Living poetry

Ralph Salisbury and Ingrid Wendt

Wife and husband Ingrid Wendt and Ralph Salisbury are both writers and poets but with distinct styles.

Wife and husband Ingrid Wendt and Ralph Salisbury are both writers and poets but with distinct styles.

Ralph Salisbury and Ingrid Wendt are sitting in an Iowa hotel room in late October, playing with their 3-year-old granddaughter during a family visit. They take a break to talk over the phone about their life and work. The couple lives in Eugene, Ore., now, but Salisbury grew up on a farm about 10 miles from this spot. Born in 1926, just before the Great Depression hit, Salisbury’s family worked hard just to stay alive. “So I guess I have a sympathy for people who are downtrodden,” he says, his voice weathered and kindly. “That’s another theme that prevails in my work.”

His work, and his wife’s work, too, is writing: short stories and poetry for him, primarily poetry for her. An audience at Sierra Nevada College will hear some of those writings when they read from their works on Nov. 3.

“We all have similar experiences in different contexts,” says Wendt, 62. “My poems often arise from personal experience. I hope by writing about it, I can make it universal, so people can enter my experience and recognize their place within it.”

Wendt has studied music since she was a child growing up in Illinois, and it shows. Her poems are lyrical, and some are downright sing-songy, such as a poem in her most recent book, Surgeonfish, called “Italy: Singing the Map": Varenna, Ravenna, Verona: listen! / Each day the same call for vespers, the same / church bells—five, or six, or seven—shifting / places and rhythm …

Another influence is the simple poetry of language. Having taught poetry throughout the Western United States, as well as in Germany, she encourages new writers to play with the sounds and rhythms of words. From “Mukilteo Ferry” in the same book: … calm descends upon me, like / the very word / “upon"—the way / it slows the sentence down—a measured word, hinged—the way / fish, in their inscrutable / expressions, hang / immobile, as though rooted / each to its own place…

One might assume Salisbury and Wendt influence each other’s work—after 37 years of marriage. While Wendt says she’s become more aware of addressing larger issues since knowing her husband, their writing styles are quite different. “You’d never confuse the two of us,” agrees Salisbury.

Born to a Cherokee father and Irish American mother, Salisbury has developed a reputation as a Native American writer since the 1960s, when a poem dealing with his heritage, “In the Children’s Museum in Nashville,” was published in the New Yorker.

His newest book, War in the Genes, also carries a sense of his ethnicity because, as he says, “It’s one thing that’s true about me.” But as the title suggests, it’s focused on the universal theme of war. Salisbury, professor emeritus at University of Oregon, fought in World War II; his brother was a prisoner of war during the Ground Forces invasion in North Africa in the 1940s; his younger brother fought in Vietnam. With these and other experiences in mind, Salisbury explores war from the time of Spanish conquerors to the current Iraq war. These poems tie both his and the world’s past and current events together, with stories of his daughter’s proximity to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, to climbing a fire lookout at age 77, to his own heart problems. I seize / between worn, grave-spade-shape / Vanishing American incisors / my right to whine, to growl, to warn, to bite and to / the next breath.”

“I write what I feel is important to me and trust that it’s important to other people,” he says.