This summer, Seattle is turning a light on its most corpulent, exuberant, cranky poet: Theodore Roethke. There's First Class, a one-person play about him, opening at ACT in July, with postshow readings and concerts. And, Wednesday, July 11, the Roethke Symposium, with speakers—Lyall Bush of Hugo House, Kurt Beattie of ACT, and others—and a preview scene of First Class. In honor of his honoring, Roethke, who turned 99 this May, granted The Stranger a rare few minutes' conversation.
How are you this morning?
I'm depressed. I wish I liked Henry James.
What's wrong with Henry James?
If I could but respect prose!
You don't like any prose?
The essence of prose is to perish—that is to say, to be "understood."
Which writers do you like?
Anonymous is my favorite author.
Does it make you uncomfortable to be a famous poet who has written famous poems?
Many famous poems are simply landmarks of bad taste. We all long to create a great dreary masterpiece that everyone will have to pretend to read.
But you've certainly been read. Wednesday there's a symposium where a bunch of people will sit around and talk about your poetry.
Poetry, like God, is the subject of too much conversation by unformed minds.
But isn't it flattering?
I don't think anybody ever yearned more for a public than I did.
Do you ever think about your legacy?
The leading under-the-stone poet of our time.
What do you think of First Class, the play by David Wagoner, one of your former students at the University of Washington?
He's always no more than a stone's throw from a true bone, right where it is, he hits me where I used to live and where I am now.
There was also an article about you by Brendan Kiley in this paper a few months ago—
Even a bad piece of writing can have its own mysterious life, and be a fascination.
You're kind of famous for hating journalists and critics.
I have said uncharitable things even in sleep about every critic that has ever wrote.
"Behold the critic, pitched like the castrati,/Imperious youngling, though approaching forty;/He heaps few honors on a living head;/He loves himself, and the illustrious dead;/He pipes, he squeaks, he quivers through his nose—/Some cannot praise him: I am one of those."
You're handy with the insults.
Put it this way: I detest dogs but adore wolves.
Do you have a favorite insult?
"All the charm of a doorknob in a public toilet."
Poetry readings: great or excruciating?
There are those who feel that a poetry reading should take on the nature of high mass: the utter, the absolute, dead silence, the dimming of lights, the sudden drawing back of the flap curtain, and there the poet under a single spot, stark naked. But personally I feel that the Catholics and the Episcopalians do it better—and why compete?
Do you enjoy giving readings?
I always wonder, when I'm on the podium, why I am there: I really belong in some dingy poolhall under the table.
There don't seem to be enough funny poets writing today.
As usual, there's more garbage than cans.
This is kind of a clichéd question, but as a longtime teacher, do you have advice for young writers?
An eager young coed was poised with her pencil. "What is the most interesting phenomenon in American poetry, Mr. Roethke?" "What I do next," he said, abandoning her for a ham sandwich. "My Gaad, he's rude," she said. No, he's just hungry. His tapeworm just had a nervous breakdown.
That's not very encouraging.
In our age, if a boy or girl is untalented, the odds are in favor of their thinking they want to write.
Your writing also has some serious elements, some spiritual content. Are you a religious person?
I'd like to take every saint and personally re-fry him. I'm sure God is bored with organized religion. The great mystery of Christianity is how it has lasted so long. Does God want all that attention?
You don't think He yearns for a public, too?
Lord, hear me out, and hear me out this day: From me to Thee's a long and terrible way.
At least you've got your health.
Like I once wrote: "The stethoscope tells what everyone fears: You're likely to go on living for years."
The Roethke Symposium takes place at ACT's Bullitt Cabaret (700 Union St) on Wed July 11 at 7:30 pm, and it's free. Roethke's "answers" above are culled from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Doubleday, 1975) and Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke (Copper Canyon Press, 2006).