Not all creative couples work in dialogue. But the writers David Biespiel and Wendy Willis create poems and essays that entwine and contrast. They navigate politics, language, and the stories we tell about ourselves and our country.
Biespiel, a poet and critic, runs the Attic Institute, a haven for writers. He grew up Jewish in Houston, arriving at Boston University in cowboy boots and a Stetson. In school, he dove competitively against Greg Louganis, shot the breeze with Marc Maron, and found his path. His new literary memoir is called, “The Education of a Young Poet.”
Wendy Willis served as a federal public defender and director of the City Club of Portland. She now leads Oregon’s Kitchen Table, an experiment in collaborative democracy. Her just-published poetry collection, “A Long Late Pledge,” builds on her prior poems and essays considering America.
David Biespiel and Wendy Willis
April Baer: David, I knew you were from Texas, but I didn’t know until reading the book you grew up in Houston. Are all your people OK?
David Biespiel: They are, thank you. They were very lucky. The storm was pretty indiscriminate. Parts of the city that never flooded, flooded. Parts of the city that flood normally didn’t flood. It was impossible to predict. I do have friends whose houses got wrecked and ruined. And some houses and buildings I know well got completely ruined.
Baer: You left the city decades ago, but I gathered from the book you still feel a possessiveness about it.
Biespiel: I think of myself as an expatriate Texan. I’ve been — because of this book and another thing I’ve been working on — I’ve been thinking a lot about the streets of Houston. I really couldn’t stay there, for all kinds of reasons. I feel the place strongly. I’m especially attracted to the landscape and the sky. And I like the whole spread age of Texas, I guess I’d call it. I couldn’t have managed my life any differently, and the book tells the story of what I did once I left.
Baer: No one asks full grown writers, “How did you become a writer?” And yet I feel someone must have done just that in the past three years, and so we get this book.
Biespiel: Yeah, I asked myself the question. And I wanted to give answers that weren’t literary — that I read John Keats and Walt Whitman and it opened a world for me. I wanted to answer the question of who I was formed as.
Baer: Wendy, did you see him discovering things?
Wendy Willis: I could see him making connections. Much of this book was serialized in “The Rumpus,” and so I could see these connections happening on a week-by-week basis. That was really interesting to see how do you, when you’re looking backwards, how do you stitch in reverse?
Baer: David, you don’t just recite your family history in the book, so much as inhabit it, writing yourself in with your great-great grandparents and others. How did you hit on that idea?.
Biespiel: That’s what memory is, when you have those heirloom memories. They can only exist when you’re inhabiting them. The only way to animate them again is to be a participant in them. The stories have been handed down to you like a set of dishes. The only way to exist with those dishes is to use them on Thanksgiving, and let people eat off them.
Baer: Wendy, your new book of poems is called “A Long Late Pledge.” Does it refer to the Pledge of Allegiance?
Willis: It does, but I think it also refers to: What do we pledge ourselves to? Are those pledges permanent? What’s the dynamism of making a commitment or promise? The question of promise-making is a rich one.
Baer: These poems are absolutely stuffed with American mythology, from Thomas Jefferson to famous places in the American West, also wild places. What kinds of myths were inhabiting you as you worked on these?
Willis: One thing I think was really interesting about Jefferson is he never went anywhere east of the Blue Ridge [Mountains]. But he had this tremendous imagination for the West, that it was going to create the America he envisioned. We live on a street which was plotted by Jefferson—
Baer: Wait, what?
Willis: It was called Baseline Road. It’s now called Southeast Stark Street. That was plotted in the Jeffersonian plot of the country. There are meridians that go north-south, east-west. When Jefferson was imagining the map pf the United States and how you would start to draw lines, before statehood, of course, he made these plots, including Baseline Road, which starts on the East Coast and ends at the Pacific Ocean.
Biespiel: Doesn’t it end in the park? Isn’t there a big fancy medallion?
Willis: It doesn’t end in the park. There’s a medallion, it’s one of the original medallions. [The road] goes to Pacific City, I think. I think it’s so interesting to live in a place that’s an imagined place, and how much that imagination affected our lived experience, or at least our self-conception of what the West is.
Baer: David, you were a competitive diver, and resolved you were going to go at writing, giving it the same time and diligence you gave on the platform. You said you were going to spend 15 years at it before deciding whether this was working out. Do writers ever know whether they’re successful?
Willis: Oh, we talk all the time about what we’re going to do when we quit.
Biespiel: What it does, it allows you not to have to face the question. Hopefully, when it’s time to do some self-diagnosis about your alleged achievements, you are in the middle of something, and you don’t want to stop right then, so you just keep pressing on. I understood something about the relationship between training and performance. And so you find yourself thinking, what I’m not doing is publishing books. But what I’m actually doing is asking questions and trying to answer them through writing.
Baer: Wendy, you have several incarnations under your belt as well. You were a federal public defender for some years and have done work in organizing and trying to fine-tune democratic process. Are you reassessing whether it’s time to get back to the grindstone on other things?
Willis: I still am very involved in the deliberative democracy movement, and continue to divide my time between thinking about the external requirements of democracy, but also the internal requirements. What do we need to be to show up as a citizen? That’s the question I keep asking myself over and over again, both in poems and in prose. We have become very highly developed as consumers and as recipients, and we have a kind of atrophied sense of identity for how to be a citizen.