Pamela Uschuk and her husband William Pitt Root are sitting around their dining room table in the small house in Bearden they’ve rented for the spring. Uschuk is the University of Tennessee’s English Department’s visiting writer-in-residence this semester, but both she and her husband are nationally renowned poets. Uschuk’s book Crazy Love won the American Book Award last year; Root was the first poet laureate of Tucson, Ariz., and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. The two also co-edit the new literary journal Cutthroat.
The couple’s poetry is rooted in their Western backgrounds (they live in Durango, Co.), but stylistically their work is acres apart. Uschuk mixes the personal with the political: Love poems intermingle with anti-war sentiments, poems about the challenges of marriage follow pastorals. Root’s poems tend more toward conceits, as he wryly observes the changing face of the contemporary Western landscape—miners, truckers, Native Americans—and his political polemics are blunt, yet often funny.
After pouring a cup of coffee, Uschuk and Root (who go by Pam and Bill) have a conversation about their work and their life, together, for almost an hour. They jump back and forth with the easy familiarity of a long-married couple, often finishing each other’s sentences and ideas. They seem, quite simply, smitten with each other, still, after all this time.
Does it ever get hard, with you both being writers?
Bill Root: We’re lucky enough that our styles as poets are different enough that we aren’t directly in competition with each other.
Pam Uschuk: We both have a similar vision and a similar love of teaching … and he understands, unlike my former husband, when I need to be at my typewriter.
BR: [cutting Pam off] I should note that we’ve been married for 30 years.
PU: [smiles across the table] Bill’s such a great editor. I don’t like everything he says sometimes, but I always listen.
BR: But that doesn’t mean there’s not ever sparks. But sparks can be good, too.
PU: But really, Bill is just amazing. Like, did you see that story about the Ukrainian playwright in the Times? [Here Uschuk emotionally describes the story of Anna Mashutina, a 29-year-old writer killed in the Jan. 25 bombing at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow.] That bombing just hurt so much—I’m the second generation removed from Russian immigrants, you know. But Bill just knew; he cut that story out of the paper and left it for me to see first thing in the morning—I’m a morning person, I get up really early and write first thing—and he just left it here on the table, and I read it and then this morning went back and wrote a poem about it. [Uschuk smiles across the table at her husband. He smiles back.] But, god, everything that’s going on—
BR: Like Tucson.
PU: Bill was the poet laureate of Tucson, you know.
BR: Oh, it just hurt.
PU: That was our town, our city.
BR: That was the Safeway we went shopping at.
On another note, how are you enjoying Knoxville? It’s just a tiny bit different than Colorado, right?
PU: Oh, we love it here! And I’m really enjoying this school. My students are so smart and responsive. My work’s very political, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve been really impressed.
What is it like being a political poet these days?
PU: I’m not a didactic political poet. I like to tell stories—the stories of the oppressed, the immigrants. I feel like I am telling stories on behalf of them. I hope I am, at least—I hope I’m not telling them on behalf of my ego. But it’s hard, too. Like, a magazine like The New Yorker is never going to take any of my poetry. But then, I feel like a big part of the reason I got the ABA was my stories of immigration and my anti-war poems. [At some point around here, Bill leaves the room to go find a book.]
Yeah, the American Book Award! What was that like, when you found out you won?
PU: I was absolutely shocked. I was in Tucson, and I was in a Borders using their free Internet, and I opened that e-mail and read it, and I just—and I didn’t have anyone to tell! And then I looked up, and Bill had just walked in—I mean, of all the bookstores in Tucson, and he just walks in, right at that moment. But I really was shocked. I didn’t expect it at all.
So who are some contemporary poets doing stuff you like?
PU: You have two just right here, Marilyn Kallet and Rick Jackson, who I love. And Earl Braggs down in Chattanooga—he’s wonderful. Joy Harjo just always sustains me. Gary Snyder and Galway Kinnell are essential. And Naomi Shihab Nye—she’s this Palestinian-Mexican poet, she has such a wonderfully vibrant voice. And a poet I’m really coming to love is W.S. Merwin, I don’t know—maybe I’m just maturing late.
[Root walks back into the room.]
BR: [Allen] Ginsberg has got to be the best, most political poet.
PU: God, I love him!
BR: “Howl” is just amazing.
PU: I read it aloud in every class I teach.
BR: And the students are always just amazed that it was written in the 1950s.
PU: I also like Mary Oliver a lot. I like poets with heart. They have to have heart. ... Writing for me has to have meaning. It’s not about anyone knowing who I am, it’s not a rock-star thing. If my work doesn’t have meaning, I better stop.