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.
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.