The Cortland Review


DeWayne Rail
Muffy Bolding interviews Fresno poet DeWayne Rail.

John Kinsella
Access Visit/s - The next chapter in John Kinsella's autobiography series at TCR.

Bruce Canwell
The final installment of Writers on Writing.

Dewayne Rail - Click for audio greeting

DeWayne Rail - click for audio greetingDeWayne Rail was born in 1944, in Round Prairie, Oklahoma.  He earned degrees at both Cal State Fresno, where he studied under Philip Levine, and U.C. Irvine, where he continued studying with Charles Wright. He also spent a summer workshop at the University of Denver, studying with Richard Hugo, a man whom he remembers as, "extraordinarily exciting and well-read."

DeWayne's work has appeared in Antioch Review, Western Humanities Review, Poetry Now, Poetry Northwest, and in several chapbooks and anthologies. He lives in Fresno, California with his wife, Tori, where he has taught poetry at Fresno City College for the last 29 years. He spends his spare time tending to his marvelous vegetable garden, keeping in touch with his four, continent-scattered children, and playing with his terrier, Ulysses — whom, he says, was aquired to help complete his fantasy of posing as William Faulkner.

Click to hear DeWayne Rail's greeting DeWayne Rail's audio greeting

Interview with DeWayne Rail - (1)


Muffy Bolding
: What is the first thing you notice about a poem when you read it? And, are you of the mind that poems need to be heard as well as seen?

DeWayne Rail: Actually, the first thing I notice is the way it looks on the page. Some poems are ugly on the page, and I have a hard time even reading them. But, yeah, I have to hear a poem read aloud before I can really understand it. I really need to hear myself read it, if that doesn't sound too weird. Perhaps that's why I read so many poems aloud to my students. I like to run my voice over the syllables, you know, and hear myself say the lines a few different ways before I can grasp what's in there.

When did you first start writing poetry, and why? Was it the whole "to impress chicks" thing, as Charles Simic so unashamedly and refreshingly admits was his primary motivation—or was your reasoning purer and more vestal than that? (although I find myself quite hard-pressed to find a reason purer than THAT...)

DeWayne Rail: I started writing stuff at a very young age. My father and grandfather were both great story tellers, and I think I began writing poems as a way of fitting myself into that tradition, of being like them. In high school I wrote poems to amuse my friends, but even there I was aware of my debt to the stories I had heard at home. None of the stuff was very good, but the impulse was there. It doesn't seem as if there was a definite time at which I started to write poems.

While an undergrad at Cal State, Fresno in the late 1960's, you studied under the poetic instruction of Philip Levine... as well as alongside several classmates who would eventually go on to carve out extraordinarily successful careers as poets, including Larry Levis.

I adore the story you tell about how Levine—when finally fed up with a class that was not enthusiastically participating in the day's discussion—would saunter to his desk, take an apple out of the drawer, and in retaliation, proceed to sit and loudly and purposefully crunch on it to fill the resounding silence. Besides "The Phil Levine/Granny Smith Showdown", what was he like as a teacher, and did his writing and teaching methods in any way influence your own?

Actually, Levine produced the apples from somewhere deep in the pockets of his jacket. Suddenly he would just reach in his pocket and pull out an apple and then eat it. It was the most marvelous act. He ate it with such aplomb and self-possession, with such elaborate relish. The most accurate thing I can say about Levine is that he was more of an electrical phenomenon than anything else. When he came in the room, it was as if someone had turned on a powerful current, and the air would just about hum. He was very directive in his teaching. He said what he meant and he pulled no punches. What more could you ask? Some people couldn't take it, I guess, but those of us who could loved it. I can remember going to the coffee shop with Bob Jones, Chuck Moulton, Jimmy Baloian, and Larry Levis after class. We would sit there and repeat the things Levine had said, you know, trying to imitate him, and laughing ourselves sick over the incredible wit of the man.

I could never sleep after one of his classes. I would lie in bed, and my arms and legs would literally just twitch as the electricity ebbed away. His writing and teaching both influenced me a lot. I loved his poems, but I didn't want to sound like him at all. It was a different voice, you know, Detroit, not me at all. But in teaching, I did want to be like him. After a few years, though, I realized I just couldn't pull it off. You can't be a Levine imitator with an Oklahoma accent. The vowels are just too slow. What I did keep from him was the refusal to lie. And I think I learned a wonderful eclecticism from him. He was very good about appreciating different voices and different approaches to poetry, within the limits of good sense, of course.

DeWayne and his dog Ulysses When I was a kid I had the theory that you should eat the dessert of a meal first, then proceed to your next favorite thing, and so on. My reasoning was that the world might end suddenly, or you might die of a heart attack... I still think it makes a lot of sense.

Who are your favorite poets to read? To teach? Who are your influences?

My favorite poets to read right now are Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Stephen Dobyns, and those are the poets I like to teach. My influences—the early ones, the ones that matter—were Frost and Roethke.And maybe almost equally Stafford and Larkin, if that isn't too strange a brew.

Has the "perfect" poem been written yet?

Yes. Evidently, several have been written. I say this because a few years ago I was told that I had written a perfect poem by the editor of a very prestigious journal, but he said the last line of the poem needed to be changed. I changed it, and he said it was even more perfect, but he was tired of publishing single perfect poems in his journal. He said he liked to publish a group of at least 4 or 5 perfect ones by any given writer, and that I should study his publication to see what he meant. So, hell yes, perfect poems are pretty common, or at least they were at one time.

Many of your poems are earthy and rural, and frequently invoke your father and the world of the Oklahoma Dustbowl that he inhabited... in what ways did he and that world influence your work, and your poetic (and perhaps life) outlook?

Well, I don't think we ever get away from the images and symbols of the first few years of our lives. Gaston Bachelard has that wonderful book, "The Poetics of Space," where he writes about houses as a kind of matrix out of which your imagination develops. I think this is especially true of people who are sensitive and artistic. For example, I've lived in California so many years now, but I still consider the weather, first of all, in terms of what it might do to or for the crops in Oklahoma. There's a limitation in this, sure, but there's strength in it, too. It centers you. You know who you are. So that world, and my father, are present in every moment of my life. Sometimes I just laugh out loud when I hear my father's rhythms and phrasing in my own voice. Lately—it may be a function of aging—I find myself using the vocabulary and dialect I grew up with. This is comical to my wife and children, and we all laugh over it, but, truth to tell, I think it has been a strength in my poems.

You have been teaching poetry for nearly 30 years. Given that hindsight and experience, in what ways have poetry students changed in that span, and is their approach to the study and writing of poetry different than when you began? If so, how have you had to adjust the methods you use to teach them?

I don't think the good students have changed much. It's odd, though. The enrollment at the community college where I teach has doubled, at least, in the 29 years I have been here, but the number of students who respond and catch fire has pretty much remained the same. The average student has changed tremendously in that time period. They dislike reading more, are less willing to be interested in things outside the entertainment culture. And they have been encouraged in their insularity by the popular culture itself, so much so that they take pride in it. So, I haven't changed my methods all that much. I've become kinder, I think.

What do you think of the value of the poetry workshop setting... in regards to both the beginning and the advanced writer?

I think poetry workshops are wonderful and necessary for the development of poets. Where else are they going to learn? There is so much artificial wisdom around, you know, poets who have had the advantage of years of workshops suddenly deciding that the poet must learn directly from life. Well, life goes on all the time, even if you are also taking a poetry workshop. And, of course, bad workshops and bad teachers are everywhere, but you have to have the sense to get away from those and find good ones.

Do you have a favorite poetic form to read? To write? To teach?

I don't have a favorite poetic form to read, but I have had tremendous luck teaching the sestina. It's a mystery to me why it works, but it does. Every semester the students complain like hell, and then they turn in some wonderful stuff. Most of us have only one good sestina in us, however. I have never written one.

If you weren't a poet and a teacher of poetry, what instead would you choose to do with your life?

Lord, there are so many attractive possibilities. I love visual art so much I would probably choose to be an art dealer. I can't draw or paint, so that's out. You name it, I've wanted to be it at one time or another.



� 2002 The Cortland Review