Mar 24 04 by Published in: Interviews No comments yet

Poet Paul Willis experiences the world out of doors.

He likens his work to the artistic school of “plein air”, requiring canvas and paints be set up outside to directly experience what is happening. It’s while backpacking and climbing in the Sierras he can notice the bloom of mustard weed or the path glaciers once cut into stone.

And he concedes, when asked, he will even accept the label of  “nature poet,” as if the human relationship to nature is something rare to be compartmentalized.

“Maybe it indicates what an indoor society we’ve become,” he said. “As if inside is really where it happens.”

Growing up in the wide-open spaces of the American West, Willis said he often feels claustrophobic when he travels to eastern cities. But he hopes Lancaster’s open farmland will help give him the same feeling as the deserts, mountains and prairies of his home landscape.

He comes to Elizabethtown College tonight to give a free reading from his works at 8 p.m. at the Brinser Lecture Room in Steinman Hall. The reading is open to the public.

Willis sees his poetry as making connections.

“A good poem is like a gift and should be given generously,” he said. “There’s something sacramental about it, a vehicle for something good that can be received by the reader, the offering.”

For Willis, nature often becomes a point of reference or a foil, reflecting a human experience.

“Wallace Stevens said ‘Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.’ I think we write because we’re searching for connection or solace or grounding,” he said.

Giving public readings of his work allows Willis to have a deeper sense of connection with his audience.

“When I go to a poetry reading, I find there’s some sort of unnamable pleasure and satisfaction that can happen from the experience, a deeper way of thinking of ourselves as human beings,” he said. “Any good piece of literature enhances our awareness of relationships to God, to other people, to the natural world.”

By “inhabiting the work as I read it, attending to every phrase and giving myself to a poem,” Willis hopes to make that connection.

“It’s a matter of being present with words, that helps listeners be present within themselves,” he said. “The paradox of writing is that the more particular it is, the more possibility of the universal it becomes. What makes a poem work, is if people think of their own experience. Then the poem is a gift.”

A professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, Willis is the author of two chapbooks, Poison Oak (Mille Grazie Press, 1999) and The Deep and Secret Color of Ice (Small Poetry Press, 2003).  His work has appeared in Poetry, Wilderness, Best American Poetry 1996, and Best Spiritual Writing 1999.


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