POET INTERVIEW – WILLIAM PRESTON
Question: Is there anyone out here who did not suspect that our own William Preston would be the Writer’s Digest’s Poetic Asides 2013 Poet Laureate? I suspect not. This gentleman is not only an amazingly prolific writer of superb poetry, but is also one inexhaustible encourager. My kind of guy!
MARIE ELENA: Bill, I’m going to take back something I just stated. I do think there was someone who was genuinely surprised when Robert Lee Brewer announced that you were selected as the PA Poet Laureate: YOU. I’m going to start you off with what may be a difficult question: How do you actually feel about your own writing?
WILLIAM: That’s a fascinating question. For the most part I don’t “feel” anything when I write. I just write. In the cases of poems, I sometimes feel a sense of satisfaction when I think a poem has come out “right,” but over the years I’ve learned that many poems I think are good, seem not to impress others; whereas other poems that I didn’t think were so good, did seem to impress others. I can’t figure it out. But for me, in any case, writing is almost as natural as reading; it’s something I just do, and it feels intrinsic.
MARIE ELENA: You’ve been writing poetry for a few decades. What or who originally sparked your interest? Do you still have (or do you remember) the first poem you ever penned?
WILLIAM: Sorry, but I can’t remember my first poem word for word. I do remember that it was a piece I wrote for our mother, from my sister and me, but I’ve long since forgotten the words. It had something to do with thanking her for all she did for us over the years (she was old and dying when I wrote it). As for what originally sparked my interest in poetry, it was songs. I loved to listen to singers like Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Rosemary Clooney, and Perry Como (and Guy Lombardo’s band), but I almost never understood the words they sang, owing to a profound hearing loss. So I looked up the words, and in the process got to know the work of great lyricists from Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work to Johnny Mercer, Oscar Hammerstein, Gus Kahn, Lorenz Hart, and many others. I wanted to write like that. I remember that music moved me, and when I began to read the works of some poets (notably Robert Frost) who also moved me, I think that inspired me to try my hand at it. That was pretty late in life, though; the release to begin writing poems came a year or two after my first wife died in 1987. I think the most noteworthy point for your readers might be that it was musical poetry that I wanted to try; that is, to write words and lines that had a rhythm or beat and somehow “sang” to convey that soul-lifting experience I got from the ways certain singers sang (and Guy Lombardo’s band played).
MARIE ELENA: “What science cannot declare, art can suggest; what art suggests silently, poetry speaks aloud; but what poetry fails to explain in words, music can express.” ~ Hazrat Inayat Khan. Yes. Yes.
You, Walt and I share a profound love of music. You’ve made it no big secret that you are deaf. Personally, I have glaucoma, which could possibly lead one day to blindness … but I always say that if given a choice, I’d far rather be blind than deaf. This is solely because I cannot imagine a world without music. I have to wonder what your experience with deafness has been like, and what effect it has had on your life.
WILLIAM: I was not born deaf but came pretty near: I had meningitis when I was two years old, and lost a big chunk of hearing from that. It progressed from there, and now I am as profoundly deaf as many in the Deaf community. I’ve been deaf for so long, it seems normal to me. The music I listened to as a kid was via hearing aids, so what I heard was not what most folks hear. For example, I never heard pitches higher than about 1500 Hz till I got my cochlear implant in 2003. What I responded to was the beat and the melody (if it was simple enough, which is why I liked Guy Lombardo so much) but I have no idea what harmony is. I know, however, that some sounds or melodies (Greensleeves and Beautiful Ohio come to mind) and some words (i.e., Johnny Mercer’s Skylark) lift my spirits with an almost palpable impetus, which is probably why I wanted to try to do the same. That’s the main effect music has had on my life: that uplifting feeling; it’s like having a friend for life, similar to reading. (By the way, I’d rather be deaf than blind, maybe because I’ve had some experience with a soundless world, and don’t fear it.)
MARIE ELENA: “A friend for life,” indeed. So, music pretty much placed your feet on a poetic path. How has your poetry changed over the years?
WILLIAM: I hope it’s gotten better. I still cringe at some of the stuff I wrote when I started writing poems more or less regularly. I cringe less these days, so I hope that means I like my work better. I still write stinkers, though. (Which raises an interesting point: I don’t always know a stinker when I first write it; it becomes obvious, however, when read months or years later.) My poetry hasn’t changed much in that I’ve always liked rhyme, meter, and trying various forms, some of which don’t use rhyme or have a standard meter. I’ve also never liked free verse, and still don’t; I do try it from time to time, though. Far from the canard (as I see it) that form and structure hinder creativity, I think they unleash it.
MARIE ELENA: Form and structure unleash my creativity as well. They force me to be more inventive in how I express my thoughts. That said, there are forms I cannot wrap my head around. If it feels too much like work, I will quickly give up.
And speaking of work, I saw in your Poetic Asides interview that you work as a medical writer and editor for the Department of Radiation Medicine, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, California. Yet you live in New York.
WILLIAM: Yes, I lived in Loma Linda for six years; I moved there after Marge, my first wife, died. I went at the invitation of my boss, Dr. James Slater, with whom I’d worked on a cancer-teaching text in years before Marge died. I loved working with him and the folks at Loma Linda, but I used to take my vacations in autumn, when I’d come back to New York for the fall colors. I met my present wife, Marti, on one of those trips, and moved back east when we married. I thought I’d have to give up that job then, but Dr. Slater made it possible for me to continue via computer. I’m grateful to him for that because I think his department and the people in it are superb, as is he. He’s the kind of doctor every doctor should be: his admonition to everyone in his department was (and still is), “Treat patients as if they were your own mother and father.”
Living in Loma Linda, by the way, helped spur my poetry because I answered a call for entries to a local poetry contest sponsored by the San Bernardino chapter of Chaparral Poets. That entry led me to join that group, and I still am a member at large of Chaparral, albeit the local chapter is now defunct. To this day I still think of that group as my poetry “home.” At present I am a member of the Wayne Writer’s Guild, a congenial gathering of local writers who meet regularly at Books, Inc., in Macedon, New York, to encourage each other. Maybe that’s why I encourage other poets; I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement from the Guild.
MARIE ELENA: Medical writing seems a far cry from creative writing. Can you explain exactly what you do? Is it something from which you derive enjoyment?
WILLIAM: My educational background is education, not medicine. I’ve worked with physicians, mostly oncologists, since 1966, mainly because my first job happened to be with a cancer-teaching program at the University of Rochester. Working in medical (mainly cancer) writing just grew from there. At first I wrote programmed instruction texts with various oncologists (mainly surgeons and radiation oncologists) around the country (that’s how I met Dr. Slater), but over the years that evolved to writing and editing papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and other medical communications. I should add that even when I “write” for those journals, it’s not my material; I always work from the medical content that the physicians supply. Basically, their job is to share information with their peers and the public, and my job is to help them do it if needed. As for deriving enjoyment from that work, yes, I do, mainly owing to the people I work with and partly because I think it’s contributing to important knowledge and, maybe, better outcomes for cancer patients. By the way, I don’t think medical or scientific writing is all that removed from creative writing. In fact, I think my medical writing improved after I took some creative-writing workshops in Taos, New Mexico, with Natalie Goldberg in the early 1990s. Dr. Slater saw the connection too; he encouraged me to take those workshops.
MARIE ELENA: I find that absolutely fascinating. Good for Dr. Slater, seeing the connection and giving you that encouragement.
I’m so sorry to hear about your first wife, yet happy to know you are no longer alone.
WILLIAM: Yes, I’m married to Martha, who goes by Marti. She has three daughters, Maria, Lisa, and Susan, whom I think of as my daughters too, despite the “stepfather” tag. Maria and Lisa each have two children and Sue is about to have her second, so Marti and I have five grandchildren and another one imminent. Maria’s kids, Maximus and Giulia, are teenagers; Lisa and Derrick have two girls, Anna and Emily, and Sue and Guillermo have a little girl named Dove. I have a sister, also named Susan; she and her husband, Ken Stenzel, live nearby. I love all of them, and am especially proud of Marti who, in the words of an officer at the University of Rochester, “is one of the most respected administrators in the University.” (Ken, by the way, is a musician; he’s set some of my words to music, and these can be heard at his blog: http://mymusicandmore.com/just-one-information.html )
MARIE ELENA: Your family sounds just lovely, Bill. Thank you for sharing them with us today. And for sharing your music as well! I love the jazzy sound Ken offers. It’s great that Ken afforded you to opportunity to publish some of your poetry, via his music. How wonderful!
Bill, I pulled this quote from your interview with Robert: “Some have suggested I self-publish it, but I doubt I’ll do that; I’d prefer some peer review, if you will, as confirmation that it’s worth others’ reading.” The “it” refers to a collection of your bird poems. Will you please expand on the idea of not wanting to self-publish your work?
WILLIAM: To me, self-publishing seems like self-indulgence. In my professional work “peer review” is a standard; before something is published it has to pass judgment by others in the field. If it passes, that means that others who know the field think it worthy of being shared; it contains useful information or insights. “Creative” writing is different, I suppose, in that the writer is leading the way toward a new vision, but in my view science is like that too, and yet science runs on interaction amongst scientists. In the case of poetry or other creative writing, I think of writers and editors as being something like that.
MARIE ELENA: Is there a William Preston blog in your future that we can look forward to? *hint, hint*
WILLIAM: Not likely. I am a private person and don’t like social networking stuff such as tweeter and face-book and their ilk. As for a blog, I can’t imagine why anyone would or should care about what I think about anything, even if I was of a mind to share it. I have noticed that many of the blogs that your readers have, are strictly poetry vehicles, but even then I can’t imagine why I should offer up what I’m writing about, just because I wrote it. Your blog and Robert Brewer’s are different, or so it seems to me: there, I am responding to prompts and am testing myself as a poet. I do admit that your blog and Robert’s have introduced me to new friends and superb poets such as yourself and RJ Clarken and Jane Shlensky, and I suppose the same could happen if I had my own blog. Still, I doubt I’d ever have one.
MARIE ELENA: I’m curious as to what your friends out here will have to say about that. 😉
What, besides writing, is your favorite pastime, Bill?
WILLIAM: Reading. In fact, I’d reverse that order: reading, then writing. For that matter, I’d say that reading and being exposed to all kinds of authors and poets has helped to nurture my writing.
MARIE ELENA: Lest you think we’ve moved on to easy questions … 😉 … What would you say you enjoy most about being William Preston?
WILLIAM: I’ve no idea how to answer that. I just am. I can tell you some things I like, such as bird-watching or photography, but I never thought of “enjoying” who I am.
MARIE ELENA: On the flip side, what would you change (if anything) about who you are and your life in general?
WILLIAM: I’d make music.
MARIE ELENA: Great answer. I’d say that is entirely possible.
And now, Bill, if you could share only one thing about yourself with us, what would it be?
WILLIAM: I think I already have, through the poems on the blog that you and Walt created, and on Robert Brewer’s. That’s why I submitted them in the first place.
MARIE ELENA: Hear, hear. I’ll even let you get away with that. 😉 Which of all those poems would you choose as a favorite?
WILLIAM: This is one I wrote early in my poetry-writing attempts, around 1990. It’s a favorite because it’s a pantoum, and I like French forms; it’s also a favorite because it’s about a favorite subject, hawks. Finally, it’s about flight; I always liked the view from the air.
SPRING HAWKWATCHAs homing hawks parade across the sky, ascending high on rivers in the air, they kiss with life the land they overfly and follow north the streams to everywhere. Ascending high on rivers in the air, they gaze ahead, beyond the curving earth and follow north the streams to everywhere; to breeding grounds, and feasts of cycling birth. They gaze ahead, beyond the curving earth; with trusting wings they ride a thermal road to breeding grounds, and feasts of cycling birth. My heavy heart feels lightened of its load. With trusting wings they ride a thermal road; they kiss with life the land they overfly; my heavy heart feels lightened of its load as homing hawks parade across the sky.
copyright 2013, William Preston
MARIE ELENA: Thank you so much for your willingness to let us pry into your heart and life, and for your presence here with us. It means a great deal to count you among our many friends here. Also, Walt and I simply cannot thank you enough for stepping in to help out during his much-needed sabbatical. Truly.
I’d like to end with one of my own favorite poems of yours. I feel it represents very well your sense of rhythm and soft rhyme, and the beauty with which you write.
THE LIGHT OF THE GLITTERING STARSI watch beneath eternal starry skies
that sail above the softly crashing sea.
They bring to my enraptured senses free
delights: the whites and blues of massive size;
a global cluster whose collection lies
beyond the Milky Way; the orange glee
of Betelgeuse; the greens content to be
reflections in the ocean’s midnight guise.
All of these stars, it seems, have always known
my needs; ever they proffered comfort when
I failed and cried; they never did condemn.
Once, in a silent time; a time alone
in endless, friendly space; I knew it then:
I know them all, for I am born of them.
© copyright 2013, William Preston