homestories Inquiry

A Poet’s Life

David Biespiel revels in finding words for the journey

By Anastasia Athon Heck

Editor’s note: Read “Old dogs”; “Clouds, I said, will come of it”; and “Have you noticed the horses galloping past us?” — three previously unpublished poems by David Biespiel.

When walking through the door of David Biespiel’s Oregon State University office, visitors are immediately greeted by 12 paintings of a man in a hat. Each covers a similarly sized square of canvas, and their subject is clearly the same man in the same soft-brimmed fedora. Yet the paintings run the color gamut. Some feature bright colors; others stick to muted shades of black and gray. Some renderings accentuate distinctive facial features; others are more abstract. 

The man on the wall is 19th-century American poet and writer Walt Whitman. Biespiel painted the pieces that hang on his Moreland Hall office wall in three neatly ordered rows.

“I kind of went where they were going,” Biespiel says of his painting process, which took place a few years ago. “They’re all very different. It’s kind of the same way you write.”

An acclaimed poet and member of the writing faculty in OSU’s Master of Fine Arts program, Biespiel (pronounced Bye-speal) is a prolific writer with 11 books and many awards to his credit. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The New York Times, The New Yorker and Slate, among many other notable publications.

David Biespiel

Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine for 10 years, praised Biespiel for his “incredible ear.” “I love the sound of David’s poems,” he says. “David has a very big heart, and he always has something substantial to say. It’s those two things combined that really make his poetry stand out.”

Amy Stolls, literary arts director for the National Endowment for the Arts, shared similar sentiments about Biespiel, characterizing him as genuine, wise and humble. “I admire how intently he listens; how deeply perceptive and fair he is; how his voice softens when he’s feeling someone’s pain; and how sharp-witted and entertaining he can be when telling a story,” she says. “I learn something from him every time we speak.” 

Whitman was an early inspiration for Biespiel dating back to his Texas high school where he would immediately flip to the poems at the back of newly distributed textbooks in his English classes.

“Whitman is such a liberating poet,” Biespiel says. “I often cajole students by saying you shouldn’t be given a college degree or consider yourself educated unless you have read Walt Whitman. I teach ‘Song of Myself’ every year in the Introduction to Poetry seminar. Whitman’s argument about the equality of people — that we are 99.9% the same, as the Human Genome Project confirms — holds true today, and there’s not a lot of difference once you start accepting people and being empathetic.”

A modern-day Renaissance man, Biespiel revels in the art of writing and the meaning, texture and sound of words, which he calls “incredible.” When he speaks, a rich rhythm and vivid images trip off his tongue as though he’s reciting one of the thousands of poems he has written over the last 33 years while refining his craft. Now 56, Biespiel personifies a learned man of letters with his orderly office full of books, an antique wood desk and reading glasses close at hand.

“I’m interested in the medium and the sound of words,” he says. “It’s totally auditory and about the way words come out of utterances in your mouth. Every time someone says ‘I love you’ to you, it still gives you a thrill even though you’ve heard it a thousand times. Those three syllables are so reassuring. I think that’s so cool.”

Biespiel’s books include volumes of poetry, creative nonfiction and memoir. He describes his next book — titled A Place of Exodus to be published in September 2020 — as a “meditation about leaving home.”

Sacred Language

Home for Biespiel was a “gigantic Jewish community” in southeast Houston. He grew up in a prayer-oriented family where words had extra meaning and resonance, and language was important. Biespiel recalls that books and magazines — from his mother’s college textbooks to his father’s “airplane reading” thrillers and the Encyclopedia Brittanica — crowded every bookshelf in the family home. School from Biespiel’s earliest days through the sixth grade took place in the synagogue his family attended. In school and at home, he studied the Torah and became an accomplished Hebrew student. 

“Every day at the synagogue, I had access to heightened language,” Biespiel says, recounting his family’s rich tradition and daily experience with Jewish prayer language. “It seemed normal. Not being able to decipher that would have been an embarrassment to my family.”

Although his religious background and culture strongly influenced his professional path, he calls himself a “retired Jew,” who no longer actively practices the faith. 

Athletics also played a prominent role in Biespiel’s family. At the age of 7, he tagged along with his two older brothers to a diving class and found that the coach valued youth because he could teach “the little one” more than his 12- and 13-year-old brothers. This encounter led to a competitive diving career that would last for the next 15 years. He earned a scholarship to Boston University where he competed on the swimming and diving team for four years. He remained on the East Coast for the next 11 years. 

His memoir, The Education of a Young Poet, chronicles Biespiel’s athletic experiences and the role that competition played in his life. It also dives deeply into his awakening and emergence as a poet.

“Standing stoically on the diving board — before takeoff, arms dropped at my side, and reviewing the moves of the dive in my brain — it was as if I were simultaneously filled with the knowledge of everything I had learned in practice and also completely ignorant of what the future of the dive would actually bring,” Biespiel wrote. “Nothing so resembles the practice of adjustments, of risking and accepting failure, of pleading with yourself for redemption, like diving does as writing a poem.”

After earning an undergraduate English degree, Biespiel spent a few years in Brownsville, Vermont, population 43, where he began writing in earnest while teaching high school English. His first poem was published soon after graduation and only a few months after he began focusing full time on writing.

“I was 22 years old,” he says. “I think I felt, ‘This is easy.’ Of course, it just turned out I’d had a bit, or a bout, of dumb luck.” 

Scholar of Words

After a few years, Biespiel relocated to Washington, D.C. During his time there, he earned his MFA from the University of Maryland while continuing to write. His progress paid off as he was awarded a prestigious Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford. After his time in the Bay Area, Biespiel moved to Portland and began his work at OSU in 2001.

Here, he teaches a variety of writing courses for both undergraduate and graduate students. Biespiel emphasizes that just as Oregon State faculty pursue research on the forefront of engineering and science, the university’s creative writing faculty — acclaimed writers in fiction, nonfiction and poetry — are leading innovators in their disciplines. 

“The poets and writers are doing cutting-edge literary investigations,” he says. “To put words into a combination that has never been combined or to write a new metaphor, that is true innovation and discovery.”

In 2018, Biespiel became OSU’s poet-in-residence, a new role to highlight and celebrate the university’s contributions to the genre. His service in this role has included programming for National Poetry Month each April, teaching a writing workshop for veterans and developing ways to teach creative writing to students in OSU colleges like engineering and science — nonhumanities disciplines — within their majors. 

He also mentors poetry students to help guide their paths to publication, an endeavor advanced by Biespiel’s national prominence in the literary community. The poet-in-residence role does not include commission of poems for special events.

“There is no requirement to write any poems to celebrate the jubilee of the queen,” Biespiel jokes.

Peter Betjemann, director of the School of Writing, Literature, and Film in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, explains that the poet-in-residence position aligns perfectly with Biespiel’s body of work.

“David has particular qualifications for being a public-facing poet,” he says. “He is highly published and much more devoted to translating poetry for general readers. He is attracted to the idea of a global community of thinkers and writers.”

So much so that in 1999, Biespiel founded the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters, a Portland center committed to advancing the literary arts. For the last 20 years, the Attic has offered workshops in all genres, stoking and supporting the creative efforts of the region’s burgeoning writing community. Further demonstrating his commitment to advancing the writing arts in the public sphere, Biespiel wrote a monthly poetry column for The Oregonian/Oregon Live for 11 years. He was told it was the longest such column to ever run in an American newspaper. Active in Portland’s arts scene, he lives in the city with his wife, poet and essayist Wendy Willis. 

Sources of Inspiration

Biespiel characterizes his work as autobiographical. His poems emerge from the experiences of his life — his relationships, memories and dream life. He posits that his poems explore the “fractures of emotions,” such as joy, grief and melancholy, experienced in the human condition. 

“I try to cover the big things,” he says. “Love, relationships, birth, death. My predominant concern or obsession is memory. Memory is really complicated. I am less attracted to write about current events ripped from the headlines.”

Yet, daily headlines and political polarization may be driving the rising popularity of poetry in today’s cultural zeitgeist. 

“Poetry is thriving in America,” Biespiel says. “Just because the shouting shows do not cover it does not mean that it is not alive. I think social media has given readers a new lane for access to poetry that matches its brevity and velocity.”

Wiman, the former Poetry magazine editor, concurs. 

“I think poetry has a much broader and deeper place in the culture than when David and I were coming up 30 years ago,” he says. “I believe this is largely because the gates have opened up to let so many more people in as poets and as readers. A great diversity of poets brings a great diversity of readers.” 

From where she sits at the National Endowment for the Arts, Stolls believes the age-old art form is flourishing as well. 

“In this age of quick texts and Tweets and posts and pictures, poetry reminds us that words matter and that there is beauty in our language, in the world, in ourselves and in others,” she says. “It reminds us to be awed, to feel that unique pleasure in wondering about what we don’t know. And in an age of fast-paced change and rash decisions, it teaches us to slow down and embrace silence.”

Biespiel agrees and sums up this unique form of writing this way: “Poetry invites you to immerse yourself in the words of our daily existence and to be alert to the difficult joys of being alive,” he says.  

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.