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. 


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.