||This biographical article needs additional citations for verification. (January 2010)|
18 February 1964 .|
Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
|Occupation||poet, writer, editor, columnist, teacher|
|Genre||poetry, literary journalism, political commentary|
|Notable works||Charming Gardeners (2013), Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces (2010), The Book of Men and Women (2009), Wild Civility (2003), Shattering Air (1996),|
David Biespiel (born February 18, 1964) is an American poet who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, raised in Houston, Texas, and educated at Boston University, University of Maryland, and Stanford University. He is the founder of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters in Portland, Oregon, an independent literary studio.
David Biespiel—pronounced buy-speel—attended Beth Yeshurun, the oldest Jewish school in Houston. Reared in a family that valued athletic excellence (one brother was a member of the United States Gymnastics team), he competed in the U.S. Diving Championships against Olympians Greg Louganis and Bruce Kimball, and later coached and developed regional and national champions and finalists in diving.
David Biespiel has been called "a big thinker, a doer, and a hard-charging literary force." Living in Boston in the early 1980s, Biespiel was one of the central figures of Glenville Productions, a nexus of young activists, artists, educators, conservationists, musicians, and writers that included Rick Gifford, Paul Ruest, G. Nicholas Keller, Jeff Smith, Dayton Marcucci, Marc Maron, Mark Lurie, Laurie Geltman, and Jade Barker. He began publishing poems and essays in 1986 after moving to remote Brownsville, Vermont. From 1988-1993 he lived and wrote in Washington, DC, and from 1993-1995 in San Francisco. He has lived in Portland, Oregon since 1995.
He is a contributor to American Poetry Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and Slate. After reviewing poetry for nearly fifteen years in journals and newspapers, including in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times, he was appointed the poetry columnist for The Oregonian in January 2003. His monthly column, which ended in September 2013, was the longest running newspaper column on poetry in the U.S.
In 1999, he founded the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. The institute began as the Attic Writers' Workshop and was established as a haven for writers and a unique knowledge studio dedicated to engaging ways to create, explore, and innovate, to generate and participate in important and lively conversation, and to reflect on ideas, the imagination, and civic life, as well as on artistic, cultural, and social experience. With its writers' workshops and individual consultations—as well as groundbreaking programs that have initiated new ways to study creative writing, such as the Atheneum and the Poets Studio—the Attic Institute has become the focal point for a vibrant literary community in Portland. Writers have seeded collaborations, writing groups, magazine start-ups, and literary friendships. They have signed with publishers and agents, been accepted into residencies and graduate programs, and embarked on literary enterprises of their own. Willamette Week named the Attic Institute the most important school of writers in Portland. Faculty and Teaching Fellows at the Attic Institute have included: Marc Acito, Matthew Dickman, Merridawn Duckler, Emily Harris, Karen Karbo, Elinor Langer, Jennifer Lauck, Lee Montgomery, Whitney Otto, Paulann Petersen, Jon Raymond, G. Xavier Robillard, Elizabeth Rusch, Kim Stafford, Cheryl Strayed, Vanessa Veselka, Emily Whitman, Wendy Willis, Peter Zuckerman, and others.
In 2005 he was named editor of Poetry Northwest— one of the nation's oldest magazines devoted exclusively to poetry. Appointed by the University of Washington to revive the journal after it temporarily stop publication in 2002 following four decades of existence, Biespiel moved the magazine's offices to Portland, and is widely credited with reviving the magazine to national prominence. He served as editor until 2010.
From 2008-2012 Biespiel was a regular contributor to The Politico's Arena, a cross-party, cross-discipline daily conversation about politics and policy among current and former members of Congress, governors, mayors, political strategists and scholars that included Dean Baker, Gary Bauer, Paul Begala, Mary Frances Berry, Bill Bishop, Dinesh D'Souza, Melissa Harris-Perry, Stephen Hess, Celinda Lake, Thomas E. Mann, Mike McCurry, Aaron David Miller, Grover Norquist, Christine Pelosi, Diane Ravitch, Larry J. Sabato, Craig Shirley, Michael Steele, Fred Wertheimer, Darrell M. West, Christine Todd Whitman, and others.
In 2009 he helped formed the trio Incorporamento. The artistic group includes Oregon Ballet Theater principal dancer Gavin Larsen and musician Joshua Pearl. Incorporamento debuted its first pieces of original dance, music, and poetry at Portland Center Stage on January 10, 2010, at the Fertile Ground Festival. Returning to the festival the following year, Incorporamento performed "A Ghost in the Room with You" at Conduit Studios, which Oregon Arts Watch hailed as "deep, complex, and satisfying." Incorporamento premiered "Ships of Light" on November 1, 2013 at BodyVox Dance Center in Portland, Oregon. The original performance focused on the passage of time as a sequence of daily rituals that become one’s yearly experience and is highlighted by Larsen's riveting choreography and dance in "Uncharted Territory" and Biespiel and Pearl's free verse and musical reinterpretation of George Gershwin's "Summertime."
In 2009 he was elected by the membership of the National Book Critics Circle to the Board of Directors and served as a judge for the annual NBCC book awards. He was reelected in 2012 for a second term. From 2012-2014 he was chair of its award committee on Poetry.
In 2010 he published Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, a rich and rewarding book that offers a captivating glimpse into the process of writing and making art. Arguing that "failure is the engine of creativity," the book has become a guide for beginning and experienced writers - as well as artists, musicians, dancers, and anyone else on a creative path who are curious about the mysterious pathways of the imagination.
In 2012 he began writing Poetry Wire for the Rumpus Magazine. The blog quickly gained attention with Biespiel's criticism of the influence of Ezra Pound and postmodernism, satires of po-biz foibles, "discovery" of the found poetry of U.S. General David Petraeus, a defense of the writer Meg Kearney against attacks by Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright, as well as provocative pieces about poetry, politics, and cultural issues such as the fate of poets in the Syrian civil war, the Newtown massacre, American poetics, and poetry's role in American life.
He has taught creative writing and literature throughout the United States, including at George Washington University, University of Maryland, Stanford University, Portland State University, and Lynchburg College as the Richard H. Thornton Writer in Residence, and from 2007-2011 as poet-in-residence in the fall at Wake Forest University. He currently divides his teaching between the Rainier Writer's Workshop M.F.A. Program at Pacific Lutheran University and the graduate program in creative writing at Oregon State University.
David Biespiel is one of his generation's most inventive poets. The hallmark of his poems is an intricate blending of traditional formal elements within a contemporary free verse style that has earned him praise as a "true poetic innovator."
Shattering Air: His first book, Shattering Air, published in 1996 when Biespiel was 32, is a book of autobiographical quietness composed in variegated blank verse. It was one of the last books published by the iconic American poetry editor and founder of BOA Editions, Al Poulin, Jr. "It is a test of the seamlessness of his art that David Biespiel so constantly finds the 'ruminant undercurrents' of his subjects without ever sacrificing their actuality," Stanley Plumly wrote in his Introduction to the book. "And it is all the more remarkable in a first book that this undercurrent -- what Wordsworth once called 'the imminent soul in things' -- should so effectively supersede appearances. If this sounds a grand prescription, in Biespiel's hands it is not."
Publishers Weekly characterized the debut collection as "sustained by a search for transcendent, intuitive truths." From Chelsea: “Biespiel has a gift for transformation. He can make a command sound like an incantation. He can create psalm-like beauty from the repetition of a simple phrase. One must note the instances of raw brilliance.” A.V. Christie praised the book in The Journal for being "poems of quiet grandeur and nobility [that] bring to mind an out-of-the-self Keatsian sensibility.” From the book jacket: "The poetry of David Biespiel is lyrical and sensual, celebrating the physical facts and pleasures of this world. Many of these poems find their focus in the rural Southwest of Oklahoma and Texas where Biespiel grew up, and on the beaches and coasts of the Pacific Northwest where the author now lives. Bayous and lilacs, sanderlings and willows, and young lovers on a diving platform at 3 a.m., become, in Shattering Air, emblems for the correspondence between the natural world and the human spirit."
Wild Civility | Pilgrims & Beggars: Wild Civility was published in 2003 just following the publication of the limited edition book, Pilgrims & Beggars. The two books mark a dramatic shift in both style and formal intensity from the poems in Shattering Air. The achievement of "Wild Civility" is Biespiel's invention of an original "American sonnet." These explosive, innovative nine-line dramatic monologues are variations on the English and Italian sonnet and rumble across the page with a jazzy linguistic verve that recalls the paintings of Jackson Pollock and the poetry of Walt Whitman. Writing in Poetry (magazine), David Orr noted how the poems "shuffle between registers and tones, use deliberately mismatched diction," and cited “Biespiel’s best poems in this untraditional vein" as the ones with the "clearest connection to lyric poetry.”
Michael Collier praised the book for demonstrating "the pure and powerful recombinant energy of language that is the essence of lyric poetry." From the book jacket: "Using with revelatory precision the vocabularies of history, science, art, sport, philosophy, religion, literature, government, and domestic life, Biespiel has crafted a hip, musical, elastic language that travels the registers of expression: lush and coarse, gaudy and austere, pliant and rigidly tough. The civility of the poems is the form; the wildness is the bristling energy of the language. Passionate, resilient, rich with wit and word play, these poems affirm David Biespiel’s increasing stature as a poet of remarkable accomplishment."
The Book of Men and Women: The Book of Men and Women, Biespiel's next book, was selected by the Poetry Foundation as one of the best books of the year for 2009. The book also was honored with the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry in 2011, selected by Robert Pinsky, who praised Biespiel as a poet who had "mastered his own grand style." Continuing the expressionistic style coupled with sharp lines and stanzas so prevalent in Wild Civility, Biespiel crafted a book that uses luxurious language as a means to deal with matters of tremendous human tautness.
In his essay-review, "A Good Long Scream," published in Poetry, critic Nate Klug praises Biespiel's "ferocious" imagination and his "quirky, alliterative idiom that produces many memorable phrases...A reviewer of Cormac McCarthy once called the novelist’s work 'a good, long scream in the ear.' The Book of Men and Women, with its rogue characters and laundry lists of loss, pursues a similar effect. Biespiel’s bristly voice is the first thing most readers will note, and indeed his writing is successful to the degree that this voice performs—that is, remains rhetorically compelling—throughout the course of the poem."
From the book jacket: "David Biespiel's energetic language, so varied and musical and precise, is quite unmatched by that of other contemporary poets. As always he is the master of the long line, his words strung across its reach as tightly as beads. This book displays Biespiel's formal inventiveness and emotional range. The first section of the book is filled with the wonderful agitation of spell-making language. The poems are connected to the social and historical world, and yet at the same time, they prepare us for the mythic story about men and women that is promised in the book's title. The second section is more formally restrained and as such imbues the speaker with the distinction and melancholy gravitas that characterize the collection...The book concludes with a series of autobiographical poems that confront the frailties of love and desire with unflinching intimacy and gratitude. These last poems, composed during an intense three-month period of writing, as well as the other poems in this remarkable volume, showcase Biespiel at the very top of his form."
Charming Gardeners: Charming Gardeners, published in 2013, marks another shift in Biespiel's undertaking in probing the intersection between traditional and invented forms and harkens back to the unfurled expansive style of Shattering Air. Library Journal's starred review noted that "Biespiel's poems echo Walt Whitman [and] can be prophetic." The collection was welcomed by Publishers Weekly as a book of "unguarded friendship, attentive to a poet with much to say...his looks at U.S. history are at once informative and grand.” The review lauds the book's "meditations on politics, from a poet known for his prose about culture and politics" and praises the poems as "successors to Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams." City Arts commented that the poems in Charming Gardeners "weave together the beauty of nature and the existential trials of humanity." Open Books noted that to "open Charming Gardeners is to unwrap a packet of letters, all written by an attentive and contemplative poet."
In her interview with David Biespiel for NPR's State of Wonder, April Baer noted the "subjects of Biespiel’s new book of poetry, Charming Gardeners, are friends of his from every corner of the U.S., including his wife and son, writers like Christian Wiman, and intellectual adversaries like William F. Buckley and Cesar Conda. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, you can hear just a ghost of a drawl when Biespiel speaks. But when he reads his poetry, that ghost takes form, both in Biespiel’s accent and in his invocations of places like Confederate battlefields and West Virginian cemeteries." 
In New Books in Poetry, John Ebersole introduces his interview with Biespiel observing that in "many ways, Biespiel’s journey is America’s, where the road is both a symbol of arrivals, but also departures, and in between is solitude...his poems encompass each of us, socially and politically, by illuminating our nation’s contradictory character: a longing for enchantment in a disenchanted world."
From the book jacket: "From 2007-2011, David Biespiel traveled across the United States on over a hundred flights, covering some 200,000 miles. During that period he was writing poems in the form of letters to family, friends, poets, and political rivals. The result is Charming Gardeners, a formally nuanced and wise book of epistolary poems grounded in friendship, camaraderie, love, and the vulnerability and boldness that defines America. Roving from the old Confederacy of Biespiel's native South to Portland, Oregon, Charming Gardeners explores the wildness of the Northwest, the avenues of Washington, D.C., the coal fields of West Virginia, and an endless stretch of airplanes and hotel rooms from New York to Texas to California, these poems explore the 'insistent murmurs' of memory and the emotional connections between individuals and history, as well as the bonds of brotherhood, the ghosts of America's wars, and the vibrancy of love, sex, and intimacy — all in a masterful idiom. Charming Gardeners confirms his position as one of his generation's most inventive, prolific, and original poets."
Poetry and Democracy
In 2010, Biespiel sparked a national debate about the relationship between poets and democracy with the publication of his essay, "This Land Is Our Land," in Poetry (magazine). Writing about the importance of citizen-poets, Biespiel contends that:
"Beyond the essential concern for writing poems, the poet’s role must also include public participation in the life of the Republic. By and large, poets have lived by the creed that this sort of exposure can be achieved only through the making of poems, that to be civically engaged in any other fashion would poison the creative self. But while poems are the symbolic vessels for the imagination and metaphor, there are additional avenues to speak to the tribe. The function of the poet may be to mythologize experience, but another function is to bring a capacity for insight—including spiritual insight—into contact with the political conditions of existence. The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering. And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it."
Controversy spread from the Poetry Foundation to The Huffington Post, with Garrett Hongo, Stephen Burt, Terrance Hayes, Daisy Fried and others commenting on the essay online and in print. While Terrance Hayes lauded the essay's intentions by writing that "I’m absolutely interested in poets who are doing exactly what Biespiel proposes," critic Stephen Burt contended that Biespiel's claims are "bad for our poetry."
In the March 11, 2010 online edition of The New York Times, Gregory Cowles covered the ongoing debate and commented, "I’m struck by the plaintive note that hums just beneath Biespiel’s argument: as much as it’s a rousing call to political action, his essay is also an eloquent statement of the anxiety of irrelevance." Cowles compares Biespiel's concerns to similar ones expressed by fiction writer David Foster Wallace: "For Biespiel, poetry doesn’t matter because poets aren’t political enough. For Wallace, poetry doesn’t matter because poets have neglected the common reader."
Responding to the controversy, Biespiel wrote in the July/August 2010 issue of Poetry (magazine): "I hold that poets retain a special stature in the human community. The greatest title in a democracy is neither president nor poet. It is citizen. And so I stand with those who see not just the nobility of, but the pragmatic need for, fusing the citizen with the poet."
Biespiel took up a similar strain of this subject in The Rumpus in his January 15, 2014, Poetry Wire column titled, "Something More Than Style."
While "This Land Is Our Land" argued for poets to be open to engaging the body politic as individuals, "Something More Than Style" wondered if conceptualism held poets back from engaging the social and political world more generally in their poems. He writes:
"While many of the world’s poets are deeply preoccupied with war and hierarchy, with exploitation and power, there is a pervasive sinisterlessness in American poetry. There is hash and rehash of the quotidian, an alarmlessness, a niche of the nada. Deftness has become a substitute for compassion. Style a stand in for thinking and feeling. Self-destructive forms are now glorified over measured insight...Because so many poets face extreme violent risks in the world — and I do not mean the false risks extolled in America’s writing workshops — there is a need for American poets to own up to and reject our sheer terrorlessness, to reject aesthetic fetishization in favor not only of examining the barbarism of human experience but also in being less existential and more confrontational of our own complicity in favoring an art of theory over an art of life."
In the comments, Canadian poet Sina Queyras countered that "insight is not teachable. Form and style are...I would rather encounter a conceptual poem from a poet with a lack of insight than a lyric poem from a poet with a lack of insight."
- Charming Gardeners, 2013
- The Book of Men and Women, 2009 (Named 'Best Poetry of the Year' by the Poetry Foundation; awarded the Oregon Book Award in Poetry, selected by Robert Pinsky)
- Wild Civility, 2003
- Pilgrims & Beggars, 2002 (Awarded the Portlandia Prize)
- Shattering Air, 1996
- A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns, Forthcoming 2015
- Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, 2010
- Poems of the American South (Random House: Everyman's Library Pocket Poets), 2014
- Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets, 2006 (Awarded the Pacific Northwest Bookseller's Award)
- Artists' Communities, 1996
Citizen Dave: Selected Poems 1996-2010
- "Poetry: Afresh and refreshed". The Oregonian. 21 September 2013.
- "Readings Listings". The Portland Mercury (Index Newspapers, LLC). December 11, 2003. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- "Al Poulin, Founding Editor Of Poetry House, Dies at 58". Obituary (The New York Times). June 10, 1996.
- Plumly, Stanley. "Shattering Air". Shattering Air. BOA.
- Orr, David. Review (Poetry). JSTOR 20606696.
- "Wild Civility". University of Washington Press. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- "The Book of Men and Women". University of Washington Press. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- "Literary Arts". Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- Pinsky, Robert (23 May 2011). "Judge's Comments in Poetry". Paper Fort. Literary Arts. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- Klug, Nate (January 2010). "A Good, Long Scream". Poetry (Poetry Foundation). Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- Kunhardt, Jessie (3 May 2010). "Why Aren't Poets More Politically Active?". Huffington Post.
- Cowles, Gregory (May 11, 2010). "Does Poetry Matter?". The New York Times.