Keith Wilson: A Desert Voice

I write down the words I hear, but I know
it is the Dead who speak them.
            Keith Wilson (1927-2009) from “The Voices of My Desert”
            While Dancing Feet Shatter the Earth
            (Utah State University Press, 1978)

[In recognition of National Poetry Month, we have a guest blogger this week. Terry Lucas is Poet Laureate Emeritus of Marin County, California, and an Aggie alum. Terry currently is on an extended stay in Las Cruces in order to research the papers of poet and long-time NMSU faculty member Keith Wilson. The NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections acquired Wilson’s papers in 2003.]

Here at NMSU, before registering for the spring 1970 semester, my faculty advisor told me that I needed one more English elective to be on track for graduation. The only class available was World Poetry. Exposed for the first time to living American poets from Zukofsky to Stafford, from the New York School to the Beats, and to translations of poets such as Rilke, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, I fell in love with poetry. I also found a mentor in Keith Wilson, the teacher of the class and poet-in-residence at NMSU. The following semester I enrolled in Wilson’s creative writing poetry class and began writing my own fledgling poems.

Photograph of poet Keith Wilson

Poet and former NMSU faculty member Keith Wilson (Keith Wilson papers, image 04510018)

When I studied with Keith, I was not aware that his first handful of Korean war poems had been published in Chicago’s prestigious Poetry Magazine only five years prior. Nor did not know that these poems had been expanded into a full-length collection (Graves Registry) that had been nominated for the National Book Award the previous year. I did know that I had found a poet and a man whose work and life I wanted to emulate. Keith never touted his publishing successes and never pushed his books in class. “I am only a voice” he once said in a poem. And that voice was calling to me to change my major to poetry. But my parents wouldn’t allow it.

After earning a BA in philosophy in 1974 from NMSU and a master’s in religious education in 1976 from seminary, I was unhappy in my new position as minister of education in a large Southern Baptist Church in West Texas. In September of 1976 I wrote Keith a letter—a cry for help—and enclosed a few poems. He answered with a letter that encouraged me to continue writing poetry. I later found that the exchange was not unusual for Keith. He gave much of his time and energy to former students, as well as to anyone who reached out to him who was willing to work. That letter (currently in the papers of Keith Wilson in the archival section of Branson Library), began a life-long correspondence and put me on a path that led to an MFA in creative writing, five published poetry collections of my own, and the Poet Laureateship of Marin County, California.

In The Face of Poetry: An Anthology of 101 Poets In Two Significant Decades: The 60s & The 70s, Keith Wilson’s work appears alongside that of Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, Joy Harjo, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Simic, Ruth Stone, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, and scores of other poets recognized as the best of their generation. And yet, beyond avid poetry readers living in the Southwest and a few academics and students who studied with him, his work is unknown.

In November of 2019, when I had the pleasure of teaching classes and reading on the campus of NMSU, I mentioned to Richard Greenfield, editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol, that I had thought about editing a book of essays and interviews about the life and work of Keith Wilson. Greenfield thought it was a great idea, and so I made plans to be on campus to go through the forty-three linear feet of papers that Keith donated to Branson Library. Since January 2021, thanks to Kate Terpis, Interim and Associate Dean of the NMSU Library, and Dennis Daily, Department Head of Archives and Special Collections, I have been reading through decades of correspondence between Keith and dozens of notable poet friends such as Joy Harjo, George Oppen, and Gary Snyder, as well as between Keith and former colleagues, former students, and beginning poets for whom Keith was willing to spend countless hours reading poems and giving feedback.

Poet Terry Lucas examines the Keith Wilson papers in the Archives and Special Collections research room.

Poet Terry Lucas examines the Keith Wilson papers in the Archives and Special Collections research room.

At this point, I have commitments for a contribution from thirteen poets, writers, and artists who knew Keith and his work well. They include notables such as poet, translator, and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg and acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, Laurence Salzmann, whose photographs appeared in Keith’s Stone Roses, written during his Fulbright Fellowship to Romania.

Why Keith had difficulty during his lifetime getting his work published outside of the Southwest and why it is not as familiar to poetry readers as the work of his peers may never be completely known. Keith felt he was unfairly pigeon-holed as a regional poet. And yet he always said yes to publishing opportunities made available to him because he lived in the Southwest and wrote about its desert life. And he always attended conferences that invited him to read because their theme was Southwestern writers, no matter how much energy and time they required and how little the remuneration they provided. Like Whitman, he spent most of his writing life perfecting and lengthening his opus. Graves Registry’s final iteration was more than two-hundred pages and took more than twenty years to complete. He had great difficulty finding a publisher for this expanded collection. Presses complained that most of the poems had been previously published as full-length books. And those presses that had published those books pointed to low sales numbers and dwindling funds as to why they couldn’t publish an updated version of the same book.

Wilson had four children with his wife, Heloise. Keith was a fulltime father, as well as a fulltime professor. And then there is that forty-three linear feet of correspondence. With all of the demands on his life, and the choices that he made about prioritizing his time and energy, he still produced more than two dozen collections of poetry, as well as a number of short stories and novels. It is my welcome task to create an anthology of essays and interviews about his life and work, so that those who do not know Keith Wilson may learn of the generosity of this man and the strength and significance of his work. And for those of us who did know him, not to allow the winds of time to take away his legacy.

                                                    Our ears
are tuned to the past, hear, hear the days
 
less clearly than the flute-songed nights
with their last owls whitefaced as moons
swooping low for the poisoned, dying mice.
 
The ghosts of wolves ring our hills.
Those birdcries, Comanche songs drifting
up from wartrails; the click of steel
 
in the night, prospectors or old soldiers
sharpening the edge of darkness to a keen
wind that blows all the stories away.
          Keith Wilson from “The Voices of My Desert”
          While Dancing Feet Shatter the Earth
          (Utah State University Press, 1978)

Keith Wilson taught in the English Department of NMSU from 1965 to 1986.

Terry Lucas is a 1974 graduate of NMSU and Poet Laureate Emeritus of Marin County, California. His poetry collections include The Thing Itself (Longship Press, 2020) with photographs by Gary Topper, and two full-length poetry collections, Dharma Rain (Saint Julian Press, 2016) and In This Room (CW Books, 2016), His two prize-winning chapbooks are Altar Call (San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival) and If They Have Ears to Hear (Copperdome Chapbook Award from Southeast Missouri State University Press). His poems, fiction, memoir pieces, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous national literary journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and Puerto del Sol, and have received seven Pushcart Prize nominations. A regular speaker in the Dominican University of California’s MFA Program, Terry is on campus through August researching the archives in Branson Library for his Keith Wilson project. More about him and his work as a poetry coach can be found at www.terrylucas.com.


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