the same considerations that were provided at Storrs.
The summer I left Iowa my First Poems was published and I went to the State of Maine Writers’ Conference to meet with the co-founder, Loring Williams, who had also been one of the editors who had chosen my volume as a selection of The Book Club for Poetry, and with its publisher, Clarence Farrar. I gave a program of some sort and came back a number of times over the years, always with an emolument and accommodations.
In the fall I took my first job teaching at Fenn College, now the Cleveland State University. At the time C.S.U. was a downtown engineering school primarily, and in order to survive in such an atmosphere I began asking any poets and writers I knew who were local or visiting town, to come sit in on some of my classes as a favor, voluntarily, which some of them (actually, I recall no refusals) were happy to do. These were the origins of the C. S. U. Poetry Center.
The following summer of 1961 I attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, as a Poetry Fellow; Miller Williams was another Fellow that the Director, John Ciardi, invited to come, and there were others in fiction and nonfiction. We all received the considerations that I was familiar with.
While at Bread Loaf I learned that the British novelist, William Golding, was going to make an American tour the following year, 1962. As soon as I got back to Cleveland I arranged to have Golding come to Fenn as the first guest of the newly instituted Cleveland Poetry Center which was scheduled to begin the year he was touring. I spent the entire first-year budget for the Center, $100.00, on Golding and arranged accommodations at the College for him. Although I had no money left for the rest of 1962-63, I managed to schedule events at Fenn for local and state organizations with visiting writers including John Crowe Ransom, and for volunteer area and local poets.
In 1964 I left Fenn for Hillsdale College in Michigan whose administration asked me to set up a Conference of Midwestern Poets for the summer of 1965. I did so, and of course I followed the procedures I had been using since UConn. Then I left for the State University of New York at Oswego where I remained for 31 years, until I retired in 1996.
It was no surprise that Erwin Palmer, the Chair of the English Department, wanted me to set up yet another program, which I did: a major in creative writing complete with visiting writers every semester. There have been many, many of those, some very famous, such as John Cheever, John Ciardi, William Everson (Brother Antoninus at the time), Donald Justice, Dana Gioia, and on and on – all of whom were given honoriaria, accommodations, meals, and travel expenses.
Thus, I never understood where Mike Peich and Dana Gioia, a poet-businessman who became Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts during the George W. Bush Administration, got the idea that it is all right to ask professionals to donate their time, money, work, and materials to a writers’ conference. Certainly Gioia was not unfamiliar with the system I employed to invite writers to campus during my entire academic career. He himself has been the beneficiary of that system many times and at many places, including Oswego.
I still don’t understand it. Personally, I would have felt embarrassed and miserly to ask people to travel sometimes great distances at significant expense to provide me and my school professional services gratis. (Although Peich was a faculty member at West Chester, to the best of my knowledge Gioia never taught there.)
Yet I myself provided such service to the West Chester Poetry Conference the first year it was held, and in 2013 as well. Over the past decade I have provided the Conference with a $100.00 Student Scholarship annually (for which I don’t recall ever being thanked except by one recipient of that emolument one year).
In 2013 I agreed to serve as a member of two panels. The Conference scheduled one panel on the first day, and the second on the last day, which meant that I had to be (as the director said), the “Formalist in Residence” at my own expense, except for one or two nights’ hotel accommodation and meals. When I was invited to come back again in 2014 I felt constrained again to decline except, perhaps, as a keynote speaker whom the Conference treats as a professional ought to be treated. That has not happened over the decades, and is unlikely to happen at this stage of my life, especially since the Conference now appears to be gone.
This morning, April 25, 2014, Bob Berner wrote his friends from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop of long ago that Vern Rutsala had died. I replied,
“This IS hard news, Bob,
“When I was at Iowa he, Mort Marcus and I were a little clan within the larger bunch. I'm the only one left, now. I'll put something up on my blog today.”
I have written often about Vern, most recently in a chapter of my book titled Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, (Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012), and I dedicated the first edition of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics in 1968, "To Vern and Mort and, in some ways, better days." He and I exchanged books over the course of our lives after Iowa, and I reviewed most of them in various periodicals and volumes. Back in the 'nineties for a while I was putting into a notebook particular lines from Vern's books that I ran across and particularly liked, and one day I sat down and wrote this poem:
On four lines by Vern Rutsala
The evening is carved of light.
One has watched here before, the view
of this bracken-edged meadow, the heather
lofting plumes into dusklight out of shadows.
One wonders what he has sought
in the meadows of deja-vu,
and on what occasions he has weathered
these asides of recall — and were there others?
For here an uncertain sleight
of sunlight settles itself like vows —
in the broken fields of sons and fathers —
taken, broken, retaken. Darkness stammers,
the linnet has gone to flight;
hours have fallen to clay review
and have sprung again. Out of ashen feathers
ancient summer uncovers ancient summers.
The evening is carved of light.
In the meadows of deja-vu,
in the broken fields of sons and fathers,
ancient summer uncovers ancient summers.
The lines I chose are the first, second, third and fourth lines of stanzas 1, 2, 3, and 4; they come together to create the fifth and last stanza of this five-stanza poem. Of course, I sent the poem to Vern and he liked it a lot. He went through his poems and found the poems that I had mined for the first three stanzas, but he couldn't find the fourth. He begged me to let him know which of his poems had been the source of the fourth line, but I hadn't jotted that information down as I was collecting the lines, and I couldn't tell him. I'm afraid he must have died before this little mystery was cleared up, and perhaps I will do the same.
In April of 2006 one of my former students at SUNY Oswego, Dennis Morton, who lived then and lives still in Santa Cruz, CA, together with his neighbor in town Morton Marcus, put together a reunion of the three Iowa Workshop friends in the Santa Cruz area. Vern and I were interviewed on KUSP-FM radio by Dennis and Mort, and we visited Robinson Jeffers' Tor House as well -- in this photo Mort Marcus is in the center, I am on his right, and Vern on the left:
Bob Berner’s email message included this memoir-obituary by Jeff Baker in The Oregonian:
Vern Rutsala, the gentle giant of Oregon poetry, died Wednesday. He was 80.
Rutsala was a National Book Award finalist and the author of more than a dozen books who taught at Lewis & Clark College for more than 40 years. He died two weeks after receiving the C.E.S. Wood Distinguished Writer Award from the Oregon Book Awards, its highest honor, "for an enduring, substantial literary career."
Rutsala's many books include "The Moment's Equation," his National Book Award finalist; "How We Spend Our Time," "Little-known Sports," "Ruined Cities," "A Handbook for Writers," and "Selected Poems," an Oregon Book Award winner. His many awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize, and two NEA fellowships.
"His special achievement," Norman Friedman wrote in "Contemporary Poets," is to have made the furniture of everyday bourgeois life in America available to the uses of serious poetry. He is thus somewhat like the better pop artists, . . . who [make] assemblages out of found objects. . . . With a few skillfully constructed figures, Rutsala can confront us with ourselves."
Rutsala was born in McCall, Idaho, in 1934. His father lost his farm during the Depression and the family came to Portland in 1942. They lived in Vanport and moved to California before returning to a home near Mount Scott. Rutsala graduated from Milwaukie High School and played quarterback and was student body president while beginning to write poetry and fiction. He went on to Portland State for a year, then transferred to Reed and studied with Kenneth O. Hanson. Drafted into the Army, he spent time in Germany as an M.P. and an editor of an Army newspaper.
He went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop but returned after a year and got a reference from poet Donald Justice that eventually found its way to William Stafford, already ensconced at Lewis & Clark. A three-quarter time job became full time after a year, "and I was there forever," Rutsala said in 2006. Rutsala helped start the creative-writing program at Lewis & Clark and was colleague with Stafford for more than 20 years. Rutsala said Stafford was a friend and an inspiration, and Rutsala was able to establish his own reputation despite Stafford's prominence.
Rutsala's first book, "The Window," was published in 1964. He was persistent, always working on five or six poems at once and keeping dozens in circulation until they landed at a magazine or journal. He lived in a book-stuffed house in Northeast Portland with his wife Joan, where they raised three children. He often wrote after midnight when his family was asleep and he had "a long stretch in front of me with nothing to do but write," he told Reed Magazine in 2006.
In that article David Biespiel wrote that "looking at him, immersed in poetry talk, a life-long student of the art, a believer in poetry's importance in human experience, I could see and admire that what has really mattered to him has been the writing, not the public scene.
"'I like to throw the blob of words on the page, then come back, maybe days later, to see what is still possible in the poem,' Rutsala said. "Then I'm able to shape it. Most language is trying to sell us something or deceive us. Poetry doesn't try to deceive."
Rutsala did not slow his writing pace after he stopped teaching at Lewis & Clark. He would send notes with recent publications and enjoyed the recognition from younger poets that came his way -- a special edition of a literary magazine devoted to his work, a tribute at a national writers' conference. He had a quiet manner that disguised a wry sense of humor. When I saw him at a literary function, sporting a huge white poet beard, I teased him about it and he said that he needed a new hobby in retirement.
In the summer of 2012 the Dutch composer
Walter Hekster and his wife Alice van Leuvan Hekster who had been a fellow
classmate of my wife, Jean, and me at Meriden (CT) High School, class of 1952,
came to visit us in Dresden Mills, Maine, from their summer home in Higganum,
Connecticut. The four of us had a fine time, but Walter began to feel under the
their visit we were all supposed to attend our M.H.S. 60th class reunion, but
when Jean and I arrived we discovered that Walter had returned to The
Netherlands to see his doctors because he felt so ill.
I was in touch with Alice all fall, keeping tabs on
Walter -- for whom I had on several occasions been librettist, so we had been
expecting the sorry news of his passing. When I sent our condolences to Alice
she replied, “Oh Lew, thanks. You know how sick Walt was, and it just got
worse. I was with him and his Light just went out on New Years Eve.”
On Feb 8, 2013, Alice wrote, “We are going
to put Walt's ashes into the harbor here on Sunday the 17th (his wish)…. My
Auntie Margy is coming and I hope Marie [Delemarre Ho, also a classmate]. One
of my friends wrote a poem for the occasion, in Dutch. Could you?
Margy and Marie came [from the U. S.] yesterday! I can't believe it. Marie and
Margy and I loved it [the epitaph]! It was a beautiful day and a swan came by
with signets and got covered with Walt's ash.
This is the playlet I wrote that was
first published in Polemic of Western
Reserve University (now Case-Western Reserve of Cleveland, OH) Vol. XI, No. 1,
Winter, 1966; it was used as the libretto for The Fog: Chamber Opera in One Act
commissioned by the Twents Conservatorium, Enschede, Holland; music by Walter
Hekster, libretto by Lewis Turco, Amsterdam: Donemus, 1987. Folio, paper.
FOG: A CHAMBER OPERA IN ONE ACT
personae: Character A, Character B, and a Voice.
lights down, curtain up.
A bare stage. Two figures are seen standing center stage. It is difficult to
make out whether the figures are male or female, for a thick mist rolls in from
both stage right and stage left. One of the figures speaks.
Aren’t we supposed to get somewhere sometime? When are we going to get there?
It’s too soon to tell. Not enough time has passed.
(it is big and resonant). You’re almost there now. Don’t give up. You’ve almost
Who was that? What was that voice?
That was some Being who watches over us. I think it was God.
What kind of Being? It’s hard to make out any shape in this fog. I can heardly
see you, let alone a Voice. You look as though your body is made of shadow.
It’s possible I’m not even here. You could be talking to yourself. On the other
hand, perhaps I’m here and you’re not. Maybe the mist is a mirror.
I’ve thought of that. I’ve given that very thing a good deal of reflection as
we’ve been going along. But I can hear you breathing. Are you making this mist
with your breath? If so, I wish you’d cut it out so I can see God. I’d like to
find out who it is that’s talking to us.
We’re talking to each other. There’s no one else on this road.
But I think I heard a third voice. It came from somewhere overhead, I think.
Pay no attention. Just keep going.
The voice gave me courage. I’d like to hear it again.
What’s wrong with my voice? Isn’t the sound I make enough for you?
Yes.... No. That is, maybe. But what if it’s not your voice? What if it’s just
Then it’s an echo. It’s you giving yourself courage. So what? Isn’t that
I don’t think so. I don’t want to be alone with myself in all this fog. It’s a
frightening thing to think that I have to make it on my own. I don’t think I
could do it.
Where is it you think you’re going? Do you have a map?
No, and that’s why it’s frightening. I don’t trust my sense of direction.
There doesn’t seem to be any direction out here. Every way looks like every
That’s the other thing that’s bothering me. Even if I could trust my sense of
direction, I couldn’t trust the directions themselves.
Then why bother worrying? Just keep going. Follow me and don’t look back.
That’s the third thing. If I follow you, who am I following? And why should I
trust you any more than I trust myself? You might even be myself — we’ve been
all over that. I’d rather follow God. Maybe He can see better from up there — I
wish He’d speak again.
Keep going. You’re almost there.
There! There He is again. Let’s go.
Lead the way. I’m right behind you.
I thought I was following you! I thought you knew the way.
You’re leading now. I didn’t hear Him.
That’s very strange. His voice was clear as a bell.
He must have been talking to you alone. You’re in charge now. Which way?
The way we’re going must be right. He said we were almost there.
We’ve been standing still. We haven’t moved an inch.
That’s the fourth thing. The fog seems to be getting thicker. We’d better hold
hands so we don’t get lost. It would be death to be separated.
Now I’m beginning to be frightened. Here’s my hand.
Something solid at last! You’re not just my reflection after all.
Perhaps not. Anything is possible.
We still haven’t moved. Do you suppose we should try?
bell begins to ring offstage, and it continues to ring throughout the next
I was wondering when you’d get here. How do you do? I’m very happy to meet you
both. This is it. This is the end in view. (The bell stops ringing.)
Did you hear something just then? I thought I heard a bell ringing in the fog.
It was the wind, I think. Perhaps the mist is lifting a little.
Maybe so. Let’s wait here a little while and see if it clears up.
All right. I can wait.
figures stand together in the fog. A bell-buoy begins ringing somewhere
offstage and continues to ring for a while after all stage lights fade out and
all house lights down and out. Curtain.
Wesli Court’s Epitaphs for the Poets, Baltimore, MD: BrickHouse Books, 2012, 85 pp., trade paperback, ISBN: 978-1-938144-01-1, $15.00. Order from Amazon.com: Epitaphs for the Poets
As reverent as it is irreverent, this charming cycle of poems brings dead poets to life and life to dead poets. Here is a guild of the centuries, by no means a “tradition,” but a bond, rather — unbroken and ongoing — among brother and sister practitioners of an art that has always spoken life to death. — Albert J. von Frank, co-editor, the Harvard Variorum Edition of The Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
R.I.P. LEWIS TURCO May 2, 1934 –
Here lies at last and out of work, The syllabubble wordsmith Turk Who finds he cannot now resort For rime to his sidekick Wesli Court.
Wesli Court Self-Interview Wesli Court is interviewed by Lewis Turco about his new collection titled The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems.
Traveler's Moon Photograph by Adel Gorgy
Three Poems “Domestic Duties Scorecard,” “Leftover Shakespearean Gnomes,” "Tsunami Strait."
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.