Thomas Pierce’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Oxford American, and The Atlantic. He’s a graduate of the University of Virginia’s MFA program in writing, and lives in Charlottesville. He spoke with me by phone.
Thomas Pierce: When you’re 18, you’re on the lookout for a Bible. It could be the Bible, though of course it doesn’t have to be—it can be anything you carry around, duck in and out of, turn to for wisdom or beauty. When I was a freshman in college, that book basically fell into my lap. It was a copy of Straw for the Fire, a collection of excerpts from Theodore Roethke’s notebooks, given to me by my professor.
He’d just gotten a hardback version, so he gave me his old paperback copy. It was an old edition from 1974—these days, it’s lying in about eight sections, tattered and completely falling apart. It has a very dated look—the price is printed directly on the cover. For the illustration, someone assembled scraps of gold and red paper to look like a roaring flame. To me it felt ancient somehow, though it’s really not that old, and that was part of the appeal.
We’d read one of Roethke’s poems in class—probably his famous poem "The Waking"—and I’d liked it, which was unusual for me. I would not call myself an expert on poetry, by any means. I’ve always been a little bit intimidated by "Poetry" with a capital "P." I’m definitely a prose person. But something about this book put me at ease. These pieces of writing are so informal, so accessible—in part, I think, because they were never intended for publication. Straw for the Fire was assembled by the poet David Wagoner, a student of Roethke’s. He sifted through the nearly 300 spiral notebooks his teacher filled between 1943 and 1963, and plucked out the best snippets. So it’s a book of aphorisms and half-thoughts, koans and fragments. It’s a look into someone’s head who doesn’t know you’re looking.
The book is divided into two parts—"Poetry" and "Prose"—though, really, there’s not much difference between the two. Wagoner grouped the fragments under different themed subheadings, like "Words for Young Writers"—one of several sections about teaching. The first thought from that section is:
Great teachers are not necessarily systematic thinkers. The very act of teaching is against us.
Or this one, which I love:
Today I'm going to lecture on confusion. I'm all for it.
Each fragment is just a short snatch of text—often, just a sentence or two. They’re tweet-sized, really. Many of them suggest Roethke would have excelled at Twitter, had he been alive now, such as:
I spend my life doing things I keep trying to forget.
There’s a great, appealing pithiness to that line—it’s beautifully phrased—and yet it’s complicated enough that after several readings you still feel you can explore it further. This happens again and again, in lines like:
May my silences become more accurate.
The curious eat themselves.
The things I steal from sleep are what I am.
Part of the fun here is that he doesn’t fully develop each thought, necessarily—he leaves that to you. The lines seem pregnant with significance, and yet their meanings are rarely straightforward or self-evident. They possess this enigmatic weight, this sense of mystery, which makes it easy to drop in, grab a line, and chew on it for a few days.