Paul J. Willis served as Santa Barbara Poet Laureate from 2011-13. He is a professor of English at Westmont College. Born in Fullerton, California, he grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. Paul earned a BA in biblical studies from Wheaton College in Illinois and a PhD in English from Washington State University. His dissertation explored the topic of the forest in Shakespeare. Paul’s passions for teaching and the forest merged in his work as a mountain guide in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. After teaching part-time at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and full-time at Houghton College in western New York, he arrived at Westmont in 1988.
Adrienne Rich chose one of Paul’s poems for The Best American Poetry series, and Garrison Keillor has read his poetry on the Writer’s Almanac. Jane Hirshfield selected his chapbook The Deep and Secret Color of Ice for publication by the Small Poetry Press. Four of his poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Paul writes book reviews for Books & Culture, Anglican Theological Review, and Christianity and Literature. He currently serves as book review editor for Ruminate
Paul Willis lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Sharon, a registered nurse who also works at Westmont College. They met in Yosemite National Park and return when they can. Paul and Sharon have a grown son and daughter.
POETRY AS LAUREATE
Paul Willis responded to the following questions in 2014 in an online interview with Felice Tsui.
Did you set any goals for your term as poet laureate? Were you able to achieve them during your term?
According to the Santa Barbara Arts Advisory Committee, the Poet Laureate ‘shall seek to advance awareness of and appreciation for literary arts and humanities’. How do you think you raise awareness of and instill appreciation for literary arts and humanities?
First of all, I wanted my poems to be as good as I could make them. If you are going to ask people to listen, it had better be to something worth listening to. Second, I created a number of readings and panels and lectures and workshops throughout each year, sometimes involving people who might not always get their chance in the limelight. In the main, I was opportunistic. One of my favorite experiences was introducing and interviewing the poet Mary Oliver at a UCSB Arts & Lectures event in Campbell Hall. The auditorium was packed, and I had the sense that I was able, if only in a small way, to help connect her to her audience.
What programs did you establish to promote the community awareness of literary arts and to encourage the development of personal creative interests? What strategies did you use in your programs to cultivate this sense of awareness and appreciation for the literary arts?
Since 2007 I had hosted an annual reading of the poems of William Stafford on the site of the Los Prietos Civilian Public Service Camp in Los Padres National Forest. This is where he served as a conscientious objector during World War II. As poet laureate I continued to host this gathering and used my position to raise funds for a permanent outdoor display about the poet and the camp. (See attached image.) The display was erected in November 2012, and it had the unforeseen effect of creating a revival of interest in poetry at the nearby Los Prietos Boys Camp. The school decided to create their own laureate position (since Stafford was both our national and Oregon poet laureate), and the boy who was chosen took part in our gathering in 2014.
Partway through my tenure, I took over the thrice-yearly Santa Barbara Poetry Series at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This series goes back to the early 1990s, when it was founded by David Oliveira. I reverted to a format used by Chryss Yost, our current laureate, when she ran the series. At each reading I invite a younger local poet, a more established local poet, and a recognized visiting poet. I think it has been particularly fine to watch the twenty-something poets have their chance to read with the others.
The Poet Laureate may be asked to write poems for specific events. What were some requests that stood out for you? Any favorites? Most surprising?
Sister Susan Blomstad asked me to write a poem for the 225th anniversary of Mission Santa Barbara. I took that on with trepidation, as that is our iconic structure that means many different things to many different people. I managed to acknowledge some of the negative aspects—the mistreatment of the Chumash, the more recent abuse of boys at the school—with the obvious spiritual care that the mission has provided our community. Mixing the dark and the light in that way made the poem more real.
On the 225th Year of Mission Santa Barbara
After our house burned down in the Tea Fire,
we rented a place on Laguna Street a few blocks
below the Mission. In the mornings I’d walk
the dog to the rose garden and through the high grass
of the meadow underneath the bell towers,
desperately in need of their blessing.
I took comfort in knowing they had been there
for a long time, shadowing others in their search
for certainty, for something in their lives that would stay.
Oh, I know those towers crumbled in an earthquake in 1925,
and whatever had preceded them was reduced
to rubble in 1812. And I also know that the Chumash
were not altogether grateful to be herded into these precincts
and forced to build that fern-covered dam on the creek.
And the long abuse of those boys at the school—
I know about that too. But driving home from work
that winter, I often chose the longer route
that brought me down the canyon to that graceful turn
around those towers rising above the rusty leaves
of sycamore in the last of the sun, my gaze
falling across the lawn to the tile rooftops of our city,
the ocean beyond, the islands glinting like a promise.
And I would think of those many friars, most of them
so patient and humble, so full of faith, so dedicated
to those who came to place their burdens on the warm stone
of these steps that lead out from that sanctuary
to the rest of this beautiful, suffering world.
A challenge with any occasional poem is to find a way to be both publicly appropriate and personally authentic. My wife and I had lived near the Mission after we lost our house in the 2008 Tea Fire. That gave me a personal connection to the place that also helped the poem along. The poem has a kind of meditative quality to it and became a favorite for me. It is called “On the 225th Year of Mission Santa Barbara” (attached).
Captain David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara Fire Department asked me to write a poem for a ceremony in the Courthouse Sunken Garden to mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The ceremony was to honor those first responders in uniform who had lost their lives on that day. At first I thought I should research everything I had neglected to learn about 9/11. Then I realized that the recurring image I had in my head—that we all carry in our heads—was enough. This is the image of the firefighters making their way up the stairs of the World Trade Center, never to return. I wrote a very simple, call-and-response, repetitive poem for this event, “FDNY,” and was surprised at how evocative it was.
And did they climb those stairs?
They did. Oh yes, they did.
Oh yes, they did.
And did they find their duty there?
They did. Oh yes, they did.
And when those towers fell, what then?
What did become of them?
They kept on climbing. Yes, they did.
With all their heart, with all their will,
They kept on climbing still.
And are they climbing even now?
And are they climbing now?
Oh yes, they are. They’re climbing there.
On stairs and towers everywhere,
In boots and hats and heavy fare
They keep on climbing through that air
To do their duty there.
And do they still, with right good will?
Oh yes, they do, for me, for you.
They keep on climbing for they care
To do their dusty duty there.
And shall we bless them full and fair?
We shall, oh yes, we shall, we shall,
We shall bless them everywhere.
We do bless them full and fair,
Because oh yes, because oh yes,
Because they still do climb those stairs.
Some poets refuse to write poems on demand. It is true that some of these poems will not be your best work, but some of them can bring you into territory you never would have entered had you not been asked. So I am grateful for both the responsibility and opportunity of writing these poems.
How did your past experiences and works in poetry prepare you for the position of Poet Laureate?
It helped me to have been a teacher for over thirty years. (I had lost my stage fright years ago.) And it helped as well to have been an active reader and writer of poetry for many years.
Were there any challenges you faced during your term? If so, how did you overcome them?
After a while I realized I didn’t have to attend every community poetry event or implement every idea that someone pressed upon me. You have to pace yourself in any public role. April could be particularly difficult, as that is the last month of the school year at Westmont, where I teach, but also a very full month of poetry events in Santa Barbara. Since Barry Spacks, we have celebrated national poetry month in a big way in our town.
How were you inspired by past poet laureates, if at all?
I had the highest respect for the past three poet laureates—Barry, Perie, and David. Their intelligence, craft, warmth, and humor were an inspiration to me. At the same time, they gave me freedom to chart my own path. I do like the flexibility of the role.
What would you say to readers who find poetry difficult?
Don’t demand total comprehension of a poem. At the same time, gravitate toward those poems that seem somewhat accessible to you. Poetry is at a halfway point between essay and music. The words have meaning, but the sound has value as well. You wouldn’t ask someone who has gone to the symphony what it was about.
What is the most important aspect you’ve learned from being Poet Laureate?
While in this position I thought quite a bit about what it means to be a poet to and for a community. The Romantics—and we are still heir to the Romantics—conceived of themselves as individuals somewhat apart from society, responsible mainly to express whatever was within them. To function as a poet laureate I had to think more in terms of a Neoclassical poet like Ben Jonson. Jonson was very conscious of propping up a right order in society, administering praise and blame to individuals and institutions all around him. In writing a poem for the opening of Granada Books on State Street, I in fact wrote a poem in direct imitation of Jonson, cheering the advent of a new independent bookstore.
After reading a poem at the beginning of a city council meeting, I was told by someone, “That felt like a prayer.” It dawned on me then that just a generation ago, it would have been a local minister who would have been called upon to open such a meeting in prayer, and that I was doing some of the same things in a poem—gathering our collective attention with a few well-chosen words and calling us to some higher good. After that, I came to think of my role as that of a secular chaplain. I was more conscious of wanting to touch and encourage my listeners. And insofar as some of these listeners were aspiring poets themselves, I found it especially important to use my role to encourage these people in their efforts, just as others had encouraged me.