An Interview with David Wojahn

Virginia Barrett

David WojahnOn Tuesday, November 11th David Wojahn will visit the campus of the University of San Francisco to give a poetry reading as part of the Lone Mountain Readings. Wojahn's first book of poetry, Icehouse Lights, was chosen by Richard Hugo as winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1981. His most recent book, World Tree, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Indiana Arts Commission. He is a Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and also teaches in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of the Fine Arts.

Switchback: We are all looking forward to your upcoming reading at the University of San Francisco on November 11, as part of the Lone Mountain Reading series. I know you will have an eager and attentive audience. I'm wondering if you could share with us how you go about preparing for a poetry reading. Does it differ drastically depending on the venue? How do you usually go about selecting what poems to read?

David Wojahn: I don’t think a lot about the venue, although I do often tailor a reading to the make-up of the audience—high school kids shouldn’t be subjected to my more allusive and difficult stuff. My main interest in readings, and I think I share this desire with a lot of other poets who go on the road with some frequency, is that I find the right mix of new and older material. I of course want to read poems that have already appeared in my books, but there’s always a danger that the old work, even when I feel relatively satisfied with it, is going to sound a bit rote or anemic because I’ve read it before audiences so often. I try to avoid that problem by varying my selection of older poems from reading to reading. During a reading I’m much more interested in how newer poems go over, ones that haven’t yet appeared in a book. Partly it’s because they feel fresher to me, but also because the experience of reading them before an audience, and hearing the sonics and phrasing as it occurs before a group of listeners, sometimes causes me to revise the poems. I always read my poems aloud to myself during the writing process, but it seems to me that you can’t really hear one of your new poems until you try it out before an audience.

SWB: In the essay “Some Kind of Statement, One Ear Showing: Social Poetry and Its Problems” (1993), you describe a reading you once gave to freshman cadets at West Point. Your selection included the poem “It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It: The Fall of Saigon, 1975.” When the evening ended, the colonel in charge complimented the poem, but admitted that most of the students had probably never even heard of the fall of Saigon. Do you feel the same today about social poetry and its “problems” as you did twenty-one years ago when you wrote the essay?

DW: Sad to say, I worry about these things even more today than I did then. Partly it’s because economic inequality has become even more pronounced and poisonous in our culture than it was twenty years ago; racial injustice is, if anything, worse than it was in that decade, and we’re returning for a third time to bomb parts of the Middle East into oblivion. I think one thing I was bemoaning in the essay you refer to—and the West Point anecdote encapsulates the problem nicely—is that Americans have a deeply inadequate sense of historical and cultural memory, and memory seems sometimes only as long as the latest news cycle. Furthermore, we’re so addicted to the immediate gratifications we get from our phones, from the web, and other means of technology that we seem unable to focus on larger questions of politics and culture, or actions which require painstaking mental labor—things such as reading poems, for example.

SWB: What role do you believe social poetry plays in contemporary American culture?

DW: Well, we’d be kidding ourselves if we said it plays a central role, but poets have a venerable tradition of speaking as adversaries of the status quo and those who abuse power—it’s a tradition that stretches from Jeremiah to Milton in a poem like “On the Late Massacres in Piedmont,” to Blake and Whitman, all the way down to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas for the Difficult World.” I don’t think any of the poets on this list thought that the poetry they wrote would significantly transform the injustice that they were addressing. But someone has to speak eloquently against injustice, if only to subtly change the consciousness of a poem’s reader; it doesn’t matter if that readership is small. It would be wonderful if that readership were a little larger, but that isn’t likely to happen soon.

SWB: You have been described as “one of American poetry’s most thoughtful examiners of culture and memory.” Do you have an exceptionally keen memory, which makes memory so integral to your work, or is it intrinsically tied to your odyssey as a human being, expressing himself through poetry in a specific time and place?

DW: Well, my memory is exceptionally keen about some things, virtually non-existent about others. I don’t have trouble, say, remembering all the lyrics to “Desolation Row.” On the other hand, I lose track of my car keys all the time. I will say that the poets who most inspire me are often those who return obsessively to events in childhood which, however long ago they occurred, still seem to be shaping their adult consciousness—Bishop’s on this list, surely, and so is Wordsworth. And, like a lot of poets who grew up in the Cold War, recollections of childhood are characterized in just about equal measure by the bucolic on the one hand, and dread on the other. I had a highly unremarkable upbringing in a Midwestern suburb, but I also remember very acutely the Cuban Missile Crisis, and helping my parents provision our fallout shelter. When your childhood is shaped by contradictions such as this, it’s no wonder you obsessively return to childhood in your writing—it remains a source of incredible wonder and incredible bafflement.

SWB: The poet Tom Sleigh asserts that your poems “meld the political and personal in a way that is unparalleled by any living American poet.” This is quite a statement to live up to! How are you most often moved to write on a political or social issue?

DW: If you set out simply to write a poem of social criticism or invective, the results are almost invariably going to be mere agitprop. And that problem afflicts much of the work of even some of our greatest poets of invective—Neruda and Brecht come to mind. Finding a way to blend the personal and the social is a complex and tricky imaginative problem—you have to ask yourself what right you have to address an injustice you yourself have probably not experienced; you have to find a form that allows the personal and the political to commingle in a way that seems effortless and serendipitous; you can’t rely on the same old lefty pieties any more than you can rely on the equivalent pieties that make for a poetic period style. But one of the principal functions of poetry is to preserve and protect human dignity, and if you are sufficiently loyal to that function you find a way to navigate through all the pitfalls, both pitfalls of inadequate craft and of fuzzy political thinking.

SWB: What is your source for domestic and world news?

DW: They’re pretty conventional: NPR, MSNBC, The Huffington Post. I live in Richmond, Virginia—the not-quite-former capital of the Confederacy, and I also subscribe to the local newspaper, The Richmond Times-Dispatch. I get a kind of perverse pleasure from being outraged by its reactionary politics.

SWB: In the poem “For the Honorable Wayne LaPierre, President, National Rifle Association,” you invoke the great poet Dante Alighieri (born in 1265) and his Inferno. For the harm and violence you feel LaPierre encourages in our society, you put him in Dante’s “Seventh Circle” in hell—a boiling river of blood. How did the allusion to Dante come up for you in the writing of this particular poem?

DW: It’s interesting that Dante seems again and again to encounter his contemporaries in hell and purgatory—people he knew in Florence, often his political adversaries. It’s an incredibly clever way to get back at the people who he felt wronged by. A few years back, I came across a very smug and self-satisfied interview with LaPierre, given right after the Supreme Court had declared the DC handgun ban unconstitutional. It occurred to me that LaPierre was exactly the sort of reprobate Dante placed in the furthest circles of inferno. In one of the rings of Circle Seven he situates “the violent against their neighbors,” and that label seemed to me to aptly fit people like LaPierre and George Zimmerman. To try to re-describe and contemporize Dante’s punishments while still being faithful to his spirit was an exciting challenge, and I think having to focus on that helped me to avoid making the poem simply a diatribe against the NRA.

SWB: What other poet (of any time period) do you admire for their blending of the political and personal?

DW: Robert Lowell. He doesn’t have the reputation he once had, but I think his desire to be both an intensely personal and self-searching poet as well as a public conscience for his time is unparalleled in American poetry.

SWB: Regarding the personal matters of poets, do you have a particular routine (or ritual might be a better word) that you follow on a regular basis to help encourage your writing?

DW: I regret to say it, but I’m pretty much a binge writer. I can go through long fallow periods, and then suddenly write furiously for a few weeks, after which the mojo is gone. But even when I’m not “formally” writing I’m filling notebooks with lines and long lists of subjects for poems. I’m lucky, insofar as the times when I can’t write poems are usually ones when I can write essays or reviews.

SWB: Has this method changed drastically from when you were a younger poet?

DW: Well, like a lot of younger poets, I was immensely serious about the writing life and “professionalizing” myself when I was in my ‘20s and ‘30s. It’s good to be serious about your chosen discipline, but for a couple of decades I was so serious and driven about what I was doing that writing had certain rewards, but pleasure wasn’t one of them. I had to get to my late forties before I realized that writing was also giving me immense pleasure, that the act of shaping words on a page, and especially of revising a poem, were their own rewards. Writing is for the most part a joy to me now. I can’t say this was true in my younger days.

SWB: Speaking of a “younger poet," do you remember what you were doing when you heard that your book Icehouse Lights had been chosen for the Yale Series of Younger poets award in 1981? How did the award affect you or your poems from that moment forward?

DW: I sure do. I was broke and jobless and had just moved back in with my parents. I had no prospects and my only possessions were my books, my records, and a 1969 Nova. I was beginning to suspect that my parents were right in believing that my desire to be a poet was a pompous fantasy. But having Richard Hugo, whose work I deeply admired, call me to say he’d taken my book, was one of the great thrills of my life. And having that recognition helped me to see that I really could have a poetic career. It was an incredible gift.

SWB: Included in Icehouse Lights is “Elegy for James Wright,” a piece I relate to strongly, having been swept away by Wright’s poem “A Blessing” when I first read it. You so reverently weave the illuminating image and quest for the “Indian ponies” throughout your elegy—what other poets besides Wright helped shape the young David Wojahn, and why?

DW: I’ve already mentioned Lowell, but Berryman was also a crucial person for me, though you can’t really imitate Berryman; his style’s too eccentric. My teachers Jon Anderson and Steve Orlen were great inspirations and critics of my work. I also owe a lot to Alan Dugan, who had a reputation for being pretty gruff and mean-spirited. But he was immensely kind and encouraging to me. Also, I early on discovered modern European and Latin American poets—Vallejo, Pavese, Cavafy, Transtromer, and Milosz, and I continue to draw a lot of inspiration from them.

SWB: Icehouse Lights is dedicated to your mother and father. Your most recent book of poems, World Tree (University of Pittsburg Press, 2011) is dedicated to your wife Noelle Watson, and your twin sons, Luke and Jake. How has moving out of the realm of “son” and into that of “father,” changed your perspective as a poet?

DW: You bet. Parenthood is a hell of a mystery, and to be raising children in your fifties and sixties, as my wife and I are doing, makes the process even more mysterious, not to say exhausting. Yes, you have to struggle to carve out time to write, but your children, if you’re lucky enough to have them, and your life partner, if you’re lucky enough to have one, become the de facto addressees of all your poems. That changes the process immeasurably.

SWB: Do you read poetry to your sons? And if so, what poets do they most enjoy?

DW: Right now, since Halloween is coming up, we’re reading Jarrell’s The Bat Poet together aloud.

SWB: In your notes for the title poem of World Tree, you quote a passage by Mircea Eliade, author of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. What does Eliade’s statement “Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom” mean to you, and to your personal sense of the spiritual?

DW: Perfect spiritual freedom insofar as in the writing of a poem you commune with language in a way unlike any other, and you can create from that communing an object completely different from any other object in the world. It’s not your object, of course; it belongs more to language than it does to you. But in paying homage to language in that way you are also paying homage to the spiritual.

SWB: My final question brings us back to the place of your upcoming reading. The vision of the University of San Francisco is printed in the MFA in Writing Program student handbook. It states [USF] “will be recognized as a premier Jesuit Catholic, urban University with a global perspective that educates leaders who will fashion a more humane and just world.” As a teacher, will you leave us with your own insights on how the teaching of poetry writing at the graduate level could best educate and instruct leaders on how to form a more humane and just world?

DW: Poetry is at worst a completely benign act, at best a sacerdotal one. No one is ever hurt or damaged by writing a poem, although there’s a chance you might be damaged irreparably by going to law school or getting an MBA or joining the NSA. Poetry has little material value in the world, but in a world that constantly tries to turn us from individuals into demographics, poetry’s insistence on the importance of our private, inner lives is crucial. Most people who study poetry seriously, whether they’re graduate students or people trying to undertake that process alone, know (whether consciously or unconsciously) of the capacity that poetry has for speaking urgently to our inner selves. All you need to do to be a teacher of poetry is to, from time to time, remind your students of that knowledge, that unique capability that poetry possesses.