Editor Carolyn Kuebler talks with Robert Stothart, who comes to the New England Review from Wyoming with his essay “Magpies” (37.4). He speaks of learning to write essays, of boyhood days at his uncle’s funeral home, teaching composition to Nooksack students (and listening to their parents), and living where the music of the coyotes mingles with Mozart to fill the night with sound.
CK: Your essay “Magpies” brings together numerous seemingly disparate strands: Heckle and Jeckle, Stephen Crane, Asbury Park, the Three Stooges, and the Black Eyes of the Taos Pueblo. All this and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” Did this essay come together over a long period of time? How did you follow the thread from one thing to another?
RS: “Magpies” took years. The first strand came in the mid-seventies when I was an undergraduate at Western Washington University. While studying John Berryman’s love sonnets, I came across his biography of Stephen Crane. Intrigued by what seemed an odd mix of sensibilities, I started the biography and within a few pages came across Crane’s boyhood vision of black figures on black horses charging out of the surf at Asbury Park, New Jersey. I was taken back immediately to my childhood summers at my uncle’s funeral home in Asbury Park, three blocks from that same stretch of coastline. Crane’s haunting vision occurred in the place of some of my fondest memories.
My graduate work at the University of Washington was in poetry. David Wagoner, one of my teachers, said that I wasn’t finding a true voice in verse and suggested I try my hand at prose. He recommended reading D. H. Lawrence’s essays. It was one of those initially deflating conversations that lead eventually to a better world, though it took several years. When I started working with the wide-ranging, brash, and sometimes tortured writing in freshmen composition classes, I realized that the essay offered a vehicle for my own peculiar way of thinking. So I made the move.
“Magpies” started coming together while listening to Hot Tuna’s cover of Blind Gary Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” I’d recently lost my father and several dear friends:
He’ll come to your house and he won’t stay long.
You look in the bed and your mother will be gone.
Death never takes a vacation in this land.
The odd thing was that my uncle’s funeral home was my vacation spot as a kid. That song and memories of Asbury Park brought death and raucous life together in ways I wanted to pursue. My uncle’s house, the gaudy boardwalk, Crane’s vision, and Larry Fine’s sad face offered a way into my adult experience. And what better guide than the magpie—the child’s cartoon version to start out, the real trickster bird taking over.
Pieces move in an odd rhapsody in the last sections as I begin to eye my own mortality after the doctor sees something suspicious on my lungs and I think of my Methodist aunt at the feast of San Geronimo at Taos. Things started flying into place at that point. In fact, my task became one of cutting away.
Emily Dickinson’s poem took its place as frame near the end of the writing. “The carriage held but just ourselves” recalled my uncle’s black motorcades. I ask Dickinson’s hymn-like poem to take on odd fragments out of my life.
CK: You mentioned in our correspondence that you taught for Northwest Indian College at its extension site for the Nooksack Tribe in Deming, Washington. Can you tell us about your experience teaching literature and composition to Native students?
After five years of teaching in East Coast boarding schools, my job at Nooksack forced me deeper into the vocation of teaching. I couldn’t teach merely from assumptions and models I’d been given; I had to start by listening carefully to students and their communities—their Nooksack world and the white world. Emmanuel Vigil, valedictorian of Santa Fe Indian School’s class of 2016 described it best, “We are indigenous people in a world of western thinking.”
I had many duties. I tutored Nooksack kids in their classrooms and at the tribal center. I worked with adults on basic skills and GED preparation. I taught remedial English, two levels of freshmen composition, and Native American Literature. I watched the learning process at all ages and with students who were successful in traditional education and those who were not. I realized two things: Native people, including very small children, hold a deep sense of their culture, while knowing that their culture has been disregarded and disrupted by non-Native education and power. Second, I discovered all students are natural readers and writers. Writing to meet curricular standards isn’t always the best starting point.
One morning, a mother of one of the more traditional Nooksack students met me in the tribe’s parking lot. She told me in no uncertain terms to wake up and listen closer to the tribe’s kids and to their moms and dads. What’s more, she pointed out, it was my job to teach the schools to listen and not just follow rules. There are big differences between us, she said. After that, Althea and I became great friends. We exchanged emails after I left the tribe in 2000 until her death just two months ago. She took a couple of my classes. I miss her words. Althea Roberts taught me to listen, a fundamental lesson that comes in many ways from Native people and their traditions: Sitting Bull’s vision prior to Little Bighorn was of cavalry men falling out of the sky. They had no ears. Joy Harjo tells about the trickster Rabbit making a clay man who starts pillaging other people’s land and food and can’t be called back because Rabbit forgot to make the clay man ears.
I learned the intricacies of the texts from the Nooksack people. Our classes were small and usually contained both traditional and non-traditional participants. The exchanges were at times heated but always illuminating. Aside from giving some genre and biographical background and posing questions, I sat and listened.
For a few terms, I also taught classes for the Indian College at the Upper Skagit Tribe south of Nooksack. This was a terrific group of mostly older students. One spring, we read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. They followed Erdrich’s characters and stories as they would a soap opera. Our class turned into a gossip session on Marie and Nector Kasphaw, Sister Leopolda, Lipsha Morrissey, and Lulu Lamartine. They knew those characters as real people. One day after working our way well into the novel, I turned into the long driveway up to the tribal center and spotted the class out on the porch waving at me frantically. I thought there must be some emergency. I found, instead, that they were itching to argue their various points of view. They needed me to keep the peace.
CK: Did reading Native literature inform your writing of “Magpies”?
Native literature lives with me every day as a writer and as a citizen. The fence 300 yards behind our house separates our property from Shoshone and Arapaho grazing land, part of the Wind River Reservation. Reading Native literature calls me to realize my part in history, the history of brutish intrusion and exploitation that has never been fully recognized or resolved, and so continues.
Contemporary American Indian literature offers the most authentic and creative meeting ground for our cultures. Native literature with its roots of over 14,000 years and coming from hundreds of distinct languages (compared to Europe’s literature of just over 500 years here) develops distinctive ways of seeing and thinking about our lives in North America. This is not a voyeuristic literature; rather, it forces the reader to look at himself and then look out around. N. Scott Momaday’s “The Man Made of Words,” an early essay that became a book of the same title, stands at the headwaters of contemporary Native literature. Momaday’s work, along with Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins, continues to exert great influence on the amazing work coming out of tribal nations and university writing programs. Momaday writes:
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.
Notice his notion of “remembered earth.” Native literature comes from a vast memory system, and, therefore, should command priority in national attention. Leslie Marmon Silko writes in her novel Ceremony, “But as long as you remember what you have seen, then nothing is gone. As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together.” In “Magpies” I watch the Taos pole climb capture my eighty-year-old Methodist aunt’s attention. She never talked about the experience but drew a picture of the day out of her memory and sent it to me shortly before she died.
Once I asked a Nooksack carver about the arrangement of images on the totem pole he was starting. He said they come together like they do in dreams. You don’t have to think about it. I realized that narrative arcs and logical thematic development can be disrupted and usefully altered if we let that happen.
Native literature possesses a surgically precise sense of humor. I follow its cutting edge to keep in mind my history’s responsibility for all the terror that could not be contained in the lives of Native communities and their young children. I’m not a Native writer, but for “Magpies” and for everything else I write, Native literature makes me pay attention, drop pretenses, and try to think and write anew.
CK: You mentioned your frustration in being asked to teach students to assume an authoritative voice when writing their essays. How did you counter that prescription? What essays did you teach that were helpful to them?
I was hired for a single class in freshmen composition at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, a two-year college, open enrollment for transfer and vocational students. Democracy at its best. That summer of 2000, my wife and I had followed our younger son as he sought his fortune as a bull rider across Montana and Wyoming. He became a horse-shoer, my wife a hospice nurse, and I continued teaching English. I selected Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, which most of the faculty used, and since I was reading Edward Hoagland’s Best American Essays 1999, though not a textbook, that became my class reader and a turning point for me.
The essay became the common meeting place for me and my students, even when I went full-time, teaching five classes each semester—two freshmen compositions, basic writing, intro to lit, and either poetry or Native American literature. Composition classes were made up of a scattering of English majors, welders, jazz musicians, prospective nurses, single parents, rodeo team members, photographers, and budding teachers. To keep fresh, I used a different collection of essays for each composition class.
The essay’s ability for capturing the way the mind works, poetically and analytically, began to take center stage in my life. Essays provided ground for class discussions—Garry Wills’s “The Dramaturgy of Death,” on capital punishment, spilled out of our room and blocked the halls after class; Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” led to swapping unique observations from the natural world of Wyoming and beyond. The variety of essays, current and past, offered ways to think and write about all interests, no matter how peculiar. One young man started an informal essay on his father’s military experience in Lebanon. He brought a card listing rules of engagement that his dad carried in his breast pocket at all times. That worn card led to a substantial study of military practices in peace keeping zones.
Patricia Hampl visited campus twice. She talked about her Ploughshares issue with its wonderful introduction to Montaigne. Classes read her essay “The Dark Art of Description.” Robert Atwan came and talked about the tradition of the essay and how it affected his years of assessing college writing. Students read work of other visiting writers: Brian Doyle, “The Meteorites,” Danielle Ofri, “Living Will,” David Baker, “Elegy and Eros,” Mark Spragg, “Greybull.”
All the while, we emphasized the necessity for informed and disciplined research. Linda Bierds, also a campus visitor, talked about the extensive research that went into each of her poems, poems like “The Last Castrato” and “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp.” Susan Richards, director of the college library, and her staff worked enthusiastically and always a step or two ahead of us to tailor research workshops that would address students’ lives and interests, while providing solid ground for further analysis.
I return again and again to E. B. White—“Once More to the Lake,” “Farewell to Model T,” “The Winter of the Great Snows.” And, I admit, to Stuart Little, the part where Stuart substitutes for an ill grade school teacher. The little mouse queries the students about what they do in class: Arithmetic, Stuart dismisses it; Spelling, he tells the children that “a misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone . . . buy a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt.”
“Writing,” cried the scholars.
“Goodness,” said Stuart in disgust, “don’t you children know how to write yet?”
“Certainly we do!” yelled one and all.
“So much for that, then,” said Stuart.
I’ve learned to trust that starting point.
CK: What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a piece about seeing. I start with my wife’s recent cataract surgery. I also consider Emily Dickinson’s eye condition, her treatment that dealt with the cornea around the lens, and the way that period in her life shaped her poetry. This is a piece grounded in how a wife and husband have looked at each other through forty-nine years of marriage and how poets like Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, and David Wagoner see to achieve their poetic visions.
Looking ahead, I am gathering fragments on music and ideas. As I grew up, my family was not well to do. We didn’t go to concerts or operas. But my father collected records, and we listened to the Texaco opera each Saturday over the radio. In a way, I moved blindly through all that music. All that I saw was a turntable. I want to write about how vinyl records in cardboard sleeves, and how a small Emerson radio connected to the stage of the Met, unlocked my imagination and my reading of literature.
CK: How is life on the ranch in Wyoming?
Winters are cold and summers are hot. Snow and hail can blow in almost anytime throughout the year. Wyoming winds have been known to drive people crazy. The land we share with my younger son, Asa, and his wife, Valerie, and our two grandchildren, Kaycee and Chance, is thirty miles from the nearest store. We’re at the southern end of the Big Horn Basin, on the inside of an elbow formed where the Absaroka and Owl Creek Mountains meet. This is a quiet place to work. With each day of my retirement, I realize the power of solitude.
Work up and down the valley is nonstop: feeding livestock, gathering cattle, haying, and calving. Deer, pronghorns, coyotes, and the occasional grizzly, mountain lion, and moose cross our yards. Emergencies come up with snows, floods, wild fires, and sick or injured animals. Even though our nearest neighbors are distant lights in the night, the community is extremely close, caring, and highly supportive. At any particular moment, however, it seems nobody agrees with anyone else. Houses are never locked. It took a while to learn to give up my rigid academic calendar and the fifty-minute hour. Weekdays are almost impossible to distinguish from weekends. Animal chores don’t recognize holidays.
My son and daughter-in-law raise and train ranch quarter horses. They also work for neighboring ranchers. Cattle graze summers deep in the mountains. They are herded down as winter approaches. Calving comes in late winter and early spring. That is an intense twenty-four-hour-a-day chore, especially if the temperature drops below zero and the wind comes up. You can see lights of pickups out in herds all night long. Coffee is always on; beer is in the cooler on the back of the flatbed.
I write along a peculiar tangent to all of this. I stand in awe of the work and the community. Mozart opera blares from my study into the night. There’s no one close enough to bother. I keep Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert close by.
When my writing thins out or becomes a slog, I take off on long walks. I go out with the horses. When the horses see Asa or Valerie approach with halters, they slowly start scattering away, trying not to make eye contact. They know that they’re going to be saddled and asked to work. I’m a terrible rider, and the horses know by now that I’m not carrying a halter, so as I walk through the pasture, they gather behind me and follow along in silence.