portrait William Trowbridge

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 169 ~ June, 2011

William Trowbridge, whose most recent poetry collection, Ship of Fool, was published earlier this year by Red Hen Press, currently teaches in the University of Nebraska low-residency MFA writing program. He is also a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Northwest Missouri State where he was co-editor of The Laurel Review, one of the Midwest’s leading literary journals.

Trowbridge is the author of several poetry collections, including Flickers (2005), O Paradise (1995), and Enter Dark Stranger (1989), all from the University of Arkansas Press, as well as The Complete Book Of Kong (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2003).

He is also the author of three poetry chapbooks, The Packing House Cantata (Camber Press, 2006), The Four Seasons (Red Dragonfly Press, 2001), and The Book Of Kong (Iowa State University Press, 1986).  Trowbridge’s poems have appeared in over 30 anthologies and numerous literary journals, such as The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, and New Letters, to name a few.

William Trowbridge

Trowbridge earned a BA in Philosophy and an MA in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and went on to receive a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University.

Trowbridge’s awards include an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Ragdale, The Anderson Center, and Yaddo.

Trowbridge and his wife, Sue, live in Lee’s Summit, MO.

Derek Alger: Congratulations on publication of your poetry collection Ship of Fool.

William Trowbridge: Thanks, Derek. It came out in February from Red Hen Press, whom I’m very happy to have as a publisher. The book centers around a character named Fool. When I first started writing poems about him, I wasn’t quite sure who he was, other than an interesting character who seemed connected to the fool figure in silent films and stand-up comedy — for instance Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. But when I got to know him better, I saw that he’s connected to the fool archetype, which appears not only in silents and stand-ups but also in tales running back to the beginning of storytelling. To borrow from Yiddish comedy, he is a combination of schlemiel and schlimazel. The difference, as you may know, is that the schlemiel is a bungler who’s always accidentally breaking things and spilling stuff on people and the schlimazel is a sad sack who’s always getting his things broken and getting stuff spilled on him. My Fool is both. He’s often treated harshly, which seems to come simply from his being a fool. Most fool figures, though “comic,” are subjected to a great deal of violence. The very term “slapstick” derives from this. In her book on the fool figure, Enid Welsford notes that the fool’s essence is expressed in St. Chrysostom’s phrase “he who gets slapped.”

The fool’s vulnerability and “foolishness” are seen by the non-fool population and perhaps by the fates as an invitation to take a shot — or at least be amused by watching someone or something else do so. The fool becomes a kind of scapegoat. Nathanael West, in Day of the Locust, discourses briefly but memorably on the fool or clown’s tendency to incur violence — usually mirthful but sometimes not. People laugh when he gets slapped or slips on metaphorical or literal banana peels. Keaton discovered this as a child, when he was in his parents’ vaudeville act. When their acrobatics began to feature little Buster taking what looked like, and often were, hard falls, the audience roared. The Keatons became a hit. I touch on the violence motivation fairly directly in several of the Fool poems. But, once in a while, the fool wins out, however temporarily and by default.

DA: Your fool is somewhat unique.

WT: My particular fool starts out as an angel who is accidentally cast into hell with Lucifer and company. He’s then reincarnated in various historical times, with occasional unplanned visits back to the heavenly realm, run by an Enron-style-CEO God who rules from a kind of cosmic Corporate Woods. The first two sections of the book consist entirely of poems about Fool. The middle section is made up of sociopolitical and autobiographical poems, all of which touch on the idea of fools and foolishness.

DA: What prompted you to concentrate on a fool as a representative character of human existence, or is that a foolish question?

WT: Not foolish at all. Yes, I do see him as a reflection of an essential human trait, which is why this figure appears in all periods of literary history and, I’d guess, all cultures. I suppose we can consider our Edenic parents the first fools, and we’ve carried on the tradition without interruption ever since. It’s in our blood. The fool represents human fallibility, and mine also represents the human capacity for hope in hopeless situations and a basic will towards goodness, however unreachable that may be in a world that is most often veering towards its opposite. Fool represents what the novelist Stanley Elkin called the main theme of modern comedy: powerlessness — specifically the powerlessness of the individual in the course of human history, especially modern history. So there’s a seriousness beneath the comic surface in nearly all my Fool poems. This seriocomic element is present in the works of all my favorite writers and comedians. I think the tension created between comedy and seriousness generates an extra element of power in the works of authors who can maintain the risky balancing act.

Ship of Fool

DA: What was your childhood like?

WT: I’d say I had a pretty ordinary childhood in the Midwest, the home of ordinary childhoods. I was born in Chicago at the onset of WWII, and my father was called up by the Army to fight in Europe. So we moved around quite a bit during that time, from military base to military base, finally settling in Columbia, MO, my parents’ hometown. When my father returned after VE Day, with a lingering case of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), we moved to Omaha, where he managed the Wilson & Co, packing house. Omaha had by then taken Chicago’s title as “hog butcher for the world.” Our house was devoid of art: no music, books, paintings. So my first exposure to art was when I watched the film classics run on early TV, when there wasn’t much else offered in the way of programming. I was especially taken with the early comedians — Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, and later, Abbott and Costello– but the whole art form mesmerized me. The images still percolate through my subconscious and often turn up in my poems. From King Kong squashing pedestrians to Van Johnson cooking eggs in his helmet in Battleground to Jack Palance coldly gut-shooting Elisha Cook, Jr. in Shane, those images remain with me. When I was old enough to get to stay up late, my favorite time of the day became 10:30 p.m., when the late-night movie on TV started — a program known in Omaha as “Night Owl Theater.” I remain a night owl. But at that time and all though high school, I had absolutely no interest in poetry and relatively little in any kind of reading.

DA: Did you have a specific idea of what you wanted to eventually do when you first went to college?

WT: My father, uncle, and big sister all graduated from the University of Missouri, and my grandfather had been Dean of Agriculture there. So I wound up there, too. I entered as a pre-med major, picturing myself as a future surgeon — about as realistic a notion as the old Walter Mitty pocketa, pocketa fantasy. I think about half the entering freshmen that year declared for pre-med. I found the pre-med courses both difficult and boring, so after my freshman year, I tried pre-law, a decision based on yet another fantasy.   But even then, my main interest was in philosophy, which I finally switched to in hopes, I suppose, of becoming a professional wise person. I really did suspect that, with some help from the great thinkers, I could back Truth into a corner. Anyway, in college I became a reader. I was also taking a lot of lit. courses then, which I discovered I enjoyed. It turned out that literature was something more than “Thanatopsis” and The Good Earth, the likes of which made up most of my high school literary curriculum. I planned to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, specializing in philosophical ideas in literature.

DA: So, Philosophy led you to English.

WT: Yes, that happened after I hit the Truth wall during my first semester of graduate studies in philosophy. Trying to slog my way though Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” was perhaps the tipping point. Or maybe it was the required course in symbolic logic. Anyway, I finally realized my preference was definitely for the concrete particularity of literature over the abstractness of philosophy, though my interest in poetry was still minimal. I switched my major to literature, specifically modern American literature, with a planned specialty in Faulkner studies, and finished my M.A. at M.U.

DA: You took a break from academia.

WT: That’s right. I went to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D, but after a semester there, I finally overdosed on school. I felt that, if I had to write one more essay test, I was going to have to do it under some kind of strong medication. I was granted a withdrawal in good standing from the program, which gave me the option of returning if my search for a life outside academia didn’t pan out. I then undertook a series of interviews with newspapers, advertising agencies, publishers — anyone who might have a job for someone with an M.A. in English (I played down the philosophy degree). I was finally hired as a cub reporter for the Des Moines Register and Tribune in Iowa. I had absolutely no journalism experience, but I was lucky enough to walk in the door soon after the managing editor decided he was never going to hire another journalism major. He told me he wanted people who knew something beyond the history and principles of journalism and had not been trained to use a style different from the Register and Tribune’s. Ironically, he had turned down my journalist brother-in-law, Hugh Sidey, several years before. Hugh went on to become White House correspondent for Time magazine. I wound up quitting the paper after a year.

DA: Sounds like it was time for a change.

WT: A job on the paper was the good news. The bad was that I learned I disliked journalism. I had visions of writing artsy features, not calling in police and fire stories from a closet-sized room in city hall. But I was being groomed for the latter. I had to compose the stories in my head, off my hastily scribbled notes, because the tight deadline left no time for me to sit down and write the stories. I dictated them to a “rewrite man,” who typed out what I said and relayed it to an editor. So I couldn’t see what I was writing till it came out in the paper — after it had been reshaped at the editorial desk. I also found that I had no interest in “getting the scoop” or getting in someone’s face to pry information out of them. I realized I was a writer, not a reporter. So after a year of chasing scoops and getting rewritten, I gladly hurried back to Vanderbilt.

DA: It was at Vanderbilt you began to discover the poet within.

WT: That happened while I was studying for my Ph.D comps. Modern poetry was one of the areas I would be tested over, so I was studying a lot of it. One day, after reading a poem by Howard Nemerov — “Mousemeal,” as I recall — I found myself bitten by the poetry bug. I decided to try writing a poem, and after I did that, writing another. It felt so good that I wrote twelve or so during the next few weeks — before deciding to take them shyly to one of the professors to find out if they had any merit. He liked them enough to recommend that I enter the Academy of American Poets annual contest at Vanderbilt, and, to my utter surprise, I won. So that moment after I’d finished reading the Nemerov poem probably marked the beginning of my shift from scholarship to poetry, a shift that would take another five years or so to complete.

I left Vanderbilt ABD (all but dissertation) and took an assistant professorship at Northwest Missouri State. It required four years worth of summers to complete my Faulkner dissertation before I could concentrate on my poetry. After that, I began seriously shifting from scholarship to creative writing, though I’d spent my time as a student preparing to be a scholar. The only creative writing course I ever took was a fiction-writing course my sophomore year at M.U. So I now tell people who ask that I attended the Monkey-See-Monkey-Do School of Writing. I learned by imitating my favorite poets and then developing my own voice. There are both advantages and disadvantages to that compared to attending an MFA program in creative writing. You avoid the pressure that can develop to write for the small audience in your workshop, but you don’t get regular feedback from your peers and instructors. I probably would have saved some development time by attending an MFA program, but by the time I realized that, it was too late to go back to school.

DA: We should probably mention your wife was a great support while you discovered and followed your true calling.

WT: Yes, she certainly was. We had dated some in Omaha in high school, but her family moved to Minnesota her senior year and we wound up going to different universities. But we got back together our senior year and were married right after college. She’d earned an education degree from the University of Minnesota, and she took a job in special education while I worked on my master’s degree at M.U. As you might guess, special ed. is a high-stress-low-reward field, requiring a lot of dedication and inner strength. From the beginning of our marriage, she was very supportive of my meandering toward becoming a poet. We had our first child when I was working on my M.A. and wound up with three after I’d been teaching full-time for a while. She bore the larger share of child rearing while I was in school and after that as well. Her last job before retirement was as a language arts teacher in Maryville, MO, middle school, where Northwest Missouri State is located. She now does volunteer work and enjoys, as I do, visiting our kids and grandkids.

DA: And then you pursued the balancing act of teaching and writing poetry.

WT: That’s right. I was hired as an American lit. scholar at Northwest and didn’t get to teach a creative writing course till I’d published enough poems to make my case for doing so. However, the school had only two creative writing courses, one in poetry and one in fiction. I mainly taught graduate courses in the novel, plus some survey courses and freshman English. There was a 14-hour per semester course load there, which didn’t leave a lot of time for writing. Teaching is a very demanding job if you take it seriously, and I did. So, yes, I had to do a balancing act between the writing and teaching, and teaching took up most of my time during the school year. I know that some say that teaching energizes their writing, but I think that doing it well can have the opposite effect. It did for me. I wound up getting most of my writing done during holidays and in the summer. I stopped teaching in the summer after one or two times to get more writing time.

DA: You also discovered the value of writing retreats and fellowships.

WT: Retreats were precious to me. Yaddo was my first and is still my favorite. I was accepted for a month there, but before arriving, I began to worry that I’d freeze up and sit around watching squirrels for a month. I didn’t realize the energizing effect of having your time protected for the sole purpose of writing. I went to Yaddo for a month and, right afterwards, to The MacDowell Colony for another month, and had almost a year’s worth of work finished when I came home. And, of course, I got to bask in the literary history of those two venerable retreats, not to mention hanging around with a lot of interesting people in the evening. I’ve also been to Ragdale and The Anderson Center, with much the same results. And, though Bread Loaf is not a retreat in the sense of getting writing done, it was my first exposure to the rubbing of shoulders with a lot of writers. I was pretty starry-eyed. That was where I got to meet Howard Nemerov for the first time. I went there as a working scholar in 1981, and I’m still in contact with several people I met there.

DA: How did your collection, The Complete Book Of Kong Poems come about?

WT: I wrote my first Kong poem, “Kong Looks Back on His Tryout with the Bears,” with no intention of writing any more. But that poem gave me an idea for another and the next yet another. Motivated partly by my attraction to the old 1933 version of the film and partly by a sense that Kong embodies something very human, I wound up with 25 or 30 pages of Kong poems. X.J. Kennedy, in an essay called “Who Killed King Kong,” persuasively argues that Kong is an example of the pitiable monster archetype, a figure who’s good or at least well meaning inside but is trapped in a monstrous body, which hides that goodness from the world. I found in Kong yet another figure in which to combine seriousness with comedy. Like Quasimodo, the Frankenstein monster, the beast in Beauty and the Beast, that monster must suffer and eventually die alienated from fellow creatures. Once again, this figure becomes an archetype because he reflects something in us, who sometimes feel the world doesn’t see the beautiful person deep inside our unbeautiful exterior. Kong may be a monster, but he is as vulnerable and lonely as any of his human counterparts. I didn’t make the Kong poems into a book till about 15 years after I’d written the original poems. It somehow took that long to make me realize that, if I wrote 15 or 20 more, I’d have a book.

DA: We should mention you gained valuable experience with a well-respected literary journal.

WT: Some NWMSU colleagues and I rescued The Laurel Review from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1986. I had been reading fiction for them for a couple of years when the editor, Mark DeFoe, told me he was going to let it die. He’d been editing it by himself for years and was exhausted. It took us a couple of years to get subscriptions back up, but after NWMSU gave each of us a one-class teaching-load reduction, we managed to turn it into a very respectable literary magazine. We published well-known writers like William Stafford and Albert Goldbarth, but we also managed to get many new writers into print. It was very time-consuming work, but we were passionate about it. We prided ourselves on producing handsome, error-free issues containing some of the best writing in America. I got to know a lot more other writers during my editorship and am still in contact with many of them. I left the magazine when I took early retirement in 1998, but it’s still going.

DA: You still keep your hand in teaching.

WT: Yes, I teach part-time in the University of Nebraska Low-residency MFA in Writing Program. I got in on it at the beginning and continue to teach there. At first, I was a little worried about getting involved, because of the use of the internet. It sounded a little like those “distanced education” programs that many universities seem to be putting in to save on personnel and classroom expenses. But I was quickly won over. The program caught fire the first semester and has continued that way ever since. The students are bright, enthusiastic, and hard-working. The faculty, too, is first rate. The learning is intense, with an emphasis on one-to-one student-faculty relationships. The faculty are called “mentors” instead of professors, and we’re restricted to a maximum of five students a semester. That allows students much more personal attention and flexibility than conventional programs do. I mentor two students a semester. And the residency part is held in a resort hotel in Nebraska City rather than on the Lincoln campus. So students and faculty have their own hotel rooms instead of dorm rooms and eat in the restaurant instead of in a cafeteria. And the part-time load leaves me plenty of time for my own literary endeavors. I plan to keep teaching there till I can’t tell metaphors from Metamucil, though they may ask me to retire before that.