InterviewSee below for an in-depth interview with poet, professor of English, and author Paul J. Willis by Melissa L. Michaels.

Q: You’ve adopted “Subjected in hope” as a sort of unofficial tagline. What does that phrase mean to you?

A: The words are the Apostle Paul’s. They come from a rather mysterious passage in the eighth chapter of Romans in which he regards the created world as having shared in the fall of humankind. Thus, it has been “subjected to futility.” But the created world will also share in the redemption of humankind, so it has been “subjected in hope.” I don’t claim to understand all of what Paul means, but I like his intertangling of human with nonhuman destinies, and I also like the thought of accepting and experiencing the bad as a way of getting to the better. When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he assumes and asserts that the only way to comfort is through the mourning. As Virgil say, “There are tears in things.” To be human is to be subject to this. But to be human is also to believe, as the French say, “Bon temps viendra: Good times will come.”

Q: You’d think hope would be an unassailable concept, but I started thinking twice about it after reading environmental activist Derrick Jensen’s article “Beyond Hope.” He argues that hope serves as an anodyne, inducing feelings of powerlessness and deterring action. Instead of hoping keystone species like coho salmon and prairie dogs will survive, he zealously fights on their behalf. Oliver Burkeman, Guardian columnist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, cites research suggesting hope may actually cause unhappiness. What are your thoughts on the potential downsides of hope, and does that alter your interpretation of “Subjected in hope”?

A: Hope can be a source of action, but hope can also be a place of rest. From the outside, that rest might look like passivity. On the inside, however, it can feel like confidence that our actions are not the whole story, that the old saying that Christ has no hands but our hands may be a fallacy. As a mentor of mine used to say, “God lights her own cigars.”

I have a brother who was and is the main mover behind the establishment and expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument on the Oregon-California border. His theology of hope has not kept him from working doggedly to preserve habitat for a myriad of species; in fact, it is what has kept him going. I assign the same sort of paradoxical hope to the adorably confused Sir Chambers in The Alpine Tales.

Q: You give talks on the intersections of faith, wilderness, and creative writing. What have you discovered at that nexus?

A: In the end, I don’t know much about any of these things!

Q: Your writing reveals a consciousness of the sacred in nature. Can you recount one of your childhood experiences of the numinous? The instress of inscape, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might say.

A: In the title essay of Bright Shoots of Everlastingness, I try to recount a childhood experience of the presence of God. I do remember that even the old walnut trees by the curb outside our Baptist church had something to do with it.

Q: When asked to select a word for a volume of essays titled Word Tastings, you chose “mountaineering.” Why that word?

A: I started climbing the volcanic peaks of the Oregon Cascades early on in high school. There was something about doing this that made me feel grounded, connected, and—face it—a little bit proud of myself. I quickly became attuned, however, to some of the misbegotten places to which pride could lead me. To me, the old-fashioned word mountaineering suggests more of a healthy submission to the mountains and less of an attitude of conquest.

Q: Your PhD dissertation explored the topic of the forest in Shakespeare. What did you discover?

A: Forest settings are part of the crucial action in fully a third of Shakespeare’s plays. In the comedies and romances, the forest is where characters are exposed for who they really are. It is also the place where they change for the better. In the tragedies, it’s too late to change, but the forest becomes a place where the protagonist gains a truer perspective on the sad state of the world. There seems to be some sort of divine agency at work in the so-called green world. Mysterious! While writing this dissertation, I also wrote my first novel (now part of The Alpine Tales), for which I borrowed the Shakespearean title No Clock in the Forest.

Q: Years ago, I asked who your favorite poet was. You said Wordsworth. Is that still the case, and why?

A: These days, my answer to that question is the three Williams: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Stafford. Shakespeare for his sheer verbal felicity and wide understanding of who we are as human beings. (Also the fact that he is not afraid to be funny!) Wordsworth for his ruminative connection to the natural world. And Stafford for his unpretentious and yet gnomic poetry that invited me to try my hand at poetry, too.

Q: Your work has been featured in Best American Poetry and Best American Spiritual Writing. If Wordsworth is your poetic progenitor, I would guess Wallace Stegner serves that role for you in prose. What draws you to Stegner?

A: I like Stegner’s allegiance to the American West and his lifelong quest to understand it. I also like his moral effort to be a responsible person. As much as I admire him, however, I can’t say that the rhythms of my own prose are much like his. There is a comprehensive fullness to almost each one of his paragraphs that I have been unable to imitate. I always want to squeeze things down, which is good in a poem but bad in a novel—and can sometimes inhibit an essay (or an interview!) from being all it might be.

Q: When did you start writing poetry? How do you approach the craft?

A: I began writing poetry when I was around 30 years old. I was starting my first full-time teaching job at Houghton College in western New York, with a draft of my Shakespeare dissertation under one arm and a draft of an eco-fantasy novel under the other. I was drawn to the two writers in our English Department, Jack Leax and Jim Zoller, who were both poets. Unbeknownst to them at the time, I was intrigued with what they were doing and started to write poems on the sly. My first poems did a lot of quoting at crucial moments; I lacked the confidence of my own words. Over time I have learned to settle for being myself.

Q: Many of the poems in Rosing from the Dead, Visiting Home, and your other poetry books are set in specific locations—Sequoia National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Mojave Desert. What bit of wilderness do you cherish most, and why does it resonate with you so deeply?

A: Each wild place has its own attractions, but the North Cascades of Washington state have the most allure for me, partly because I never got there until I was in graduate school. The North Cascades are a rich stew of hanging glaciers and ferny forest, with ripsaw peaks in every direction. They are so rugged and hidden that you can’t really see them from a car. I got to be an artist-in-residence in North Cascades National Park for several months in the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015. The collection of poems that resulted, Deer at Twilight, is perhaps my favorite.

Q: Tell me about the “beautiful, suffering world” you capture in Say This Prayer into the Past.

A: I wrote many of the poems in this volume after my wife and I lost our house in a Santa Barbara wildfire. So, there is a shock of devastation and trauma behind some of them but also a slow recovery of things that matter. “Subjected in hope” all over again.

Q: What did your former role as Santa Barbara Poet Laureate entail?

A: Well, in that role you organize lots of readings, show up at all kinds of community events, and write a few poems on demand. Some poets resist writing on assignment, but I found that even though these occasional poems were sometimes not my best, they served a valid community purpose. And once in a while they helped me to address a subject I otherwise would not have approached. The line you quote in your previous question, “this beautiful, suffering world,” comes at the end of a poem written for the 225th anniversary of the Santa Barbara Mission. How to write such a poem? For some, the Mission is part of a glorious past; for others, a nefarious one. I allowed both sides into the poem and tried to make it both personally authentic and publicly appropriate—quite the trick! I also wrote a couple of poems for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—a fancy one to be read at a performance of Mozart’s Requiem and a simple one to be read at a courthouse event organized by the fire department. Lo and behold, the simple one, “FDNY,” is the poem that still resonates.

Q: You’ve hosted the Santa Barbara Poetry Series, Westmont Reading Series, and Los Prietos Stafford Readings. What does poetry offer a community?

A: Both as a local laureate and as a perennial host of readings, I have felt like a secular chaplain. Admittedly, poetry readings can be excruciatingly dull, but when the right poet reads the right poem in the right way at the right time for the right audience, something deeply important happens in a healing, communal way.

Q: Which contemporary poets excite you the most?

A: Well, I have a long list. Of contemporary poets who are well-known, I would name Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Scott Cairns, Stephen Dunn, Ted Kooser, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Some not-so-well-known poets who excite me are Ralph Black, Abigail Carroll, Catherine Abbey Hodges, Teddy Macker, and Tania Runyan. I am leaving out a whole lot of people, of course, many of whom have become wonderful friends.

Q: You are a professor of English at Westmont College, where you’ve taught since 1988. What do you love most about teaching?

A: Not the classroom moments so much as the reading of student work that takes me by surprise. I’ve had so many students over the years who have uncorked poems, stories—even novels—which have left me in quiet wonder. And that’s not even counting the ones who also write literary analyses of one deft sort or another.

Q: If you had to choose one of your poems to serve as your epitaph, which would it be? Can you share it here?

A: For some reason this little poem, “Franklin Lakes,” written one evening in the Mineral King watershed of Sequoia National Park, stays with me:

Said the gibbous moon
to the foxtail pine,
Just hold me for a while.