Joy to Sorrow, Sorrow to Celebration: An Interview with David Wojahn
Since winning the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for Icehouse Lights, David Wojahn has published eight collections of poetry. His 2006 book, Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Wojahn’s most recent collection, World Tree, was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize by the Academy of American Poets. Linda Gregerson writes: “World Tree is a book of consummate vision and artistry. Exquisitely cadenced, politically astute, large of heart, and keen of mind, these are poems of extraordinary moral penetration….David Wojahn is working at the height of his powers.” Wojahn teaches poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University and at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA in Writing Program. He spoke with Café Americain over the phone.
Wojahn will visit American University on March 26th for a reading and Q&A.
Café Americain: I’m interested in the way you imbue the public with the personal, or sort of dovetail from one to the other. I’m thinking of the poem “For the Poltergeist,” that moves from a third person depiction of Charles Lindbergh’s biography into a strong first person account of a father in a coma.
David Wojahn: In my case, I grew up in that era—in the 70s and 80s—when there was a kind of “autobiographical bunker” mentality in American poetry. There was a lot of autobiographical writing, and there was a lot of very solipsistic, surrealist-based writing that was also very hermetic and self-oriented. For me, the models I’ve used are not writers who seem to represent those sorts of trends. My models are especially people like Robert Lowell and a lot of European writers (Milosz, for example), who never seem to draw a distinction between a testimony that’s personal and a testimony that implicitly bears witness to larger public events. I’m always interested in those places where some kind of self-exploration becomes an investigation of larger public or historical issues. I’m tired of being myself, but I can’t not be myself in poems. So it becomes a negotiation between these obsessions (which are personal and psychological) and trying to reckon with what is a pretty bewildering culture.
One of the things that’s always been important to me is honoring the literary tradition that came before me, but also honoring movies, music, TV, and American pop culture. Charles Bernstein said that the problem with American poetry is not that it isn’t as interesting as prose, but that it’s not as interesting as television. Or a Google search. In a lot of ways, I feel the task of the poet is to come to terms with all of this informational complexity, while also offering an alternative to it. We’re all multi-taskers, we’re all immensely busy, and the task of poetry, often, is an alternative to that. Poems aren’t meant to be digested as information, they’re meant to be re-read, and looked at again and again for unfolding meanings.
CA: Poetry has lost so much public space to novels, short stories, television, film, and the internet. How do you think the poetry world has handled this?
DW: I just got back from AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference], where there were probably 14,000 people, and 7,000 of them were poets—so it’s not like there are fewer and fewer people writing poetry—there are actually more and more. It’s still a niche market—it’s not that different from Star Trek conventions, or baseball card conventions—but one thing that is really interesting about the way things are now is that there are no readers of poetry anymore. There are only other poets who read poetry, who want to read for mercenary reasons. This isn’t necessarily bad—you read poems so you can see what other people are doing, and so you can do it in your own poems. But a big issue for us now is how to establish an audience for poetry that isn’t necessarily just other poets. There are some good things about that (it makes people very sophisticated readers), but it makes poetry seem like a marginal activity.
CA: How much of that is poetry painting itself into? Modern poetry can often be so obtuse, and doesn’t seem to want to be understood. Your poetry isn’t like that—your poetry seems to want to be understood.
DW: Well, it’s certainly an oxymoron, and it’s certainly a paradox, but in some ways that’s the secret of poetry. There’s a great book by James Longenbach called The Resistance to Poetry, where he tries to answer that perennial question of “Why is there no audience for poetry?” and “Why is poetry so difficult?” It’s difficult because it’s meant to be re-read. You’re not supposed to get a poem the first time, or the second time, or the third time you re-read it. Meanings are supposed to be unfolding for you in manifold ways all the time, every time you read it. What I love about poetry and what I love about reading it over the years is that there are poems I know almost by heart, poems that I could never imagine living without, and yet I could never say that I understand them. I understand them differently every time I read them—or should I say, I misunderstand them every time I read them.
CA: I’m curious about the way you walk a tightrope of sentiment. You charge your poems with these brief, hard-hitting moments of emotion, but you avoid cliché or sentimentality, which I think is something that’s increasingly important because we live in such a snarky time.
DW: Snark gets reflected in a lot of contemporary poetry, where people can be very skilled as ironists, because, again, we live in such a bewildering time, and one way you can work through all the contradictions is to have an ironic attitude. But what that often creates are people writing poems that are oriented towards voice above all, and that voice is one of a wise-ass. I can see the reasons for this, and I can see why this is dominant. But I find that voice a little bit tiring. I grew up reading poets like Barryman, and James Wright, who are poets of delicate, but very strong, emotion. If you’re not willing to risk sentimentality in your poetry, then there seems to be some failing built into the very process of writing. You want to be able to risk saying something that might be a sentimental or cliché, because you also need to find ways to express emotion with urgency. The models that have always spoken to me are those with the upmost sincerity and depth of feeling.
CA: Do you feel that searching for that emotional urgency is your ultimate goal? Or are there other goals that surround that? What is the goal of your poetry?
DW: Oh boy. I think emotional urgency is absolutely one of my primary goals. Taking that emotional urgency and finding a way to link it to larger issues of politics and culture and history is also important. And when we talk about “emotional urgency,” that doesn’t just mean an urgency to talk about trauma—it also means talking about celebration and joy. Something Stanley Kunitz once said about James Wright has always made sense to me: “The mystery of James Wright’s poetry is that when you read one of the poems, every one of its emotions always threatens to immediately turn into its opposite.” Joy into sorrow, sorrow into celebration. I often think about that remark. A lot of poems that confront difficult personal material are also poems that have given me incredible joy to write. And not just a joy that’s cathartic, but a joy that’s trying to put into words—and put into words that are elegantly expressed—something that’s very hard to say.
CA: I’m wondering if you can talk about the sonnets in Mystery Train: the sonnet as a packaging device, taking this subject matter (pop music) and form that seem so disparate and putting them together.
DW: I was in Spain when I wrote those. I had been working on a lot of longer poems, more narrative poems, and I was getting tired of writing like that, so I decided it would be good to write in a more contained style, like the sonnet, for a while. I had this notion that I would be writing poems about going to the Prado, or writing about bullfighting, but as often happens when in a location that’s far from home, you start thinking about home. Rock and roll music is a “home-place” for me, so I started writing those sonnets, and I found that I really liked the form. I’ve done that a lot since then, where I write short poems in sequence, using a lot of juxtaposition or leitmotifs to connect a larger subject. I wouldn’t classify myself as a free-verse poet, or a formal poet—I’m much more interested, when I start writing a poem, in finding the particular form that poem will take.
CA: What are your thoughts on the proliferation of MFA programs, or poetry education in general?
DW: If you go to law school, or medical school, or if you get an MBA, eventually you’re going to be thinking a lot about the ethical and moral implications of your career path. A lot of people go into medicine because they want to heal people, but there are all sorts of moral quandaries you are going to be facing in that career. What do you do when this pharmaceutical company offers you this free cruise, or something like that? People are going to be damaged by it. It might be you, maybe someone else. But no one is going to be damaged by writing a poem, good or bad. I know that poems have supposedly driven people to suicide, or madness, or something—but generally speaking, while poems may not have a completely salutary effect, they don’t do any harm. There are very few vocations these days where you can say you don’t do any, or least don’t do very much, harm. It’s clean. It’s a clean endeavor.
CA: Our recent Visiting Writer, Andrew O’Hagan, spoke of the innate moral quality of good writing. He said poor writing incensed him, not because it was poor, or grating, but because it was unethical. This suggests that there’s some sort of true morality within language, which I find interesting, and I’m wondering if you might react to that.
DW: It makes perfect sense to me. In 1958, [Romanian Jewish poet] Paul Celan gave his famous Bremen speech. He could speak four or five languages—he wrote poems in French, he wrote poems in Romanian. He didn’t have to write poems in German. But he wrote his great poems in German, partly because he wanted to “cleanse the language” after the Third Reich of what he called “death-bringing speech.” There are so many people today who are geniuses at manipulating language for really ugly purposes. You often find them in government, or business, or advertising. In a certain sense, writing poetry, or fiction, or creative non-fiction—these are clean endeavors because they say they want to honor the language rather than manipulate the language towards nefarious ends. One of the reasons why poetry so fascinates me is because it proceeds from that notion. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I write poetry to write again “death-bringing speech,” but there are widely used modes of discourse that poetry tries to speak as an antidote to, even if nobody’s going to listen to it.
Will Byrne (MFA class of ’14) is a staff writer for Café Americain.
Picture by Noelle Watson