Santa Barbara poet Paul Willis’s long awaited book of poetry, Visiting Home, came out this spring. He spoke with me about it from his home in Montecito.
Is this your first book-length book of poems? What is that like? It’s satisfying. I’ve been writing poems for 20 years and publishing them for 18. This particular manuscript has been revised since 1994. There were so many delays with this book. I sort of resigned myself to the fact that it might not come out. I didn’t want it to be a bitter disappointment. I almost became kind of Buddhist about the whole thing-
restrained desire. So it is nice. Actually, I’m kind of glad. I think my poetry was a little too young, and I’m no exact judge of its maturity now, but it’s always good to let poems sit a while and be able to tinker with them.
That is one of the things about the book that impresses me. It feels like the cream that got skimmed off the top. Thank you. You know, some of these poems have been around for a long time, but I still feel a connection with them. I’m glad they’re out. When people mention a particular poem that they enjoy, I’m glad for that. To wait this long, though, you really have to depend on the poems, and not on the experience that they are rooted in, so the poems have to stand up. I hope most of them do.
I think one notable thing is that you don’t just have an acknowledgements page where you list the poems that have been published previously; you have a whole section for that. Yes. I’ve been working over the years to submit to journals with higher standards as I go along. I think some of these journals are top journals, and some of these aren’t-you know, I was just finding my way-but I am happy for them all. I could have also written an acknowledgements section for the people who have helped me along the way. The community that the book represents is the richest part of the book. In 1989 I went to the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference and I took Perie Longo’s poetry workshop. It gave me a really important boost. To still know her and feel her encouragement over the years is very special.
When people tell you that they like a specific poem, which poems do they usually mention? Well, I got a letter from David Duncan, the novelist, today. He mentioned the poem “Rainbow Canyon.” It’s about John Muir. In his writing Muir is so ecstatic, but he’s a very hurting man. In that poem, I want to open a window on the suffering part of him. “Come as You Please” is about a grandmother dying in the hospital. I’ve had a number of people come up and seem genuinely appreciative of that poem. Who hasn’t gone through the death of someone elderly dying and the different feelings that brings?
You are doing a reading on June 1. What is it like to take the book and flip through it and think about what you are going to read? Of course, you think about the audience. The book is in four sections, and there is something in me that wants to read something from each section. The first section is about growing up in Oregon, the second section is a Sierra section, the third is making our home in Santa Barbara, and the fourth is the Santa Barbara backcountry section. In the title, Visiting Home, I think of home as wild and domestic in different places. It’s not simply a memoir. If the poems work at all, they need to remind the reader of their own sense of home-their own places-to mean something to them. I hope that’s how it works.
Paul Willis will read from Visiting Home as part of a poetry reading on Sunday, June 1, from 3-5 p.m. at the Wildling Museum in Los Olivos. The event is free. For more information, call 688-1082 or visit wildlingmuseum.org.