“Devilishly Delightful” Ron Padgett Wins This Year’s Robert Creeley Award

by Jacquelyn Malone

Robert Clawson calls Ron Padgett a “devilishly delightful poet,” and you only have to receive one of his charming and lively emails to guess that his clever puckishness will carry over to his poetry. Robert is the founder of the Robert Creeley Foundation, which this year presents its annual Robert Creeley Award to Ron. Ron will read his poetry and receive the award on March 19, 7:30 PM, at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, 36 Charter Road, Acton, Massachusetts. Acton is Creeley’s home town. 

Not that Ron isn’t a serious poet; he simply often offers up his poetry with a dash of wit.

Charles Simic captured Ron’s tone perfectly:  "Reading Padgett one realizes that playfulness and lightness of touch are not at odds with seriousness ... As is often the case, leave it to the comic writer to best convey our tragic predicament."

Some of the previous winners of the Creeley Award have been: Mary Ruefle, Thomas Lux, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery, Yusef Komunyakaa, C. D. Wright, Martín Espada, Grace Paley, and Galway Kinnell. The first recipient was Creeley himself.

But enough chatter. Here are Ron’s answers to some of my questions:

As a high school student, you persuaded poets like Ginsberg and Creeley to send you poems for publication in your magazine. How does it feel now to be accepting an award named for Creeley, an award presented to you in his own home town?
Actually I don't think they needed much persuasion, as they were both generous people. And trusting! The idea of accepting an award named after Bob, and in his home town, is dreamlike, too good to be true, better than having chicken Kiev in Kiev. I'm curious to see what it will be like to find myself there in Acton, on a stage, in real life.

What poets and teachers influenced you as you began your career?
I'm not sure that I'd characterize my writing poetry as a career. It's just something I've done. Sorting out influences is hard for me, but probably the most important one was my father, who had no interest in poetry but who was a headstrong and individualistic outsider who, simply by being who he was, demonstrated that it was possible to go one's own way, which for me turned out to be poetry. Another influence was my junior high school English teacher, who got me interested in reading a variety of books, not just those about cars and baseball. I'm sure too that the lyrics of the popular music of the 1930s and '40s, which my mother liked a lot, were an influence. But the first purely literary influence was Walt Whitman, whose book Leaves of Grass made my jaw drop.

What do you most admire in a poet?
That's a big question. The small answer is that it depends on the particular poet. For example, I admire Whitman's powerful expansiveness and Tu Fu's powerful brevity.

Tell us about hosting a radio show on poetry. Whom did you feature? Was it a local New York station or was it syndicated? What did you enjoy most about it?
Some years ago, working at a New York City nonprofit organization called Teachers & Writers Collaborative, I edited a book called The Handbook of Poetic Forms, which was mainly intended for use by high school kids. From it I chose ten forms and, with guest poets, did a 30-minute radio show on each of them: free verse, ballad, acrostic, list poem, ode, blues poem, villanelle, sonnet, and prose poem. All the guest poets were experienced teachers of poetry, mainly to kids. The shows aired over WNYE, the local educational radio station. As for what I enjoyed most about it: Managing to get through it! I had never hosted a radio series, so it was challenging for me to try to make every program interesting, lively, comprehensive, and useful, all within a single nonstop take. No pauses for editing or retakes. Teachers & Writers Collaborative later sold the series on cassette tapes, and now they're working on digitizing them for posting on their web site.

The Creeley Award evening usually draws a large crowd for a poetry reading. What do you expect to offer the  audience? (I know, I know -- poetry, but can you say something unique about your reading?)
I think it can be useful for an audience to see and hear a poet reading his or her own poems, because it can reveal things about the poet and the work that sometimes aren't easy to see on the page. Some poets read well and some poorly, and that can have little to do with how good the poems are. Anyway, I'm assuming that the audience will be interested in such an experience, or be willing to take part in the poetic adventure, without a lot of preconceptions. I want the audience to have an interesting experience, and I want the experience to be interesting for me as well. Fingers crossed.

You designed computer writing games? Wow! Tell us about about it? Were the games designed primarily for writing poetry? 
In the early 1980s, for Teachers & Writers Collaborative I designed (but didn't program) two poetry writing programs, Acrostic and Pantoum, both of which were interactive. That is, the user (anyone who could use a computer keyboard) could write a poem either solo or in collaboration with the program. At the time the most widespread computer in the schools was the Apple 2GS, so Acrostic and Pantoum were programmed in a language for the 2GS and distributed on the old floppy disks (the ones that were truly floppy). Not long afterward the Mac displaced the 2GS in the schools and my two writing games fell by the wayside. No commercial company was interested in producing a poetry writing program.

If I described you as a wry, witty, direct, and compassionate poet, what adjective(s) would you change or what would you add to the list?
Thanks for those glowing adjectives. I find it very hard to say anything complimentary about myself. My parents thought that self-congratulation was gross. The adjectives I might add would include unsure, arrogant, small-minded, controlling, worrisome, and lucky, but I don't spend much time applauding or criticizing myself. I prefer to wash the dishes.