David Wagoner has been the writer in residence at the Richard Hugo House since 2005. He's been a teacher for 59 years and he's taught poetry for most of that time. He's written 10 novels and hundreds of poems. All this is to say that, even though he's a gentle man who speaks in slow, thoughtful sentences with an air of bemusement, David Wagoner is hardcore.
Wagoner was taught by Theodore Roethke, the man who he says single-handedly brought poetry to the Northwest. When the University of Washington imported Roethke from Michigan State University to Seattle in 1947, Wagoner says, there wasn't "another poet within 500 miles."
It's Wagoner's claim that we live in a landscape populated by Roethke, by "his students and his students' students and by their students in turn," and that the Seattle area is now "as rich in poetry as San Francisco used to be," in the time of the Beats. This isn't true—no local poet is doing the work that the Beats did to bring poetry to the general public—but it's indicative of Wagoner's enthusiasm. It's the kind of hyperbole that a ringmaster brings to a circus.
Though the interview is ostensibly to discuss what poetry should be recommended to people who don't read poetry, Wagoner is quick to reject the premise: "It's hard to tell anybody that poetry might be useful to them." Is that why it's possibly as unpopular now as it's ever been? Wagoner blames the way poetry "goes wobbling around" in the unconscious, bumping into raw thoughts and fears. It's kind of a perfect poet's explanation for why people don't read poetry. Wagoner also suggests that bad teachers are slowly killing poetry, in part by making children put the poems into their own words. "They might as well have the students make a schematic drawing of a painting," he says.
Wagoner's latest play, Mr. Thoreau Tonight, will get a staged reading this weekend at the Hugo House. Wagoner has a theory that Thoreau could have been a contender as a poet: "If he had a good poetry workshop, Thoreau could have been as good as Emily Dickinson." Wagoner pauses and corrects himself. "Or almost as good." He reflects for a moment, and you can almost see a memory of a Dickinson poem behind his eyes as he says in a whisper, "She was awfully good."
There will be staged readings of Mr. Thoreau Tonight at the Richard Hugo House, Fri–Sat April 25–26, 7:30 pm, $12.