Devoting one's life to poetry is one of the riskier propositions out there -- especially in light of the current economic climate -- but also one of the more rewarding. Even with the safety net of a teaching position solidly in place, however, it's still more about calloused fingers, well-worn research materials and long, solitary hours of work than it is about flights of literary fancy or spinning gorgeous words out of the ether. You can dedicate the better part of a decade, of a lifetime even, to your craft and still not break into "the poetry world." You can even have well-meaning folks tell you it's not too late to learn computer-aided drafting or pick up that elementary ed. degree. Imagine how it feels, then, to win not only a major poetry award but to have two of your books published in the same year.
These are the fortuitous circumstances Gonzaga University professor Tod Marshall finds himself in these days. He discovered he'd won the University of Georgia Press's 2001 Contemporary Poetry Competition in January, saw the publication of Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets in May, won a GAP grant this summer and -- as if all that's not enough -- Dare Say, his award-winning poetry collection, has just been released by the University of Georgia Press.
"I don't think it's a happy accident that they both happened in this year," Marshall says of the two books. "I think they both came to fruition sort of simultaneously."
He worked on Dare Say (which beat out more than a thousand entries) for eight years and spent a full decade on Range of the Possible (published by EWU Press). He calls Range -- which includes interviews with Robert Wrigley, Linda Bierds, Robert Hass and Gillian Conoley, among others -- his working education in poetry.
"I certainly learned a lot from Nance [Van Winckel] at Eastern, and I learned a lot about literature in my Ph.D studies," he says. "But working on that book immersed me in contemporary poetry. I read everything I could get my hands on for each of the poets I interviewed. There was a lot of legwork involved, a lot of what Sam Hamill, who's an editor at Copper Canyon Press, calls the 'shadow work' behind a poem."
No doubt the shadow work of Range of the Possible had some bearing on the tangible virtuosity of Dare Say. It's an ambitious and cohesive work in which Botticelli, wild geese and St. Joan coexist alongside burned toast, excrement and Applebee's. But far from being mere references, some of the names he invokes shape the very foundations of the work, from the way the first cycle of poems, "Eclipse," mirrors Bach's Goldberg Variations, to the way an early work of Kandinsky's appears not only on the cover but inspires "a poem that arrives on time / and demands everyone / nail it to the wall."
"I believe that the book should be coherent -- from the diction, to the way the poem is arranged, to how the cover looks. It was Robert Frost who wrote that if you have a book of 24 poems, the book itself should be the 25th," Marshall explains. "It was kind of an ordeal getting this art for the cover, which is one of Kandinsky's earlier works and very different from his later, more schematicized art, but it's worth it. This piece reminds me very much of the cave paintings in France."
Marshall graduated from Eastern Washington University with his MFA degree before heading to the University of Kansas for his Ph.D. In listening to him, it's immediately clear that while he's a "first-generation college student," the insistent murmur of poetry courses through his veins. He speaks effortlessly and articulately about everyone from Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, to contemporary poets like Robert Hass and Don Revell to the somewhat obscure 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne, who Marshall describes as being "William Blake before William Blake."
In fact, one of the most satisfying things about Dare Say is how it satisfies on several levels. The poems are visceral -- one smells and feels the satisfying heft of mud in a poem like "Choir" -- and yet they're intellectually challenging, taking seemingly banal things and charging them with allusions, affixing them to an often complex structure. The symbiosis of visceral and intellectual, says Marshall, is deliberate.
"I want the poem to do more than give this nice tidy ending," he says. "I want to show that art, poetry, music, painting ought to go beyond a sort of aesthetic appreciation. Not that they have to, but why not try? Why not go for it, and if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen?"