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A Conversation with Robert Wrigley

  

What we Take from What it Says: A Conversation with Robert Wrigley

Robert Wrigley has published seven books of poetry: Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems, Lives of the Animals, winner of the Poets Prize, Reign of Snakes, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, In The Bank of Beautiful Sins, winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award and Finalist for the Lenore Marshall Award, What My Father Believed, Moon in a Mason Jar, and The Sinking of Clay City.  Mr. Wrigley received his MFA from the University of Montana in 1976 and currently teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Idaho.  He lives with his wife, non-fiction writer and novelist Kim Barnes, in the woods near Moscow, Idaho.  His eighth collection of poetry, Beautiful Country, is forthcoming with Penguin Books, Fall 2010.  This interview took place in November 2009.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your first book, The Sinking of Clay City, revolves around the disabling affects of deindustrialization on your hometown of Collinsville, IL, a small mining town fifteen miles east of St. Louis.  Six collections of poetry and thirty years later you are one of America's most prolific poets, if not its best.  While your work has dramatically improved over that time, your poems still emanate from a seemingly insatiable desire for story and from your love of the natural world and its makings.  Being the first male in your family not to earn his living in the coal mines and to graduate college, you haven't forgotten where you come from.  How have you done it?

Robert Wrigley:  If you don't love stories, then what takes the place of that desire?  We live by stories; they are the bedrock of articulate human existence.  It's not possible to imagine a world in which there are no stories.  The problem comes in the telling, of course.  In my family, stories were a kind of spendable currency, and everyone told them.  I suppose if one were determined to forget where he came from, that would require a kind of militant denial of one's own past, and while such a denial might be affected, it's really a species of pathology.  

The fact is, everything about existence offers up to us story after story.  Many are incomplete, or false, or unfathomably complex, but that's just part of what it means to be alive.  We hear stories, we tell stories.  The primary function of language seems to me to be the telling of stories or participating in the creation of story.  And the natural world is itself a kind of relentless, ongoing story.  There's a story in the way the deer regarded me this morning on my walk.  There's a story in the elaborate web of the spider web I noticed yesterday on the patio table, in the way the clouds moved by last week.  Stories are everywhere.  If there's something I haven't forgotten, it's just the absolute necessity-and joy-of being receptive to the stories existence offers. 

AMK: Beautiful Country is a book that examines the United States through the lenses of war (past and present), politics, and its many natural and social landscapes.  It's an interesting convergence of the Wrigley we've known for some time with the nature poems and a Wrigley we don't know quite as well: the CO, the politico, the personae poet.  It's also the first book you've authored sense your Selected Works, which I can only imagine compounds the already difficult task of writing a book of poems.  Tell us about this book and the process of putting it together. 

RW:  A selected poems is indeed a kind of milestone in a poet's writing life.  You collect what you believe to be the best, most representative work you have done.  Afterward there's a kind of what next? moment.  I wasn't interested in reinventing the wheel, so to speak; it would have made no sense to abandon what tools I'd accumulated in three decades of writing, and yet I had the sense, in 2005, when I delivered the manuscript of Earthly Meditations to the publisher, that I wanted to do, for lack of a better word for it, more.  Beautiful Country was conceived, you might say, in Italy, in 2007.  My wife and I were at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, surrounded by amazing and brilliant people from every other continent on the earth, and the sense one got, as an American there, was that our nation, in the minds of people from other lands, had gone insane.  As indeed it seemed to have.  We'd started a pre-emptive war against a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, on obviously trumped-up, falsified "intelligence."  And the language that swirled around that war, from "smoking gun," to "mission accomplished" to "stuff happens," was the worst sort of doublespeak. 

Pained, even outraged, as I was, I wasn't interested in writing a book of editorials.  I wasn't inclined to write propaganda, no matter if it were righteously slanted.  What I aimed to do was to write a book of poems that offered up my country, the nation I knew and loved, despite its short-comings.  That meant the woods and the wilderness; that meant this rural, sometimes backward but still amazing state I live in; that meant the people I love; and it meant, in some way, history, including that history I'd been a part of in the last nearly sixty years.  I don't expect it to make anything happen, but I mean for it to be an accurate portrait. 

AMK: Your first four books are almost exclusively narrative.  Then In the Bank of Beautiful Sins appears (the first book you published with Penguin), which opens, "sun-baked all day, the south-facing cliffs / breathe fire." ("Aubade") and ends with

the soul's blind abandon.

...

ubiquitous for the bees and their droning, yeomen imperatives:

the seasons, the sun, this great, odd, and unfathomable drive

toward the dark. ("Poetry") 

Since then, we have Reign of Snakes, which almost reads like a book-length poem- intensely narrative but still based in story- and Lives of the Animals in which, as Phillip Levine puts it on the back cover, you "become someone else, someone who has wandered into a ferocious cave of the natural world and suddenly sees his life, and ours as well, in bold and undreamed of colors." 

In a review of your Selected Poems, Charlotte Pence calls you a "welder of lyrical and narrative impulses" but this is a style you've developed along the way.  How have you so successfully fashioned this shift in your work? 

RW:  There are two reasons, it seems to me, to admire, or even to love, a poem.  There's that pleasure or reward or surprise we take from what it says; and there's that wonderful knocked-out feeling you get at seeing how someone has said what he says.  There are a lot of poems out there that don't really have very much to say, at least in terms of cultural, political, intellectual, or emotional news, but they're so fabulously well-made, so inventive, so dazzlingly musical, that we love them nevertheless.  Then there are poems that simply say something of enormous importance about what it means to be a human being at a particular time in history.  Of course, the best poems possess both-or all-of these qualities.  That's always what I'm after.  When I've done the best I can, I feel like I've approached that condition.  In truth, I don't know if I've ever managed it, and frankly I hope I never assume that I have managed it.  Better to consider your failures.  You've got plenty.  I love the music of the lyric and the power of the story, and I try to wield both, in nearly every poem.  You know it when you read it: call it a particular kind of poetic eloquence, when what is said is said in such a way that one understands it simply could not have been said any other way.  I don't know, but it seems to me, if you're not after that as a poet, you might want to consider another line of work.

AMK: Beautiful Country continues your tradition of mining the natural world for its glory in poems like "County," "Hail Storm in the Mountains," and "Letting Go."  ButBeautiful Country also ventures into new territory in pieces like "Exxon" and the title poem that look at the current political, social, and economic status of the United States and its people.  You've always been a conscientious, politically-aware poet, but the poems we've seen before about Viet Nam or social/economic imbalances in America typically allude to these issues rather than address them directly- I'm thinking of older poems like "CO," "Peace," "The Overcoat" and "Economics."  What's changed? 

RW:  I'm older, I guess.  I've written a lot more.  I've experimented and tried to push myself in new directions, without abandoning what I've learned.  There are poems I simply could not write at 25 or 35 or probably even 50.  I didn't have the right tools.  I was too worried about making mistakes.  Last week, in a graduate techniques class, I taught C.K. Williams, and one of the students pronounced, with a kind of awe in her voice, that Williams, quite simply, had to have "a lot of balls" to write about the things he wrote about, and that's absolutely true.  Sometimes it seems to me the lack of nerve is perhaps the deadliest affliction a poet can suffer, whether it's dismissing narrative or fretting about the hegemony of power over language or simply finding something so central to the art as a love poem as inherently sappy.  Only if you don't have the nerve to do it well, to give it all the skill and sweat it deserves, to find the best words and the best order, in so far as you are capable.  In a way, nothing's changed except my perspective and, I hope, my abilities.  But I have also come to believe that there isn't anything that can't be said, challenged, observed, or corrected by a poem.

AMK:  In 1971 you were drafted into the army and were discharged as a Conscientious Objector that same year.  You've written about this experience in the past, particularly in your third book, What My Father Believed, but this is the first book to take us into the army barracks where you received medic training before being granted CO-ship.  In "Miss June," for example, we witness an encounter between yourself and a superior who takes offense to the peace sign you've chiseled in your dog tags "tapping with the heel / of a combat boot on the butt-end of a pocket knife."  Likewise, the title poem tells the story of drug use among soldiers, six of your fellow trainees "lotused around / ...several resinous pounds of pot / ... / back from a day at ‘Special Training Detachment.'" 

Tell about your experience as a CO.

RW:  I got my draft notice on my twentieth birthday.  I reported for induction two weeks later.  I was already classified 1A-O, so I was a conscientious objector when I went in, which supposedly meant that I was available for noncombatant duty only.  But it turned out to mean that I would be a medic, a combat medic, in fact, and upon my graduation from medical training, I received orders for Vietnam.  I then filed for discharge on the grounds of what you might call full-blown conscientious objection and was placed in a holding company of other such applicants, along with 212s-who were men "unfit for military service"-gays, crazies, and a few men you might just want to think of as thugs, one or two with such an intolerance for authority that they'd cold-cocked drill sergeants and spit on first lieutenants.  We made up an interesting tribe of folks.  The first time I ever heard someone declaim poetry was in a barracks at Ft Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas.  He read Edwin Muir's "The Horses," and I was blown away. 

Like every other CO applicant, I had to write an application for discharge and mine was crap.  I pleaded a particular kind of Jesus-freakishness and devotion to nonviolence that I did not believe then and still don't.  But I was twenty and scared shitless, so I did the best I could.  By 1971 I knew-everybody knew who was honest enough to admit it knew-that the war was a disaster, that many thousands of young Americans and countless Vietnamese had died, and for what?  The Domino Principle?  My application was approved by most of the chain of command but disapproved by a couple of especially noxiously legalistic and gung-ho officers-a chaplain and a battalion commander.  I retained a wonderful lawyer by the name of Maury Maverick (a Texas legend; his family gave us the name for stray calf: if it didn't have a brand, it was a maverick).  Maverick was a World War II veteran and a man of the highest ethical principles.  He lectured me about the difference between WWII and Vietnam, but he hated what the country was doing in those days.  He died a few years ago.  A wonderful man.  Ultimately, I got out, got an honorable discharge. 

I've lost touch with all my old army comrades.  They were readers and they were patriots too.  Those days, we spent a lot of time stoned.  A lot of people did.  There was much to want to escape.  

AMK: Why not flee to Canada or go the college/VISTA route?

RW:   Canada was always a possibility and one I might have taken up, if it had come to that.  I don't think I knew anything about VISTA or the Peace Corps.  I was a kid from a coal-mining town, my dad was a decorated WWII Navy veteran and a civilian employee of the Air Force who for a long time would not and could not believe the nation would do anything dishonorable.  In point of fact, I didn't know shit, except for two very important things: that the war was a crime, and if I were to die for my country, it would have to be for something right, which was not what we were doing in Vietnam. 

AMK: Why wait until now to write more directly about this experience?

RW:  I didn't actually want to.  I thought I'd covered that terrain in What My Father Believed.  But when the National Guard was called up and sent to Iraq, and soldiers were sent there for tour after tour, the old sense of those days of my youth returned to me.  The soldiers who went to Iraq were volunteers, not draftees, but I don't care: you do not treat, no country should ever treat, its soldiers so shabbily.  And the fact that many of those volunteers came from America's lower classes and saw the service as their way into a better, more enfranchised American life, was appalling.  This past summer I was reading at the Centrum Writers Conference, and in her introduction of me, Cristina Garcia, the artistic director there, quoted from "Exxon," which she'd seen in The New Yorker the previous November.  She described the poem as inspired by rage, and though I'd never actually thought of it that way, it was true.  And the fact is, in all probability, if I'd never experienced what I'd experienced in the early seventies, I would still have been enraged about the war in Iraq, but I would not have been able to write that poem. 

AMK: You've always been a great lover of transformative language, using metaphor, simile, and imagination to reinvent that which we encounter in your poems.  In "Collection" (Moon in a Mason Jar), your three sons become "pilgrims / in the door of a holy mosque" as they sift through a collection of fossils.  In "Movies" (Reign of Snakes) the kidney stone is "rough as a barnacle chiseled off a pier."  And in "What is Yellow About the Yellow Pine?" (Beautiful Country), the horizon becomes "the shining rim / ...where we lay our individual darknesses down..."  The result, at least for me, is a greater desire to see the world around me, not only for that which I've not yet encountered but, more so, for those everyday things I take for granted.  Do you feel this is an important role of the poet, to remind us everyday's magnificence?

RW:  That's the poet's job, to be first of all available to the world and then to be hyper-sensitized to the possibility of transforming the world's-and the earth's-ordinary and daily miraculousness into language.  You can do almost anything with language, if you work hard enough at it.  I tend not to think that words ever fail me; I fail them repeatedly, but the raw material is there, waiting.  The necessity, for me, is finding a way to capture experience or imagined experience in such a way that becomes deliciously real.  That means getting more from every syllable more than you think that you can.  It's hard work, but that hard work is what addicts you to writing.  Do better, be better, write better.  Always. 

AMK: Your poems often take on an air of narrative improbability- that which takes place often seeming unlikely to be true.  In "Explanatory" (Lives of the Animals), for example, you survive a severe fall after climbing into an owl's nest in the high reaches of a hackberry.  Likewise, in "Mummy of a Mouse" (Lives of the Animals) you observe the "blinding cosmos" by "peering into the gut's open gash" of a mouse carcass, in effect taking on the dead rodent's point-of-view. 

I don't think everything that happens in a poem has to be true, but there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a reader of Robert Wrigley has to adopt at times.  This is an element we see more often in fiction or at the movies.  It's just not something poets do, and the more I think about it, the more I think this is rather unfortunate.  Suspension of disbelief is one of the major aspects of escapism in our culture.  It's that moment in The Fugitive when Harrison Ford leaps from the edge of the dam and survives.  It's the "big fish" story we just love to hear.  But it's also that moment when the reader decides to either go with a story or to abandon it- a big risk but a risk worth taking, for the writer and for the reader.  In your work, I'd argue, it's one of its greatest defining characteristics; an element you should be remembered for.  Even if everything that happens in your poems has, in fact, happened, you must be aware you're taking this risk. 

RW:  You didn't mention "Horseflies," in which a cloud of billions of flies arises from the carcass of a horse, "exactly in the shape of the horse itself," and which a boy, the main character of the poem, rides.  What, you really believed that one?  Look, poetry is full of ghosts and miracles and beyond-real, surreal, other-worldly happenings.  Nothing's impossible. 

I have to say that if this tendency came from anywhere, it came to me from James Dickey.  For better or worse, Dickey was the first poet who made the top of my head come off.  I came to know him a little in his last decade, and I wish he had not been so in thrall to alcohol and his own persona.  Used to be everybody had a story about how boorish and obnoxious Dickey could be, and that's a terrible shame.  I could tell a couple such stories too, but I won't.  I refuse.  There are plenty of them already.  

He was for a period of a decade or so, to my mind, the finest poet in this country, and it seems to me that his some of his poems approach and perhaps even attain the level of the masterpiece.  He would let a poem go anywhere: a poem spoken by a half-human/half-sheep from a bottle of formaldehyde in a museum in Atlanta ("The Sheep-Child"); a poem in which an owl speaks ("The Owl King"); and many others in which something ordinary becomes, via his relentless anapestic rhythms and fearless vision, something entirely possible and astounding.  There's no redeeming Dickey's reputation as an individual.  It will take time and a generous forgetfulness.  But his poems must be read.  There are some spectacular failures too, but even those can sometimes amaze. 

And finally, if you think about it, those kinds of miraculous, even unbelievable, matters are the province of poetry, from Poe to Coleridge, from Yeats' "Crazy Jane" poems to Frank Bidart's "Herbert White."  Tell me there's somewhere a poet cannot go, and I will insist some poet ought to. 

AMK: You are a master of the long, complex sentence organized into compact, highly-organized, powerful lines.  "Horseflies" (Lives of the Animals), for example, is one sentence of 48 lines.  Beautiful Country opens:

                        At the lower fence line under the stars

                        he hears what at first he takes

                        to be the neighbor's mare

                        come to investigate his apple pocket,

 

                        but then gets that neck-chill

                        and knows otherwise and turns

                        to see by starlight alone a dust devil

                        spitting along perpendicular to the wire

 

                        and straight at him.  ("Responsibility") 

How do you keep such long, slowly-developing lines like this under control; how do you keep readers engaged even as they're catching their breath?

RW:  Syntax is delicious.  I don't think there's any tool the poet possesses that the writer of prose does not also possess-none-except the line.  But when you drape syntax over the grid that is the lines you create something entirely new.  Learning the possibilities of the line is critical, but you have to learn, at the same time, the possibilities of the sentence; really, the skills are learned simultaneously.  For me, one of the best parts of watching a Shakespeare play is getting lost inside that lavish syntax.  Really getting lost, not able to recall the nature of the subordination or not having yet reached the main clause.  Then zap!  There it is.  It not only makes sense but the movement of it-so much like music or dance-can take your breath away.  

Many years ago I read at the University of Illinois, and I remember asking Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in the way one always asks another poet, what she was working on.  And she said "sentences."  Come again?  Sentences.  She was writing sentences.  Of course.  It was one of those little harpoons of ice that goes right into your blood.  And I knew, that's where it happens, that's how you enter the poem, the dance, the song.  

So some days, I write sentences.  One after another, sometimes not having any idea what I'm writing about, until all of a sudden the sentence leads me to my subject.  That you have to keep things grammatical and elegant and shapely is simply the prosaic quality of poetic form.  The difficulties of syntax are, just as the difficulties of poetic form are, among the most liberating qualities of the writing arts.  Therefore I tend to write poems, every now and then, in a single sentence, and I find it is the demands of the syntax that lead to places I cannot ever have planned in advance to go.  How do you do it?  Practice, practice, practice.  

AMK: In all of your books I don't believe I've across a single fixed form, your poems existing almost exclusively in free verse.  But you do work from time to time with rhyme schemes in older poems such as "Of Diamonds" (Moon in a Mason Jar) and "Star Dust" (What My Father Believed), and in a number of poems in Beautiful Country, such as "Sisyphus Bee," "What the Night Horse Runs From," and "A Lock of Her Hair."

Looking at your body of work, these rhyming poems seem a bit out of place, if not anachronistic.  But Dana Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter" makes the point that rhyme is an ancient technology used, to some degree, as a recording device before the printing press.  He also makes the argument that one of the major problems in Contemporary Poetry is its lack of rhyme, alienating an audience who has been taught that rhyme is an essential part of a good poem.  

Your rhymes are so subtle that they are often hard to notice, so I'm not sure what to make of them. 

RW:  Actually, there's a sonnet in Beautiful Country ("Which Last"; it's English, but camouflaged in stanzaic couplets) and quite a few other poems that rhyme, usually in ABAB quatrains, sometimes in couplets, other times in ABCB quatrains or other schemes.  Maybe ten poems that use end-rhymes in all.  I love rhyme, all rhyme, and end rhyme especially, though I usually hide it in the syntax.  

Rilke said "rhyme is a goddess of secret and ancient coincidences," and that's absolutely true.  All that Dana says about rhyme is mostly true as well, although I've always seen rhyme quite a lot in my reading, so I'm not sure about that part.  I run into students who will resist rhyme, usually because of embarrassment.  It'shard.  Bad rhyme can make doggerel out of the best intentions.  But isn't its difficulty the point?  I'm not going to abandon rhyme for any reason.  I'm not going to abandon rhyme, form, narrative, nor any of the most traditional "subjects" of poems.  I'm not giving up anything.  Every technique is a tool and I like tools.  I want them all.  A good woodworker has tools she may only use once or twice in a lifetime of furniture-making.  But when that was the tool that was needed, she had it.  I don't see why it should be any different for a poet. 

The rhymed poems in What My Father Believed I tend to refer to as "rhymed free verse."  I was experimenting, and since I was writing poems about volatile subjects (I wasn't that far removed from my time in the army or from the difficulties that time generated between my father and me), and somehow the rhymes, working them into the narrative, allowed me a kind of distance I desperately needed.  It allowed me to pay more attention to craft that intent.  

AMK: Why not use fixed forms more often?

RW: There's a sestina in Moon In a Mason Jar, and I've published a number of sonnets in magazines.  I've also written, over the years, three or four commissioned poems and they've all been sonnets (I love the shape of the sonnet for such assignments).  But I try to ask of myself the best I can do, and so far, not so many of those have made the grade for me and thus into books.  I have to admit, I'm far more interested in rhyme and syllabics than in the shapes of fixed form poems.  The best sonnets should be only incidentally sonnets. 

AMK: "American Fear" is the longest poem in Beautiful Country, cataloguing over five pages the various absurd fears ("an actual firm, an employer, a company / selling ‘clothing for the disaffected / youth culture,' ... / a marketing vision for the new world")  that manifest themselves in 21st Century America, i.e. barophobia (fear of gravity), Cape Fear, and vistiphobia (the fear of clothing).  Just glancing at it, it's a pretty funny poem but upon closer inspection is a rather damning poem, excoriating America for its frivolity rather than poking fun at it.  What are your intentions for "American Fear?"

RW:  That poem took me a year to write.  There were drafts that were 600 lines long, and in the end there were nearly 1,500 lines abandoned.  It drove me a little crazy, but I had to keep at it.  There is, in fact, a company called the "American Fear Clothing Company," which I stumbled across on the web, and the idea of it, the aim-beyond profit and marketing-I found irresistible.  The fear business is booming in the nation.  Fox News is probably the biggest such marketer, but MoveOn may be said to work in a similar if less-hateful way.  My sense of the predicament of the nation is simply this: that we're relentlessly afraid of something, whether it's same-sex couples marrying, marijuana, or the bugaboo of so-called socialism.  Thus it seemed necessary to the new book that I make a run at this poem, "American Fear."  

The poem centers on, among many other things, Robert Frost, particularly on the poem that he read at JFK's inauguration, "The Gift Outright."  It's not one of Frost's great poems, to be sure (it wasn't the one he was supposed to read that January in 1961; he claimed to be blinded by the sun and unable to see the poem he'd written for the occasion, so he recited "The Gift Outright" instead), but it makes assertions about the nation that I suppose I take exception to-that "the land was ours before we were the land's," for example.  And there was his sense that we were "withholding" something from the land. 

My contention is that we are withholding still, and that withholding is simply the kind of fearlessness that will be required if we are to live up to the words, all the words, in our documents-the Declaration and the Constitution, namely:  that all human beings are entitled to such freedoms as are there enumerated.  I would argue that holding the government and the nation and its citizens to account for not living up to those words is the highest form of patriotism. 

AMK:  In Reign of Snakes you entered into your love affair with adjectives with "the flamboyant, androgynous sun," "the gapped, inadequate joinery," and "dull, unembellished piano."  This continues in Beautiful Country even though any student of poetry will tell you we're taught that the abundance of adjectives is a no-no.  What do you tell your students about adjectives?  How do you get away with them so successfully?

RW:  Adjectives are the pot-belly of poetry, it is said.  But have a friendly conversation over beer with your unlettered cousin who drives a long-haul truck from coast-to-coast each week, and you'll see that he has no fear of adjectives at all.  What students of poetry need to know about such "rules" as "an abundance of adjectives is a no-no," is that every so-called rule of poetry is there to be broken.  It's just another of the many difficulties of the art.  You don't have to break them all, nor break them all the time, but sometimes doing what you're not supposed to do is not only liberating but immensely creative.   

We read wonderful poems all the time that would be lashed and cast out from the average workshop.  There is no one way to do this stuff, and the only true rule is to do it exceptionally well.  You have to parse modifiers, of course, to know when not to modify, and certainly when to avoid over-modification.  But read, again, C.K. Williams-Tar, say-and take your hot-pink hi-liter to the adjectives and adverbs.  Sort of amazing how colorful the page will become.  But in Williams those modifiers have everything to do with the pell-mell, interrogative force of his relentless syntax. 

In the three examples of mine you quote, I'd say the first-"flamboyant, androgynous"-has everything to do with the resonant meter of those two words.  I'd say the second-"gapped, inadequate joinery"-has everything to do with the assonance in the adjectives and the two double dactyls that end in the noun.  And I'd say the third-"dull, unembellished piano"-is about assonance and the two anapests in the middle.  (If you ever go to a séance and are given the responsibility of the drum, you'll want to do anapests-bum-bum-BUM, bum-bum-BUM, bum-bum-BUM.  If a ghost is to be summoned, there is no better meter.)  In other words, a slinger of adjectives must sling them skillfully and musically, to effect.  Otherwise he's just a slinger of adjectives, not a poet slinging them. 

AMK: When asked what he looks for in a new book of poetry, Charles Wright says that "music and substance [are] the first things.  Brilliance in language, a language that has a life of its own, seriousness of subject matter, a willingness to be different, to take on what's hard and beautiful, a willingness to put the hair shirt on and go into the desert and sit still and listen and write it down."  I think that one of the greatest aspects of your poetry is that it reads like a poem that has not only been long on the draft board but long in the heart as well.  What do you think is most important, revision or soul?

RW:  Perfectly said, that quote, though I might quibble with the last part a smidge.  I'm a bit of an apostate about this, I think.  And believe me, I toil long and hard over poems, but it has to be clear to me that I've taken the right path or at some point it just goes into the box or the wood stove.  The hair shirt, well, I think I put that on every time I sit down to write.  I guess I'm just a little suspicious of the whole metaphor, as though it's a kind of I've-suffered-for-my-art proclamation.  No one's said it better than Yeats:  "A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught."  I look for all the same stuff as Charles Wright, but also the sense-illusion or not-that it was never any other way.  Which is to say, I don't love a poem for any reason other than the finished (or abandoned) form, no matter how much or little it might have been labored over.  It may also be that Wright means something like confronting the most difficult materials, and if that's the case I absolutely agree.  Finally, I don't think soul is more important that revision, nor that revision is more important than soul.  But if you don't have one, chances are the other won't do you much good. 

AMK: What do you look for when reading a book of poems for the first time?

RW:  I want to be surprised.  I want to be envious.  I want to shake my head and say to myself, how the hell did she do that?  I want to read what I could never have written but feel as though I should have.  I want to be able to say to my wife, "Listen to this," and read her a poem or a passage and have her smile and say "Wow."  It happens regularly.  This is a fine time for poetry in America.  It's as various and diverse as it's ever been, and that is an excellent thing. 

AMK: What do you like best about writing poetry; about being a poet?

RW:  My wife, who writes novels and memoirs, likes to say that poets are the glory boys and girls of literature, and of course I agree.  There is no other word like "poet."  Novelist?  Memoirist?  Fiction writer?  Try out poem writer?  Poemist?  Sorry, I love those other genres, often as much or more than poetry, but poets are favored by the unsung God of Very Cool Locutions.  And you know, I don't mind that people are so intimidated by poetry.  It's a problem, in some ways, but I'm not going to fight it with anything other than what I do already.  I don't think much else about me is frightening, but I am a poet, so watch out. 

AMK: What do you dislike about it?

RW:  Oh, my wife also has to listen to me kvetch about poetry's more minimal public estate every now and then.  This makes me a very typical poet, no doubt.  It would be a better land if more people read poetry, surely.  I'm convinced that the farther and farther our children get from reading literature-especially poetry-the more imperiled the republic becomes.  

But poetry's doing just fine as it is.  People who say it's dead are nitwits.  The idea that poetry is marginal, or even dead, because few people read it?  Silly.  By such a reckoning, Brittany Spears is the vastly superior artist to Branford Marsalis.  Wislawa Szymborska has a wonderful poem called "True Love," in which she argues that that thing too is ludicrously rare:  "It couldn't populate the planet in a million years," she writes, "it comes along so rarely."  Lovers of poetry may be no less rare, but everybody knows rarity can also mean that that rare commodity is precious and of immense value.  You can't kill poetry.  It's among the things that most make us what we are at our best, and someone, always, will be ready to give his or her life over to the making of it, rewards from the larger world be damned.  That, I think, makes it close to holy.  So I have to say, in all honesty, I like everything about it.  Even the fact that it is so incredibly difficult to do well is, finally, a blessing.  I like the difficulty of it as much as anything.

AMK: Thank you.




The Missouri ReviewSpring 2010 

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