David Biespiel—pronounced buy-speel—attended Beth Yeshurun, the oldest Jewish school in Houston. Reared in a family that valued athletic excellence (one brother was a member of the United States Gymnastics team), he competed in the U.S. Diving Championships against Olympians Greg Louganis and Bruce Kimball, and later coached and developed regional and national champions and finalists in diving. In 1982 he moved to Boston on a diving scholarship at Boston University. In 1989 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he studied with Stanley Plumly at the University of Maryland, as well as with Michael Collier and Phillis Levin. He later held a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry Stanford University.
David Biespiel has been called "a big thinker, a doer, and a hard-charging literary force". Living in Boston in the early 1980s, Biespiel was one of the central figures of Glenville, a nexus of young activists, artists, educators, conservationists, musicians, and writers. He began publishing poems and essays in 1986 after moving to remote Brownsville, Vermont. From 1988 to 1993 he lived and wrote in Washington, D.C., and from 1993 to 1995 in San Francisco. He has lived in Portland, Oregon, since 1995.
He is a contributor to American Poetry Review, The New Republic, Poetry, Bookforum, and Slate, and many literary journals. After reviewing poetry for nearly fifteen years in journals and newspapers, including in The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times, he was appointed the poetry columnist for The Oregonian in January 2003. His monthly column, which ended in September 2013, was the longest running newspaper column on poetry in the United States. In 2015 he began a series of reviews for American Poetry Review.
In 1999, he founded the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. The institute began as the Attic Writers' Workshop and was established as a haven for writers and a unique knowledge studio dedicated to engaging ways to create, explore, and innovate, to generate and participate in important and lively conversation, and to reflect on ideas, the imagination, and civic life, as well as on artistic, cultural, and social experience. With its writers' workshops and individual consultations—as well as groundbreaking programs that have initiated new ways to study creative writing, such as the Atheneum and the Poets Studio—the Attic Institute has become the focal point for a vibrant literary community in Portland. Writers have seeded collaborations, writing groups, magazine start-ups, and literary friendships. They have signed with publishers and agents, been accepted into residencies and graduate programs, and embarked on literary enterprises of their own. Willamette Week named the Attic Institute the most important school of writers in Portland. The website Bustle hailed the Attic Institute as one of the best writing centers in the U.S. Faculty and Teaching Fellows at the Attic Institute have included: Marc Acito, Matthew Dickman, Merridawn Duckler, Emily Harris, Karen Karbo, Elinor Langer, Jennifer Lauck, Lee Montgomery, Whitney Otto, Paulann Petersen, Jon Raymond, G. Xavier Robillard, Elizabeth Rusch, Kim Stafford, Cheryl Strayed, Vanessa Veselka, Emily Whitman, Wendy Willis, Peter Zuckerman, and others.
In 2005 he was named editor of Poetry Northwest— one of the nation's oldest magazines devoted exclusively to poetry. Appointed by the University of Washington, Biespiel moved the magazine's offices to Portland, and is widely credited with reviving the magazine to national prominence. He served as editor until 2010.
During 2008–2012 Biespiel was a regular contributor to The Politico's Arena, a cross-party, cross-discipline daily conversation about politics and policy among current ewspapers, LLrmer members of Congress, governors, mayors, political strategists and scholars that included Dean Baker, Gary Bauer, Paul Begala, Mary Frances Berry, Bill Bishop, Dinesh D'Souza, Melissa Harris-Perry, Stephen Hess, Celinda Lake, Thomas E. Mann, Mike McCurry, Aaron David Miller, Grover Norquist, Christine Pelosi, Diane Ravitch, Larry J. Sabato, Craig Shirley, Michael Steele, Fred Wertheimer, Darrell M. West, Christine Todd Whitman, and others.
In 2009 he helped formed the trio Incorporamento. The artistic group includes Oregon Ballet Theater principal dancer Gavin Larsen and musician Joshua Pearl. Incorporamento debuted its first pieces of original dance, music, and poetry at Portland Center Stage on January 10, 2010, at the Fertile Ground Festival. Returning to the festival the following year, Incorporamento performed "A Ghost in the Room with You" at Conduit Studios, which Oregon Arts Watch hailed as "deep, complex, and satisfying". Incorporamento premiered "Ships of Light" on November 1, 2013 at BodyVox Dance Center in Portland, Oregon. The original performance focused on the passage of time as a sequence of daily rituals that become one's yearly experience and is highlighted by Larsen's riveting choreography and dance in "Uncharted Territory" and Biespiel and Pearl's free verse and musical reinterpretation of George Gershwin's "Summertime".
In 2009 he was elected by the membership of the National Book Critics Circle to the Board of Directors and served as a judge for the annual NBCC book awards. He was reelected in 2012 for a second term. During 2012–2014 he was chair of its award committee on Poetry.
In 2012 he began writing Poetry Wire for the Rumpus Magazine. His new column on poetry quickly gained attention with Biespiel's criticism of the influence of Ezra Pound and postmodernism, satires of po-biz foibles, "discovery" of the found poetry of U.S. General David Petraeus, a defense of the writer Meg Kearney against attacks by Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright, as well as provocative pieces about poetry, politics, and cultural issues such as the fate of poets in the Syrian civil war, the Newtown massacre, American poetics, and poetry's role in American life. Recent sequences include "Poet's Journey" about the poet's relationship to both modern life and the imagination and also a series of autobiographical sketches about becoming a writer.
He has taught creative writing and literature throughout the United States, including at George Washington University, University of Maryland, Stanford University, Portland State University, and Lynchburg College as the Richard H. Thornton Writer in Residence, and during 2007–2011 as poet-in-residence in the fall at Wake Forest University. He currently divides his teaching between the Rainier Writer's Workshop M.F.A. Program at Pacific Lutheran University and the graduate program in creative writing in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film at Oregon State University.
David Biespiel is one of his generation's most inventive poets. The hallmark of his poems is an intricate blending of traditional elements within an eclectic free verse style that has earned him praise as a "true poetic innovator".
Shattering Air: Published in 1996 when Biespiel was 32, Shattering Air is a book of autobiographical portraits composed in variegated blank verse. It was one of the last books published by the iconic American poetry editor and founder of BOA Editions, Al Poulin, Jr. "It is a test of the seamlessness of his art that David Biespiel so constantly finds the 'ruminant undercurrents' of his subjects without ever sacrificing their actuality," Stanley Plumly wrote in his Introduction to the book. "And it is all the more remarkable in a first book that this undercurrent — what Wordsworth once called 'the imminent soul in things' — should so effectively supersede appearances. If this sounds a grand prescription, in Biespiel's hands it is not."
Publishers Weekly characterized the debut collection as "sustained by a search for transcendent, intuitive truths". From Chelsea: "Biespiel has a gift for transformation. He can make a command sound like an incantation. He can create psalm-like beauty from the repetition of a simple phrase. One must note the instances of raw brilliance." A.V. Christie praised the book in The Journal for being "poems of quiet grandeur and nobility [that] bring to mind an out-of-the-self Keatsian sensibility".
From the book jacket: "The poetry of David Biespiel is lyrical and sensual, celebrating the physical facts and pleasures of this world. Many of these poems find their focus in the rural Southwest of Oklahoma and Texas where Biespiel grew up, and on the beaches and coasts of the Pacific Northwest where the author now lives. Bayous and lilacs, sanderlings and willows, and young lovers on a diving platform at 3 a.m., become, in Shattering Air, emblems for the correspondence between the natural world and the human spirit."
Wild Civility | Pilgrims & Beggars: Wild Civility was published in 2003 just following the publication of the limited edition book, Pilgrims & Beggars. The two books mark a dramatic shift in both style and formal intensity from the poems in Shattering Air. The achievement of "Wild Civility" is Biespiel's invention of an original "American sonnet". These explosive, innovative nine-line monologues are variations on the English and Italian sonnet. The poems rumble across the page with a jazzy linguistic verve that recalls the paintings of Jackson Pollock and the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Writing in Poetry (magazine), David Orr noted how the poems "shuffle between registers and tones, use deliberately mismatched diction", and cited "Biespiel's best poems in this untraditional vein" as the ones with the "clearest connection to lyric poetry". Michael Collier praised the book for demonstrating "the pure and powerful recombinant energy of language that is the essence of lyric poetry".
From the book jacket: "Using with revelatory precision the vocabularies of history, science, art, sport, philosophy, religion, literature, government, and domestic life, Biespiel has crafted a hip, musical, elastic language that travels the registers of expression: lush and coarse, gaudy and austere, pliant and rigidly tough. The civility of the poems is the form; the wildness is the bristling energy of the language. Passionate, resilient, rich with wit and word play, these poems affirm David Biespiel's increasing stature as a poet of remarkable accomplishment."
The Book of Men and Women: The Book of Men and Women, Biespiel's next book, continues the expressionistic style so prevalent in Wild Civility. The book was selected by the Poetry Foundation as one of the best books of the year for 2009. The book also was honored with the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry and Oregon Book Award from Literary Arts in 2011, selected by Robert Pinsky, who praised Biespiel as a poet who had "mastered his own grand style. What’s more, he deploys it for work: the cascade of invention, the big eclectic lexicon and rich figures of sound are not for show, but for doing work, living up to this ambitious title: The Book of Men and Women. On the one hand, this is language soaring up above the earth, teasing its way beyond stolid paraphrase, but on the other hand it is always connected to "the groan of the unfinished garden" — the last phrase of 'Man and Wife.' The intricate, rich but discordant music has a mocking jauntiness hard to forget, self-aware and self-critical, and in spite of itself having a jaunty if wincing good time, as in 'The Crooner': 'It's maddening,/ This measly rigmarole he's come to, this voice, his crazy quilt.// Unadvised, pleased with the take-home pay of it all, teetotalling,/ He glimmers like a forgotten mouth, aims for the deep end of all that's muddy and dim,/ And mocks the majesty of ringers. Same for the hay-high dandies.'"
In his essay-review, "A Good Long Scream", published in Poetry, critic Nate Klug praises Biespiel's "ferocious" imagination and his "quirky, alliterative idiom that produces many memorable phrases.... A reviewer of Cormac McCarthy once called the novelist’s work 'a good, long scream in the ear.' The Book of Men and Women, with its rogue characters and laundry lists of loss, pursues a similar effect. Biespiel’s bristly voice is the first thing most readers will note, and indeed his writing is successful to the degree that this voice performs—that is, remains rhetorically compelling—throughout the course of the poem."
From the book jacket: "David Biespiel's energetic language, so varied and musical and precise, is quite unmatched by that of other contemporary poets. As always he is the master of the long line, his words strung across its reach as tightly as beads. This book displays Biespiel's formal inventiveness and emotional range. The first section of the book is filled with the wonderful agitation of spell-making language. The poems are connected to the social and historical world, and yet at the same time, they prepare us for the mythic story about men and women that is promised in the book's title. The second section is more formally restrained and as such imbues the speaker with the distinction and melancholy gravitas that characterize the collection.... The book concludes with a series of autobiographical poems that confront the frailties of love and desire with unflinching intimacy and gratitude. These last poems, composed during an intense three-month period of writing, as well as the other poems in this remarkable volume, showcase Biespiel at the very top of his form."
Charming Gardeners: Charming Gardeners, published in 2013, marks another shift in Biespiel's undertaking in probing the intersection between traditional and invented forms and harkens back to the unfurled expansive style of Shattering Air. Library Journal's starred review noted that "Biespiel's poems echo Walt Whitman [and] can be prophetic."
The collection was welcomed by Publishers Weekly as a book of "unguarded friendship, attentive to a poet with much to say ... his looks at U.S. history are at once informative and grand." The review lauds the book's "meditations on politics, from a poet known for his prose about culture and politics" and praises the poems as "successors to Richard Hugo' 31 Letters and 13 Dreams." City Arts commented that the poems in Charming Gardeners "weave together the beauty of nature and the existential trials of humanity". Open Books noted that to "open Charming Gardeners is to unwrap a packet of letters, all written by an attentive and contemplative poet".
In her interview with David Biespiel for NPR's State of Wonder, April Baer noted the "subjects of Biespiel's new book of poetry, Charming Gardeners, are friends of his from every corner of the U.S., including his wife and son, writers like Christian Wiman, and intellectual adversaries like William F. Buckley and Cesar Conda. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, you can hear just a ghost of a drawl when Biespiel speaks. But when he reads his poetry, that ghost takes form, both in Biespiel's accent and in his invocations of places like Confederate battlefields and West Virginian cemeteries."
In New Books in Poetry, John Ebersole introduces his interview with Biespiel observing that in "many ways, Biespiel's journey is America's, where the road is both a symbol of arrivals, but also departures, and in between is solitude ... his poems encompass each of us, socially and politically, by illuminating our nation's contradictory character: a longing for enchantment in a disenchanted world."
From the book jacket: "From 2007–2011, David Biespiel traveled across the United States on over a hundred flights, covering some 200,000 miles. During that period he was writing poems in the form of letters to family, friends, poets, and political rivals. The result is Charming Gardeners, a formally nuanced and wise book of epistolary poems grounded in friendship, camaraderie, love, and the vulnerability and boldness that defines America. Roving from the old Confederacy of Biespiel's native South to Portland, Oregon, Charming Gardeners explores the wildness of the Northwest, the avenues of Washington, D.C., the coal fields of West Virginia, and an endless stretch of airplanes and hotel rooms from New York to Texas to California, these poems explore the 'insistent murmurs' of memory and the emotional connections between individuals and history, as well as the bonds of brotherhood, the ghosts of America's wars, and the vibrancy of love, sex, and intimacy — all in a masterful idiom. Charming Gardeners confirms his position as one of his generation's most inventive, prolific, and original poets."
Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces: Published in 2010. Hazel & Wren's review says, "What Every Writer, instead of the advice de rigueur, is a well-spring of ideas for how to jump start the creative process, valuable examples of athletic and visual artists who exercise this proposed method, and, perhaps most importantly, OODLES of empathy for the writer/artist who is battling their own stuck process and potentially self-doubt or frustration." From the book jacket: "Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces cracks open the creative process and invites readers to take a fresh look at the mysterious pathways of the imagination. 'Failure is the engine of creativity' writes poet and critic David Biespiel in this provocative book based on his 2009 lecture at the Rainier Writers' Workshop. Biespiel candidly tracks his own development as a writer and challenges traditional assumptions about writing that can stifle creativity. The liberating message: Working past the brink of failure — being free to try and discard and try again—is what allows the creative process to playfully flourish, keeping the spirit open to unexpected discoveries. Both beginning and experienced writers—as well as artists, musicians, dancers, and anyone else on a creative path—will benefit from this elegant, surprising, and fresh perspective based on methods developed exclusively at the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters, the unique literary studio Biespiel founded in Portland, Oregon, in 1999. Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces will revolutionize the way readers look at their own creative process. It is a rich and rewarding book, a captivating glimpse into the inner life of some gifted writers and painters—and above all, a guide to a lifetime of discovery."
A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry: Published in 2015. Received the 2016 Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction and the Oregon Book Award from Literary Arts. Library Journal's starred review praises the book for being a "perfect introduction to how to read a poem; Biespiel doesn't tell us how to read, instead he simply shows us. One of the best books about reading poetry you will ever find".
New Pages called the collection "quotable and useful", and Bostonia concurred: "For people reluctant to do the intellectual heavy lifting they believe poetry demands, the only thing more inaccessible than the form itself is what's written about poetry. But both the novice and the aficionado will delight in Biespiel's A Long High Whistle.... Biespiel's warmth and respect for his readers is reflected in prose that, like William Zinsser's classic On Writing Well, makes us care about, and be alert to, the wonders of metaphor." From the book jacket: "Over the course of ten years from 2003–2013, poet and critic David Biespiel published a brief, dazzling essay on poetry every month in the book review of The Oregonian in what became the longest-running newspaper column on poetry in the United States. Collected for the first time, these enormously popular essays, some of which were recirculated widely on the web, articulate a profound statement about the mysteries of poetry. In a manner unlike any other book about poetry, A Long High Whistle provides anyone, from the lover of literature to the mature writer to the beginning poet, with a spirited meditation on how poets become inspired, how poems are written and then experienced by readers, and how poetry situates itself in American life."
In 2010, Biespiel sparked a national debate about the relationship between poets and democracy with the publication of his essay, "This Land Is Our Land", in Poetry. Writing about the importance of citizen-poets, Biespiel contends that:
"Beyond the essential concern for writing poems, the poet's role must also include public participation in the life of the Republic. By and large, poets have lived by the creed that this sort of exposure can be achieved only through the making of poems, that to be civically engaged in any other fashion would poison the creative self. But while poems are the symbolic vessels for the imagination and metaphor, there are additional avenues to speak to the tribe. The function of the poet may be to mythologize experience, but another function is to bring a capacity for insight—including spiritual insight—into contact with the political conditions of existence. The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering. And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it."
Controversy spread from the Poetry Foundation to The Huffington Post, with Garrett Hongo, Stephen Burt, Terrance Hayes, Daisy Fried and others commenting on the essay online and in print. While Terrance Hayes lauded the essay's intentions by writing that "I'm absolutely interested in poets who are doing exactly what Biespiel proposes," critic Stephen Burt contended that Biespiel's claims are "bad for our poetry".
In the March 11, 2010 online edition of The New York Times, Gregory Cowles covered the ongoing debate and commented, "I'm struck by the plaintive note that hums just beneath Biespiel's argument: as much as it's a rousing call to political action, his essay is also an eloquent statement of the anxiety of irrelevance." Cowles compares Biespiel's concerns to similar ones expressed by fiction writer David Foster Wallace: "For Biespiel, poetry doesn't matter because poets aren't political enough. For Wallace, poetry doesn't matter because poets have neglected the common reader."
Responding to the controversy, Biespiel wrote in the July/August 2010 issue of Poetry (magazine): "I hold that poets retain a special stature in the human community. The greatest title in a democracy is neither president nor poet. It is citizen. And so I stand with those who see not just the nobility of, but the pragmatic need for, fusing the citizen with the poet."
On December 2, 2010, "This Land Is Our Land" was cited by the Poetry Foundation as one of the top read articles on its website.
Biespiel took up a similar strain of this subject in The Rumpus in his January 15, 2014, Poetry Wire column titled, "Something More Than Style". Where "This Land Is Our Land" argued for poets to be open to engaging the body politic as individuals, "Something More Than Style" wondered if conceptualism held poets back from engaging the social and political world more generally in their poems. He writes:
"While many of the world's poets are deeply preoccupied with war and hierarchy, with exploitation and power, there is a pervasive sinisterlessness in American poetry. There is hash and rehash of the quotidian, an alarmlessness, a niche of the nada. Deftness has become a substitute for compassion. Style a stand in for thinking and feeling. Self-destructive forms are now glorified over measured insight.... Because so many poets face extreme violent risks in the world — and I do not mean the false risks extolled in America's writing workshops — there is a need for American poets to own up to and reject our sheer terrorlessness, to reject aesthetic fetishization in favor not only of examining the barbarism of human experience but also in being less existential and more confrontational of our own complicity in favoring an art of theory over an art of life."
In the comments, Canadian poet Sina Queyras countered, "insight is not teachable. Form and style are.... I would rather encounter a conceptual poem from a poet with a lack of insight than a lyric poem from a poet with a lack of insight."
On February 23, 2015, Biespiel's column, "Why Jihadists Love Postmodern Poetry", published in the The Rumpus in the aftermath of the ''Charlie Hebdo'' shooting in Paris ignited debate about the dangers of "a world overflowing with cynicism about the meaning of language and the power of metaphor". Charging that the jihadist's violent murder in downtown Paris is postmodernism in the extreme, Biespiel writes:
"Now I know the differences between violent, murdering extremism performed in the public square and poetic experimentation performed in the literary square. There is no moral equivalency between cold-blooded killers and literary-bound poets who practice an art of free-flowing creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself. When it comes to free speech, I'm an absolutist. I believe that free poetic speech should represent a front line — an avant-garde, one might say — against totalitarianism of every kind including, in Salman Rushdie's phrase, 'religious totalitarianism'.... But let's not kid ourselves either. The differences may be measurable but the phenomena are not unrelated. Jihadists have adopted the zeal of deconstructing language, meaning, and metaphor ... [with] jihadi jingles and their hip-hop-esque scratching of modern-day military operations with ancient images of martyrdom. Next time you wonder what oppression-loving, surface-to-air-missile-toting reactionaries with their entrenched tribal values of honor and shame stand for regarding the transparency of speech and language, have a listen to the way they love to glom onto the propaganda of anti-globalism.... When the world feels like it's fragmenting into a million pieces, I don't look for poetry of fragmentation. I don't look for an aesthetic of discombobulation. Instead, I look for poetry of persuasive metaphor and communion and renewal ... and I look for poetry that contains at least the possibility, necessity, and essential spirit of coherent empathy and understanding.... Now that's just me because I feel that practitioners of neomodernist and postmodernist poetry would easily argue through their poems that even fanatical jihadism is a project of postmodernism for its refusal of modernity as a battleground against Western imperialism and global markets. If only this vision of postmodernist jihad didn't include preventing merchants in repressive countries from rejoining the world marketplace. If only this vision of postmodernist jihad didn't include attacks on schools, especially schools for girls. If only this vision of postmodernist jihad didn't include, month after month, acts of kidnapping, rape, bombing, stabbings, shootings, and massacres. If only once we would hear violent religious fanatics drop the doctrinal mask that never allows for compromise to say one word, just one word in favor of pluralism or individual liberty that is actually the foundation of experimental art and literature and music. No, these postmodern jihadists favor and take advantage of disruption and fragmentation. They favor the denial of authority and the reduction of content to an austere minimum. They regard life and art as unreal. They repudiate harmony and promote the arbitrary in order to avoid responsibility. And they create chaos and disorder so that zealots can rush in.
The Kenyon Review published several essays in response by G. C. Waldrep, Fady Joudah, and others. The following June The New Yorker published the essay, "Battle Lines", by Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel, asking the question, "If you want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry.... It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad."Charming Gardeners, 2013
The Book of Men and Women, 2009
Wild Civility, 2003
Pilgrims & Beggars, 2002
Shattering Air, 1996
A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns, 2015
Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, 2010
Poems of the American South (Random House: Everyman's Library Pocket Poets), 2014
Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets, 2006 (Awarded the Pacific Northwest Bookseller's Award)
Artists' Communities, 1996
Citizen Dave: Selected Poems 1996–2010Lannan Fellowship, 2007
National Endowment for the Arts, 1997
Stegner Fellowship, 1993–1995