Floyd Skloot

A Talk with W.T. Pfefferle

November 17, 2003, Amity, OR

Floyd and his wife live in a pret­ty round home on 20 acres, due east of Amity, a tiny burg with one gas sta­tion and one feed store.

I twist and turn up a hilly road through farm and ranch­land (and vine­yards), and turn down Skloot’s dri­ve­way. Heavy stands of trees crowd in, pro­vid­ing a love­ly green canopy as I trav­el the 1/5 of a mile to the house. I stand and stare into a long, beau­ti­ful val­ley that sweeps away from me. I spot Floyd through one of the large win­dows and I head inside.

We talk on the first floor of the house in a love­ly small office with a win­dow that opens into a heav­i­ly wood­ed area. Often dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion Floyd points out­side at the view. He’s not point­ing to a scene in par­tic­u­lar; he’s sim­ply ref­er­enc­ing what is appar­ent: this place is beau­ti­ful. It’s a peace­ful place, dead qui­et, and rich­ly arrayed by nature.

In 1988, Skloot entered a ter­ri­fy­ing and con­fus­ing new world after a virus cre­at­ed per­ma­nent brain dam­age. He reclaimed the abil­i­ty to read, speak, and write, and now lives with the dam­age, help­ing him­self by not­ing things on slips of paper that he knows his dam­aged brain might lose the next day. (The remark­able sto­ry of his ill­ness is in the award win­ning mem­oir, In the Shadow of Memory.)

But dur­ing my vis­it, Skloot is charm­ing, fun­ny, insight­ful, and he ener­get­i­cal­ly talks about his work. He grew up in Brooklyn and then on a bar­ri­er island near Long Island, NY. His ear­ly poet­ry is full of those images, as his most recent work full of his adopt­ed home of Oregon.

His ill­ness lim­its the hours he can work effec­tive­ly. So the work comes out more slow­ly. But it match­es the pace of the life here. He motions out the win­dow again. He knows he’s dis­tant from the pub­lish­ing and aca­d­e­m­ic worlds, but he learned years ago that it didn’t mat­ter. As a younger man he was a long dis­tance run­ner, cov­er­ing 50 miles a week on his own through dense parks. He’s always gone on his own paths at his own pace. He trav­els dis­tances now, too, in his work, back through the maze of his chaos-wracked mem­o­ry. But he wrings what he finds into fine and beau­ti­ful lan­guage.

After we’re done chat­ting, we shoot some pho­tos upstairs while we vis­it with Skloot’s wife. She’s shot all of the author pho­tos for his books and while I take my turn to aim and fire, Skloot tells me that when he looks at the old pho­tos he can watch him­self age. His beard is brown in the ear­li­est pho­to; it gets more and more gray as time goes by. When I’m done, putting my cam­eras away, I look up for one last view out the win­dow, and I catch a moment not intend­ed for me. Floyd smiles warm­ly at his wife, and she back. If you’re going to grow old, this is a good place for it to hap­pen.

What role has place played in your poet­ry?

I think that place is at the heart of my project as a writer. Especially since I moved here. For me it’s become a way of accom­mo­dat­ing myself to the world that I’m in, and of hav­ing a rela­tion­ship with the world. This place per­me­ates all of my work. And it’s also forced me to look back on where I came from, a place on the absolute oppo­site end of this spec­trum, not only the east coast as opposed to the west, but one of the dens­est, most urban places you can come from – Brooklyn, New York – as opposed to Amity. I think there were more peo­ple in the apart­ment build­ing where I grew up than there are in this town.

So it seems to me that the con­trast between where I came from and where I end­ed up is an impor­tant thing to look at when look­ing at the jour­ney I’ve been on.

Growing up in Brooklyn, in the kind of fam­i­ly I grew up in, we didn’t pay atten­tion to birds, to flow­ers, to trees. A bird was a bird. A tree was a tree. I’ve read that in Yiddish, all birds are called the same thing. There’s no rea­son to spec­i­fy which kind of bird. I grew up in that mind­set. This has forced me to look very close­ly at the dis­tinc­tions between these things that I nev­er paid atten­tion to. To under­stand dif­fer­ent species and dif­fer­ent forms of life.

More, per­haps, in my prose, in my col­lec­tion of essays, my mem­oir about liv­ing with brain dam­age, I have explored the expe­ri­ence of decid­ing to live in the coun­try and aban­don the city. I thought I need­ed the city as a life­line. I thought I need­ed to be near the doc­tor, near the book­store, near the the­ater. Within walk­ing dis­tance of every­thing. I thought I had to be in the mid­dle of the city where my friends could see me, where I’d be in the mid­dle of life. And in fact, what I need­ed to man­age my ill­ness was to get away from all of that, where there was noth­ing to do, where there was noth­ing to dis­tract. Where it was qui­et and tran­quil, and I could begin liv­ing in a place that reflect­ed how I was, in a way that the city didn’t any­more. I wasn’t fast paced and hec­tic and filled with things to do. I need­ed to pro­tect myself from all that. So my prose par­tic­u­lar­ly explores that expe­ri­ence of place, com­ing to rec­og­nize the poten­tial of place as a heal­ing enti­ty.

How has the process of how you write now been influ­enced by the nat­ur­al world around you here out­side Amity?

Living where I do and the way I do, I have time. I’m total­ly dis­abled, so I can’t work out­side the home. In fact my health is such that my writ­ing time is very lim­it­ed. But in this place, I can write when it feels right. There is no sense of time fly­ing by. There is no hec­tic pace of com­mit­ments. There is lit­tle to impinge upon the things I need to do to stay in bal­ance, and main­tain my health. I’ve learned – I’ve had to learn – how to adjust, take my time with my work, slow down with my work. Not rush to fin­ish. Not rush to pub­lish. Because I can’t any­more; I’m not well enough. And try­ing to work that way only chokes off the cre­ative work rather than enhanc­ing it. So I’ve found it very com­pat­i­ble to be a writer in this place.

I’m also liv­ing about as far from the hub of pub­lish­ing as you pos­si­bly can. I live dis­con­nect­ed from the aca­d­e­m­ic pub­lish­ing world, and aca­d­e­m­ic life. So I’ve sit­u­at­ed myself as far from all of that as you can pos­si­bly be. At first I wor­ried what would that do to my “career.” As it turns out, it’s been a bless­ing. I don’t have to deal with those sorts of issues. I don’t have to write under pres­sure. My work has final­ly reached a large audi­ence with my mem­oir, despite the dis­ad­van­tages of liv­ing far away from the cen­ter of activ­i­ty. Which goes to show that it will find its way there. That you don’t have to be in New York. It isn’t as much about con­nec­tions as I thought. It’s about get­ting the work done.

A lot of work details events and places from your child­hood in Brooklyn. You wrote these poems lat­er, obvi­ous­ly. How did those places from your past turn into poems?

I think my expe­ri­ence grow­ing up there was very intense and vivid, giv­en the dynam­ics my fam­i­ly had, so the details always remained in place. The city and the fam­i­ly dynam­ics became good metaphors for me. To talk about the hard­ness and closed­ness and pres­sure that my par­ents cre­at­ed, being so hos­tile to each oth­er. The sort of fury they cre­at­ed in the con­fined set­ting of an apart­ment build­ing seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for the con­fined fam­i­ly and hos­til­i­ty that devel­oped there, the explo­sions of vio­lence that devel­oped there that I wrote about in Music Appreciation. And then to move to such a sud­den­ly dif­fer­ent place. We moved from Brooklyn when I was 10, to Long Beach, a lit­tle bar­ri­er island off the south shore of Long Island. It was such a rad­i­cal change of set­ting. I found that very dra­mat­ic. It became nat­ur­al to write about that place, too, because the island was so dif­fer­ent and so vivid. The storms and hur­ri­canes that came with liv­ing on a bar­ri­er island became rich metaphors again. You can trans­plant the fam­i­ly, and maybe the set­ting is dif­fer­ent, and maybe even the expres­sion of vio­lence is dif­fer­ent, but either being closed into a lit­tle apart­ment and see­ing things erupt, or walk­ing along the beach in the eye of the hur­ri­cane know­ing that the storm is going to come back. They were all apt metaphors for what it was like to grow up in that fam­i­ly. So I was giv­en, in a sense, places rich with mean­ing for the kind of expe­ri­ence I had.

How soon after relo­cat­ing to this place did you find it start appear­ing in your work?

At once. When I got to Oregon 20 years ago, before I got sick, I was a long dis­tance run­ner. I would run in the woods. I lived in north­west Portland, right at the base of Forest Park, which is the largest wilder­ness park in a city in America. I ran over 2000 miles a year in the woods. So it imme­di­ate­ly became sub­ject mat­ter for me. It was when I was at my most med­i­ta­tive, when I was run­ning. It was just me and the woods. It wasn’t like run­ning in a crowd. I found imme­di­ate­ly that place was assert­ing itself as a way of know­ing myself in the world. After 5–6 years, when I got sick, we moved from that house to a house on the Willamette River, and there are numer­ous riv­er poems in both The Evening Light and The Fiddler’s Trance, the two books I pro­duced dur­ing the 90s. Because I was liv­ing by the riv­er. It wasn’t like I had to leave the riv­er to write the riv­er. I was walk­ing by the riv­er every day. Then as soon as I came out here, this place was just full of nat­ur­al inter­est and force, and became a cen­tral sub­ject of my poet­ry.

Is it pos­si­ble to not be a poet of place?

Oh it is. But not for me. my ori­en­ta­tion toward my mate­r­i­al seems to be through com­ing to terms with where I’m locat­ed. The great dan­ger for me as a poet is to be exclu­sive­ly inner, to just write about being sick, to just write about grow­ing up in a volatile fam­i­ly. Just write about my picayune expe­ri­ence. I rec­og­nized that was always a dan­ger for me in my work. I need­ed to strug­gle to get out of myself. For me, one of the first places to turn is right out­side myself, but still I live in it so inti­mate­ly that it affects me. The rich source of metaphors it pro­vides me seems end­less.

Because of your med­ical prob­lems, and the per­ma­nent dam­age to your brain, do you ever think of your ill­ness as a place, and with per­spec­tive do you think you can write about it as if it were a tan­gi­ble, phys­i­cal place?

I think that’s a very good way to put it. It’s a very chaot­ic place because of the dam­age to my brain caused by this virus. My expe­ri­ence is quite frag­ment­ed. My sys­tem of mem­o­ry is frag­ment­ed. Abstract rea­son­ing as well. To be inside my sick self is to be in a place which refus­es to cohere and take shape. I find that to be both a place of great rich­ness and also very scary. It helps to find orga­ni­za­tion­al metaphors in the place where I live. To me, the match with the city was too close. There was no con­trast between my chaot­ic, frag­ment­ed inner expe­ri­ence and the out­er urban expe­ri­ence. There was noth­ing to help me get a form until I came to the coun­try.

Also see this link for our recent Floyd Skloot fea­ture. 

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W.T. Pfefferle is the author of Poets on Place and The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale. He lives and writes in New Mexico.