Devil’s Lake


Interview with David Wojahn

Q: In your most recent collection, World Tree, there is an acute sense of the personal, generational, and historical past. With this, there is also an awareness of the future. I’m thinking of the opening poem of the book that juxtaposes images of the speaker’s mother, ancient Sumer, and the speaker’s sick child. The closing poem of the book, “Talismanic,” features the speaker’s father and that transcendent image of the child’s spine glinting in the water of the sprinkler. Lyrics from David Byrne’s “Once in a Lifetime” cut through the poem: “Same as it ever was, saamme / As it ever wassss & the breeze pulls the spray / Toward me until I am mist as well.” Could you talk about how time and perspective occupy this particular collection?

I worry sometimes that as Americans we have very little sense of how personal history connects to public history. Partly this is because Americans spend most of their lives in a distinctly ahistorical environment—strip malls so shoddy they have to be replaced with other identical strip malls every twenty years or so, and completely immersed in digital media that tells you subliminally that all of human history is accessible via a couple of Google searches. We’ve started to see experience like highly educated dogs—we live in an eternal present. Compare that to walking on a street in a town in the Middle East like Susa or Jericho, where under your very feet, with each step you take, you’re stepping on the actual physical evidence of five or ten thousand years of continuous human habitation. We have very little in our lives as Americans that offers this sort of metaphor for continuity.

If memory is not alive in the present for us, then we’re suffering from some sort of collective brain disorder.

So in some small way I want my poems to suggest historical continuity, and the sense of community that comes with that understanding. The poets who have most inspired me—I think of Lowell, Cavafy, and Oppen, among others—always find ways to make the past and the present somehow commingle, and the fact that their poems make little distinction between personal memory and public memory is something that always instructs me. If memory is not alive in the present for us, then we’re suffering from some sort of collective brain disorder. I’m not talking here about Eliotic (and right-wing) notions of “The Tradition” or “Eternal Verities” here—I just want to suggest that we are composed of memory and of some collective and mysterious sense of historical significance that we don’t very often access.

Arriving at that sort of vision also means that I am not especially interested in drawing major distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, the deep past and the recent past. So if a poem mixes a discussion of cuneiform with my mother voting for Nixon, or whatever vision of the future I imagine for my kids with lines cribbed from Montale or David Byrne, so much the better.

Q: In the poem “The Apotheosis of Charlie Feathers,” there’s a line that goes: “By the truculent conch of the throat we are summoned.” It seems like this has something to say about the sense of lyric urgency abundant in World Tree and to the poetic impulse in general. How did this urgency come to shape the collection?

It sounds to me like you’re alluding to matters of diction, and I think that increasingly over the years I’ve been interested in reminding readers that poetic diction isn’t necessarily the same thing as vernacular diction. Sure, I love poets like Schuyler and O’Hara who write chatty but compelling poems in the vernacular. But I also love people like Geoffrey Hill and Hart Crane, writers who insist that the language should also be difficult in the best sense, that it should challenge the reader. Better still, I especially love poets like Berryman, Robert Pinsky, and Charles Wright, who can abruptly shift from colloquial speech to highfalutin lingo and make the shifts look seamless. Poetry’s deepest sources are in sacerdotal language. Look at the Psalms, at Pindar, at the Chinese Book of Songs, and I am sure that in all the cultures that those works emerged from there was a strong distinction made between demotic speech and sacred speech. As somebody whose first exposure to poetic language was having to sit through the Anglican communion service and its weirdly beautiful Tudor English, I sensed early on that there is a special language employed in ritual. And poetry IS ritual speech, at least some of the time. Why shouldn’t poetic speech exploit all the abundant resources—and dictions!—of our language? I want that abundance to be employed in my poems as much as possible, even if the subject of the poem is an obscure (but tragic) rockabilly singer like Charlie Feathers. Why can’t Charlie Feathers be honored with a contemporary version of a psalm or a Pindaric ode?

Q: The word “truculent” in that same line also brings to mind those poems that contain a certain amount of invective, like the one in this collection that addresses Wayne LaPierre. You’ve always been a poet who examines the social and political, but do you feel yourself even more compelled to write about certain issues because of the particularly fractious nature of current politics and ideologies prevalent in the country today?

Well, we’ve become a distinctly uncivil, divisive, and adversarial culture in recent years. I don’t think it’s simplistic to blame much of that degradation on the paranoia and narrow-mindedness of the right-wing media, on the way that the Republican party has been taken over by religious zealots, oligarchs and flat-earthers. When powerful forces in our society want to so debase civil discourse and so demean the language, poetry may seem like a pretty paltry counter-force to those tendencies. But one thing I believe about verse is that it tries to speak some sort of essential truth to power, even if relatively few people hear that speech. Sometimes that counterforce can come in the form of invective, like the poem that mentions LaPierre and the NRA; I wrote some similar poems against Bush-41 and Cheney. Invective is hard to write, because it has to be pointed but not shrill, artful while at the same time merciless. Thomas McGrath called work of that sort “tactical” poetry. It identifies the criminals and the enemies and speaks against their malfeasance. But he also says that it is important to write “strategic” political poetry—poems aimed at raising our consciousness. I would like to be able to be skillful at writing both kinds of poems, for both of them are especially necessary right now.

Q: In the long sequence, “Ochre,” each poem is accompanied by an image, including some personal family photos. They are a natural progression to the sequence which begins with the rendering of the footprint in the Chauvet cave, but was there ever a moment where you felt this was risky? Were you ever hesitant to reveal so much of the personal?

I guess the basic motive behind the process of writing “Ochre” is simply to express how miraculous it is that anything survives of us beyond our deaths. Yet those images on the walls of Chauvet or Lascaux testify to the immensity and breadth of the human imagination going back as far as thirty thousand years ago. They testify that we have a chance, however small, for some sort of afterlife, that there can be some shard or remnant, something excavated or stumbled upon—that says we were here, and that our existences somehow mattered. The images from cave art and other examples of Paleolithic culture appear in the poem in part to suggest a continuity which starts in that work, continues with images captured in the first century of photography, and continues still in images from my own past. It seemed less a “risky” gesture than a statement of a natural progression.

Q: Could you tell me about the origins of the images in the “Ochre“ sequence? I'd like to know how you came across the photos collected by Robert Jackson. And, is there a specific image or images that provided you with initial inspiration in composing the sequence?

The photos from Robert Jackson’s collection are ones he donated to the National Gallery of Art, and were the subject of a mind-bending show there a few years back called “The Art of the American Snapshot.” Jackson spent years collecting anonymous nineteenth and twentieth century snapshots; he’d pick them up in antique stores and flea markets.

He had an extraordinary ability to discover strange and surprising and resonant images, usually happy accidents—family portraits that went somehow awry, spirit photography, oddball snapshots that had strange and compelling captions or ones in which the image had somehow been doctored or doodled on. These images haunt us because they are so specific and so mysterious, almost as removed from our own experience as the cave wall paintings are. They’re images which have that “aura” which Walter Benjamin so famously talked about; they’re glorious accidents and mistakes of the sort that are now gone forever thanks to the advent of digital photography. If you botch a photo that you take with your cell, you almost invariably delete it. So serendipitous accidents like you find in Jackson’s collection are very unlikely to occur anymore, but a lot of those accidents are to me unbelievably poignant. The whole sequence of twenty-five poems started with a Jackson collection snapshot taken in 1910 or thereabouts. Sitting on a slat-backed chair are a dog, a cat, and a very confused looking toddler who must be about a year old. Behind the chair, and looking through the slats in a way that makes her look for all the world like a cubist portrait, is the face of the boy’s mother. The caption on the photo reads: THIS IS OUR BOY, DOG AND CAT AND I AM STICKING MY NOSE THROUGH THE BACK OF THE CHAIR. BURNS JUST WOKE UP SO HE LOOKS KIND OF MESSED UP. The photo is incredibly haunting, and after writing about it I knew I had to try to do justice to a group of similarly haunting images and photos, whether they were cave paintings or sonogram pictures of my twin boys.

Q: The sonnet is a form you’ve used repeatedly in your work. World Tree is no exception. How does your knowledge and long practice with this form now influence the initial creative process or impulse? The poems that are sonnets—do they consciously begin as sonnets when you’re composing?

I love the paradox of sonnet writing—how the search for rhyme, for the ninth-line turn, for metrical variation within the premise of iambic pentameter—all conspire to invite serendipitous discoveries rather than formulaic thinking.

Some twenty-five years ago, I started writing a great many sonnets, a number of which are included in my third collection, Mystery Train. I tended at that point to be largely a narrative poet—and to some degree I still am. I wanted to write for awhile in a short fixed form that doesn’t lend itself very easily to narrative; the form of the sonnet is rhetorical and syllogistic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This exercise backfired, in some respects, since the Mystery Train sonnets are in no small degree narrative poems, just not as windy as the pieces I was writing when I started the project. But writing Mystery Train whetted my appetite for the sonnet. For all its supposed rigidity, the form is so capacious, so robust, and just endlessly engrossing. I love the paradox of sonnet writing—how the search for rhyme, for the ninth-line turn, for metrical variation within the premise of iambic pentameter—all conspire to invite serendipitous discoveries rather than formulaic thinking. Mind you, my sonnets push the envelope a bit. They have lots of metrical variations, lots of half and off-rhymes, and lots of typographical devices—like placing asterisks between lines—all meant to roughen the form up a bit. Prosodic strict constructionists probably wouldn’t call them sonnets at all; they want linguistic and formal purity. One of the negative reviews of Mystery Train spent a good while taking me to task for rhyming “etc.” and “oo-wah” in a poem, as though such a gesture horribly degraded a venerable form. But why not exploit the fact that there are so many playful possibilities to explore within the sonnet? One of the sonnets in World Tree is also an acrostic poem, and I have a new sonnet coming out in a journal that makes use of 14 “a” rhymes. I don’t consider myself a particularly skillful writer; I don’t look for the easy tour de force, since I’ve never found writing to be particularly easy. But I love formal challenges, and the challenges offered by the sonnet are always a thrill for me to explore.

Q: I've heard you describe yourself as a "binge writer." Is this a result of trying to balance teaching and a personal life with your writing, or have you always found yourself working like this?

I would like to write every day; I would like to be an obsessive writer, I suppose. But I am instead a compulsive writer. I write when I can, or when the urge becomes so strong that I can’t further resist it. Writing poetry is a baffling process when you compare it to the steady and disciplined way that fiction writers go about their business—so often you feel that every time you start a new poem you’re creating the genre of poetry ex nihilo: you can’t pick up where you left off the day before; you can’t too readily rely on your past successes; you seem always to be clumsily learning an entirely new language. If you write long enough and develop the expertise that comes with practice, that sense of bewilderment isn’t so stultifying. But it’s always there to some degree. That’s the poet’s lot, I guess.

Q: You mentioned in a recent workshop that you've returned to the work of poets like Thomas Hardy, Robert Penn Warren, and Yeats. What is it about these writers that brings you back to them?

Well, I am now, I suppose, making the transition from being a “writer in mid-career” to whatever they call writers past that stage—I hope that term isn’t “geezer poet” or something similarly pejorative. But I think that as you become a poet of a certain age, your special pantheon starts to include poets who kept working long into their old age—Yeats, Warren, Milosz, Kunitz, Hardy. They all happened to write their best work very late in their careers. Hardy was writing work of real consequence at the age of 88. I’m 58 now. If I had thirty more years to write poetry, I think I could make a little more progress in an activity that gives me tremendous joy, its challenges and frustrations notwithstanding. I have every reason to think I’ll still feel this way in 2042, but please feel free to interview me then, just to make sure that’s the case!

DAVID WOJAHN is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently, World Tree, published in 2011, and Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982–2004, which was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Folger Shakespeare Library's O.B. Hardison Award. He has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, among others, and is presently Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a member of the program faculty of the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of the Fine Arts.