Speaking with Former Texas Poet Laureate Walt McDonald

Throughout our 50th anniversary year, we will be reflecting on our various publishing endeavors here at Texas Tech University Press. Part of this undertaking involves a celebration of our proudest initiatives. Among them, undoubtedly, is the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry. We’ve previously posted an interview with Rachel Mennies, current series editor 

But in 2021, we are publishing the final collection of poems by the series’ namesake, Walt McDonald himself. Now in his late 80s, Walt has put together a collection of over 500 poems, The Essential Walt McDonald, which will be released this coming fall. After they completed the work of compiling and organizing the collection, our acquisitions editor Travis and Walt had a conversation about the process and about Walt’s storied career and life in poetry. 

You have just finished compiling a large collection representing a lifetime of writing. I know you have written and published over two thousand poems–so this collection will approach 25 percent of that. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the experience of compiling your own poems. Did you find the work energizing, melancholy, wistful? Like a reunion of old friends? Was it difficult to make the selections? 

All of the above, Travis. When my wife Carol died in July 2019, I was writing talks to give in our church Bible class. After months of mourning and memories, I began posting two or three poems a day on Facebook, as a “celebration of life” for her. As Willie Nelson sings, she was “always on my mind.” After a month, friends asked me to keep on posting, so I did. Months later, I thought of one last book, dedicated to her, with her photo. I wrote you, and your reply was so quick and enthusiastic I was energized, even joyful.  

I chose several of those poems I had posted, and then I began reading hundreds of my poems I hadn’t seen in years. At times, I thought with surprise, “Did I write that?” If I liked it, I kept it for the book. All of the work, the overtime hours, were for Carol. Did I grieve? Oh, yes, but I was energized, also–many nights only 3–4 hours of sleep, eager to go on reading, trying to remember which ones she had liked best.  

I know you retired from poetry some time ago, but youve touched these poems up a little bit. I noticed you updated some of the references for contemporary readers. iPhones make an appearance in a few poems when youre writing about the encroachment of modernity, for instance (they wouldnt have been in the original versions). So I wonder if the poems still feel current to you? Did reading them take you back to a specific moment in time or do you find that their essence still felt present? 

You’re right, Travis. I touched up almost all of the poems before giving them to you. Of poets I admired when I began scribbling, a few said, “You never finish a poem; you just release it.” Most said they revise and revise, even after a poem is published, even after it’s in a book. My own copies of my books are filled with scratch-outs, marked-out lines, different words no one but me will read. 

Down there under the pressure and heat of living are images we need for making poems

Since August, I’ve reread all of the poems in our book–and added or deleted or changed something in almost every poem, even if just a period in place of a semicolon, or a plural instead of a singular, or far more sweeping changes to make every poem as good as I could.  

But no, Travis, I don’t remember sitting there last century and typing a first word or phrase of a new poem, or working on a first draft, or rewrites. I wrote fast, whatever came. I sat there willing and eager to find something new. It was as though the keyboard and I were up to something, it was exciting every time. (I called that way of writing “Delight in Discovery” and told my creative-writing students that, if they wanted to try it.) Then I put every first draft away in one of several boxes.  

I never had “writer’s block”; there’s no such thing, if one writes as I did–just sitting a minute or a few seconds, not worrying about what to write about in a first draft. When a word or phrase floated by that clicked, I typed it, and by the time I typed it, something else attached itself like cars of a train. For instance, I didn’t know what or where the first word or two of the book’s first poem “Praise” would lead to. Nor where any of the Vietnam or love poems would go, nor where any first phrase or line would lead to. I trusted that way.  

I had no idea the poem called “Bargaining with God” would be about our first grandchild Jennifer, born with cystic fibrosis–but it became one of the most beloved of all my poems.  

Do you see why I called that way of “finding” a poem “Delight in Discovery?” I called an early chapbook “One Thing Leads to Another,” a cliché that describes how I wrote all first drafts (but one) over three decades.  

Also, I never revised or looked at a first draft for five to six months. I scribbled the date on each box containing a hundred or so first drafts and didn’t touch them for months, because I stayed busy teaching and editing many other first drafts. When I looked at a first draft again, if it intrigued me, I worked gladly and hard on it–but if it didn’t excite me, I put it back until later.  

Therefore, I’d say intrigue, surprise, and delight were the gauges I used when selecting poems for this and every other book. 

Open spaces figure into your poems a great deal. There’s big open sky in Montana, wide expansive plains of West Texas, and then there’s the world from a cockpit. Does being a pilot have much to do with being a poet? How does this vantage point stay with you? 

Yes, I wrote often about Texas, Montana, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado–and “the world from a cockpit,” my favorite way to see the world. It takes years for many to become fine pilots, but only seconds to lose an engine, explode, or be shot down by missiles.  

It might surprise us how many pilots write poems or novels–for instance, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who was an early French aviator and author. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote about his adventures as a pilot in works such as Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince

When I taught a Bible class, I never lied. When I wrote stories or poems, I lied all the time.

Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall were both published authors when they first met at the end of World War I. Both men had distinguished themselves as fliers in the famed Lafayette Escadrille Corps, and while serving in the squadron each of them wrote articles for the Atlantic Monthly about their wartime experiences. They also wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, the 1932 novel made into several movies.  

John Gillespie Magee Jr. was a young World War II Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot and poet, who wrote the famous poem “High Flight.” He was killed in an accidental mid-air collision over England in 1941. Later famous poets James Dickey and Richard Hugo were US Army fliers in World War II, Dickey in the P-61 “Black Widow” night fighter and Hugo as a bombardier in four-engine B-24 bombers. 

My friend Joseph Heller, who wrote the famous novel Catch-22, was also a US bombardier in B-25 medium bombers, which I flew later in pilot training. The first time we met in New York City for lunch, he kidded me, saying he had decided that all pilots were crazy to fly those things, but he thought I was okay. “Maybe.” 

Throughout World War II, Howard Nemerov served as a pilot, first in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later the US Army Air Forces. A Harvard graduate, he became a distinguished American poet. My colonel at the Air Force Academy, who was a pilot in WW II, wrote a book of poems for his PhD dissertation.  

And on and on. Flight is a mystery all who fly love. An old saying of pilots about the joys and risks and dangers of flying is, “Any landing you walk away from is good.” 

Many of your awards and much of your recognition comes from Texas institutions and cowboyadjacent organizations. Though, as best as I can tell, the first things you wrote about were not especially Texan. How did you end up making your way into writing about Texas? 

Good question. I came to poetry late, as a retired middle-aged Air Force pilot after Vietnam. I had written six unpublished novels, including over the three years while working on a PhD in the University of Iowa’s writing workshop. After some of my friends went to Vietnam and one was shot down, then others, I felt a need to say something to or about them. I turned to poems when nothing else worked, and my first stumbling attempts were like letters to or about the dead or missing in action.  

When my first book of poems–mainly war poems–was published, Donald Justice, an old friend and famous poet on Iowa’s faculty, asked me, “Where’s Texas in your poems, Walt?” I didn’t know; I had never thought about it. But I started looking around, and sure enough, I began to feel the call of that wild, semi-arid West Texas that I knew better than I knew Iowa and Colorado, better than Vietnam. For years, I hadn’t considered this world to be my home. But when I let down my bucket in a Plains region doomed to dry up, I found all sorts of water–all sorts of poems–even if I could write for forty years in that suddenly fabulous desert.

I looked back from time to time and realized I had been doing the best I could do, prowling my regions–sometimes my deepest obsessions and desires, sometimes the most haunting memories of my life.


What does it mean to grow up, as so many did, “loving the cowboy ways?” Who hasn’t been exposed to the myth of the cowboy? The influence of the cowboy on American culture reaches from Alaska to Alabama, from spaghetti westerns to German novels set oddly on the Llano Estacado, the “Staked Plains” of West Texas where I was born. Texas born: what does that mean? Instead of getting a quarter from the tooth fairy, branded like cattle with a Lone Star?  

It must mean something. One year in Trinidad, Colorado, parked next to a family in a big car with Alabama plates, I saw a six-year-old boy pouting, tagging along behind his grandfather. Bored, the boy kicked a pebble, looked around and stopped, and stared at our front license plate. “Grandpa!” he shouted, tugging the old man’s sleeve. “They’re from Texas!”–as if NOW he was seeing something! 

I remember my father’s old spurs and a pair of chaps so stiff the leather was brittle as old parchment. I grew up hearing about his years as a cowboy–cattle and sandstorms, and blue northers that drove the livestock to barbed-wire fences where they froze. When my mother married my father, he was a working cowboy with five borrowed dollars in his pocket, and he took her in a borrowed buggy out on the ranch to a shack near the bunkhouse, and the foreman’s wife and a few ladies at church were her only female friends that year.  

A cowboy who had eaten more trail dust than I had walked on, my dad despised dime novels that prattled and paraded cowboys as heroes, gunslingers, with nifty codes of honor like King Arthur’s knights. He told me sometimes why he disliked fiction–so fake, nothing at all like the cowboys he had bunked with before marriage, nor the foreman he worked for. Over the years, I challenged and probably pushed him away with questions about the “old days,” and he told me, grudgingly, without venom, about hard work and boredom and little pay. Still, I envied his years on horseback. I grew up in Texas during World War II, and cowboys and pilots were my heroes. I played on a thousand acres of ranchland pocked with prairie-dog holes, flying cheap models of P-51 Mustangs and British Spitfires. I left Texas and became a pilot, and years later I turned to poems in middle age when I had to stop flying. 

Now, cowboys and flying combine in my poems no one would ever call “cowboy poetry.” Without the influence of cowboys, though, without my dad’s brittle chaps and my own first pair of spurs, I might never have found many of the poems I’ve come to. 

The city of Austin crops up in your poems in a few places, as does your current residence and hometown, Lubbock. What are some other important Texas places that loom large in your recollection? 

Rivers, especially the Brazos River that starts in far northwest Texas and wanders down to the Gulf. I imagine every native Texan claims it, including poets. It’s called the “River of the Arms of God” (“Rio de los Brazos de Dios”).  

The “arm” of the Brazos near our house when I was a boy was dry most of the time, so buddies and I walked or rode bikes down into the canyon to hunt for treasures–pennies and dimes, skulls of coyotes, ghost stories the times we risked staying late after sundown. 

Austin, because that’s where my wife Carol was born. Her great-grandparents had helped build Lubbock, but her parents moved to Austin for work before she was born. When I was a young pilot at Laredo Air Force Base by the Rio Grande, Carol had graduated from college and moved back to Austin as an artist for the State of Texas. I began driving every weekend to be with her in Austin, then back to Laredo late at night on Sundays. I spent more time on that highway than I did in the air, those months.  

Lubbock was ground zero. Born poor in the Great Depression of the 1930s, on the edge of town, near the canyon. There’s an old saying, “If New York or Texas is your region, it’s your region.” 

So, thanks mainly to Donald Justice, I wrote much about what I knew best, about what intrigued me–family, and my native region, flying, the Rocky Mountains which were our “second home,” and still, sometimes, a war. When I typed whatever came out of my fingers onto the keyboard, I think I found what I really enjoyed saying in poems. I didn’t write biographies, although I wrote about dozens of “uncles.” Friends have asked if all those uncles in my poems are really my uncles. They grin, aware it was like the query, “Is that about a real person, or did you just make it up?” Half wisecrack, the way friends talk, I usually said, “Yes, every one of them is my ’uncle,’ and I can’t wait to invent some more.” 

I looked back from time to time and realized I had been doing the best I could do, prowling my regions–sometimes my deepest obsessions and desires, sometimes the most haunting memories of my life.  

The rhythms of ranching factor heavily into many poems assembled here. Can you talk a bit about any history you have with that? A lot of hefty stuff–seasons, sustenance, death, journey–is part of life on a ranch. What stands out to you about it? 

For years, Carol and I talked about buying a ranch in Colorado. Growing up, we had been around cousins’ horses and cattle. When I was a boy, I liked trips to East Texas and Arkansas where I rode horses with them and helped dig water wells. After World War II, I worked summers on my older brother’s farm and kept my first calf there. Cowboy movies, though, were the treats friends and I fed our imaginations with, and books, lots of books about “real live cowboys” that were fiction. In college, I majored in animal husbandry and dairy farming–with classmates whose daddies owned ranches in Texas. I pulled my pants pockets inside out, said “what the heck,” and changed majors, the fastest way I could graduate and enter flying training in the Air Force, which had been my goal since boyhood. 

Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” I like what the dictionary calls a poem–“a made thing”–think of that, a “made-up thing.” After the war, after months of scribbling, I switched to writing poems, but not autobiography. Experience is valuable for what it is; then imagination takes over. The persona is there, but not the actual person I was, or what I had done–not the actual pilot I had been, or a real boy leaping from trees or riding a horse. Every poem I wrote was invented, a little fiction.  

When I taught a Bible class, I never lied. When I wrote stories or poems, I lied all the time. When I ran across James Dickey in Self-Interviews about the possibilities of “the lie”–stories of imagination and metaphors and voice–I felt thrilled that what I had been doing on my own seemed extremely valid. I think Dickey was right, and his insights are brilliant.   

When the persona or invented character is there in a poem or a story, and the mask is in place, the lyric and narrative can work; but the actual person I am was not there in the poem, or what I did. Nothing could matter less. My task as a writer was to write so vividly that readers will feel it was really that way, it was sure enough that way for them, when they read the story or poem–like enjoying the dangers and thrills of a movie. I think the duty of a writer is to be interesting and clear, and in that sense to build a bridge–but it’s a bridge between a poem that feels “real” and the reader, not between the poet’s “real life” and the reader. 

Poetry for me is not autobiography, but art; not merely facts of actual lives, but invention; not confession, but creation, “creative writing”–discoveries I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t sat down and just typed, not knowing what would come next, but trusting. If I had relied on facts that “really happened,” how boring. I might come up with poems, but for me, that was like trying to dig for oil with a corkscrew, like trying to find gold mines with a plastic spoon, like searching for Noah’s lost ark, or the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s plane by reading essays about them. I believe in the possibilities of discovery, the rich and undiscovered oil fields and gold mines of the imagination–that reservoir of all we’ve experience, heard about or read, seen in movies, or glimpsed, all of it jumbled together and waiting to be found.  

At times, I thought with surprise, “Did I write that?”

Down there, buried inside us, are regions we haven’t touched for years or decades or ever, except in hopes or dreams or nightmares. Those are the bits and remnants of all we’ve taken in and carry–lost cities like Atlantis, the elephants’ graveyard, the forgotten playgrounds and boneyards of our lives. Down there under the pressure and heat of living are images we need for making poems–some of them already diamonds, most of them coal waiting to stoke the furnace–and gushers of oil that would drive our imaginations’ engines longer than we could write. 

Finally, the toughest question of all. If someone wants an introduction to your work that’s just a few poems, do you have a core collection that you would point them to first? 

Tough one, all right–like asking a father with a dozen children: “Which are your favorite children?” I would name one, name another, and another and then all twelve of them. But I’ll name eight or ten, or a few more.

I’ll start with Part One: “Praise”; “My Father on His Shield”; “The Waltz We Were Born For”; “What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon.”  

In the next two Parts, “Marriage”; “Bargaining with God”; “The Children of Saigon”; “A Woman Acquainted with the Night”; “Rembrandt and the Art of Mercy”; “Faith Is a Radical Master”; “Wind and Hardscrabble”; “Seconds of Free Fall and Chaos”; and “Hawks in a Bitter Blizzard.”  

In Part Four, “Hunting First Drafts in Vinny’s Place”; “The Second Sign”; the last one; and many more.