Going Back to Bisbee
May 8, 1993
About this Book
Richard Shelton first came to southeastern Arizona in the 1950s as a soldier stationed at Fort Huachuca. He soon fell in love with the region and upon his discharge found a job as a schoolteacher in nearby Bisbee. Now a university professor and respected poet living in Tucson, still in love with the Southwestern deserts, Shelton sets off for Bisbee on a not-uncommon day trip. Along the way, he reflects on the history of the area, on the beauty of the landscape, and on his own life. Couched within the narrative of his journey are passages revealing Shelton's deep familiarity with the region's natural and human history. Whether conveying the mystique of tarantulas or describing the mountain-studded topography, he brings a poet's eye to this seemingly desolate country. His observations on human habitation touch on Tombstone, "the town too tough to die," on ghost towns that perhaps weren't as tough, and on Bisbee itself, a once prosperous mining town now an outpost for the arts and a destination for tourists. What he finds there is both a broad view of his past and a glimpse of that city's possible future.
RON CARLSON: Hello. Welcome to Books & Company. I’m Ron Carlson and today our guest is the writer Richard Shelton. Richard Shelton came to Arizona in 1956 and has led a very creative life before and since. He is the author, he’s most well-known rather, as a poet, being the author of more than a dozen celebrated books of poems included his first book The Tattooed Desert and The Bus to Veracruz which was nominated for a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He’s a very successful creative writing teacher at the University of Arizona and is currently a Regents Professor there. In addition, he’s established and sustained for several years creative writing programs in many of the prisons of Arizona. And now he has written his first non-fiction book Going Back to Bisbee, which has been published by the University of Arizona Press and which won the 1992 Western States Book Award. The jurors for that award said, in part, “Richard Shelton gives us a memoir of his Arizona years interwoven with an intimate and detailed report of local history and the natural world. If you love the southwestern deserts you will love this book. If you don’t know them, this book will lead you to them.” Well, welcome. And what led you to this book?
RICHARD SHELTON: Oh, I had always wanted to write a non-fiction book on the southwest, but I’d imagined it would be flora and fauna strictly. I thought it would be a book about—a naturalist book is what I thought I would write. But I was lazy and I didn’t get around to it and one day one of the editors at the University of Arizona Press called and said we would like you to do a book for us and I said, “Well that’s just what I need is a little push.” So we kicked around some ideas for the book and I said I’ll get started right away and I did. I started out to write a book on the flora and fauna of the area from the Gila River south to the border, the Gadsden Purchase area, but the memoir element would creep in and I wanted to keep the book from being too dull so I would bring the memoir in. And then I would pull back. I would think, “Oh I can’t do that. This is stupid,” you know? But my wife would say “Oh that’s the best part.”
RON CARLSON: Right. Well it’s an interesting balance. It isn’t—they say it’s a memoir but let’s talk about what this book really is. It has many layers. I guess on the surface layer there’s Blue Boy, your van, and you on this 100 mile trip to Bisbee. But the other layers, as you say, are there’s the naturalism, naturalist observations and there’s the memories. What would you—how would you describe the book in terms of it’s not being a memoir, what is it?
RICHARD SHELTON: Well it contains memoir. It’s part travel book, it’s part memoir, it’s part natural history, and it’s part history. I had to cut part of it. The manuscript was too long, just too long for any practical purposes and I cut a hundred pages. And what I cut was mostly history. So the history actually balanced out. As it is there’s more I guess flora and fauna than there is natural history, than there is history, but I got the idea for the trip when I actually one day was driving to Bisbee. I was going actually to Douglas to do some work in a prison and I hit a certain spot on the highway between Tucson and Bisbee where the vista is just forever. You see south forever and suddenly it came to me that this book should be a trip from Tucson to Bisbee and that within that framework I could go as far afield as I wanted to. When I run into something, or see something, it reminds me of something and I tell a story. And the book has been praised most, I think, for the stories. The true stories.
RON CARLSON: Right, the side trips.
RICHARD SHELTON: They’re like strings, like beads on a string, the stories in this trip. They go far afield too, in time. Some of those stories go way, way back in time.
RON CARLSON: Yes they do.
RICHARD SHELTON: And some are quite current.
RON CARLSON: Were you trained as a naturalist? I mean, how did that—I was interested in the evolution of your skills and your knowledge. Is this something that you’ve, that’s grown over the years in Arizona or did you have training?
RICHARD SHELTON: No, I didn’t have any training. It’s self-taught. I’ve just worked at it and done a lot of reading and so on and I’m still very bad at it but I at least try. I think you can train your perceptions. You can train your eyes to see things that other people don’t see if you work at it. And everybody can do that. And that’s one of the things I talk about in the book, is that if you can’t name it, you can’t see it in some instances.
RON CARLSON: Well there’s a great many people that agree with that, that is to say that identifying something, I mean its just bushes until you look at that. Let’s look at a short section. You were talking about—before we look at that, the naming, let’s talk about the form of the book, rather, first. The form is this trip, like you said, that’s the string. The voyage to Bisbee, and is it a hundred miles?
RICHARD SHELTON: Yes.
RON CARLSON: And which you take a few side trips to. You go to Greaterville and the Greaterville Mine. Is that actually being mined by a couple of people now?
RICHARD SHELTON: Yes. It’s not the Greaterville Mine but there is a mine at Greaterville. And there’s a defunct mine at Greaterville and there’s one that’s going.
RON CARLSON: That’s one of those wonderful names that’s so apt. It reminds me of the street here in Phoenix called Grand Avenue, which I always thought was a curious name for it.
RICHARD SHELTON: I talk about greater downtown Greaterville, which doesn’t exist.
RON CARLSON: Well it’s essentially, is all I could determine there was some diggings…
RICHARD SHELTON: Yeah, it’s gone. There’s one house left and it’s private property so there’s no Greaterville left.
RON CARLSON: Were there models for this for you as a writer that you had seen, say travel writing or observation writing based on simply a discursive trip?
RICHARD SHELTON: I couldn’t think of any single or even two or three models. I have read a lot of non-fiction. I love to read non-fiction and I think a little bit of a lot of them probably influenced me, but I can’t think of any that really were marked difference. Actually I didn’t know what I was doing and that’s I think one of the best things about the book is that I didn’t know what I was doing. I just threw in a little bit of everything and the structure of the book evolved as I wrote. It was changed slightly as I wrote but it basically evolved. Now I’m doing another non-fiction book and I’m very self-conscious. I’m having a lot more trouble with it than I did with this book because I was totally unselfconscious, I didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody had told me, you know, what to do, and I just, ah, I was just writing it. But I know that in the back of my mind there were thousands of models of people that I had read. But I think the book is discursive and it rambles. It has a relaxed feeling to it. You never know what’s coming up next and there’s no real order to anything, and that was fun to write it in that way. What amazes me is that it’s been well-received even though it is very haphazardly put together.
RON CARLSON: Well, I’d, I agree with you in part. It is charming, and it is discursive, and it wanders here and there, but there are a couple of things underneath it which unify it and one of those is the voice. Certainly you’ve got the narrative string and you’ve given your van a name, Blue Boy. He’s a player here, a real character we get to know, and that’s one thing that unifies the book. But the other is, which sometimes we talk about the narrative voice, and really, or we might call it Richard Shelton’s worldview, which emerges. You can’t talk about ocotillo or jumping cholla or the coyotes without us finding out a little bit about what you feel about what man has done to nature and vice versa. How would you describe, before I try, how would you describe your worldview? You’re not a curmudgeon are you?
RICHARD SHELTON: Not entirely. I think I’m very pessimistic in terms of certain things like the hope for the desert. I’m very pessimistic. I wrote a poem called “Requiem for Sonora” which suggests that I’m very pessimistic. I think the forces bent upon the destruction of the desert are stronger than the forces bent upon saving it and therefore, ultimately, it is gone. It will be destroyed. Other than that, I’m basically very optimistic. I’m buoyant and generally cheerful and happy, I think. People may not see me in that way. But I think that one of the best things in the book is the humor.
RON CARLSON: Oh I do too.
RICHARD SHELTON: And I can look at something that other people would not think was very funny and I could figure out a way to make it a funny story. You know, Greganis, the novelist, said that interesting stories happen only to those who can tell them. And I believe in this. That if you can tell it right, you can make most anything interesting and you can make a lot of things funny that other people don’t see as funny. The book I’m working on right now is a childhood memoir. In it, it contains some horrible things, actually fairly horrible things, but the point of view is such that they are often amusing.
RON CARLSON: There’s one line in Going Back to Bisbee that alludes to that and I underlined that and I was going to ask you about it, but now I know what you’re doing so I’ll wait. Your, that idea that interesting stories only happen to people who can tell them is similar to the fact that you can’t see something until you can name it and I’d like to ask you to read a short section that illustrates that. There’s a part where you take the students in the desert and one student puts the description—his observations in his words and then you talk about it.
RICHARD SHELTON: Is that the passage on 33?
RON CARLSON: I think it’s on page 33.
RICHARD SHELTON: Well this is part of a much longer piece in which I talk about the shapes of various plants. “I sometimes take groups of them,” meaning the students, “into the desert on brief outings. I enjoy listening to them later when they try to describe what they saw. Some of their attempts to describe the desert have resulted in astonishing feats of description from which I learned a great deal. At least a great deal about the students, if not about the desert. One, whose response was fairly typical said ‘There were lots of bushes all tangled up in some cactus things. There were some little trees and some other things that stuck up straight. It was a disheveled mess and it scared me.” While not a model of scientific precision, such a description is full of information. It verifies my suspicion that many people expect all deserts to be sand, sand, and more sand. When faced with the lush and varied growth that characterizes the Sonoran, they are confused and surprised, and can suffer from sensory overload. The description also tells me that if one cannot identify the native plants in a particular landscape, then almost any name will do. The plants tend to blur into one another and become a confused and confusing mass of vegetation or bushes. In other words, if you can’t name it, you can’t really see it. In this lies the magic of names, and naming. To name a thing is to give it a second creation. A creation by the viewer. God created the plants and creatures, but they were not part of Adam’s world until Adam named them. Then he could see each one of them clearly, deal with it, and have some power over it, if only the power to run when he saw it coming. And ultimately, what I’m trying to teach my students is the power of names. A form of word magic which is practiced in its most obvious form by primitive peoples. I think all poets believe in word magic. Maybe that’s what distinguishes them from novelists.”
RON CARLSON: I could talk about that last sentence a long time, but that’s a wonderful excerpt. Now, you’re a poet, and you’re a highly evolved poet, and by that I mean real good. And here’s a book that—this is a thick volume. You’ve written one book-length poem, “Hohokam,” and did you adjust your language when you wrote this book? Did you say okay, at ease, let’s be a little more tolerant, and let’s you know, talk here, or how did that work?
RICHARD SHELTON: This book was a great joy to write because it was a release, a relief it was. I’ve always wanted my poetry—I’ve always tried to broaden the tonal range of my poetry. That’s been a lifetime struggle. When I started the first book, the tonal range is very narrow. And I couldn’t write a funny poem. I couldn’t write an ornery poem. I couldn’t write a mean poem. You know? There were a lot of things I couldn’t do and each book, each group of poems since then, I have tried hard to broaden that range and I reached the point where I guess at some point I did slop over into prose, but I had the feeling in this book, writing prose, that I could use the full gamut of the range, of my range. And I can about—I can make you cry, I can make you laugh, I can do all kinds of things in this book that I can’t do in a given poem, maybe not even in a lot of poems.
RON CARLSON: Is that hard for you to do in terms of—I mean you know how a poem—one of the requirements, I’m going to say this, I’m not a poet, but is the economy, and there’s a density. But here, you’ve got to consciously, or did you adjust yourself? Or did you absolutely just fall into this?
RICHARD SHELTON: No, I didn’t have to consciously adjust. I knew I was writing prose and that relief, that relieved me of certain other…yeah, what you’re talking about I call tension, of course, the brevity, etc. The condensation of a poem. This is very important, it’s very necessary. And you use language in a certain way. It’s sort of played up in a poem. That is, it’s as if it were backlit. It stands out. I call it language standing on its hindlegs in a poem, and that’s a quote from Octavio Paz. But anyway, in prose I guess you don’t have to be limited by that and you can write prose in a non-fiction book the way you write a letter; a good letter, with that kind of relaxed stance and so on. And since I didn’t have the problems of a novelist, I didn’t have to worry about plot and structure of a novel, or characterization or dialogue, or anything like that. I could just go. Although all of those things are in the book. But I didn’t—they were not my primary concern. And I was just really having a good time when I wrote this book.
RON CARLSON: Well it shows. We’re talking with the writer Richard Shelton, whose first book of non-fiction, Going Back to Bisbee, has been published by University of Arizona Press. You came to Arizona because you had to.
RICHARD SHELTON: Yes, I came kicking and screaming.
RON CARLSON: And you were in the army?
RICHARD SHELTON: Yeah, I was drafted.
RON CARLSON: Oh, I see. Tell me about that.
RICHARD SHELTON: Well it was peace time, but I was drafted, there was still a draft on and I was sent to Fort Huachuca and at first because I was very unhappy being in the army and not wanting to be, I didn’t like the landscape at all. It frightened me, it really looked pretty awful and then gradually as the months went by I developed a feeling for it, so that when I got out at the end of my two years I wanted to stay in the area and I took the closest job I could find, which was the job at Bisbee. Teaching in the 7th and 8th grade at Bisbee, and that was a very deliberate choice because I had other offers but I decided to stay.
RON CARLSON: And so you decided to stay here. It took. You came, it was alien, and then somehow it insinuated itself into you.
RICHARD SHELTON: Within like 18 months I knew this was where I was going to stay.
RON CARLSON: So the army days are in the book. But then you had to go AWOL to become a teacher.
RICHARD SHELTON: Yes. Well I thought I had—I thought I qualified to accept the job in Bisbee. I was offered a job in Bisbee. They thought I qualified too. They offered the job. We signed the paper and then they found out that my teaching certificate did not include student teaching, so I wasn’t qualified to teach in Arizona. I was qualified to teach in other states, or in Texas, where I’d gotten the certificate, but not in Arizona. So I had to get to Phoenix and convince the state Superintendent of Public Instruction that I was qualified to go in the classroom and in order to do that, I was in the army, in order to do that I had to go AWOL. So I got up fairly early in the morning and drove, without telling anybody I was going to be gone, I was running an office in the field actually, and this story is in the book, and get back before they missed me, which I did, with the help of my friends. I talked the man into giving me a temporary certificate so I could teach.
RON CARLSON: The book is full of these colorful characters, including the superintendent who interviewed you who had a broom as this great prop in terms of kind of fending off and filtering off his visitors, but then the people in Bisbee itself, the influences you fell under at the school, which take up the last third of the book. You were there two years, teaching at the Lowell School, and the—tell us about, first of all, some of the faculty members. You were a very excited young teacher, and of course the first day of school, or actually before the first day of school, you fell victim to nature. Tell about that.
RICHARD SHELTON: Yes. All my books were ruined. You were supposed to go in the first day, the day before the classes started and go through your books and get them cleaned and get them ready, and I put them all out on this long shelf under the windows. We had huge windows; it was a beautiful old building. Then I went off to a faculty meeting, a teacher’s meeting, and one of the Arizona storms, which I wasn’t accustomed to, a chibasco came up. It was in early September and it destroyed the books. I left all the windows open and they were all destroyed. They all swelled up like masses of pulp, and so because I hadn’t even met my first class and I’d already destroyed all the textbooks, I thought it was not a very auspicious beginning. And so then I talked about what I did, how I managed to get through without any textbooks, which I did. And I got a letter, just this week actually from a woman who is a PhD in linguistics, linguistics professor in the Midwest. And she was one of those students, and she said “I never knew, I never knew,” she said, “that you had destroyed the books.” She talked about how she loved the method, so we used- I used a speaking group for the poetry.
RON CARLSON: Well you had to, didn’t you? You were writing books.
RICHARD SHELTON: Yeah, I had them all write their own text, and she said that was a marvelously creative way to teach. But she didn’t know that I was forced into it by…
RON CARLSON: Your life in Bisbee reflects also—I mean the town is a, for people who haven’t been to Bisbee is absolutely—you call it “beautiful and ridiculous.” Describe the physical setting.
RICHARD SHELTON: Well, it’s a mining town, it was a mining town. And it was built right where—started to be built right where the entrance to the mine was. So it was not chosen; it’s not a very good place to build a town. And it’s built up the sides of these very steep mountains. There is no mail delivery because no mailman would climb those hills to deliver the mail. And instead of streets, in many instances you have stairways going up the mountain. Very tight and picturesque and very European looking town. I think very beautiful. And one of the things that happens is because of these mountains are facing the way they are, during a good part of the year at sunset—or just in the late afternoon, you get a quality of light that is simply incredible. It’s light bouncing off of—reflecting off the mountains. Everything turns sort of amber. You get a very similar thing at dawn, or when the sun comes up too. It’s a beautiful place and painters come from all over to paint there because of the quality of light and the picturesque quality of the buildings and so on.
RON CARLSON: You know a lot of towns in small town America have been consumed now. I can think of 12 towns I know from here north through Montana that have been discovered and all of the same things happen to them. Now Bisbee it seems to me is still a town in transition as we’re talking about it today. Is it any single character right now? Is it still a mining town with a culture as you say, or is it an arts town…the story’s not finished yet is it?
RICHARD SHELTON: No the story’s not finished but at least it’s reached a point. It’s reached a plateau which is interesting to suggest that it will survive because it came within inches of becoming a ghost town. Totally. And it made the transition from being a mining town to being an arts community and retirement center, which is what it is now, rather painfully. And I tell that in the book. But I think it’s reached a point now because of a number of people who have lived there like Ida Power who helped it, that at least for a while it’s going to survive. It has fought off the developers, this is one of the most important things. It was scheduled to become another Saucelito, another Aspen, and that was the line the developers used. Of course it has no ocean and it has no skiing, but it was going to be one of those things. And it has fought off the developers and it has remained. There’s been some slight damage done by development but it’s been very slight. There was a lot of damage done by neglect too over the years. But at the moment It’s got a character all its own. I can think of now other town that has a character like this. It has much of the feeling of the old mining town, certainly the physical surroundings are that. And at the same time lots of tourists, only usually pretty good tourists, pretty high class tourists. And then lots of retirement people. It is not growing by leaps and bounds, but it is prospering somewhat. Most of the people are poor in Bisbee, and they live there because they want to live there. And they could make a lot more money if they lived somewhere else. But they choose to live there because of the slow pace and the beauty. And I think it’s a great place to just go and relax. It does have its own pace unlike a lot of other places. And it has its own ways. After you’re there a while you settle into Bisbee ways and you feel quite comfortable.
RON CARLSON: When you lived there in the 50s as a school teacher, you took the wrong apartment, or was it the right apartment? And the town had a different character then too.
RICHARD SHELTON: Well we took an apartment that—it depends on how you look at it. It was a very strange and unusual apartment. Our first one that was up stairs over an Armenian grocery store, right on the main drag, at the end of OK Street, near OK Street. And the cockroaches lived downstairs and they came up. They took their meals down there but they came up and spent the night in our place. It was wild. It had carpeting with huge roses about the size of this table and my wife said that after a while they were going up they walls. On the roof was a whistle that blew four times a day. It was for the mine shifts to change because the police station was next door. It would make the whole building shake. But it was an interesting place, and I enjoyed it. The drunks hung out just beside it and the old jail was just beside it and that was sort of wino heaven and they would sleep there. My wife became nervous about it and we didn’t stay too long. We moved to a little more safer place.
RON CARLSON: These places and these loud whistles and this rude company are upsetting at the time but they make great material. And it’s a great section in your life there. I could easily make the argument that Going Back to Bisbee is about you. That in a way, it’s the perfect book to have written at this point of having acquired this history this knowledge of the desert. And certainly when you talk about everything from the lizards that lived in your house, those frogs, those toads, your relationships with dogs, the snakes in this trip. And I think that’s related to what good fiction is about. That you didn’t put the blinders on and drive to Bisbee at 65 mph. You slowed down and if there was smoke on the horizon you went to see what it was. So many times in writing these books, you said you didn’t have to worry about plot and this and that but I think there’s a carry. There’s a voice and an ethic here which is really the spine of the book.
RICHARD SHELTON: I’m learning that in writing the book because I was really trying to suppress those elements until I was told that those are the elements that I should try to bring out more.
RON CARLSON: Well I think the charm of the book is the sense of letting go. Instead of being constrained—oh we better hurry and end the chapter, make our point and get out—there’s a luxury of saying, “Well we have the afternoon. Let’s talk about the river.” Let’s talk about one last thing quickly. You said that you were a pessimist but you also talk about the miracle of San Pedro, one of the true environmental good happenings in that part of the world.
RICHARD SHELTON: But that story’s not over yet either. I might have been premature when I said that because at that time it looked like it was going to make it, and since then the water has—there’s less water now then there was then. I don’t know what is going to happen. It may die.
RON CARLSON: Well so many of the parts of this book are still ongoing and that’s why I’m looking forward to this next one. But it’s been a pleasure. We’ve been talking with Richard Shelton whose nonfiction book Going Back to Bisbee has been published by the University of Arizona press. This is Books & Company, I’m Ron Carlson. I hope you join us next week.