An Interview with Writers’ Conference Founder and 2018 Faculty Member Bill Ransom

We are honored and excited to welcome the founder of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Bill Ransom, to the faculty in 2018.  Bill will be leading a cross-genre workshop called ‘The Hybrid Strain’ – more below!

Bill Ransom was born in Puyallup, Washington, in 1945, and he began employment at the age of eleven as a farmworker. He attended Washington State University on track and boxing scholarships, and the University of Puget Sound on a track scholarship. He was a firefighter, firefighting basic training instructor, and CPR instructor for six years; and an Advanced Life Support Emergency Medical Technician for ten years in Jefferson County, Washington. He volunteers with humanitarian groups in Central America. Ransom has published six novels, six poetry collections, numerous short stories and articles. “Learning the Ropes” (Utah State University Press), a hybrid collection of poetry, short fiction and essays, was billed as “a creative autobiography.” His poetry has been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

We recently asked Bill about his workshop, his role in creating the Conference, and how he thinks about writing in multiple genres.

The session you’ll be leading at the 2018 Conference – “The Hybrid Strain” (register) – aims to help writers who work in multiple genres – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, scripts, etc. What are the key challenges of working in multiple genres, and what do you hope participants take away from this Conference workshop?

Writing in multiple genres brings multiple challenges, the main one being typecast in one genre and snubbed from others. Poetry is considered a “literary” genre, in general. Fiction is “literary” so long as it’s not science fiction, romance, western, mystery, spy or techno-thriller. Poets who cross into those areas do so at their reputation’s peril; among the exceptions: Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, who both write excellent science fiction. Most of the time, we do not publish our different genres in the same magazine or anthology, and by this I mean even our “literary” poetry and our “literary” fiction will seldom appear side-by-side in the same issue of the same magazine, never mind our scripts, plays, creative nonfiction.

Those of us who work in multiple genres work out ideas in different forms that, taken together, say something more than the sum of the individual parts. The best editors of literary magazines treat their publications as large-format poems or stories, not just a pile of different works between pretty covers. The individual works, even though they’re different genres and styles, take on greater meaning when fitted together.

“The Hybrid Strain” workshops are an opportunity for individual writers to accomplish the same thing by treating themselves as editors and their own works as material for the ideal magazine. This presupposes participants with a backlog, a pile, a box of material from which to choose. Editing means you can’t use a thing just because you like it. Face it, it’s your work, of course you like it. But your box isn’t exactly like a puzzle—some of your pieces won’t let your image develop the way you’d wish. You can use a piece only if it forwards the image or the story. A puzzle comes in a box with myriad shapes and sizes that coalesce into an image, the difference being that you know when you buy a puzzle, all the pieces are there, and they fit. Your challenge upon sorting through your box is to set aside only the pieces that help you find the beginning, the middle and the end of an idea or of a thought. Set aside the others for other opportunities later. Throw nothing away. Fiction often arises from life events, so memoir can include reality-based fiction to further deepen understanding of the memoirist’s life.

Publishing opportunities multiply if writers don’t have to stick to one genre, and they multiply further if we can tell our tales in more than one way. Probably this is most useful for writers in mid-career who have a body of published and unpublished work to play with. I’d like participants to come away from the workshop with idea and material for a solo book, for the formation of a magazine, or for a collaborative writing project that is also a “hybrid” form.

What leads YOU to write in a particular genre at a particular time? Is it the subject or idea that guides you? Something else?

Ideas for poetry, fiction, screen and creative nonfiction all feel different to me physically in ways that I can’t describe—maybe from a different area of the brain—but I usually know what the piece is at the first line (which may not be the first line of the piece). Also, for no particular reason, I prefer to work out poetry in a notebook with a pen. I’ll handwrite some notes for prose work, but usually hit the keyboard as soon as the idea starts taking off. I can type a lot faster than I can think, and I like rewriting a lot better than first draft writing, so it works out. Poetry still wants the personal touch. Science news always kicks off a science fiction story for me, whether I write it down or not. Human interactions I’ve observed or eavesdropped upon bring a lot of starts and characters to my work, both poetry and fiction. Reading works of my contemporaries informs me of unique ways they’ve solved some of the infinity of problems that arise for everyone in the writing process. Other writers’ books are cheap tuition for a writer’s lifelong education in the language. Notebooks are even more helpful.

You are an important part of Centrum’s history. Can you take us back to the beginning of the Conference and talk about how it came into existence, and what you were hoping to achieve?

The Port Townsend Writer’s Conference came out of a National Endowment for the Arts/Washington State Arts Commission pilot program originally called “Poets in the Schools”, now “Artists in the Schools.” Joe Wheeler founded and directed the program through his job at Stadium High School in Tacoma and had tried it out for one year with poet Primus St. John, from Oregon. I was hired in the second year to replace Primus, and Donn Trethewey, of Port Townsend, was hired as an artist in 2-, 3-D and 4-D (moving image). I believe we taught in 83 schools that first year in Tacoma, Olympia, Tumwater, Renton and Auburn.

Early on, while complaining about our hundreds of miles a week commuting, Donn and I started brainstorming how we might do the same kind of thing, but by getting the kids to come to us, instead, without the constant interruptions in school schedules. Kids of all grades produced excellent work for us with those interruptions. We wanted to see what they could do totally focused in a supportive environment for a week.  We almost branched out into juvenile detention centers when we were asked to demonstrate our Artists-in-the-Schools program to the Port Townsend school board. Districts state-wide were interested in the program, so Donn and I became the traveling medicine show to talk about and to demonstrate it. Working from Tacoma to the north Olympic Peninsula looked like a lot more miles in the car. Roseanne Nowak, on the PT school board, was the instigator, and three board members from neighboring school districts came, too. We liked them, we liked the town. Roseanne gave us a tour that included Fort Worden, abandoned as fort and as juvenile detention center, peeling paint and grass nearly shoulder-high. With barracks, schoolhouse, dining hall, theater…holy moly!

By the time we got back to Tacoma to report to Joe, we had already designed what are now Centrum’s youth programs. At that meeting Joe revealed he wanted to start a Chamber Music workshop. I said the good writing workshops of the time were halfway or all the way across country from us in the upper-left-hand corner. I’d like a writer’s conference nearby bringing poets and writers of regional, national and international fame to my doorstep. Joe came back from the arts commission in Olympia with a pamphlet: “Fort for Rent, Never Fired a Shot at an Enemy.” He talked the state parks into taking over the property with the promise that we would rent each building as it was brought up to speed.

We were still living in Tacoma, approaching the end of the school year, and we had families. Over the summer of ’73, Donn and I moved to Port Townsend to do Artists-in-the-Schools as our day jobs and this new idea, Centrum, as our night job. Most of what fine-tuned into Centrum today came about while commuting with Donn to a consortium of schools in Port Townsend, Chimacum, Quilcene, Sequim and Port Angeles. He packed the best traveling music, which you can hear from him every Monday morning on KPTZ 91.9.

Both federal and state arts agencies loved the youth programs, and their funding allowed us to experiment with the first adult programs: Chamber Music, Dance, Writer’s Conference (with letterpress printing), Master’s Workshop in Painting. I had worked at both the Southwest Poets Conference and at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and developed a plan for my ideal writer’s conference to teach at. If it’s ideal for faculty, great faculty line up to participate. If great faculty line up, great participants follow. We were not the highest-paying conference, but from the start the best writers in the country were trying to land a gig in this exceptional environment. We leaned heavily on local and regional poets and writers for the first few years because the airfare for one New York writer equaled cost for two to three exceptional northwest writers. Our first rule: This is not a college.

45 years on, how as the literary world changed, and how has being a writer changed?

The literary world now offers more opportunities for writers than ever before, and in media that most of us hadn’t imagined. I edited “West Coast Poetry Review” in 1971 and was one involved in the formation of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. At that time we counted 70 literary magazines with circulation of 500 copies or more. Most were saddle-stitched with staples, many printed on mimeograph. Certainly, all submissions were typed, double-spaced on a typewriter  and submitted with a cover letter and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for reply. Average life-span of these magazines: Three issues. Now we have print, audio and ebooks; comics, graphic novels—one could argue that many of the original works on Amazon Prime are video books. The large NY publishers are ever in flux, but the rise of respected self-publishing continues with excellent publishing and design software, classy print-on-demand production that minimizes warehousing, and powerful social media that reaches far beyond a mere ad in the back of a writer’s magazine. All of this technology makes creating well-crafted literary magazines easy and inexpensive.

Very few MFA programs existed in 1971. Their proliferation has also meant a boom in litmags.  Every program should have a magazine to help students understand what’s involved in the magazines that they’re hoping will support their work. Being a writer has changed in that we delete our process as we go. When I was starting out, I could find a writer’s notebooks archived in some college and go see how lines were crossed out, whole passages X-ed out. I could see for myself a train of developing thought, then I could read the finished work and say, “Yep, Hemingway couldn’t get it right the first time, either.” A very liberating experience.

What are you reading most recently?

Most of my reading right now is in short fiction and novels. I like the short fiction “best of” anthologies that have introduced incredible multicultural works from all aspects of (mostly) American life. Anna Quinn’s The Night Child, knocked me out. Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Gary Lilley’s Alpha Zulu. Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus. Gary Lemons’ Snake. Patricia Henle’s short stories Other Heartbreaks. Daisy Zamora’s The Violent Foam, New and Selected Poems, trans. by George Evans. I had the pleasure of working with Daisy in Nicaragua on matters other than poetry and brought her to Evergreen for a bilingual program I taught: “Poetry and Politics in Central America.”

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