Interview with Featured Poet
[Town Creek Poetry] Time is the central motif of your poems, a kind of territory that must be traversed or merely is—and time must be traversed by the joys and sorrows of human life. The natural world, the world that moves on with and despite us, serves as the measuring stick for time. Can you speak to how these preoccupations with time and nature first entered your poetry? How have these two motifs matured over the course of your writing life?
[Edward Wilson] I don’t seem to have the temperament to plan a series of poems and follow through. And, sort of in the same vein, I have great difficulty organizing the sequence of poems in a manuscript.
Much later, I can identify trends, themes, archetypes that are present (a boon I owe to the “New Criticism” –Robert Penn Warren born about 18 miles SW of me in Kentucky—and a graduate education in English literature). Also, a little like old style psychotherapy, but not—I don’t believe poets are really after psychic health, they’d rather court the uncivilized energies magicking the words on the page. (Endymion—what does a mortal do when a goddess comes on to him?)
Sorry to diverge. But, again, the simple answer is no. I don’t know when these preoccupations emerged, nor how they might have matured. I deal with the poems I blessedly stumble into…different each time I hope—the same, but new.
And as for time ongoing: my father said to not long before he died in his late 70s, “When I wake up, I feel like I’m 23—until I start up the stairs.”
[TCP] In “Irises” the narrator appropriates nature through the form of these beautiful flowers. The irises become the catalyst that symbolizes the grandparents’ togetherness. However, not unlike Roethke’s best poems, you’ve personified the irises as “troops” that “muster,” “threatening the air,” “a thicket of knives.” Can you speak to the oddly beautiful disparity in these flowers? Do they signify something more about family?
[EW] I believe Freud commented somewhere that every event is over determined—meaning, I think, that there are too many possible causes for a given effect. The dynamics between my grandparents (which I watched as a little human less than two digits old) are for me like Hindu metaphysics or, again, maybe a simple medieval morality play on the church steps—I can imagine both, but very few firm facts.
Two things were on my mind when I put it together. First, an accurate and interesting description of the flower. Following close on with no plan was the memory of them lining the drive of their house to the garage. And I tried to get that right, too.
Your insight is new and interesting to, me. And the juxtaposition of stanzas certainly suggests a more complicated relationship that, again, was unplanned, I’m happy to have stumbled on.
[TCP] Can you explain the genesis of “At Moot Point,” its point of view, and your thematic concerns? It appears to be a place that has changed forever, and yet there’s a positive energy thrumming through the poem.
[EW] “Moot Point” is the name of a vacation cottage a few miles east of Washington, NC. A lawyer friend of mine owned it (hence the name) and couples were staying for a few days. There, the river—almost a bay— is very brackish and more than two miles wide to the south. I am usually up well before most everyone I know, so I was out on the dock at dawn—the water smooth all the way south.
What I was most interested in with the poem was trying to evoke a sense of peacefulness. A plein air painting—transparent and evocative as I could. Nothing else in mind.
[TCP] In poems such as “Ruby,” your poetics tend to indicate that the natural world—its essences—can overpower human tragedy, and, indeed, humanity; however, there is a celebration of this fact. How do you respond to the poet/novelist Thomas Hardy and his Wessex or Robinson Jeffers? Do you associate closely with any of the poets who precede you?
[EW] As for Nature (with a large N, “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson), and which our species seems to be undermining and a great rate (6th great die out?), what else do we have as physic against age, loss, and death? Sadly, faith is not an option for me. Still, who is not moved, encouraged, lifted up in late March, early April (“Oh to be in England/ now that April’s there” (but Italy was pretty good too—with Elizabeth close at hand—Browning).
I’m not sure where I was going at the end of Ruby. It just seemed that there was no other place other than the rich world always around us—as long as you look, that is, and not think ahead to the consequences. Who was it said “the world is a comedy to those who think, tragedy to those who feel?” (Walpole-I looked it up) To recast this, I’d say I’m very much with Hardy/Jeffers/and throw in Frost—the beautiful, astonishing world cares nothing for us. And, the same time, cold as this beauty is, it draws us in, moves and thrills us. Go back to the Jungian archetypes—the nourishing and devouring Mother (a paleolithic theme). Here, 3000 years ago from the Tao Te Ching, :
“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.”
The Chinese knotted and shaped these little figures of straw for rituals, and treated them reverently until the ceremony, after which they were considered trash and burned.
Still, I have a hungry eye and cannot stop looking at the beautiful/astonishing stuff all around us. Though it will eat me in the end. (Oh that dramatic, poetic stuff we have to say….) I would have been a painter if I had any talent, and if there were painters anymore.
And, yes, of course, I associate with poets who have preceded me, from the earliest marks on a rock, the earliest written thing I can find. The Vedas/wonderful Gilgamesh (Saunders and Ferry translations)/ Guy Davenport has a fine, accessible translation of seven very early Greeks/ Robert Payne’s older, but very approachable and moving The White Pony, a sweep of Chinese poetry….)
For this interview, I began to make a list of relatively recent poets that have been important to me, but I quit with about 150 names.
Formatively, for me, a few stand out: Theodore Roethke was the spark that started the fire (The music, abandonment to emotion, his intelligence, the profound effect the past had on him—deeply sympathetic that for me ). And I see this in Stanley Kunitz as well, but not at all in the same way, and in the much more, histrionic, “confessional,” and greatly lauded Lowell (who I was fortunate to hear and meet several times in the 60s—and who gave no sense of passion, only distance and control (albeit with a real fragility) for all of his terrible mental problems).
And the work of several others especially helped me find ways forward:
W. S. Merwin: (Drunk in the Furnace) again for intelligence, but a real elegance in diction, line, and the way to conceive of a poem overall. Bit of surrealism, the plain diction, each poem a distinct, curious place, and gestures toward the oracular, the mythic.
William Stafford: Again, plain speech—almost laconic—and yet with a combination of deep feeling and mystery. Your neighbor, but not—a traveler, back from Tibet who would have a beer beside you and never speak of it, only let you sense it. American speech at the purest. Best our mind and tongue.
Charles Simic: (Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk). Always surprising, but never patting himself on the back about it . A way with a poem that uses the best of surrealism, but never denies emotion and the lives we live here, always feeling it (the way so much, almost all, of the “movement” seems never to. Except blessed Pierre Reverdy). Surprise, delight, and something always deeper, always moving.
James Dickey. Those first 4 books…collected in the one volume—nothing like them—a really innovative blending of lyric and narrative (And familiar worlds. The poem, “Chenille,” for example, though a little far south from Kentucky for me).
Gregory Orr: (Very early on for me, but similar qualities). Orr, however, more terse, focused, more economy of language. I wish his star were higher.
Blessed Seamus Heaney a decade later. So very human and approachable (and funny and learned—but that learning so lightly borne) —who sang Yeats’ songs and poems, drinking at a bar down the hill from Emory in a bar in the late 70s. Wonderful, muscular, chewy, near pure Anglo-Saxon diction and rhythms.
And Jack Gilbert. But I must stop.
[TCP] What is your writing process? How do you ensure that writing is done? Do you have a systematic approach, or do you wait until inspiration hits?
[EW] My writing process is not systematic.
I heard that Richard Wilber does not put a word down until he is sure of it. The poem is on the table. He goes about his business, comes back, writes a phrase or a line, goes away, comes back and so on until the poem is done. Wonderful
Early on poems started for me with images—and sometimes comparisons—just something arresting that caught my attention. And scenes, visuals have always been very important to me.
I was attracted the metaphysical poets, John Donne especially, from the moment I first read them—those wonderful, unexpected, decidedly unromantic, thinky similes, metaphors and conceits. And this may be because, as a boy, I read almost nothing but science and non-fiction.
Later, and for a good while now, poems seem to come in lines and phrases sometimes only a word or two which I jot down as I can. My workroom looks like a parade has passed through—scraps of notes like confetti everywhere.
With a given poem, these phrases and images accumulate quite without narratives or logic, but there comes a time when these pieces seem to have a critical mass and then I’m drawn to trying to make something of them.
I read somewhere Dylan Thomas kept voluminous notebooks from his early teens into his 20s and then mined those for poems the rest of his life. And here’s the point, took pleasure in using old pieces in new poems and taking pleasure that no one could see or find the “joins” where they were stitched together.
My process is a bit like that and feels, as it works, like the patterns iron filings make on the paper they showed you in grade school science class when a magnet was passed underneath.
I should mention also “intention”—what one thinks a poem should be when it first presents the bits and pieces of itself. In my mid 20s, I was working hard on a piece about crows. And like a good son of the New Critics, I was sure I knew precisely how the poem should go—structure, symbolism, rhythms and so forth. For days, it went nowhere. Frustration ensued, and more…. Finally, furious, I swore I would write the damn thing, make a damned object, no matter what—i.e., I let go of my idea about what it should be and followed where it went. And the result was far better than what I’d thought I wanted. Since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that—though I’m a bit of a slow learner. An idea is a good way to start, but let it go if the gods give you a word, a rhythm, an image. Edit later.
I’ve noticed, also, that movement seems to stimulate those precursorish bits of poems. Sitting still, maybe, but moving better for me. Satchel Paige has a line about moving, juking around so as to keep things inside you loose and vital (and that’s a very poor paraphrase).
It is miraculous that I have not died in a car crash given the countless times I’ve jotted lines down on the road. Nowadays, I walk and jog at a little downtown health club that has an indoor track in the basement. It’s a rare day that I don’t leave with a pocket full of notes.
[TCP] Who are you reading now? Who would you suggest Town Creek Poetry readers read? We’d love to hear your advice.
[EW] I don’t read nearly as much as I should now, at least if we’re addressing current poetry. Within the last month: Mary Szybist, Birgit Pegeen Kelly, and reading around again in Louise Gluck. And, to acquit myself, this may be a function of age—that is, being more comfortable and confidant about what one is able to say, one doesn’t look so much others as much for ways to say it. But, of course, the downside is that one may miss a trend or new convention that energizes the work, and ways to reach new readers.
As an undergraduate, I had the great good fortune to have a senior seminar with the poet Peter Meinke who had just come south as a new PhD from Minnesota and knew Robert Bly and James Wright. He was au courant. We read a book each of about 30 poets, none older than their 40s at the time, and that gave me a real sense of what was going on around the country.
Not quite to your point, the years I spent in Gainesville at the University of Florida did make me a poet. I was there from late 1968 until 1976—less two years in the army. I took a straight M.A. in literature. But when I returned from the army, I did a deal with Smith Kirkpatrick to be involved with the nascent writing program. No MFA at that time, yet it was remarkable. Harry Crews and Smith were he only writing faculty. But during a year or two, I was in seminars with Richard Eberhart, James Dickey, John Frederick Nims (editor of Poetry [Chicago] at the time), John Ciardi, Stephen Spender, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Dana, and others passing through.
The crew of us writing poetry then (‘74-‘75, some enrolled, some not, some young professors) was probably less than 30, but we were intense. That group was the best experience I’ve ever had. Stephen Corey, the editor of The Georgia Review was a member, as was Lola Haskins, Gary Corsari and Rick Campbell
We met once a week in a building left over from WW2 (Building D) built on the plan of a generic barrack and then relegated to “offices” for teaching assistants. We submitted a poem to the week’s designatee who typed them up, without names, and ran off copies of them.
The graduate library was first rate. All of us were reading the current quarterlies—30 or 40—every month. The weekly mimeographed sheet would have the poems each of us submitted, current quarterly poems, and parodies of our poems and some of those in the magazines—all anonymous. We did not pull punches with our criticism. And at the end of the night, it was great fun if we could fool each other about who wrote what. That, in itself, was a post graduate education, for all of us.
[TCP] What’s the best piece of advice you ever received as a writer—and, if you’re able—who shared that bit of advice with you?
[EW] Going down the hall one day, I saw John Nims and I said to him, “I just wrote a poem.” And he said (he was a lovely combination of sweet and wry), “Wonderful! Now you can get to work.” Meaning revision, the real work.
Opposed to this is William Stafford’s response to a seminar student complaining that a poem a week was too much and how could they possibly produce so much. Stafford said, “Lower your standards.” Great line!
And another thing that John said once, and it was a throwaway line, but I caught it—“Remember, a poem is a performance.” And I need to be very clear here. He and I are not referencing any verbal presentation of poetry—slams in front of a microphone or any other method of presentation. He was speaking of a single writer and a single reader—speaker and a listener.
The effect it had on me was to make me aware, always, that I was speaking to a person. And that awareness is goes a good way toward a vaccination against self-involvement, against the narcissism of talking to yourself. For me, poetry is the speech of one person to another.
And a final thing: It’s worthwhile to remember no one has to read a poem to make it through this life. I ran across a quotation that struck a chord just the other day from Ralph Steadman, the illustrator, commenting on Francis Bacon’s work:
“He always managed to make his pictures an event even if they weren’t. Managed to make pieces, places on the canvas that normally wouldn’t be that interesting—interesting.”
What I try to do in every poem is to make every line interesting—syntax, sound, rhythm, whatever, any small thing, you name it. No one’s arm is twisted. No one is compelled to read what you’ve written, but they will, and again and again, if it surprises and delights.
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