To kick off National Poetry Month, 3RP lead editor Mary Rose Manspeaker sat down with Martina Salisbury and Ingrid Wendt to talk about poetry as a lens for viewing and learning to interact with the world, as well as about what it means when a creative art runs through an entire family. We talk through their own work, poetry and its interactions with social justice work, dada, and the life and work of father, husband, and poet Ralph Salisbury.
Mary Rose Manspeaker: Can you start by telling me a little bit about each of your relationships to poetry? How you got started, the role you feel it plays in your life?
Martina Salisbury: With poets as parents, and a few other writers in my family tree, poetry felt like my natural habitat. That said, to find my creative voice, I sought distance from the world I grew up in, both literally (moving to Italy and then NYC) and figuratively (focusing on visual art and design).
Countless times, I was asked by well-intentioned friends of my parents if I was going to be a poet, too, when I grew up. My contrarian answer to this question was always “no,” though secretly I loved writing.
When crossing paths with poets over the years, I somehow sensed that we were part of the same tribe. I recall being at the opening of City Lights Italia in 1997, surrounded by poets I didn’t know, and the scene felt so familiar. This sensation returned whenever I found myself in the company of poets. As a writer I once met on an airplane from New York to San Francisco told me, “poets always find each other.”
I’ve been writing my entire life, but didn’t start thinking of myself as a poet until fairly recently, when I began publishing. Rediscovering poetry and writing with more intention, feels like coming home after a long journey.
Poetry is a natural filter through which I view the world, and it has always informed my other pursuits. In graduate school, for example, my MFA Design thesis project (Lapse, a visual narrative about memory and loss, using found snapshots) was well-received, but critiqued for being slightly too “artistic,” which I took as a compliment. Looking back at Lapse and other projects, I recognize that I create visual work using the same instincts I use with words. It’s all poetry.
Ingrid Wendt: My earliest memories of poetry include my mother reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to me, and being entranced by the rollicking rhythms and rhymes of Mother Goose‘s nonsensical tales. The heartbeat of poetry was, for me, the most natural thing in the world. The magical world of birds figured into my favorite three of the many songs she taught me. One of these was in German, the language her immigrant parents spoke at home in Michigan.
After my sister was born, it was my father (a Chilean immigrant of German extraction) who picked up the reins of wonder, waking me in the middle of the night, for example, to see the sky filled with puffs of brilliant white, illuminated by a hidden moon: sheep in a pasture of black.
But then school and adolescence intervened, and were it not for the brilliant assignment of my high school English teacher—find on the library shelves one poem that “speaks to you”—I’d still believe that poetry had nothing to say about the real world or anything not nice or to the inner me. What a gift to find Carl Sandburg’s “Chameleon”: so good at changing colors to blend in with leaves, but dying at the crossroads of a Scotch plaid. Oh, man, did I get that!
From then on, I was hooked, and (unconsciously, perhaps) determined I’d be a poet, too, a dream realized in a college creative writing class, where I learned the guerilla tactics of infiltrating traditional meter and rhyme with deadly serious intent, as well as how to turn the tables: to build free verse poems on a rolling foundation of rhythm and musical sound: a happy marriage to which I’ve been faithful all my life—helped along, of course, by my long, earthly marriage to another poet, with whom the kinds of observations poets make internally—the comparisons of this to that, the undercurrents and subtexts of all life’s situations—became part of our daily conversation, as natural as breath, as reciprocal as an exuberant roll in the hay. Those conversations go on, if not with Ralph, in the flesh, then the one who lives within me.
IW & MS: Storytelling also laid the foundation for Ralph to become a writer. His parents were an Irish American storytelling mother and a Cherokee-Shawnee-English-American storyteller/singer/banjo-playing father from Kentucky. He grew up in Iowa during the Great Depression, hunting and trapping, for meat and pelts, and laboring on a family farm, which had no electricity or running water and was only reachable by a dirt road. The family’s stories made their way into many of Ralph’s poems, his fiction, and in his memoir, So Far, So Good.
Through Air Force service during WWII, he earned six years of university education. It was during his years in the military that Ralph – taken under the wing of a few well-read friends — began reading and writing poetry. Receiving an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studied with Robert Lowell, he discovered that poetry could be a lifeline which kept the “beautiful confusions” of his mind (as he liked to call them) under control, to make from them something of beauty and use. Believing his destiny was to extend that lifeline to everyone ready and able to grab hold, he dedicated the rest of his life to writing, editing, translating and teaching.
MRM: Ingrid, what was the experience of raising a child in a household so involved with poetry and so attuned with language?
IW: Truth be told, I’ve never thought about it this way. Thanks for asking. Poetry was a way of being, I guess; a way of living in the world, attuned to nuance, attuned to any and all opportunities to celebrate wonder, to explore and explore and explore and savor new experience; to travel and to grow in understanding ourselves, and the outside world, and our place in it, which is very small.
Martina, of course, came along for the ride, and we naturally sought to introduce her to ways of seeing and experiencing beauty and wonder in the world. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder,” wrote Rachel Carson, “he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” And it’s reciprocal. While we were excited to share new experiences with Martina, she opened our eyes to things we would have otherwise missed, if not for her insights and inquiries.
At home, where words were the currency of daily life, reading to our child was as central to our parenting as a regular bedtime and three meals a day. Ralph and I also made up stories “from our heads,” as we took turns tucking her in. I don’t know that we can take any credit, though, for Martina’s keen understanding of language and its complexities.
Raising a child while trying to write, however, was something infinitely more challenging. Not being an early riser, not one to write on schedule, as did Martina’s father, I sneaked opportunities late at night, writing from notes on scraps of paper that piled up in a shoebox on my desk: a sheet of plywood covering the tops of a widely-spaced washer and dryer, a tall kitchen stool in between. Did I complain? Not too often, I hope, though “Portrait of the Poet as a Young Bitch” appeared in my first book, Moving the House, selected by William Stafford for BOA Editions. Balancing motherhood with writing has always been and still is a blessing and a struggle for most women who write, but I wouldn’t have missed out on any of it.
It was always just a “given” that poetry writing and teaching were what we did in the world….Being poets was the way we carried ourselves into the world.
MRM: Can you tell me a little about times when poetry felt particularly present in your household? Any anecdotes come to mind?
MS: My parents shared their love of poetry and literature by reading to me every night when I was a child, or telling me stories from their head: memories from their own childhoods or made-up fairy tales and princess stories. They encouraged me to read at a very young age, and I loved outings to the library; I would always bring home as many books as possible. I also enjoyed making books.
Often, when heading out for the evening, my father and I would recite the opening stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” from memory. This felt completely normal at the time, but I don’t think many families do this.
My father had an incredible memory for poems. I recall giving him a copy of Gerard Malanga’s translations of César Vallejo (Malanga Chasing Vallejo, Three Rooms Press) when he was 90, and he immediately began to recite from memory, “Masa,” in the original Spanish. I hadn’t realized that Vallejo was one of his favorite poets!
We had many poets and writers as houseguests over the years. One of my earliest memories is of Tillie Olsen, who gave me a shoebox of small treasures (a card from Japan, a fragment of iridescent abalone shell, and other things) when she visited us. Somewhere I have drawings that W.S. Merwin made for me at the dinner-table, and a collection of autographs of various poets and writers I met as a child.
IW: I love it that Martina recalls Ralph’s recitation of Vallejo’s “Masa,” because that was one of the poems he quoted to me, from memory, during our first long car ride together: part of a whirlwind courtship. He also quoted Lorca’s “Romance Sonámbulo¨ and A.E. Houseman’s “Loveliest of Trees.”
As to poetry’s presence in our household, it was always just a “given” that poetry writing and teaching were what we did in the world. Other parents had other kinds of jobs. But now, trying to see us as Martina did, growing up, we must have been different from other parents in many ways. We must have had more intellectual conversations. Being poets was the way we carried ourselves into the world.
When Martina was growing up, we often had dinner parties, and after-reading parties, where conversations about poetry—and life—flowed with the wine. Some visiting poets stayed overnight, some came just for dinner, or the parties: Robert Duncan, William Stafford, Joe Bruchac, Simon Ortiz, Robert Creeley, W.S. Merwin, Alicia Ostriker, Marilyn Krysl (a former student of Ralph’s), Charles Simic, David Ray, Carolyn Kizer, Tillie Olsen, and many others.
MRM: You’ve all appeared in 3RP’s annual Dada journal, Maintenant. How does dadaism relate to your practice of poetry, and what role do you feel poetry plays in protest and social and political change?
MS: My interests and influences have long included Dada and its descendants (especially punk rock), for their irreverent, radical views about society, and their questioning assumptions about what art and poetry should be. Visually and conceptually, I’ve always loved the work of Dada artists, in particular Marcel Duchamp and May Ray. And the raw poetry of punk lyrics by bands like X and Dead Kennedys still feels extremely relevant.
It was actually thanks to Exene Cervenka (artist, poet & singer of X) in 2013, that I was introduced to Three Rooms Press!
The poems and visual work I’ve contributed to Maintenant seek to illustrate or mock the absurdity of the times we are living through. I usually create something new, inspired by each issue’s theme.
Poetry is able to enter one’s subconscious in unexpected, visceral ways, to raise awareness and inspire social and political change. I can’t claim to have contributed as much toward these efforts as my parents have, but am incredibly proud of the work they have done, and grateful for their example as poet-activists and pacifists.
IW: What I love about Dada is that it not just allows but actively encourages visual and literary art that challenges group-think and the status quo and rebels against injustice of all kinds, wherever it is found.
My deliberate use of poetry as a vehicle for social and political protest and a call for change began during the late 1960s and early 70s, when—as a very young Assistant Professor at Fresno State (CA)—I became directly involved in both the anti-Vietnam War and the Feminist movements, both on campus and off. With Ralph (who was a guest professor for two years; we shared an office, which caused something of a stir), I marched against the war, wrote anti-war poems, and participated locally in the nationwide “American Writers Against the War in Vietnam” readings that got off the ground in 1965, as spinoffs of the umbrella organization by that same name, founded by poets Robert Bly and David Ray.
We didn’t use the term Dada at the time, but looking back, that’s exactly what some of the performance art was. Who could forget the group of students who went with me to the small Fresno airport, to welcome speaker Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist, writer and activist? Dressed as cheerleaders, they shouted an appropriately radical call and response routine on the tarmac, to welcome and honor Firestone as she came down the steps of the plane: “Gimme a C”—“C”! “Gimme a U”—“U”! Gimme an N” – “N”! Gimme a T” – “T”! “ What’s that spell?” – “Louder! What’s that spell?” (You get it. Shall we say the College administration was not pleased?)
Many years later, in the early 2000s, when our country was again embroiled in wars on foreign soils, I organized something different: a used paperback drive. With the aid of many volunteers, we sent over 5,000 used books to U.S. troops stationed overseas. And again, I organized events: protest readings at a locally-owned bookstore, as well as annual birthday celebrations in honor of Oregon’s former Poet Laureate, the late William Stafford, who was also a pacifist and friend, before he died at age 83. I’m particularly proud of one of those readings, titled “The Unknown Good in Our Enemies,” in which selected readers presented work by poets from the Middle East.
So now, what a tremendous pleasure, and honor, to be appearing in the wonderful Dada journal Maintenant, where I feel I’m part of a strong, worldwide family who “gets” where I’m coming from—and vice versa! Ralph, who appears in issue 11, felt the same. Many thanks to Martina, for letting both of us know about your splendid presence and all the amazing work you’ve been doing, over so many years!
MRM: Ingrid, did you and Ralph ever work on collaborative projects together?
IW: Our very first collaborative project began shortly after we met, but before we became lovers, during my second year of graduate school at the University of Oregon. Ralph was Editor-in-Chief of university-sponsored Northwest Review, and I was Managing Editor. The project, which Ralph conceived, was to create an anti-Vietnam War issue called the “Protest and Affirmation” issue. Inspired by the work of poet Denise Levertov, our position was that protest is most effective if we also affirm what it is we are fighting for. We who protest also need to keep each other strong. For me, the issue was also a way to put into action something poet W.H. Auden had said to me the year before, during an interview I conducted for the city newspaper: “I write to help people enjoy life more or endure it better.”
Little did we expect that the issue would face censorship issues at the UO’s printing office, where one or more employees refused to print the “raw,” anti-war visual art, nor that the issue would be held up for nearly a year—until the UO administration listened to an outcry from poets and writers across the country, and finally intervened. Tense and complicated times.
Other collaborations were less notorious: being first readers and editors of each other’s poems; sharing poetry readings; team-teaching classes and workshops together in the U.S. and abroad; attending conferences and international writing festivals. The last time we shared the podium was at the invitation of the newly-founded International Studies Program at the University of Reading, England, where we jointly gave the keynote speech. But the largest, the best, collaboration of all was our making a mutually supportive life together, enabling and encouraging each other to live and write to our fullest potential.
MRM: How has being so close with other poets affected your own writing and practice? Are there ways that it feels collaborative, and ways that it feels wholly your own?
MS: I thrive when collaborating on design, editorial and curatorial projects, but writing poetry is a solitary process for me. That said, readings often feel collaborative, especially the Maintenant readings, which bring together so many incredible artists and poets from all over the world.
IW: Collaboration, for me, has taken two main forms: actual physical interaction with other poets and/or artists—be it as a workshop participant or facilitator; or working side by side in a residency program; or working together on an agreed-upon project—and the lifelong influences of works by favorite writers, artists, and musicians. Growing up as a classical pianist and organist had another kind of influence; the music inherent in language rises of its own accord, infusing everything I write.
The most ambitious collaborative work I’ve done, was with three German-born visual artists, all women, on two massive gallery installations: one in Munich, Germany; one, at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. The projects, titled “Time/Word/Space” and “Memory/Memorial,” were grounded in post-World War II realities: what it meant to be raised in Germany with trans-generational guilt and shame (in the case of the painter and mixed-media artist) and raised (in the case of the sculptor) as a Jew born of parents who survived the camps. I, Ingrid, born in America, whose four grandparents left Germany at the end of the 19th century, was working to come to terms with the complexities of my own German heritage.
We began each day by talking, then went to our separate studios. It was tremendously energizing. Out of these two installations grew my third book of poems, The Angle of Sharpest Ascending: four long essays in poetry form, each in many parts, which weave all of our realities together.
Other collaborations were less notorious: being first readers and editors of each other’s poems; sharing poetry readings; team-teaching classes and workshops together in the U.S. and abroad; attending conferences and international writing festivals….But the largest, the best, collaboration of all was our making a mutually supportive life together, enabling and encouraging each other to live and write to our fullest potential.
MRM: You are both working together on Ralph’s literary estate and bringing manuscripts left behind into print. Can you talk a little about this process and what it means to you?
IW: When Ralph died, he left behind four manuscripts—a recently-completed collection of poems, two novels, and a novella & short fiction. We promised him that we would seek publication for the manuscripts, and have been collaborating on this long-distance, identifying and sending poems to magazines and journals, considering which publishers would be good homes for his books, and contacting editors. Since we live on opposite coasts, we are currently not able to work together in-person, but we are frequently in touch by email and zoom meetings.
We are also in the process of organizing his literary archives (letters, manuscripts, notes, photographs, etc.) which will be acquired by the University of Oregon’s Special Collections. To this end, I have rented an office near the University campus, where Martina and I have taken dozens of boxes, several bookshelves, and two desks. Martina has brought her great organizational skills to this effort, her knowledge of archives, materials preservation, working with photographs, intellectual property law, and many good ideas, for which I am so very grateful.
MS: Working with my father’s archives and manuscripts has been a gift, though also bittersweet. He is still alive in his words, but I wish I could ask him questions and that we could have conversations about the poems and other things. I recently discovered a quote by Jean Cocteau, ” After the writer’s death, reading his journal is like receiving a long letter.” It’s a bit like this, reading my father’s poems and other writing; I haven’t read any actual journals yet.
I’m reminded of past collaborations we enjoyed. When I was a teenager, one of my summer jobs was transcribing my father’s typed and handwritten prose manuscripts onto a computer, which offered insights into his writing process. I also dared to make editorial suggestions at the time, which he seemed to take seriously, despite my youth. More recently, I designed three of his book covers, which was a great honor.
Over the past year, I’ve been creating a bibliography of my father’s work. I love doing research and have been communicating with editors of previous publications to request information and back issues, and have been finding original copies of early publications from online vendors. I recently purchased a copy of the April 22, 1961 issue of The New Yorker, with his poem “In the Children’s Museum in Nashville,” which made him one of the first Native American poets to receive national attention.
I’d also love to seek re-publication of his memoir, which won the River Teeth Book Award for Literary Nonfiction. When the book was published, however, all of the poems that my father had carefully and beautifully woven into the prose of the original, prizewinning book, had been cut during the editing process. The poems were related to the stories he was telling and offered unique insights into his life and poetry. We spoke about this before he died, and he gave me his blessing to pursue a new edition of the memoir (a “director’s cut,” so to speak) with the poems included.
In many ways, working with my father’s literary estate feels like the culmination of my education, interests, creative and professional experiences, which have prepared me to preserve his literary legacy. It’s also been really wonderful to collaborate with my mother on these projects, and to honor and appreciate his work together.
Want to know more about Ingrid, Martina, and Ralph, and find their work? Check out their bios below:
Martina Salisbury is a poet, creative director, designer, and visual artist. Born in Oregon, she lived eight years in Italy, where she worked as a designer at Colors Magazine in Treviso and collaborated with design studios, museums and other cultural institutions in Florence, before moving to New York. Co-owner and creative director of TwoSeven Inc, a multidisciplinary design / build firm in Brooklyn, she previously worked as a senior designer at the Museum of Modern Art. Martina is an inaugural graduate of the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Design / Designer as Author & Entrepreneur program, where she studied with Milton Glaser, Tibor Kalman, Paola Antonelli, and other design legends. Her poems have recently appeared in Maintenant: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing and Art (New York), and Love Love magazine (Paris). She still dreams in Italian, loves found photographs, and is hoping that time travel will be possible within her lifetime.
Poet, editor, and educator Ingrid Wendt (MFA, University of Oregon) is the prizewinning author of five books of poems, a book-length teaching guide, numerous articles and reviews, and hundreds of individual poems in such magazines and anthologies as Poetry, Terrain, American Poetry Review, About Place, Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, Antioch Review, Northwest Review, Ms., and No More Masks! An Anthology of 20th Century American Women Poets. Co-editor of the anthology In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts (The Feminist Press & McGraw-Hill) and of the Oregon Poetry Anthology From Here We Speak (OSU Press), her many honors include the Oregon Book Award, the Carolyn Kizer Award, the D.H. Lawrence Award, and three Fulbright Senior Professorships. One of the foremothers of the Women’s Studies program at Fresno State University, and an advisory editor of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, she has taught literature and poetry writing at all educational levels, including the MFA program of Antioch University Los Angeles; at teacher-training institutes throughout the United States and in Germany; and in hundreds of public school classrooms, grades K-12, in Oregon, Washington, Utah, Illinois, Iowa, and overseas. https://ingridwendt.com
Ralph Salisbury (1926-2017), a University of Oregon Professor Emeritus, was a disciplined and prolific author, whose work reflects his mixed ancestry (Cherokee, Shawnee, English, Irish), his childhood in Iowa during the Great Depression, his love of family and friends, his pacifism, and what he described as a “devotion to harmony with nature.”
Though he lived and worked among the intelligentsia of many nations, Salisbury’s poems and fiction “come from having lived as a questing, mixed-race, working-class individual in a violent world.” He wrote that his work was “offered to the spirit of human goodness, which unites all people in the struggle against evil, a struggle to prevail against global extinction.”
Ralph Salisbury was the author of three books of short fiction, and eleven collections of poetry, including Rainbows of Stone (2000) and Like the Sun in Storm (2012), both finalists for the Oregon Book Award. His autobiographical memoir, So Far, So Good, received the River Teeth Award for Literary Non-Fiction (2012) and was published by University of Nebraska Press. His 12th book of poems, Living in the Mouth, completed shortly before his death, and his three unpublished books of fiction, will soon be available for editorial consideration.
More information on his life and work can be found on his website: ralphsalisbury.com