Roger Pfingston has made a significant, steady, and elegant contribution to Indiana poetry for decades. He had already developed an important, mature voice before I stumbled upon his work in 1978. The first book of his that I encountered, his chapbook, Nesting, exerted a profound impact on me and was pivotal in my development as a poet. Poems like “The New House Garden Baby Poem,” “The Last Sunflower,” and “Squash Pie” laid important groundwork, pointing me, as a then-young poet, toward a deeper attention both to nature and to what it means to write from one’s home ground, in this case, Indiana.
The focus of Roger’s poems is Indiana in both an intimate and expansive sense. His verse continues to explore dimensions of rural Indiana life, with particular attention to the forces of nature. It would be a mistake, however, to label Roger as simply a “regional” writer. His work is too expansive for that, his poetic cosmology too all-embracing. His eye is keen, the gestures of his poems invitational in ways that allow the reader to participate in a deep seeing. With this deepening of attention comes an enlargement of one’s psyche and, with that, a vision of Indiana and its plants and animals as emblematic of the larger biosphere. I love the way his poetry takes what at first appears to be merely “common” details, in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, and transforms these into profundity and insight. Whether he writes about a neighbor’s flower garden, “the sparrows’ sharp / chatter in and out of dark nests in the overhead beams,” his dog stealing a wedge of Brie cheese, a Cooper’s Hawk by his birdfeeder, or “the nodding silhouettes / of pumpjacks” in “southern Indiana, / just off Highway 57,” Roger’s eye presents the world as it is, without intrusion. This level of attention and respect also harkens back to the kind of seeing Thoreau modeled during his time at Walden Pond, and—just as that pond became both itself and something larger—Roger’s Indiana achieves a similar transparency as simultaneously “self” and “other.”
I hope you enjoy the poems and interview here. I find such generosity of spirit in both. Roger creates both private and public spaces of connection, as he does in the intimate setting of his poem, “The Cave,” published here, which concludes with just such a moment of intersection. He tells us, “we share with each other / the power of the cave.” I am very grateful for the depth of sharing his poems offer and for the primordial cave they recreate. I invite you into the world of Roger Pfingston.
Roger Pfingston was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana. After teaching English and photography for thirty years at the secondary level in Bloomington, he retired in 1997. His work these days can be found in Ted Kooser’s column, American Life in Poetry, DMQ Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Poetry East, Rhino, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Poems have also appeared in many anthologies, including And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011), Say This of Horses (University of Iowa Press, 2007), and 75 Poems on Retirement (University of Iowa Press, 2007). He has published ten chapbooks, including A Day Marked for Telling (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Singing to the Garden (Parallel Press, 2003), Earthbound (Pudding House Publications, 2003), and Nesting (Sparrow Press, 1978). His full-length collection of poems and stories is Something Iridescent (Barnwood Press, 1987). He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards. He has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. As a photographer, Pfingston has been exhibiting and publishing his photographs since the late sixties.
Late Elegy Driving past stargazer lilies, orange poppies, hostas, still glowing against the dark woods cupping his house, my wife and I marvel that it’s been twenty years since Sasha, the dog from across the road, found him on her morning rounds, her incessant barking at Max Eberhardt lying on top of the string stretched the length of his flower garden, marking where he had stopped the day before with his weeding. Max was a man of slow, precise behavior who kept his neighbors at bay, the talk among them wondering how he’d achieved such beauty without fail, the kids teasing, taking a cue from their parents, calling him Mr. Monkey Poop, the notion that his passion bloomed from deep layers of it, courtesy of the zoo where he worked until retirement, though no one I know ever dared to ask. Since then his house has gone through many hands, some not as caring as his, but still his flowers flourish as if face down dead had allowed a melding of sorts. Call it what you will, whatever your mind allows regarding the occult of rechanneled energy, Max Eberhardt remains a perennial presence, inviting pause and speculation. Reading with My New Kindle That I Said I Would Never Buy I’m sitting on a stone bench outside the Y reading from the free download of Whitman’s complete poems while waiting for my yogi wife, though it’s difficult what with the sparrows’ sharp chatter in and out of dark nests in the overhead beams, the little girl holding her mother’s hand and looking like one of Raphael’s angels asking if today is McDonald’s, and now here comes Ed Nagoski, still limping, a nice guy with a short memory who will tell me yet again about slips, trips, and falls, the most common perils of daily living, unless I curb his urge with something quick like some of Walt’s lines . . . The thin red jellies within you, or within me, the bones, and the marrow in the bones, the exquisite realization of health . . . which coincides with my wife’s appearance and Ed, still puzzled, has to say hello, and then, without pressing the matter hanging between us, I say something about a nice day and peel off for home holding my wife’s hand, though now she’s leaning in and asking what’s going on with Ed’s bones. Spur of the Moment For years it’s been his intention to suddenly veer off and take the road unintended, reduce his wife to a grinning stare that he would act on her repeated dares to venture over the rise or around the bend beyond the nodding silhouettes of pumpjacks: Oatsville, Westphalia . . . southern Indiana, just off Highway 57. See who lives where, farmhouse or trailer, skeletal structure of vague intent, maybe stop for a fried brain sandwich, poke around the antique stores for some dusty luck among the webbed shelves. Green sign up ahead, Buckskin 5 Miles, the glow on her face as they slow for the turn that will take them daringly off schedule, his tight-ass agenda be damned. Angel Because I walked to the kitchen window, drawn by the bright depth of a winter storm, I saw the silence of four deer passing, one pausing, stretching on hind legs to tongue seed out of the feeder where this morning the air was wild with fear and hunger when a Cooper’s Hawk— bent on taking a cardinal that burst free like a spurt of blood— settled for the slowness of a dove, the snow- blurred thrash of the raptor’s mantle spread like a child’s angel. Cartoon Last night Georgia ate the Brie, the whole damned piece, before our friends arrived. A black Lab in need of training, she caught us preoccupied with Ted the parakeet, trying to lure him out of the air and into his cage. Truth is, she might not have noticed the cheese and crackers, like dominoes all in a row, if Zeke the cat had not leapt from chair to chair swatting at a moth which set Georgia off in dumb pursuit past the coffee table spread with chips, dip, and, yes, cheese which she ate with such abandon, such canine glee, that we think our friends enjoyed the story (absence savored with a fine Shiraz) more than they might’ve that wedge of Brie. Midmorning Coming up out of my book . . . no, jerked up out of my book by the bothersome antics of crows in the poplar. Even Gracie, her feline ears ever alert, leaps to the highest bookshelf. Together we scan the tree, November bare, such fuss— though not so bad as the ATVs our neighbors become— until my eyes slide down to his white breast, a small barrel of a bird, seemingly unruffled by the mobbing, an angry sheen of seven heads determined to send this predator on his way which happens without warning when he pitches forward, wide- winged, pressed low to the ground by their clever dive-bombing, their cries alone enough to jangle even a raptor’s nerves, Gracie and I returning now to our respective pleasures: the book for me, for her the bay window, jaw trembling, objects of desire too quick to count, though one, just one, would do. Evening After an evening of reading to each other in the backyard, the cardinal flaming in and out of the lilac bush, they rise and touch, each helping the other into the house where photos silver the walls, where darkness doesn’t matter, so familiar the way. The Cave Ten to a boat, lantern and guide at the bow, we float out of August sun into the narrow cave. Our man in green sees us through, pushing gently with the oar, flashing as we go the slow fish degenerated blind and pale, drawn to the warmth of lantern light. Thick veins of flint protrude from the walls like petrified dinosaur tongues, insoluble to the acid that formed the cave down through the millennia. Few formations though one lunges at the boat like a mud-slick snowman. At the bend, turning back in four feet of water, the guide asks for silence, then blackens the lantern. In total darkness my five-year-old son fumbles for my hand as we share with each other the power of the cave.
Mapping the Flora and Fauna of Our Lives: An Interview with Roger Pfingston
By George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras: Roger, good to have your poetry in The Wabash Watershed. It’s good, as well, to have some conversation with you about your work. Why don’t we start with your sources of inspiration? What motivates and compels you to write? Why, would you say, you’ve chosen poetry as a vocation?
Roger Pfingston: Thanks, George. It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty-five years since we first met in Bloomington. It was great seeing you and many of my longtime poet friends at the reading in Fort Wayne.
Even though I’ve always been a reader from early on in my life, I really didn’t consider poetry in a meaningful, inspirational way until I showed up at IU as a freshman in 1958, when I came under the influence of quite a mixed bag of writers. I was a journalism major with an English minor, thinking at the time that I wanted to be a photojournalist. There I was in Bloomington with more freedom than I’d ever known, and suddenly I found myself reading everything but what I should’ve been reading for my classes. At the Men’s Quad, I actually kept a box of books at my bedside which included Whitman, the Beats (as represented by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, and Snyder), and many other poets, including Creeley, who (like some of the Beats) showed up in Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. At the same time, I was also reading William Carlos Williams and Dylan Thomas. It was Thomas, in particular, who dazzled me with the possibilities and joy of language tightly rendered in the form of a poem. I nearly flunked out my freshman year as I was so distracted by everything, including the Book Nook on Kirkwood Avenue, which quickly became a fascinating “classroom” of sorts. Another wonderful distraction was the Periodicals Room in the IU Library where I came across the Little Magazines. What an adventure that was over the course of my undergraduate years, imagining my own work, as I began to write, in some of those publications. Eventually I moved on to the more lasting influences of Roethke, Bly, Mary Oliver’s early and mid-career work, especially the prose poems, William Stafford, and an anthology that became a bible of sorts for me, Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, edited by Lucian Stryk.
I suppose I am “a poet of place,” though most poets are to one degree or another. In recent years I think narrative has become more important to my poems, usually bits and pieces of “stories” shared in casual conversation with friends and family, or sometimes a news item. I love it when someone simply says something beautifully uncommon, a quick note that just keeps sounding in my ear until I know I have to see if I can play it beyond its brevity, though brevity is a gift, too. As much as I enjoy narrative, I also remain fond of short poems, the “quick take” like a snapshot . . . you get in, and you get out. Photography has served me well over the decades as a source of poems, though back in the seventies and eighties when I was writing quite a few photography poems, I was not acquainted with the term “ekphrastic.”
I chose poetry for the pleasure it gave early on and still gives at the age of seventy-four, the pleasure of shaping a collection of words to a form that seems appropriate in spite of the shapeless mishap it appeared to be through countless revisions. My wife does crossword puzzles; I do poems.
GK: That’s a fascinating journey, Roger, and it serves to demonstrate how seeming “side-trips” can eventually blossom into the path that most nurtures us. Photography appears to be more that a side-trip for you, though. From what I recall, you were and remain quite skilled at it. Can you talk a bit about what the art of taking photographs has given to your poetry? Also, how has it shaped your consciousness and perception in general?
RP: George, it’s true that for most of my life I’ve been “guilty” of creative bigamy, meaning that I am a photographer as well as a poet, a keeper of two muses. I found photography while still in high school, a precursor of sorts to the poetry that came a few years later. Both, of course, require a “good eye” for detail, attention to composition, and quite often considerable tinkering. I remember reading a Raymond Carver interview (or it might’ve been one of his essays) in which he said tinkering with a poem or short story was his favorite part of the writing process. I feel that way myself . . . usually. You have to be careful that you don’t tinker something to death!
In many respects I think poetry and photography complement each other. I will photograph anything that catches my eye, but over the past fifty years I’ve had an ongoing interest in the imagery of landscape. I think that what has guided and sustained my work as a photographer is curiosity, the desire to see what something looks like as a photograph. I’ve always been fascinated by the “what it is, what it isn’t” factor of photography—how the literal becomes figurative by changing the angle of view or the distance from the subject. Or how the transforming qualities of light . . . soft, harsh, subtle . . . can redefine the subject. It’s said that a photographer should never be without his camera, and it’s true that I’ve kicked myself more than once for missing a shot, that fraction of a second, although I will concede that landscape can be more accommodating than some fleeting moment on the street. What it all adds up to, I think, is heightened awareness, and what a grand feeling that is . . . truly a gift.
GK: I know very well that practice of tinkering that you mention. And, yes, it takes a good eye and ear to know when the poem is complete so that we keep riding the wave of the poem just long enough without stripping the life out of it. What about the opposite end of the process? Can you describe how you come to a poem (or how a poem comes to you), and what the initial and middle phases of composing are like for you? In other words, how do you begin a poem? What happens in your life and/or consciousness as you begin, and how do things evolve as you move into the middle phases of composition—prior to later revision work?
RP: George, even after more than fifty years of writing poems, I find it odd that I have to stop and really think about that process, a question that comes up often, whether in casual conversation or in a more structured context such as a textbook or an interview. As I’ve said elsewhere, who can ever be absolutely sure of a poem’s genesis, but I suspect it’s usually a serendipitous process for most poets, myself included, whether it’s a visual stimulus, which it often is for me, or something overheard, or—even more magical— misheard. I think the poem, initially, comes to me as opposed to my going in search of it in some specific way such as a prompt, although I’m certainly not opposed to prompts or any similar method of starting a poem. Memory, of course, is the greatest gift, something triggered by something else, a flash that sets me scribbling, although I have to admit that just as I used to always compose at the typewriter, I do the same these days at the computer. My handwriting is appalling, undecipherable even to my own eyes a day or two later.
Sometimes it’s another poet’s work that can do it for me, open channels, so to speak, invite me to join in. It just occurred to me that there is an exercise I used in my creative writing classes when I was still teaching that involved “borrowing” a line from another poet’s work that appeals for whatever reason. I asked my students to use that line as a starting point, let it take them wherever, and then eventually see if their own poems could stand alone without the borrowed line. Nothing new, of course. On occasion I’ve come across published poems based on a similar exercise: a poem “after” a line by another poet. I’ve tried it a few times in my own poems myself.
One of the “middle phases of composition” for me is to offer the poem to my reading group for critiquing, which takes place once a month. I was “between” reading groups at one point in my life and thought at that time I was far enough along that I really didn’t need that sort of thing. Ha! As I’ve said to them more than once, I have never ever come away from one of our meetings without something gained, something for me to reconsider, no matter how minor. I learned early on that sometimes I can be so close, so focused on the new poem—assuming or overlooking things—that I just want to slap my head during the critiquing and ask myself what I had been thinking. There’s also much to be said for putting a poem aside for a while, give it and yourself (one and the same, of course) a cooling period. More often than not, it pays off.
And finally, about offering your work to others for appraisal during the initial phases of composition, I remember something the poet Philip Levine said years ago at the IU Writers’ Conference, and I’m paraphrasing: Don’t try to respond to or argue for or against something that someone has said about your poem. Just listen, take it in, consider it, and use only what you find of value, if anything.
GK: That’s an intriguing process. I also agree that having feedback from others is essential—but it has to be at the right moments in the process and from the right people. It’s vitally important to seek community and find those with whose energy one is in synch, and it’s a rare gift when we find the right readers. You strike me as particularly fortunate to have had a good poetry group for several decades. I know I’d be nowhere without my own close readers.
I’d like to shift gears a bit and discuss the importance of Indiana as subject matter in your poems, as inspiration, and as—it seems to me—a kind of extended, ongoing metaphor for your consciousness (i.e., in terms of the latter, the importance of “place” for you as not only a physical terrain but also as an emotional and psychological arena). I think back, even, to your chapbook, Nesting, which, as you know, I bought at the old Howard’s Bookstore in Bloomington in 1978 or 1979, near when the book first appeared. Indiana holds an important place in that book (and in your later work as well). Can you speak a bit about the role Indiana plays in your poetry and in your poetics? How, as well, has Indiana, as a region, affected your consciousness?
RP: Yes, George, I’m Indiana born and raised with definite emotional and psychological ties, my only extended period out of state being the two years I spent at the Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, Virginia. I’m tempted to get a little sappy about it and call it the consciousness of home. I can’t help thinking of the famous Williams quote, “No ideas but in things.” I’m sure that how and where I grew up played an important role in shaping my attention to the natural world. Even though I was born in a fairly large city in southern Indiana, I spent my early years living and playing near a large wooded area, which was split down its lengthy middle by Pigeon Creek. Behind our house was a truck farm where guineas and a jungle of vegetables offered both visual and audible delights for a young boy and his buddies out looking for adventures. That, coupled with frequent visits to farm country near Chrisney and Rockport, Indiana, where my mother’s family lived, created some profound impressions with regard to the Indiana environment. It’s interesting, too, that I married a woman from a similar environment, the tiny town of Hoopeston, Illinois, once known as the sweet corn capital of the world. A city person I am not! And yet, I want to emphasize that I certainly don’t consider myself any kind of expert on the natural world.
My wife and I were married in 1962 shortly after I entered the navy, and we settled in Bloomington at the end of my enlistment. As luck and preference would have it, we found a house not in but at the edge of town, and even though urban sprawl has encroached somewhat on our one-acre haven over the past forty years, we still enjoy the woods in front of us and the woods in back—with neighbors on either side as a nice compromise. And even after forty plus years, it’s still exhilarating to look out the back window on a fall morning to see a flock of turkeys or half a dozen deer feasting on the apples of a tree felled by straight-line winds, its tangle of roots still joined to the earth, keeping it alive, looking more like an apple bush than a tree. As you might guess, I’ve written about that tree more than once, literally and figuratively, how it continues to endure and sustain even in its “fallen state.”
I feel a little evasive regarding your question, George, but to be honest about it, it’s hard for me to get metaphysical about place. It feels more like a matter of circumstance based on “what’s given,” which, by the way, is the title of a full-length book that I’m just beginning to put together, long overdue. I can only hope that my poems are not so tethered to the Indiana region that they have no resonance beyond the state line.
GK: I don’t find your poems limited by region at all. It was Gaston Bachelard who once said, in The Poetics of Space, something to the effect of, “the narrower the ray, the deeper the vision.” I find your intense focus (upon an animal, or your backyard, or a highway in Indiana—to cite only a few instances) a vehicle toward greater depth and profundity.
What would you say is your goal—or what are your goals—as a poet? What do you hope to accomplish with this work of words in which you engage?
RP: George, this may be the briefest of my responses to your questions because I really don’t have a list of goals; in fact, my primary goal may be to keep tapping the “inner well” as long as possible with poems that I hope are honest, accurate, inventive, and ultimately meaningful and of value first and foremost to me, but also, at some juncture, to someone else in a universal way. I’ve sometimes felt a tinge of guilt that I’m not more “political” in my poems, although I try to keep in mind something that I heard Robert Creeley say many years ago, and he may’ve been quoting someone else, that putting pen to paper is a revolutionary act in itself. More recently, I was reading an issue of Poetry East and came across this stanza in a poem by the Armenian poet Gevorg Emin: “The true poet, are you? / Then carry your century’s burden / even if it kills you.” That’s quite a challenge, and one, I think, that would give any poet pause with regard to goals.
GK: I think most poets don’t have a list, so I’m relieved you don’t! It seems to me that most writers tend to boil their goals down to one or two reasons or pursuits. Like you, I’ve always felt that it’s the practice of writing itself that is important—for me, it’s engaging it as an attentiveness practice, which Gary Snyder alludes to when he calls the writing of poetry “the real work.”
To shift gears—and speaking of “attention”—I notice you have several references to birds and others of the animal kingdom (wild and domesticated) in your poems. On one level they are there, no doubt, because your work is deeply grounded in a presentation of what you “see” (in an immediate sense). But are there other reasons for their inclusion?
RP: Absolutely, George. Animals do pepper my poems, and I’m thankful for what they teach us, sometimes entertaining us in the process, befriending us at times as we would, and do, them. This probably sounds a little hokey, but on several occasions this fall my wife and I were entranced by the derring-do of a groundhog, his impressive posture at the very dangerous edge of the road, his paws to his mouth, feeding that thick body of his and staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious of the traffic streaming by. After several sightings, he disappeared, and my wife and I are trusting that he is safely tucked away for the winter. I love it that the groundhog, also commonly known as the woodchuck, has other, lesser known names of whistle-pig and land beaver. How could a poet not be drawn to such names?
Thanks to my wife, who pretty much deals with the birdfeeders, both seed and suet, just a few feet outside our dining room window, we are delighted and informed by the habits of these creatures, most of them daily returnees as we have breakfast or dinner. The past few years, though, we’ve been treated to the presence of a couple—meaning paired, married, committed—of pileated woodpeckers. To look out and see such a bird, only a few feet away, not pecking but hacking and chopping away at a square of suet, is akin to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time as far as I’m concerned.
So, here I am, caught up again in the “immediate sense” as you say, of the fauna of Indiana, the church of the flora and the fauna of a region. Finally, I guess I would say, it’s nature’s presence and a kind of alliance with it that has nurtured me since my early days, not in any big dramatic way with exotic journeys, but mostly in my own backyard.
GK: Like you, I couldn’t resist “whistle-pig” and “land beaver” (I, in fact, just had to use those names now, conversing with you!). And, no, your description of the groundhog doesn’t sound hokey at all, Roger. Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without the animal world, which always seems to be there, talking in its ancient animal tongue back into me. In some ways, this is what helps position your poems as regional for me—and not merely in a narrow, contractive sense of “regional.” What I mean is that your work has universal appeal, but it’s grounded in the immediate environment, as I’ve said before. I really admire that, as it brings the Midwest, Indiana, and your own backyard into wider relationship with the larger sphere—which, of course, it already is.
Speaking of extending our relationships, what advice might you offer younger poets now coming of age? How might they best serve themselves as they embark on this long road of poetic apprenticeship on which writers find themselves?
RP: For me “poetic apprenticeship” has connotations of time, the long haul, and the sometimes confusing but exciting task of choosing our mentors (though it may be they choose us?) as we read the poets we are drawn to. “Read,” of course, is the key word. When I was teaching I found it interesting in a scratch-your-head way that some of my high school students would bring me their poems to read and respond to, and I always asked which poets they liked and what were they reading. It wasn’t unusual for some of them to say, well, they really didn’t like poetry that much, or they really didn’t read poetry, and yet they felt the need to express something in a poem. Well, I thought, that’s honest enough, and honesty, as I said earlier in the interview, is one step of the process. I would point them in the direction of this or that poet, maybe a good anthology
of contemporary poets in which they might discover someone who “spoke” to them. Of course, just because some young person writes a poem or two or a whole series of poems over an extended period, it doesn’t mean that’s the way for them, even if they’re surprisingly good. It might take a while to find out that it’s right for them. After trial and error, we humans tend to gravitate to that which we do well, which means we experience the pleasure of accomplishment, self worth, etc., so why wouldn’t we return to it again and again, which brings me back to time and commitment with poetry. I remember something the poet Felix Stefanile said a lot of years ago, when he was teaching at Purdue, that it takes a poet twenty years at least to find his or her voice. (Some “older poets” may remember that Felix was the editor of Sparrow magazine and the editor/publisher of the chapbook series, Sparrow Poverty Pamphlets.)
One other thing I would suggest to younger poets is to avoid working in a vacuum. Be ready and willing to share and critique work with poet friends, even non-poet friends for the wider perspective. Poets like Robert Bly, Donald Hall, James Wright, and Maxine Kumin did this for decades, and from all reports, it served them well.
So, that’s sort of a long-winded response to your question. I have to say, though, I continue to be impressed with the quality of work from the younger poets, the women in particular. May they endure!
Thanks, George, for inviting me to do this interview which, by the way, has been one of the more demanding challenges of my writing life! As you said in the beginning, “We’re off to the races, my friend!”