When I walked into Stanley Plumly’s office, the first things I noticed were books stacked high on top of various shelves throughout the room.
When asked what he does in his free time, he simply stated:
“I read, but that doesn’t count. Reading — it’s like breathing.”
Plumly has worked at this university for 30 years. Before interviewing him, I read an introductory speech about him, found in one of his poetry collections in the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House production lab. The introduction described who Plumly was in 1985; statements that still ring true today.
“Do you know what that’s called?” he asked, looking over the pages with a laugh. “An artifact.”
In the introduction, written by Rod Jellema, Jellema mentioned Deborah Digges, Plumly’s ex-wife and a fellow poet.
On whether or not her poetry and his poetry influenced each other, Plumly answered, “No. She was a brilliant poet. When I first met her it was clear she was on her way.”
Plumly boasts a list of accomplishments for his written works. His newest prose book, The Immortal Evening, recently won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual cash prize in the field. He has also served as the poet laureate of Maryland since 2009. However, he is quick to dismiss his achievements.
“It’s a job,” he said, referring to the title. “I think writing poems is the accomplishment. The fact that it’s recognized is good, I’m not against it. I’ve been lucky, because I’ve always been rewarded from the start for it.”
Plumy is also a faculty member at the university. Along with working as the Director of Creative Writing, he teaches a poetry workshop.
The class is comprised of eight students sitting around a circular table, with Plumly seated at the end, creating a sense that—at least in that room—all opinions are equal. Although the setup created a sense that it is not teacher versus students, but, rather, colleagues discussing poetry. It seemed clear that Plumly holds a place of respect among his students. He began the workshop by reading a poem by Anthony Hecht titled “The Hill.”
“One could argue this is a poem about nothing,” he said after completing his recitation. “I think that’s what makes it one of his best works.”
This opinion echoes a sentiment he expressed to me during our meeting in his office.
“What I tell my students, again and again—forget about thinking you have something to say. Just don’t think about it. Listen to your experiences; tell that story.”
Indeed, this is a recurring concept during the two hour workshop. After reading the Hecht poem, the classmates moved into discussing their own poetry.
Plumly opened the floor to criticism of each poem before offering input of his own.
“You would be much better writers if you realized you didn’t have to answer. The answer is already there.”
The idea of writing from experience echoes in his own works, which are less about making a statement than they are about recounting experiences and emotions, isolating moments in time.
I asked him whether or not any major events throughout his life influenced his work. His answer applies to all his philosophies on writing.
“What has been a major experience to me might have absolutely been negligible or ordinary to someone else. Like that bird flying against the window—most people would have just found that bizarre, but to me it meant something. I guess what I would say is that I believe in the quiet moment, the small moment, and to me that’s the major moment.”
What comes across more clearly than anything else is his genuine love for his art.
“I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, or how I was going to live, but I knew.”
This passion seems to have spread amongst his students.
Lenaya Stewart, a first year graduate student majoring in English literature, and former member of the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, asserts that her poetry has changed for the better since beginning Plumly’s workshop.
“We move past the basics; we really talk about a lot more abstract concepts when it comes to writing,” Stewart said. “We talk about the role of reading in writing. We also do a lot of deep analysis of poems—we’ll cover just one or two lines instead of the whole thing, and that’s enough. There’s a lot more focus on the writer. And a lot more trust in the writer.”
In his own poetry, Plumly tends to take a more melancholic approach.
“[My writing is] more of a tone, more of a mood. It’s like a time of day, when you think about yourself and your life, and you’re sort of outside the group.”
On finding any overarching themes within his work, he said, “I would say evening is a central theme in all my work, if you had to choose a single metaphor. You feel different in the evening, as opposed to the morning. It’s the meditative time.”
He he wrote two books, titled Posthumous Keats and The Immortal Evening, with a similarly heavy hand.
“My [prose] books make the case that immortality itself is pretty mortal. A lot of it is accidental. Whatever it is, it’s amazing how time decides who should be taken off the list. Immortality is quite vulnerable.”
“I was in Vermont, about two weeks ago, and one of the little college towns where I was—I was taking a walk in the afternoon and came across a great, old cemetery,” Plumly said. “There were all these gravestones lying to my left as I walked in. And I looked at them, and there was not a single piece of writing left on any of them. They were all erased. Time, and the weather, had done that. It’s relentless, time is. It just erases.”
In stark juxtaposition to the seriousness of his writing, Plumly’s demeanor is more genuine than reticent. “I think of myself as a pretty happy individual, actually. I put all of that other stuff in my work.”
His students concur. “He’s just hilarious. He’s actually really funny,” Stewart said.
“I think he makes it easier to be harder with yourself as a writer, to be more blunt with your rewriting. A lot of times he’ll say the hard things for us,” she said.
As for the future, Plumly already has his next collection of poetry in mind.
“My publisher wanted me to do a collected poems, but I didn’t think I was ready for that, so I wrote a new book instead. I think it’s my best, actually.”
His book is called My Noir. “It’s kind of long and it’s about a lot of things. I think it’s my biggest when it comes to emotional size.”
For Plumly, his craft is his life. If he’s not writing or teaching, he’s reading. If he’s not reading, he’s researching for his next piece. “That’s all I’ve ever done, is talk about poems. Read poems and write them.”
His advice for aspiring authors?
“You have to know your art, and the way of knowing it is to read. Read within your taste, and read outside your taste, and read against your taste, because that will give you imaginative options. The writing part has as much to do with perseverance as anything else. I see a lot of people who started out when I did who just aren’t doing the work anymore. If you want to be a writer, you have to really work at it. You have to love the language.”
Perhaps his most important piece of wisdom was:
“Writers are losers. And that’s what you write about—that loss. If you want to be a winner, run for office.”
Featured Photo: Stanley Plumly during his poetry workshop. Plumly has been the poet laureate of Maryland since 2009 and is head of the creative writing program at University of Maryland. Plumly has taught at the university since 1985. (Cassie Osvatics/Writer’s Bloc Reporter)
Jessica Cooper is a sophomore communication major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.