David Wojahn is the author of seven collections of poetry: Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004 (2006), Spirit Cabinet (2002), The Falling Hour (1997), Late Empire (1994), Mystery Train (1990), and Glassworks (1987, winner of the Society of Midland Authors Award), all from the University of Pittsburgh; and Icehouse Lights (1982, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award). He is also the author of Strange Good Fortune (University of Arkansas, 2001), a collection of essays on contemporary verse. Wojahn has received numerous awards and honors, as well as fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, among others. He is professor of English and director of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"How Do You Bottle the Lightning?"
Anna Journey sits down with David Wojahn
David Wojahn and Anna Journey conducted the following interview in Wojahn’s West End home in Richmond, Virginia, during July of 2008. As their conversation attests, Wojahn is equally at home wise-cracking about A.D.D. or a young poet’s well-meaning urge to get “Jack Gilberty” as he is pondering how Lowell contemporizes the Miltonic line—a dexterity that nourishes both the wild range of his poetic imagination and his quirky formal innovations. Yusef Komunyakaa observes how Wojahn “propels us through an inner sanctum of angels and rock music, soothsayers and popular history, and philosophers and post-modern mystery.”
Anna Journey: Throughout your writing, you often use musical figures as vehicles for poetry, from John Lennon to Blind Willie Johnson. In these poems music becomes a window to popular culture. How have you seen this approach evolve from the rock ’n’ roll sonnets in Mystery Train to your more recent poetry selected in Interrogation Palace?
David Wojahn: I’m interested in trying to see the ways in which popular culture and high culture intersect. When that mixture occurs in the right way your canvas gets larger; you can say more about history, about social culture and politics. In some respects that’s always been one of my goals, though at first this was an intuitive process rather than a conscious one. Like a lot of people who grew up in the sixties and seventies, I discovered literature largely through popular music. You’d read Dylan’s liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited and get interested in reading Nietzsche; Dylan was always name-checking Rimbaud, so you’d go and read the Varese translation of A Season in Hell.
I’ve become temperamentally unable to distinguish between high and low culture. This isn’t always a good thing; I sometimes wish my head were filled with long passages of George Herbert or Henry Vaughan instead of all those Richard Thompson and Dylan lyrics, brilliant as they are. There’s a lot of space in my mental hard drive that’s devoted to the lyrics of crappy A.M. radio rock songs from the sixties and seventies, and there’s no way of knowing whether this will come in handy when you’re composing a poem. I think I’m typical of “poets of a certain age”: you get to a point in your career where the novelty of wanting to say something new has worn off; but you can delight in the bric-a-brac you’ve got stored in memory; you can riff on it, plagiarize it, or in one way or another distort it for your own purposes. Popular music is a great resource in that respect; in a very real and literal sense, it evolves in much the same way.
AJ: One method that helps you orchestrate oppositions of high and low culture is juxtaposition. In “Dithyramb and Lamentation,” for example, we encounter a hundred-year-old photo of a beheading in China in one section, an American couple waiting in an E.R. with their sick child in another, and a gravely Dantescan depiction of George W. Bush in Hell, among other surprising associations. How does juxtaposition continue to open up possibilities in your poetry?
DW: When I was writing my second and third books—this was back in the nineteen eighties—there was a brief interest in what came to be called neo-narrative poetry. There was a small but noisy group who thought poetry needed to take back some of the momentum that it had lost to fiction, that you were supposed to tell versified stories, and that you should aim for a rather strict sort of linearity. From today’s perspective, a lot of those neo-narrative poems are stultifying—not all of them—but I started to think of myself as having a largely narrative disposition; it was in the zeitgeist. Yet the problem with narrative—and it’s one of the reasons why I was never able to write anything but the most embarrassing fiction—is that you have to make so many willful connections, and in such a rigid progression. I get bored with characters walking up to an elevator, then pushing the elevator button, then opening the elevator doors. I grow impatient with that desire to create an uninterrupted fictive dream, to seem as though you’re telling a “real life story” in real time. Around 1987, when I started writing Mystery Train, I felt that I’d done almost all I could with narrative; my method became more juxtapositional. Bringing order out of chaos is all well and good, but sometimes it’s a worthier goal to simply make the chaos interesting. Oddly enough—though it sounds paradoxical—one of the reasons why I frequently work in received forms like the sonnet, is that they’re emblematic of that goal. How do you bottle the lightning, fuse chaos with something that is very vigorously controlled?
Juxtaposition does a better job of replicating real life, and it better reflects the way I think (though maybe that’s just a way of saying I have A.D.D. or some processing disorder). My mental landscape contains passages of Yeats, but it also contains the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. Why not honor, in some respect, all the material that’s in there? Yeats is of course much more edifying than the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island,” but they’re both stored somewhere in my synapses. I used to think that poems were journeys, but you don’t have to apply temporal metaphors to every poem. Spatial metaphors often work just as well: you can cover your gallery wall with all sorts of images; Ritsos calls poems “meeting places” and the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike images can make for some very fortuitous meetings.
AJ: Your poetic sensibility appears consistently elegiac. Is your approach to elegy complicated by your commitment to social and political realms of experience?
DW: I suppose I am an elegiac poet. You don’t necessarily choose your poetic sensibility, it’s more likely that it will choose you. Your subjects can be quite various, but your obsessions tend not to be; in fact, they’re apt to be severely limited. I lost my parents at a fairly early age; I lost my first wife, the poet Lynda Hull, not long after my parents’ deaths. These losses don’t by any means make me unique. But they occurred within a particularly short time, in my early middle age, when I felt like I was finally coming into my own as a poet. How could I not write about those things, and how could those things not be of paramount importance to me? If I had chosen not to confront them, then things would have been much, much worse. Bear in mind that the elegiac impulse is less about mourning and keening than it is an effort to preserve some memory of those you have loved. At any rate, I guess I’ve remained faithful to my “elegiac roots,” though in recent years I’ve also worked hard to make my palate less dark. We shouldn’t confuse the dignity of elegy with the mere dyspepsia that afflicts so many poets. You remember Larkin’s little zinger—“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”—and you might recall that he also said, “Happiness writes white.” I love Larkin, and I love Alan Dugan, who was in some ways America’s Larkin, but you can’t get much nourishment from their work. If your temperament tends to be saturnine, and if (like better than half of the poets I know), you’re fighting clinical depression with meds or therapy, it’s no easy task to write a celebratory poem, but you’d be reckless to avoid the challenge.
AJ: Recently, you edited your late wife Lynda Hull’s Collected Poems, chosen by Mark Doty as the inaugural book in Graywolf’s Poetry Re/View series. Certainly Hull’s work was influenced by your guidance and teaching, but I wonder in what ways you feel her poetry ever affected your writing?
DW: Her writing affected me in innumerable ways. It was humbling to see just how hard she worked on her poems—harder than I ever could on my own. And she worked especially hard on getting the music and the syntax right, on matters of phrasing and diction, on making vernacular and lyric language come into balance. She steeped herself in the Romantics, especially Keats and Shelley, and she knew Hart Crane almost by heart. I’m still in awe of that acuity, and of how she used it to do honor to a broken world, post-apocalyptic, filled with ruins and ruined lives. And she gave such dignity to that landscape and those lives. She really did have an incredible lyric gift, one that no other poet of my generation possessed. A lot of aspects of Lynda’s life were pretty messy, but as a poet she was as disciplined as they come and she set a standard that I will never be able to meet, much as I would like to. Other poets have always respected her work, but, as more than one editor told me when I tried to pitch her Collected, dead poets don’t sell many books—they don’t go on reading tours; they don’t do book signings. Her first two books won important prizes, and The Only World was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award—but by the time the book was nominated for the award it was already out of print. Her collections remained out of print for years, but they still found readers—sellers on Amazon were asking staggering prices for them. Mark and Lynda were very close, and it’s a testament to his belief in Lynda’s work that he inaugurated the Graywolf series with her book, and the press has a commitment to keep its offerings in print. So now the poems have found a whole new generation of readers, and they’ll continue finding more readers as the years go on. You know, there’s no small degree of charlatanism in contemporary poetry, a lot of facile and merely clever writing that would have outraged Lynda. The facile and the trivial were anathema to her. Far be it from me to define authenticity, but Lynda had it, and that quality alone will keep drawing readers to her work.
AJ: Could you talk more about the problems you see with the current fashions and trends in contemporary poetry?
DW: Earlier this summer a friend of mine asked me to participate in an AWP panel that would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Some terrific people had agreed to be on it and we all thought the panel proposal was a shoe-in. Life Studies has been an absolutely essential book for generations of American poets. But—go figure—AWP rejected it. We’re in a somewhat preposterous situation right now. It’s not simply that readers don’t know the tradition, they don’t even know recent literary history. There are a lot of pretty articulate and well-read people who are clueless about the crucial poets of the middle generation. They draw a blank when you mention Oppen or Rukeyser or Roethke, or even Berryman, Lowell, and Bishop. Admittedly, those writers aren’t easy models—they’re militantly self-confronting, sometimes self-lacerating, sometimes self-humbling. The approach to the self that Lowell championed and pioneered in the late ’50s changed the whole game for two or three generations of American poets. He wasn’t the only one to do this at the time; poets as diverse as Ginsberg, Snodgrass and Penn Warren were doing similar things. But Lowell cast the longest shadow; he made possible a new sort of autobiographical urgency, as well as the deep emotional subjectivity that you see in, say, Merwin’s The Lice or James Wright in his best poems. The interior journey is immensely important for these poets, they want to circumnavigate the self.
Sadly, I think that in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere—can in fact be an essential goal of poetry—seems to a lot of people a little passé. I find it maddening when students in graduate workshops write obscurely not for any abiding aesthetic reason, but for mere self-protection. The workshop never gets beyond the rather pointless exercise of trying to figure out the poem’s dramatic situation, and when you finally ask the poet to say something about her work, the answer goes something like, “Well, I didn’t want to tell it like it actually happened because that would seem too ‘confessional.’” And so “confessional” has become an unjustly pejorative word like “liberal” or “community organizer,” so vastly out of fashion that it seems like it’s never going to rise again.
Tony Hoagland has a withering label for the way we’ve almost all started to write—he calls it “the skittery poem of our moment.” Don’t get me wrong: I find some of the Language writers very compelling. Rae Armantrout’s new collection is brilliant, and says a lot of wise and frightening things both about selfhood and culture that couldn’t be stated in any other fashion. Nevertheless, I think the current period style has replaced self-confrontation with slipperiness, with various strands of irony. We now have as many gradations of irony as the Inuit have words for snow, and I’m tired of irony being our lingua franca. We’ve become brilliant at cannibalizing the trappings of contemporary culture, but I sometimes worry that it’s all a form of solipsism that blinders us to the workings of the world. I know a lot of the Language poets really talk up Marx and in an oblique way they want to emphasize the social responsibilities of the poet, but I’ve had it with Skitter-ism.
AJ: Do you think those writers are afraid of social and political subjects?
DW: I don’t think they’re afraid of the social and the political. I just think that the ways in which the social and political are evoked are facile and theoretical rather than urgent. Far be it from me to define urgency, but I know it when I see it.
AJ: Who are some contemporary poets that you admire?
DW: Let’s see: the short list in my own generation would include Mark Doty, William Olsen, Tom Sleigh, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Yusef Komunyakaa, David Rivard, Claudia Emerson. And, although I don’t write at all like them, I’m entranced by the writing of Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Mark Halliday, August Kleinzahler, C. D. Wright, Jorie Graham—we were all born between the late forties and mid-fifties, and it’s a poetic generation of great accomplishment and aesthetic variety. I admire a lot of younger poets, too: Kevin Young’s work means a lot to me, Major Jackson’s does, too. I find Beth Ann Fennelly’s poetry wonderfully complex and inventive. I try to read younger poets as well as older poets, and I try to follow the careers, too, of the people born in that generation in the twenties whose work I grew up on. They still seem like gods to me and I can’t believe they’re elderly. W. S. Merwin looks like the aged Frost now, but the mental image I have of him comes from those early Poulin anthologies—where he looks like a twenty-year-old. When I think of Adrienne Rich or Philip Levine, I see them as they looked in author photos from seventies-era APRs—where they look like they’ve just stepped off a street in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. I find it almost impossible for me to think of those people as the Grand Old Men and Women of American Poetry. What continues to astonish me about contemporary poetry—despite all this pissing and moaning I’ve done here—is that we’re right now in the presence of four or five generations of significant American poets, and each of those generations seems to possess its own particular aesthetic signature. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
AJ: Also, going back to the middle generation, Berryman is an important poet for your writing.
DW: Berryman, surely. But also figures from the Lowell generation whose names I’d already mentioned—Berryman, Jarrell, Bishop, Rukeyser, Oppen, Roethke—they’re very, very significant to me and continue to be inspirations. I’ve just been finishing Oppen’s Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Granted, he was considerably different from Berryman, who was something of an Id Monster. In some respects, Berryman is interesting simply because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. By the time of The Dream Songs it was impossible for him to write with any sense of propriety or discretion. There’s an element of sheer nihilistic anarchism that’s desperate and beautiful in his work, completely inventive, and sometimes hysterically funny. I always go back to his work for that. But on the other hand I love Oppen, too—who unfortunately was completely humorless. Yet there’s a sense of the moral authority in his poetry that no other poet of that generation except for Lowell possessed. And that authority is in some ways even more present in the Daybooks.
When I look back on Oppen’s generation and back at the generation born in the twenties—the Levine, Rich, Merwin group—the integrity of their ambition always humbles me; they saw the mission of poetry as something far different from the way we see it. They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave. I also admire how grounded they were in the entire tradition. When I see Lowell in Near the Ocean laboring so mightily to find a way to modernize and contemporize the line of Milton and the line of Marvell, I never fail to be astonished. And who in our century has such lofty goals? We lack them in no small measure because of an imperfect and very limited reading knowledge—but I suffer from that same shortcoming.
AJ: How has becoming a father changed your writing? I notice several new poems from Interrogation Palace often meditate on your children, such as “Board Book & the Costume of a Whooping Crane” and “Dithyramb and Lamentation,” for example.
DW: Yeah, well, you know [laughs], it’s different. It’s different in part because suddenly your priorities change radically. Young poets can often get all “Jack Gilberty” about their agendas. You know: “How am I going to find a way to give up everything for poetry? How am I going to find a way to live on twenty-five dollars a week on my island and just write verse, however good it is?”
AJ: I need one of those islands!
DW: You’d get tired of it after a while, though—no cable or internet access, for one thing. There’s a part of us all that’s in awe of Gilbert, but his sensibility is austere and limited and, in some ways, beautifully inhumane. I’ve learned enormous things about myself from being a parent. The tradeoff is that you don’t get to write as much, but that’s okay. Furthermore, if you’re raising small children in your fifties in the way that Noelle and I are, the physical demands of it ain’t easy. One of the most important things that parenthood has done is to make me highly aware of how time is running out for all of us, and of how much I want more of it. In a peculiar sense, you become deeply aware of your mortality, but as soon as you do, you get far more appreciative of the delights, the utter delights, of daily living; it’s amazing how kids can point you to those things; you learn the lessons voluntarily, sometimes you learn them involuntarily. I’d like to get to the point of no longer being self-importantly concerned about my “legacy” as a poet; I’m just hoping to live long enough and to be a decent enough father to give my children something by way of a legacy. That’s an entirely different thing from wanting to write a poem that’s as good as your last good poem.