David Wojahn was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1953, and educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona. His first collection, Icehouse Lights, was chosen by Richard Hugo as a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, and published in 1982. The collection was also the winner of the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Book Award. His second collection, Glassworks, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1987, and was awarded the Society of Midland Authors’ Award for best volume of poetry to be published during that year. Pittsburgh is also the publisher of four of his subsequent books, Mystery Train (1990), Late Empire (1994), The Falling Hour (1997), and Spirit Cabinet (2002).
Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004, published by Pittsburgh in 2006, was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the O. B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is also the author of a collection of essays on contemporary poetry, Strange Good Fortune (University of Arkansas Press, 2001), and editor with Jack Myers of A Profile of 20th Century American Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), and two posthumous collections of Lynda Hull’s poetry, The Only World (HarperCollins, 1995) and Collected Poems (Graywolf, 2006).
He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Illinois and Indiana Councils for the Arts, and was the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholar in 1987-1988. He has taught at a number of institutions, among them Indiana University, the University of Chicago, the University of Houston, the University of Alabama, and the University of New Orleans. He is presently Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is also a member of the program faculty of the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of the Fine Arts. His newest collection, World Tree, was published by Pittsburgh in the winter of 2011.
The interview was recorded in April 2013. To listen to the mp3, press the play button below; the transcript follows.
“No Subject Should Be Taboo”: An Audio Interview David Wojahn by Emilia Phillips
Emilia Phillips: I’m Emilia Phillips, and I am the prose editor of 32 Poems, and I am here for the Weekly Prose Feature with poet David Wojahn on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Thank you for being with us, David.
David Wojahn: I’m happy to be here.
EP: Looking again through your eight collections of poetry, I feel like each remains immediate and distinctly David Wojahn. I have to say, I feel like they’ve aged well and the later work, for me at least, undermine the earlier, and yet I can mark several shifts in the work. Being that this is from a reader’s point of view, however, the shifts I’ve identified may wax superficial in that they are based on biographical details, the obsessions and subject matter, and the tendencies in form. I’m curious as to whether or not you feel like you’ve reinvented yourself as a poet one or more times throughout your career the way Lowell did or if you see yourself as honing the same kind of poem or writing installments to one long poem.
DW: Boy, that’s a good question. I think poets tend to think, or would like to think, that they, over the course of a career, remake themselves again and again, and in some respects, I think that’s true. A lot of poets have made radical stylistic shifts over the course of their lifetime: James Wright, being somebody who’s always cited as a terrific example, but then, you know, there are other poets who I really dearly love like Thomas Hardy, and you can’t really tell a poem that he wrote in the 1860s from one he wrote in the 1920s. So, it’s just really hard to self-appraise that sort of thing. I do think that, as the work develops over the years, and partly this is because I, when I first started writing, there was a kind of almost tyranny of a particular sort of subjectivist poetry. Be it the surrealism the Deep Image poets practiced or a kind of autobiographical poetry that was a sort of dumbing down of what people like Berryman and Lowell and Plath had done in Confessional writing. And, so, I kind of felt that poetry was a mode of solipsistic self-expression and autobiographical sort of regurgitation. Of course it is to a very large degree, but if it’s only that—and I think that between about 1970 and maybe around 1990 in American poetry, it often felt like it was only that—it’s not doing the job of poetry. And I think as I’ve grown older as a writer, I’ve remained true to those roots because those roots of poetry as some autobiographical testimony seem very important, but there are also other kind of cultural and historical and literary sources that have started to almost involuntarily but inevitably get mixed up with those original sources of my poetry. So, yeah, I think the work has changed insofar as it’s been able to incorporate a little more of not just the lived life of the poet but the cultural and historical life of the poet’s time.
EP: You often talk about obsession in relation to poetry and, in another interview, you’ve said, “subjects can be quite various, but obsessions tend not to be; in fact, they’re apt to be severely limited . . .” [sic] Readers and reviewers have focused on a few of your touchstone subject—rock ‘n’ roll, the deaths of your parents and your first wife, the poet Lynda Hull—but it strikes me that, though you remain close to or, at the very least, conversant with these subjects in the later work, it never feels that you’re painting over an old canvas. Though you say that obsessions tend to be severely limited, it seems that obsessions, in the case of your work, like a whirlpool, pull what comes downstream into them. In that way, obsessions don’t limit the poems but allow the poet access to other subjects through associations that work away and back to the original obsession. But I wondered if you had any poems that you felt like were too much of a repeat of an earlier poem, that you’ve scrapped.
DW: Sometimes that’s the case, and I guess in that situation or the issue of what we write about, I do really believe that very few poets have a palette that is huge. We write from a limited number of sort of holes in our lives that we feel have to be filled and the trick often of growing as a writer is to just find new ways formally to address those obsessions and there are all sorts of implications by what I mean formally. It can be finding ways to address your obsessive subject matter in a way that seems to be completely unrelated to that subject matter. It can mean new formal sort of strategies that come toward that subject matter slantwise rather than directly. And, in certain respect, I really don’t mind the fact that I still write about the deaths of my parents or about Lynda Hull or about things that have mattered to me—the music, the films, and the poetry—that continue to inspire me. It’s also that if I keep returning to those things, it’s because they’re important. Somebody asked why he wrote poetry and he said, well, you write poetry because you must. I do think sometimes that the feeling I have, in terms of repeating myself, is not in repeating myself in terms of revisiting the same old subject. I mean Philip Levine will always be a kid who worked in auto-factories in Detroit. He’ll never leave that landscape behind and that’s a source of his integrity. I feel that when I’m repeating myself or imitating myself it’s usually through trying strategies within the poems, formal strategies that seem like they’re the same old’ same old’ or something that I’ve done before and probably have done better because I was discovering something rather than consciously trying to imitate myself.
EP: So, let’s talk about the sonnet. I don’t think I could’ve interviewed you without talking about the sonnet. It’s a form that appears in all of your collections except the first. They’re in these rhapsodic sequences like the rock ’n’roll title poem of Mystery Train; “Wartime Photos of My Father” and “White Lanterns” from Late Empire; as well as others including “Ochre.” These sequences often function as a hinge in a collection, near the center or between two distinct sections. Do you generally begin work on a new collection with a sonnet sequence? Do you write the other poems around the sequence? Why does the sonnet sequence work for you in shaping a collection?
DW: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve never consciously decided at any point that I’m going to have to write a sonnet sequence that’s going to be the trademark of a collection, but they always seem to, for one reason or another, become very significant within the individual books and that’s been happening for twenty five, thirty years now, and I just think the sonnet is such as supple and such a flexible and just such an endearing form. I just love the way that you can manipulate those hundred and forty syllables in such a no-two-snowflakes-are-alike variety of ways. You know one of the things that will destroy one’s career as a writer, I think, is if you take yourself too seriously and my subject matter is often not just serious but aggressively so, but you always have to have fun with writing and there’s something that’s just a delight about fooling around with the form of the sonnet and it’s always different. It’s always instructive. And, there’s a kind of Lay’s Potato Chips element of it that I find it very difficult to write a single sonnet and not want to find an imaginary playmate and the sequences often develop because I want to add one to it then a third one comes and then a fourth one comes and then, you know, sometimes as many as twenty five or thirty come. Sometimes as in the case [of] Mystery Train years ago, I probably wrote twice as many for that sequence than actually appeared in the book. The other thing that’s great about the sonnet is it’s not exactly that it’s a dispensable form, but it’s also a form that sometimes gets generated by the very fact that you can write five and two of them will be good and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time.
EP: Why do you think it works so well with contemporary American poetry? It seems like, out of all the forms, it just has survived and is even, perhaps, in some ways, more forceful because there’s so much more immediacy in what you can do with a sonnet.
DW: The variety of what we now define as a sonnet is just, in the last fifty or sixty years, is astonishing. You look on the one hand at how inventive Ted Berrigan was with his sonnets or how The Dream Songs by Berryman functions, even though they’re eighteen lines long, as a kind of supernoval sort of sonnet sequence. It is just such an adaptable form, and one of the sources of its endurance I think is that, I hate to say it, but we live in a very attention-deprived sort of culture. We really do feel a certain impatience with long forms, even though I love long American twentieth century epics like Paterson or Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Remember the origin of the word’s “little song,” to me the kind of poetic equivalent to the three-minute AM radio song from the 1960s that you can’t get out of your head. So, I like the compactedness of it, and yet it’s very expansive within that compactedness.
EP: In your first few collections, it seemed like you were left-margin centric and you were kind of hugging that left margin, but now you drift off that margin quite frequently, I think, in a majority of the poems in World Tree, you’re doing things like the staggered/jagged tercets like Williams’s Bruegel sequence, or long lines alternately followed by an indented short line, and you use drop lines as well. I just wondered how long it takes you to find the right form for your poems?
DW: As the years go on, I find it harder and harder to write in free verse, though I love writing in free verse, and I think naturally my ear gravitates toward a line that, no matter how you how you parse it, even it were coming out as a prose poem, would start to look like blank verse. And I think that a lot of the arguments I have with the forms of the poems, the various versions that I do with the poems, are trying to find a way to decide whether it looks good as pentameter or whether I should fight against the pentameter. That’s often a determining force for where the poem should go. Now, sometimes you want to evoke that mighty pentameter line pretty overtly, in an in-your-face way, but sometimes you want to bury it a little bit in some sort of formal construct. So I look at people like Charles Wright or C.K. Williams and they look often as though they’re writing very long and sometimes very prosy lines, but if you scan a Williams poem, especially those characteristic ones he writes in those super long lines, they’re often two lines of blank verse that have been spliced together. There’s the same kind of very, very strongly iambic kind of quality to all of Charles Wright’s poems, and I just like forms that are haircuts that don’t look like haircuts. Often, the revision process for me has first and foremost to do with trying a poem out in a whole plethora of different sorts of forms without necessarily changing the wording and then when I find the shape that looks the most promising then I will start do a lot of nickel-and-dime revision on individual lines and syntax, on word choice. You know sometimes it’s just the shape of the poem is the first thing that I really want to consider when I’m writing the poem.
EP: I think you had a poem recently in, was it in AGNI? It was all really intensive rhymes at the end of the lines.
DW: For the last several years I’ve decided that every year one of the few things I must do annually is write a poem against the NRA, and the trick is to try to do it in a way that doesn’t sound polemical. In the case of that poem, I have a cousin that’s a gun nut but also a practicing Buddhist, and I needed to write about that because it’s so fascinating and so scary to figure out what’s going on in his character, and it ended up to be a sonnet in all A rhymes. I don’t think I could’ve written about that subject, because it’s such a loaded subject so to speak, without having to give myself some wild formal sort of challenge that would allow me some entrance to it in a way that wasn’t too polemical, and it’s great, too, because he’ll never know about the poem and he’ll never read it, and so that’s all right.
EP: Do you ever worry about writing about those that you know and them being offended or they feel as if they’ve been slighted in some way?
DW: Sure, all the time. You feel that you’re either not doing justice to the person or that, in some ways, you’ve been indiscreet. That’s always the worry, but no subject should be taboo as long as you can bring it off.
EP: In my last year in the MFA program here at VCU, you assigned me the task of reading works that were in what you called “English that’s not English,” including Scots poets, the 1537 Matthews Bible, and others. I loved the task, though it was challenging, because it exploded some of the discursive, unmusical syntax that I thought I had to write as a contemporary poet. Do you ever find yourself falling into a rut in your syntax and, if so, how do you get out of it? Do you do it through reading and, if so, what texts do you go to?
DW: So many contemporary poems, despite what I’ve been saying about received forms, are composed by the sentence as much as they’re composed by the line and the line almost seems secondary to how one arranges the sentence. I find that I’m very, very interested in times or in opportunities for a particular syntax and the diction that that syntax implies to collide with the very, very different diction and the syntax that that diction implies. I love what you can do in a poem that you can’t do in a lot of other forms of discourse—move very, very quickly from high falutin’ rhetorical language to very, very vernacular language—and it’s not so much the issue of syntax is so connected to, with the issue of diction. You almost can’t discern the difference between the two of them, and so I like to play with those sorts of collisions, dictional collisions which turn into then rhythmic collisions, and they also often give me an opportunity to do what I like to do a lot is steal, quote, and sample from other poets, from music, and when you’re in that groove, when you’re in that zone where there’s a lot of possibility for associational and syntactical variety, you can end up throwing in a lot of things that you didn’t know you were going to throw in. It’s also a question, I think, of sampling.
EP: Many poets who encounter the language of religious rites and rituals at a young age often cite those sources as being influential in their choice to become a poet. If I remember correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong, you were raised in the Anglican/Episcopal church. When I approach a poem like your poem “Ode to Black 6” in World Tree, I see syntactical moves like from The Book of Common Prayer, and I just thought I would read a quick section from that poem, the opening:
To your veins we’ve clogged with butter
we give thanks, to your brain tumor withering
the use of your left side, to Alzheimer’s
befuddling your stumble through the labyrinth,
indifferent now to females in estrous,
to positive reinforcement, merci.
Likewise, looking back, I can’t help but think about your poem “Stammer” from The Falling Hour in which, among other things, the speaker’s going through speech therapy with exercises of “AH AH AH E E E” and “Ruth rang Randy rarely.” These exercises, because of their repetition, seem almost liturgical, as well. Could you speak more about your early interactions with language and how conscious you are about their influence on your writing today?
DW: The Book of Common Prayer which Thomas Cramer composed in the 1530s [sic] has some of the most gorgeous language in English, and since going to old style Anglican services when I was a kid and hearing that sort of language was maybe my first encounter with literary language, with language that could be different from spoken language, at least in a serious way that wasn’t like nursery rhymes. The inventiveness of the language that Cranmer put into those texts, and they’re wonderful texts too because they’re practical as well as lyrical, that they’re whole passages from it that I know I’m not even consciously aping when I write a poem, just because they were such an early and essential part of my poetic DNA. You know, like in the Communion service, there’s this line about being so unworthy “through our manifold sins of wickedness as to gather the crumbs from under thy table.” [sic] I remember just loving that live above almost anything I’d ever heard in English, and I think it’s just because it’s such a strange image but it’s a made even stranger just because of that crazy Jamesian periodic sentence that introduces it. So, I think I came very early on into what is probably a condition that’s pretty good for a poet is I have a hard time making a distinction between whether something engages me poetically because of its imagery or simply because of its sound. I see the two as coming always in tandem in these weird entwinings. An image like that from the Communion service is a really, really good example of it, and I think it kind of imprinted me in that respect.
I was an altar boy for a long time. I even thought that maybe I’d be an Episcopal priest but then I was about sixteen and became a Quaker so I entered into a long period where there wasn’t that much interesting language in my religious experience. No offence to the Quakers.
EP: You were talking a few minutes ago and a couple questions back taking language from other sources and looking through World Tree, I see where you’re borrowing song lyrics from Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” Elsewhere, you’re grabbing from Walden, a former student, Alan Dugan, etc. I can’t help but think of Coca-Cola warning Andy Warhol about using Coke as a title for his film, but, of course, poets don’t have the same kind of visibility as an artist like Andy Warhol, but I wondered if you’ve ever been tapped on the shoulder and been told, “Don’t use that in a poem.”
DW: No, I haven’t, and I think one of the issues at stake now is that copyright law is so complex and there’s so many ways of interpreting it that I think it’s gotten to be a little bit creepy. My friend Mary Ruefle wonderful book of essays called Madness, Rack, and Honey last year and there’s a beautiful essay she had to completely leave out because it stole two or three lines from Leonard Cohen and the people who were controlling the rights to Cohen’s lyrics were asking so much money for it, to have done it would’ve cost more than printing the entire book. A lot of people play hardball with borrowings, but the sad thing is that the whole tradition of English literature is a kind of borrowing and thievery and reshaping. That’s what The Wasteland is made of, and, you know, one of the contemporary poets I most admire, David Ferry who’s eighty-nine years old now, has a poem in his new book that is this encratical but absolutely faithful borrowing from Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me.” You know, the fact that a poet who is eighty-eight years old can borrow and steal and make his own a poem by a jilted courtier from five hundred years ago, it’s just an amazing thing to me. The whole tradition of the way the blues have evolved in the twentieth century to so many wonderful permutations is just another example of just how tradition lives in a very, very vital way, and so many of the utterances that we make as poets, as musicians, you’re always reinterpreting the atmosphere of earlier cultures that have influenced you and been important to you. I think it’s very, very dangerous when someone who doesn’t have an understanding of how art functions in that way gets in the way of the process in order to simply make money. We’re not talking about fair use then, we’re talking about something very much akin to suppression. It’s Orwellian.
EP: Well, with the twenty-five-section long poem—a sonnet sequence—“Ochre” in World Tree, you pair up each section with an image. Most of them are actual images that you wrote about, but then there’s a few in the sequence that were actually created after the poems were written, based on the poems.
When I worked for Blackbird, we helped make some of those images. The three in the poem that are created after the fact of the poem are the one with Dick Cheney in a gas mask, the Scrabble board, and the photo of twin bed (“the photo that Davey took when Johnny and I were asleep” section. Why situate these poems in ekphrasis? How does it complicate or inform the rest of the long poem?
DW: Again it’s a question of one is establishing a kind of fidelity so that you’re writing a series of ekphrastic poems and you feel as if the ekphrasis has to be of something that you’re actually describing, you’re limiting a lot of your imaginative choices. Most of the images in that series are real photographs or real images that I am trying to riff on or describe, but there are also a few images in there that could have existed, and so the poem sort of had to proceed the reconstruction of that thing had it existed. That sequence of poems is trying to juxtapose Paleolithic art with novice nineteenth-century photographs and with certain political statements that I want to make and, so, more and more as the sequence goes on, it tries to mine, go from memory in a big cultural way to memory in a smaller and more personal way. The more recent ones from my own past were harder to create sometimes than the ones from Chauvet Cave. So, yeah, it was very fun to write a poem about an image that didn’t exist and then later on create the image literally. But they’re not to far from reality. In the case of Cheney—and you see this in Jane Mayer’s wonderful book, savage book, about the War on Terror, The Dark Side—Cheney didn’t go anywhere for several years after 9/11 without a briefcase of his papers and a briefcase with hazmat suit. I think it indicates the level of monstrous paranoia that so motivated Cheney especially and all of his cohorts in the Bush administration. And so, you know, he did have the gas mask; we just don’t have any photographs of the gas mask. In some ways, I’m doing the reality a favor by Photoshopping a version of Dick Cheney with a gas mask.
EP: Well, I mean, you’ve used plenty of visual elements elsewhere in your poems, including “Crayola” from Spirit Cabinet. You have the speech bubbles as if it’s almost like a comic book and then you started, in that same collection, doing these poems that are one-line stanzas separated by breaks that are diamonds or leaves or whatever, and I’m thinking about in “Ochre” as well, one of the sections in particular is the Scrabble poem in which, in the left-hand margin, you have “QUIXOTIC” and each letter, as it goes down, has the amount it would get in Scrabble points. So, it’s like “Q10,” etcetera. Because you’re balancing visuals and sonics often in your poems, I wondered, when you read aloud the poems, do you feel like you risk losing some of what the poem’s doing, to a reading audience, or is that the case with all poems?
DW: I think that’s the case with all poems. In the examples you’re citing is sonnets that have an asterisk that is just there to simultaneously do something that’s almost paradoxical: one, make the reader pay more attention to the individual lines and, two, make the reader not be aware, at least right away, that what he or she is reading is a sonnet. So, in some ways, it’s an attempt to help to reinvigorate the essential musicality of the sonnet that we tend to, a lot of the time, take for granted. I think if you read poetry often enough that you open up a page and see that a poem is thirty-seven lines long, and if like me don’t particularly like sestinas, you’re first impulse is to either not read the poem or say, “Show me what you can do.” So it’s, again, a kind of thing that you want a haircut that doesn’t look like a haircut. I love sestinas that don’t allow me to know they’re sestinas until I’m pretty much finished with them and ditto with sonnets, some of the time.
EP: You’ve confided that you’re a synesthete, and can you tell us what that exactly means in terms of perception for you and how it’s affected your poetry?
DW: Like a lot of poets, I’m probably a synesthete and I’m probably a little dyslexic. For a long time, when I would finally get a draft of a poem, for example, I would use an ivory-colored paper that’s about twenty-five weight, that was really expensive, to get that final draft on there because I wanted the poems to have a particular look and smell and even a kind of, you know, implied taste that made me feel like the poem not just was finished but it was my poem that was finished because I had such strange and probably dysfunctional ways of looking at that poem.
Rimbaud was very, very right in that vowel sonnet in understanding that, you know for poets especially, the components of language are something that are not just visual but address simultaneously all of the senses together and never in a way that makes a lot of associative sense. They intermingle. They interact. And, one of the reasons I’m interested in languages like Sumerian where some of the images are visual, some of them are syllabic ones, I think a lot of times what I try to do in poetry is to get back to that sort of language where we’re painting with literal word pictures as well as symbolic concepts and syllabic concepts. And, the poem is this great sort of field, I think, because all those things can coexist at once, but we’re trained not to read like that, and we’re trained increasingly to read for information. A really good example of that is, you know, all the weird contractions that people use in text messaging and I don’t think they’re aware while they’re using it that they’re radically reshaping the language. They’re making the language fundamentally strange, and the possibilities of that linguistically or poetically are really, really interesting. And they’re just focusing on a task and not on the way language is being subtly but very radically reshaped.
EP: Your work, collection to collection, is increasingly conversant with other poets. I went through World Tree and I started listing off all the poets that you either address or mention blatantly in the poems. I’m sure there’s plenty of others that are a little bit more buried. I’m seeing Thoreau and Hikmet and Rimbaud and Lynda Hull, W.S. Graham, William Carlos Williams, Aleda Shirley, Tomas Tranströmer, Frank O’Hara, George Oppen, Rilke, Berryman, Jon Anderson, Alan Dugan, Miłosz, Vallejo, and others. Can you speak a little bit about what you feel is the obligation that poets have to be conversant with other work and other poets? Or is it simply impossible not to be in conversation?
DW: I think it’s impossible not to be and, that notion of thieving from one’s sources is not necessarily, to my mind, an act of robbery as much as it’s an act of homage. You know, one of my favorite albums is an album of the rock ‘n’ roll surrealist Robyn Hitchcock called Robyn Sings and what Hitchcock and his band attempt to do in that album is recreate, note for note, Dylan and The Band’s 1966 Albert Hall concert, doing it to the point where there’s that moment right before “Like a Rolling Stone” when they have somebody in the audience say, “Judas,” and Hitchcock does the thing where he says, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” And, Robyn Hitchcock’s a great singer but he’s not Dylan, right? He’s not doing the incredible sorts of absolutely new thing that Dylan was doing with The Band at that concert, but it seems an act of incredible kind homage to try to imitate it in that way and in the liner notes of that album, Hitchcock basically says “I’ve listened to that album and listened to those songs for so long that part of me doesn’t remember that I didn’t write them.” And he doesn’t say that from the stance of, I think, egotism, as much as, if you live with writers and singers and the books and movies that you love, they’re at a certain point so much a part of your consciousness that if you don’t rely on them, if you don’t quote from them, you’re almost doing an injustice to that. I don’t think it’s egotistical today to say that I’ve read, say, Vallejo’s “Black Stone on a White” so often for so many years that sometimes I forget the fact that I didn’t write it. You know, I think it’s more what you do as a poet over the years is you have this poetic playlist that has become so entwined in your synapses and your DNA that, yeah, those poems are yours. I am so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity over the years to get to that point that I want to celebrate that and do homage to that by throwing those quotes in. So, I don’t think that they’re opportunistic; I think they’re, in a certain sense, acknowledging the fact that I’m a completely derivative poet. And, I’m happy to be a completely derivative poet and I’m happy to celebrate those people whose work has meant a lot to me. And, I look at that list you just gave me and it’s a pretty long list, but I think it’s probably only about half as long as it really should be.
EP: Well, I mean, in some respects all language is derivative, and most of us aren’t creating new words in our poems so it seems only natural that the phrases that are coming in or even some of the modes of syntax, expression, or approach to their subjects would come into your own work.
DW: Yeah, well, it’s just that you reuse things and make them your own, you translate them into your own vernacular, and they remain absolutely the property of those people that you have borrowed from but they’re your property, too. And, I do think poetry, without getting all sentimental about it, is a transactional endeavor in which the great democracy of poetry has to do with the fact that you assume that your reader can understand a poem in the same way that you understand the poems that you’ve read and the poems that you write. There’s a quality about reading poems or, more specifically, about re-reading poems that, despite the loneliness of the poetic vocation, is deeply, deeply communal. Any community that’s a real community has a set of tradition, and I just like to remind, I guess my readers, that in terms of poetry, no matter how eccentric my own poetry is, it is part of a continuity.
EP: It also strikes me that in the same way that re-reading poems by your favorite poets can make those poems feel like yours, reading your own poems again they feel somewhat distant or strange. I mean, at least in the case of writing my own poems. Do you ever feel that way?
DW: Well, if you’re written as many poems as I have now, which is not a huge number but the number’s getting up there, sometimes I’ll look at a book and completely forget that I wrote a poem and you have a choice then of looking at that poem and saying, “Boy, that is a piece of shit, I should never remember again that I wrote it” or say, “Hey, that’s kind of far out, I’d forgotten that I wrote that and it’s not half bad.” Poems are not meant to be read but meant to be re-read.
EP: I believe you did a translation of some Anglo-Saxon work for an anthology, is that correct?
DW: Yeah, it’s called The Word Exchange, and you know there are great things in it like Heaney’s translation of “The Sea-farer” and a poem by David Ferry called “The Sacrifice of Isaac” that I think are wonderful. So I did a couple translations from the Exeter Book of Riddles, which are, again, very, very strange sorts of literary endeavors that I really find fascinating.
EP: Have you ever done any other translation work?
DW: You know, I used to translate a little bit from the Spanish, but my Spanish isn’t as good as I would like it to be to really feel like I could be a legitimate Spanish translator. I would love to more.
EP: Every now and then I hear some discussion about literary lineages. Being a student of yours, your teacher would be like my literary grandfather or something. Do you think that’s a bullshit notion or do you think there is something to it, like there’s some way to inherit?
DW: You know, when you put it in familiar terms, it’s kind of interesting because if you’re a parent, what you want for your children is to have a good life but you, ideally, don’t want them to be given the notion that what you do, they should do. You know, it’s not like you’re in medieval guilds where if you’re a tinkerer, your son has to be a tinkerer. There is that element in poetry, and in any art form, of people, in a multi-generational way, passing down your expertise as an artist. On the other hand, though, if you’re going to be a teacher that’s in any way worth the definition of being a teacher, you don’t want to replicate yourself. You have to do something that is really hard and analytical and sort of help them to find out what sort of poem they must write and encourage them in that sort of poem, and always be aware of that that sort of poem is not necessarily the sort of poem you want to write. So, it’s a question of looking at every student’s work diagnostically and trying to see that Platonic ideal of what kind of poem the student really feels, more than anything else, compelled to write and help that student along the way. That’s the kind of relationship that a mentor should have to a mentee and it is a kind of parental relationship, in that respect.
EP: Were there any poets you idolized early on that you later came to realize weren’t exactly A1?
DW: Boy, that’s a tough one. The thing that’s lovely when you’re a young poet, you want to read everything or, at least, when I was growing up, that was the case because there so many interesting and competing schools in American poetry in the 60s and 70s that then became a little more uniform, in the period style. I have found poets that I loved early on that I understand they’re deeply flawed. I mentioned James Wright earlier and he was one of the first poets that I discovered and I know that there are problems in Wright’s work that are much more easy for me to identify now that I don’t idealize him in that way. And, yeah, there were poets that I loved in those days like, for example, James Tate. I still think James Tate is a fabulous writer but there’s nothing I can get from his work. Ditto, Ashbery who is a writer who has profoundly changed the way we look at the whole act of poetry and the ways in which poetry capture consciousness. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, even write a passable imitation of an Ashbery poem and, as much as I love his work, I wouldn’t want to. So, you, it’s less that there’s poets that I would reject out of hand as much as I feel there are a lot of poets who are sort of those eccentric cousins and eccentric uncles who, you know, come in for the Thanksgiving dinner and then I don’t seem them for another year.
EP: In thinking a little bit more about kind of like this lineage and, kind of, adoration of poets, Larry Levis taught here at VCU at the time of his death in 1996, and I know a lot of students come into the MFA program pretty familiar with Levis at this point and wanting to be where Levis was. How is it to be the senior poet in a program where you have this kind of monolithic presence still informing the student and the program?
You teach at Virginia Commonwealth University where Larry Levis taught at the time of his death in 1996. Levis has developed a bit of a cult following, and rightly so, but I wondered what it’s like to be the senior poet at an institution where there’s a monolithic past presence. Do you notice certain trends in Levis’s reputation? Do you find yourself having to temper or encourage fascination with his work?
DW: Part of it is that Larry was such a genius as a poet and developed with, for a relatively short life, with incredible rapidity and incredible sort of ambition. And, I continue to learn immensely from his work. If I were coming to a place where that sort of deity were somebody I didn’t like, that would be a problem, but he really is a poet of a certain crucial importance in American poetry of the last several decades. And, yeah, people like Levis or like Frank Stanford and like Lynda Hull to some degree. There are always going to be people that, I guess, some people would be cult poets. But the great thing about having an audience of readers who are passionate about your work, however small, is that they’re passionate about your work and they keep a reputation alive in ways that are guaranteed to keep the readers, if you have that sort of following. Larry has that. I think Lynda has that.
I teach an Afro-American poetry since 1980 course and we were reading Etheridge Knight’s poems a few weeks ago and, to some degree, Etheridge Knight is half-forgotten in ways that I think are appalling and criminal, but Ed Ochester, his publisher, said, after I taught that course, that every year Etheridge Knight sells about five hundred to a thousand copies of his book. And, if you are a poet and you can get five hundred or a thousand new readers every year, after having been dead for a couple of decades, you’re doing all right. I think the fact that poets have limited audiences isn’t wholly a bad thing.
EP: In addition to being a poet and a teacher, you’re also a pretty prolific book critic and reviewer. You have a book of essays called Strange Good Fortune and now you’ve now got a new collection, From the Valley of Making: Essays on the Craft of Poetry. Do you believe that the art of poetry criticism has been lost? What’s happened to the book review and the essay on craft?
DW: I think the condition we’re in now is just vile. It’s terrible. You have occasionally people like Dan Chiasson and Charles Simic when he was writing pieces for the New York Review of Books who, because they were given a lot of space in a magazine like The New Yorker and New York Review, could actually write reviews that are actually worth the designations of review. But, you know, when I look at, say, what New York Times Book Review tries to do in its lip service to poetry, they may as well not do it. The Middle Generation of Poets, the generation of Lowell and Jarrell and Bishop and Berryman, they all wrote reviews as something that they thought of as essential to the discipline and, when they wrote reviews, they weren’t perfunctory, they weren’t the three sentences in Publisher’s Weekly. A lot of publishers now, when you do, say, a jack blurb for a book, you’re told that you can’t do a blurb over thirty words long because, if it’s longer than that, Amazon won’t quote from it in the description of the book, and I think it’s just that, part of it is that, again, we’re such an attention deprived culture that we have a lot of impatience with doing a thoroughgoing piece of reviewing.
Fifty years ago, a lot of Sunday papers would have a literary supplement and so the number of reviews that a solid book of poetry from a commercial or university press would get was far, far more extensive than it is now. I think that the reasonably good reviews that occur for contemporary poetry are printed on the web in various blogs like Ron Slate’s From the Seawall [sic] which I think does a real great service to poetry, but you’re not seeing it in a print medium and that’s something really should be changed.
EP: A lot of publishers have even moved their review section out of print and put it on their website. In some ways, it makes it more accessible.
DW: In a certain sense, it makes it immediately accessible if you know it’s there. Poets don’t seem to understand that if you want to be a serious poet in most cases, [you have] an obligation to review the work of your peers, and an obligation to write essays about poetry as well as write about the poems. You know there’s certain illuminations and understandings you can have about the art of poetry that you can’t make within a poem but you can certainly make within an essay or a lecture. And, I certainly don’t consider myself enough to, say, write a book-length study on a writer or school of poetry, but I love writing a twenty to thirty page essay on topics that interest me and Strange Good Fortune and this new book are the evidence of my trying to exercise that.
EP: Since you allowed me a little bit of access into the new book of essays, I’ve been really fascinated with this one essay titled ‘And Not Releasing the Genie’: On the Poetry of Stuff vs. the Poetry of Knowledge.” I wanted to just very briefly read an excerpt from that collection in which you talk about “The Poem of Knowledge” which you find to be the superior type of poem
The Poem of Knowledge, like the Poem of Stuff, values the strange, the particular, the special fact, but not merely for the sake of novelty in the manner of circus sideshows or the Guinness Book. The Poem of Knowledge picks such facts and particulars out not because of a desire to dupe and mystify the reader, but because some facts are better than others, and it is the task of poetry to draw meaningful combinations, not arbitrary ones. The poem of knowledge derives from a desire to synthesize—or alchemize—one’s learning and command of craft into a new reality, a new reckoning. This is no easy task during a time when both literature and facts themselves are debased.
Adversely, you despair that the “Poem of Stuff” or, as Tony Hoagland identifies it, “the skittery poem of the moment” is here to stay and that students often “feel a great deal of anxiety when they seek to break the conventions of skitteriness, or when they try to deliberately mask situations which call for clarity of dramatic situation and context in the trappings of irony and discontinuity.”
With those two sort of poles of the poem, how do you go about guiding students toward writing a poem of knowledge as opposed to the poem of stuff, especially in a week-to-week workshop that demands the quick turnaround of new drafts?
DW: One of the reasons why I wrote that essay is I do think that because of the way that we live now and our increasing inability or unwillingness to pay attention and concentrate on something like even a short lyric poem, I literally think we’re becoming synaptically challenged. That kind of concentration is no longer as available to us as it once was. We’re multitaskers. Students tend these days to have lots and lots of superficial knowledge about lots and lots of things and not a lot of deep knowledge about fewer things. That’s not a situation I necessarily complain about because that’s how it is and it will create it’s own sort of art in a while, perhaps not now, but I guess I see so many poems that seem to be the result of a few minutes of Google searching about a subject that is interesting, and a little bit of study of that thing is enough to generate that poem. And, the Web can become like this gigantic Guiness Book of World Records where there’s lots and lots of special facts and interesting things that are available to you that you feel tempted to turn into poetry, but the superstructure of that, the willfulness of that, ultimately the superficiality of that starts to bleed into the poems. We’re always looking for new metaphors. And, when you do a Google search, you have the possibility of not just of a few new metaphors but billions, literally billions of new metaphors that you’re looking at, and then it becomes a question of selection. How do you create from learning those special facts, learning those oddball things, something that is a more enduring and last endeavor as poem? Poems are meant not just to amaze you but to change your consciousness, and you don’t think about those things when you’re doing a Google search.
[end of main interview audio]
Tomás Q. Morin*: Since poetry long ago first appeared on the scene as the one and only written genre, it has given up ground to fiction, plays, history, etc. Are there any poets who you feel are taking back some of that ceded ground and reclaiming it for poetry?
Wojahn’s response to Morin’s question
DW: Absolutely, the people I think of first of all are not necessarily Americans but poets from Modern Europe and elsewhere. I think I’ve learned more about how consciousness works and the intricacies of consciousness from reading Tranströmer’s poems that any other poet I know of and I’ve learned more about how the personal and the historical converge from reading Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert and a lot of the other Polish poets than I have from any other source. And, yeah, poetry has lost ground or supposedly lost ground to all sorts of other art forms, but as Tranströmer has said more than once, he wants people to be reminded that they have rich private lives. The richness of that private life that poetry can address and foster and remind readers of in a way that no other art form can. So, it may have what seems to be a diminished importance in the world today, but that function that it performs is so crucial and so necessary and is not as easy to find emergent in other art forms that people will always read poetry. It won’t die. It has too much wisdom to teach its readers and its writers.
EP: Now, David, provide us with a question for our next interview.
DW: What is the single aspect of contemporary poetry which most frustrates or infuriates you?**
Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.
*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. To view Tomás Q. Morin’s interview, go to March 28th’s Weekly Prose Feature: “Tame Form + Wild Content: An Interview with Tomás Q. Morín
**See Curtis Bauer’s answer in May 3rd’s Weekly Prose Feature: The Written Line Perceived as a Drawing: An Interview with Curtis Bauer”
Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at email@example.com.
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