Poet of the Month: Michael Waters

 

From Nothing To A Thrumming Architecture:
An Interview With Michael Waters

 

John Hoppenthaler: The poems of your first volume, Fish Light, seem to reflect the then much-in-vogue gesture towards surrealism, poems you described elsewhere as "a bit wild, and depending on something flashy." Yet in a poem like the title poem, or in "The Fish," we can certainly see glimpses of what’s to follow—

Michael Waters: I don’t really know where those early poems came from, except in terms of my being influenced by what I had been reading at the time. What I believed then, at nineteen, say, like so many poets of my generation, was that it was the power of the poet that made the poems, and it was the poet’s idea that informed the poem. So I believed in an associative imagery, one sort of flash, or image, leading to the next flash or image. Those poems were written quickly, or at least initially they were written quickly, then revised, certainly, but at the same time I didn’t want to lose that original impulse, and if I didn’t quite understand what was going on in the poem, I trusted it. Or I thought if the reader didn’t quite understand what was going on in the poem, that was okay, because a sort of intuitive knowledge would get the reader through. The poems are less informed by narrative structure than they are by those associations. But now I disagree entirely with that method, and soon after that book, or even while that book was being written, I came to believe more in the power of the language rather than in the power of the poet. The personality of the poet seemed much less important. I also came to believe that the poem might suggest where it wanted to go, and it would do so through language, through word choice, rather than through idea. I wanted to stay closer to the word than to the intellect.

JH: Many of these poems, like those two I just mentioned, like others in the book, and quite a few of your later poems, make use of water as a motif. Water seems to form a solution, a place where disparate elements can touch as they dissolve—loneliness and possibility, death and life, the often corrupt physical world and the renewing spiritual one. In "Notes For the Atlantic Bottle," for instance, the apparently shipwrecked speaker finds that "Somewhere beneath me / the dark dream of meaning / begins to rise. / I leave the raft / and walk away from this life. / Water forms a direction." On one level, certainly a gesture of giving up on the physical world, yet, on another level, it seems a spiritual leap into trusting in the natural order somehow.

MW: Those poems seem to be divided into those that inhabit the natural world, and those, like "Leaves and Ashes," that have gritty cityscapes, that come out of my growing up in New York. That’s what I really wanted to write about, I think, but didn’t quite know how to go about it because those poems depend to some extent on detail, on eyesight, and those are the poems that I wound up writing and putting into Anniversary of the Air, two books later. But Fish Light was reviewed in several places as a book of surreal poems, and although I was making use of associative imagery, the poems made sense to me. I thought there was a certain clarity to them. It was only when I read the reviews that I realized people didn’t quite get them, nor should they have. But I didn’t mind them not getting them, either. It was almost as if the poems were approached on their own terms; I’m not sure why that would have been the case. I think a good critic might have come along at that point and said, well, you know, here are the strengths of these poems, but their weaknesses are that they really don’t make sense, or they’re not fully articulating their romanticism. Instead they’re suggesting it or implying it through vague imagery, and maybe the water functions in that way, although what I think is going on there—it was Al Poulin who pointed this out to me—is that the poems play on my name in some ways, in the sense of trying to define one’s self in terms of those waters and how those waters might be changing, not in terms of family history, but in terms of a personality trying to inhabit the poems. There wasn’t even an attempt to make some of the poems clear. For example, "The Tightrope Walker At Niagra Falls" bears the dedication for J.B., and it’s an elegy for John Berryman, though I’m not sure anyone reading the poem would make that connection. But he’s the one who’s up there on that tightrope.

JH: In that poem, or in a poem like "Singles," for example, you seem to suggest that, in order for the human spirit to gain transcendence, something must be risked, either death, reputation, failure, embarrassment.

MW: Yeah, and humiliation. There’s a sense, I think, in those poems, and I believe this anyway, that transcendence generally doesn’t occur in solitude as much as we might like to think meditation, creativity can bring us to that, but it seems to me, if transcendence is to occur in the physical world, it needs to happen through connections between people. And one of the reasons that the tightrope walker approaches death is because of his isolation. The narrator in that frost-covered car is also isolated, and that’s one of the reasons why ice appears in that poem, or in "Facing Death on Main Street." Coldness begins to overwhelm the human soul, finally, and so those poems were written out of a certain desperation, although the desperation may not necessarily be my own. In both poems, those characters function as versions of the narrator, aspects of personality. A poem like "Singles," though, seems to me to be more fully realized, and the suggestion there is that when someone can make a connection, or at least attempts that connection, then transcendence might be possible.

JH:
So Wordsworth didn’t have it quite right.

MW: [laughs] For all of Wordsworth’s tromping around in the woods, we can’t forget that Dorothy was close at hand, and he would go back and have lunch with her and talk about what he had just thought or seen. So it’s that movement toward the world, that certain engaged specificity, that I was trying to convey in the later books, including in that poem "Singles," for example. That’s the earliest poem, written in the fall of 1978, three years after Fish Light appeared, four years after it was finished, that was included in Anniversary of the Air. In between, Not Just Any Death was written. There’s a sort of fuzziness to many of the poems in that book, though it seems to me to be a leap forward from Fish Light, but it was written with—with a poem like "Singles," too, where suddenly I started thinking of characters, imagining lives other than my own. When I was talking before about the idea of a poet’s personality inhabiting the poem, I didn’t mean his or her personal history—I mean what’s taken place in the life up to that moment, everything that’s touched the poet in some way, family history, cultural history, the arts, etc. And so you begin to apprehend an entire individual in those poems. The very early work, those poems in Fish Light, was written when I was twenty, starting in the fall of 1970. And the book was finished in the spring of 1974.

JH: And in many of your other poems, "Anniversary of the Air," "Apples," or "Bountiful," it seems you are saying, or have discovered, that sacrifice can be substituted for risk, as in the last question—that is, sacrifice is somehow needed as a vehicle to come to a state or place where celebration is then possible. In "Anniversary of the Air," for example, as the old widow grieves for her dead husband, goes through the process of grieving, she’s able to come to a moment of clear vision.

MW: I see that too in earlier poems, "The Blind," in Not Just Any Death, the darkness in Fish Light , although the title suggests an undercurrent of light. But for the most part the poems are dark. They come out of my Catholicism, the fact that I had gone through Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school and had worked with Sisters of St. Joseph and Marist Brothers. That was my education until I was seventeen. So that was deeply ingrained, and the imagery in those books comes out of that education and imposed religious sensibility. I wanted to try to move toward that sense of affirmation but often was unable to do so. In some of the poems that are in Not Just Any Death, and then especially in the poems in Anniversary of the Air, I was more conscious of that, not consciously writing that into those poems, but starting to see such moments of transcendence happening. There’s anger in those early poems that I wanted to work through to arrive at these celebrations. The poems try to find some means of celebrating minor moments of transcendence that can occur at any time in the lives of the characters, whether the woman in "Anniversary of the Air" or the construction worker in "Lunch Hour" or the widow in "Fulton Street." That was the first time I had sensed that these were poems I wanted to write. Anniversary of the Air seems, in some ways, like a first book to me.

JH: Well, speaking of that poem again, "Anniversary of the Air," which gives your third book its title, the idea of an anniversary of the air is one that shows up in several of your poems—the last lines of the book, for instance, from the poem "The Story of the Caul," read: "Be patient, grandmother tells me. / Be still, sometimes, / to allow the numinous net of air / to mend over your face." It can also be found in "The Barn in the Air," where it provides a place for possibility, or in "The Spirit of Siena," where it does "terrible work," or in the more recent "Singing For Elizabeth," where "the trash-lit alleys of air" provide a place for the creative spirit.

MW: These moments of transcendence occur without formal occasion, triggered by air, touching everyone. What’s more interesting to me, though, is that "Anniversary of the Air" has a woman in it whose name is Anna. I name her, and there’s play with "Anna" in "anniversary," then she appears again in "Romance in the Old Folks’ Home," and appears unnamed in other poems, in some that are not included in books. There was that concern with characterization again. I’ve always felt that what we traditionally think of as the elements of fiction, characterization, plot and setting, are also the elements of poetry. Even if one’s writing a lyric, the narrator of that poem becomes a character, of course. Often there’s still setting, and at least the suggestion of plot, and most of the poems of our time seem to be some sort of pursuit to balance the lyric and narrative modes. But we tend to forget that we need to make use of these elements, and I was trying to move outside of myself a bit instead of being I, I, I, and work with the woman who is in "Singles," for example. Elizabeth, the imaginary twin in "Singing for Elizabeth," is of course a muse for the young writer. That idea of twinning had shown up earlier in "The Mystery of the Caves" that leads off Anniversary of the Air, and also in a little poem, "Small Song," in The Burden Lifters. I was an only child, and my parents, early on, were terrific fighters, and so I think that, since I didn’t have a brother or sister with whom to share consolation, I ended up talking to myself in some ways, and it’s almost as if I had twinned. "The Mystery of the Caves" is specifically about that. I wasn’t aware that that got into some of those other poems, really, until Dabney Stuart at Shenandoah pointed out that twinning. Again, there’s that movement to speak away from the very specific individual and broaden that sense of personality. So we have character, we have a story set in motion, often inadvertently, that is the plot, and it moves, consciously or otherwise, towards transcendence. But, then, you know more about this than I do [laughter].

JH:
Well, having recently read through most of your published oeuvre, I’m struck by the fact that desire—sexual surely, but also desire for communion, transcendence—seems to be the most important emotion in your poetry, the impulse that ultimately carries everything forward from one poem to the next.

MW: I think those poems are filled with desire; they’re filled with a certain kind of yearning, and the yearning expresses itself in so many different ways. There are movements toward that transcendence that occurs through relationships with other people and through intimacies, including sexual intimacies. But always that sense of movement toward change, what two people can create together, and how that might work against loneliness. It’s what I think those poems attempt to illustrate again and again. They also try to express inchoate feelings that have to do with desire, and to define those feelings again and again. But I can never quite put my finger on it, and by the time I’m through with one poem, the next poem, again, tries to find a means of expressing that yearning toward something larger, something spiritual. It appears in the touching of fingers that goes on between the woman in "Singles" and that tollbooth collector. That becomes a moment of communion, an example of desire kindled by another; as I say in "Paradys," a sense of the two people together creating something that didn’t exist beforehand. That comes close, for me, to a religious sensibility, and has roots in nineteenth-century American Transcendentalism. What I’ve been trying to do in very recent work, though, is an extension of that; I’m trying to write about sex rather exclusively—without it turning into pornography. I’ve noticed, for example, that those poets writing about sex with some sort of explicitness are women celebrating their gayness through poems that I found especially beautiful. Not so with gay men. Somewhat so with heterosexual women, like Dorianne Laux, writing celebrations of sexuality in What We Carry. I find such poems striking, but I see very few heterosexual men writing about explicit sexuality. There’s an inherent problem in that if a man is writing about sex, right away there’s something of the braggadocio, and one has to find a way to approach this subject with modesty and tact. I’m trying to bring those words that have to do with the sexual act into poems, but trying to make them a natural part of the language. There’s a Williams poem written about his 65th birthday: "On my 65th birthday / I kissed her while she pissed." I love that; they had been married for forty odd years at that point. It’s liberating, that domestic ordinariness; at the same time there’s this odd sexual element to it between these older people. You don’t see that going on in our poetry all that often. It interests me right now, so the new book—Green Ash, Red Maple, Black Gum—pays attention to that.

JH: I’m interested in your negotiations with your audience. You’ve said that, for the writer, "finally the poem is less important than the actual process of writing it which is a process of discovery." That’s for the writer; how about for the readers of your poems? They get the finished product; what’s important for them?

MW: I’m not sure that that’s anything with which the writer need be concerned. The reader may be "the listening part of oneself," John Logan used to say. A good poem keeps unfolding for the reader. I never wanted to write, although I enjoy reading them sometimes, the jokey poems that offer immediate gratification, but no reason for the reader to return to them. For me, the process of writing a poem involves any number of things— now we get to some good stuff [laughter]. One of the things I admire about Louis Simpson is that he wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review when Charles Simic was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and he didn’t say Simic should not have been awarded the prize, but he did say that he should have gotten it for fiction because he’d written a book of prose poems. And he pointed out that prose is written in sentences, but poetry is written in lines, and I believe that absolutely. My interest right now is in the line itself, and I’ve been trying to write poems that are written syllable by syllable, that are conscious of the line as the integral unit. Certainly not the sentence, the integral unit of prose. I’ve been trying to pull language in each line into the foreground. If you think in terms of painting, in terms of background and foreground, then apply that to language, you see that there are those words, nouns and verbs especially, adjectives, always in the foreground of the poem. The pronouns and articles, prepositions, often remain in the background. I can show a poem to my students; let’s say the first quatrain has the word "woodstove" in it three times, and I can say to them, what word is repeated in this stanza? And they’ll say "woodstove." And I’ll say, how about "the" that shows up six times? So Williams’ great experiment was to try to bring, especially with his triadic line, all of the language into the foreground of the poem. In breaking up the line the way he did, he didn’t have any words that didn’t matter to the poem. Every word should matter; he believed in packing the line in that way. One of the ways I’ve been trying to learn how to pack the line and move all the language into the foreground is through music, and what I’ve learned about music comes, to some extent, from John Logan’s experiments and the work of poets such as Isabella Gardner and Julia Randall. There are people who write what I think of as a sort of flat poem, and I love and admire that work, the work of Ruth Stone for example, or the work of Louis Simpson who, rather than use music, uses nuance and dialogue and humor to charge the language of his poems. But that’s not what I want to do myself. Williams attended the Armory show in 1913, and when he writes about it in The Autobiography, he talks about laughing while there; he got it. As he saw the experiments of his painter friends, Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, for example, he understood that paintings were made of paint, and weren’t necessarily windows into the world. He tells a wonderful story in his Autobiography about a woman coming into the Daniel Gallery and focussing on one painting and going over to it and looking at it, and then stepping back and approaching it again, and finally she says to the proprietor, Alanson Hartpence, and this while Williams was there, what is that in the lower lefthand corner? And Hartpence looks at it, and then turns to the woman, "That, Madam, is paint." [laughter]. Williams is thinking all the time, how do we bring this over into the language, see? How do you—if you can walk into a room and not move into the painting but be stopped by the painting, which of course is what Abstract Expressionism accomplished, and be aware of the medium, the texture, the brush strokes, the spaces left open in those canvases—bring that to language and have the reader be aware of the tactile qualities of the words themselves, the pure pleasure of them? That’s democracy. What Whitman was doing in terms of his content, Williams, now, almost a century later, is doing in terms of form. Whitman and Williams were contemporaries for a couple of years, Williams born in 1883, the year the Brooklyn Bridge went up, and when did Whitman die? ‘92? So for nine years they’re contemporaries, and there Williams is in the 1950s, a hundred years after Leaves of Grass was published, still working out some of these problems that Whitman had seen, in that democracy of the line, in terms of the forms of the poems themselves. What he does with his triadic line, Seamus Heaney, for example, does with sound, with rhyme, where he’ll take a three syllable word and rhyme it with a prepositional phrase consisting of one syllable words in the context of a decasyllabic line, "discotheque" with "off the lake." So, when reading it one has to pronounce the preposition, pronounce the article, and then the noun, and bring that language forward in order for that rhyme to function properly. Elizabeth Bishop accomplishes such foregrounding with "while his gills were breathing in / the terrible oxygen . . . ." I want to make sure that the line is at least in balance, meaning that there should be more words in the foreground, at least as many as there might be in the background. But ideally the line would consist of only words in the foreground. The reader is then aware of meaning; the poem moves the reader down the page with its insistent narrative. At the same time, it’s constantly directing the reader through its soundwork, its euphony, back to the previous lines of the poem so that the whole poem is kept in front of the reader all the time. We’re not moving forward in the poem, we’re deepening into the poem as we read down the page. The thrust is horizontal as well as vertical.

JH: Ted Kooser has applauded the fact that many of your poems are "deceptively simple." Is this a quality you work toward?

MW: What I was doing in poems in Anniversary of the Air, and then in some of the poems that went into The Burden Lifters, was to begin with a very simple language, conversational in tone, plain style to the nth degree foremost, but not flat. But there were other critics who couldn’t hear the music, which sounds like sour grapes here: "Oh, the music’s there, but the critics couldn’t hear it." Ah, but the music is there, and most readers hear it, but what Kooser understood was that the lines are so inviting that one gets into the poem very quickly. All of a sudden we’re down the page, and you’ve drawn the reader in, because it sounds as if you’re sitting in a quiet place, maybe a bar somewhere with wooden tables, talking to a close friend about something that matters. The tone is one of intimacy, and the suggestion is that what you have to say is important, not just for you, but for anyone. So many of the poems begin, and I worried about this as I was putting the book together, "I don’t remember the name of the story," "I don’t want anyone to explain" (in "The Bicycle"), "I don’t know anyone more lonely" ("Singles"), and then the poem moves on from there. So there are a number of poems like that, and I started to worry of course about monotony and wanted to vary that language. "Hair" begins, "I never know how to relax," and then moves on. Very quickly the second line starts pulling the story into shape for the reader, and details start drawing the reader down the page. A story-telling goes on in a lot of the poems, a lulling of the reader into what seems to be a fairly simple story, and once the reader is engaged, then the undercurrents, those "mystic currents of meaning," can start to rise. There’s a narrative level, but there’s also the psychological, or emotional, or intuitive level of the poem. If the language is chosen with care, all of those levels start to function at once, and the poem can bear re-reading. So I hope that’s what Kooser meant; we should call and ask him.

JH:
One of your consistent themes is the making of art, of poetry. Anniversary of the Air contains several of these kinds of poems—"Mythology," for instance, or "First Love," "Negative Space," "After Desire," "The Black Swan"—in "The Stories in the Light," a poem that combines the motif or theme of light with the theme of poetry, you say poetry is a "task," "to consider the sources of stories" and "allow" them to "blossom" in the reader’s imagination. It seems every book has several of these poems.

MW: That’s right. And in a poem like "Horse," that opens The Burden Lifters, and in all of the poems that are in that first section of Bountiful, I talk about the creative process. The first poem there is titled "Creation," and it mentions Degas: then we move to Gottschalk, and music, and then in "Homo Sapiens" van Gogh and Celine. I saw Bountiful, especially that second section, functioning as a Bildungsroman, considering the sources of this poetry, what the process involves and what the process has to offer to one who trusts it and engages it, the trust that the language itself is sufficient and will start to burgeon. The focus, once again, wasn’t simply on the writer, but on the work, to see that in the creative act the poet becomes part of this larger process that crosses all the arts, and that the individual himself remains less important than the work that results. It’s the Romantic method, then. Roethke said, "I learn by going where I have to go," so you want to see where the poem might lead, instead of imposing your will on the poem—I always admonish those students who come to me and say, "well, how do I write about this?" And I always think, how do you know you want to write about that? If you go to the poem and insist that that’s what the poem is going to be about, it’s not going to be any good. But if you go to the poem and say, well, here’s something, here’s that image, here’s that musical phrase, here are a couple words, here’s one word that I just happen to like the sound of at the moment, let me get this in, let me find a context for this, then the poem begins to reveal itself. You may not be aware of where the poem is going until you’re three quarters way finished. Even then you’ll have that process of revision that might allow the poem to reshape itself in any number of ways. Creative writing teachers often tell their students to write about what they know, which isn’t quite right; it’s write about what you didn’t know you knew until you were writing about it.

JH:
Roger Mitchell, in Poetry, labels you "a confessional poet," yet it’s also been pointed out that your most comprehensive interview to date appears in a collection called The Post-Confessionals. Where do you place yourself?

MW: [laughter] I don’t know what it means to be a post-confessional, and I remember Roger Mitchell starting that review with praise for "The Mystery of the Caves," a poem written in the confessional mode. I don’t see myself as a confessional poet because, unfortunately, I just don’t have a whole lot to confess. I haven’t been an alcoholic, and I’ve only had one marriage, so far! I haven’t tried suicide, so there’s just not a whole lot there—I can’t say exactly what Roger Mitchell meant by that, except I hope he may have meant that there’s, again, that sense of intimacy and communion with the reader in that what I’m talking about is serious, what I’m talking about matters to me, and it’s not necessarily in the details of the poems as much as it might be in the tone. Did I ever tell you the story, John, about how I know my audience? I have a cousin whose father, my uncle, died after a heart transplant, and he’d been waiting a long time to get the heart. It wound up coming, we found out later—you’re not supposed to know these things, but we checked the newspapers and talked to the doctor—from a sixteen-year-old girl who had died in a car accident in Florida. The transplant didn’t take, and he died. I went to New York for his funeral, and my cousin, Larry, then a prison guard in Ossining, was upset, of course, because his father had died, but he was drinking an awful lot and, in fact, had a gun on him when we went to the funeral. My father, a former detective, immediately saw what was going on and pulled me aside and said, get him out of here, keep him outside if you can. So I grabbed Larry, and we were standing on the steps of this funeral parlor in New York City, and all of a sudden this guy comes slouching up the steps, wearing a long coat, and Larry says, "Joe, Joe, what are you doing here? What a surprise to see you." And Joe says, "Yeah, you know, they let me out on weekends now, Larry." And Larry says, "Oh, that’s good, Joe." He turns to me, "Michael," he says, "this guy—this guy, he got one of those big concrete blocks and tied a rope around one end, tied the other end of the rope around his neck, and went out on an overpass of the Long Island Expressway. He stopped traffic for five hours," like this was the coolest thing in the world. [laughter] So I’m looking at this guy, and he says, "Larry, who’s this?" And Larry says, "You know, it’s Michael, my cousin." And he says, "Michael? Michael Waters?" And Larry says, "Yeah." Then this guy turns to me slowly and says, "Man, love your poems." [laughter] Here’s my audience, I remember thinking. Here it is.

JH: Jack Turner has argued that "romantic poems," and I think he uses romantic in the narrowest sense here, are rare for you and can "sometimes be weak spots" for you. Any idea what he might mean by that?

MW: No. I don’t know what he means by that. I think he was trying to suggest that sometimes I step over that border into sentimentality, and I think he had singled out a particular poem in Bountiful that he thought was weak. Yes, I do remember; it was the poem called "Shhh," and I guess he thought it was self-pitying. And if that’s what he thought, I just don’t agree with him [laughter]. Of course you need to risk sentimentality. Richard Hugo said that if you don’t risk sentimentality you’re not in the ballpark. What I’m always looking for are those poems that touch me in some way, that move me. And they can come from such an odd variety of poets. What I like about poetry, what I like about improvisatory jazz, what I like about punk rock—I just want to get a sense that the artist means it, that he believes truly in what he or she is doing, and then I’m willing to go along for that ride. Too often in poems you get the sense that one has chosen a particular subject. What I like to do in my own work, though, is write those poems that I think might manage somehow to move the reader. When you’re the reader, you want to know the work is serious, it’s work that has to do with some sort of touchstone in one’s life. But we also know that sometimes we’re moved by a silly pop song on the radio, even if we consciously, intellectually, don’t like it and know it’s a bad song; we still find ourselves humming that song and at certain times being touched by it. So there can be poets whose poems I know are absolutely flawed, at the same time I love those poems, those poets. John Logan was like that. James Wright was like that. I have a journal here, and one of the things I have in it is a passage from a conversation with Andrew Wyeth, the artist, where he asks, "Is it better to say nothing brilliantly than to say a great deal inadequately?" I would always prefer to say a great deal inadequately, and prefer reading those writers who say a great deal inadequately, as opposed to those writers who say nothing brilliantly. You know what I want to mention, too? We were talking about the line before, and there’s an essay by Williams, unpublished, in the Lockwood Library at Buffalo, titled "What Is The Use Of Poetry?" What it suggests doing is reading poems backwards. Williams says you read them backwards to see whether they’re any good. I love that idea, because if you read a poem backwards, then you’re denying that narrative thrust, but getting a sense, again, of the integrity of the line, line by line, as you go through it. I loved where Williams was trying to go; unfortunately, his essays are often a muddle, and you need to pick through them carefully to find those good ideas. But that idea of reading poems backwards, I think, is terrific.

JH:
What poem are you proudest of having written, or most surprised at having written?

MW: Always the one I’m about to write. Right now the poem that I most like in Bountiful is "Hummingbirds." I spent two years writing that poem. I was living on the campus of Sweet Briar College, going for six-mile walks every morning, past the stables and dairy. I’d never seen bluebirds before I went to Virginia, and I was astonished at how blue they were, but they didn’t reveal their color until they opened their wings to fly. There were boxes for them posted along fences. I would see them coming and going, and see their eggs, and I knew that I had wanted to write about a former lover; I knew that it connected somehow with these bluebirds, the way that they’d revealed themselves to me, but I didn’t know what that connection was. So I tried writing that poem over and over and over again during those couple years, and it came only when two things happened. One is when I realized that I didn’t have to write about those bluebirds. The pressure was off, it seemed, in some way. The connection wasn’t that particular. And the other was that I had read Musa Mayer’s biography of her father, the artist Philip Guston, Night Studio. She mentions that Russian phrase, razdirat’ dushu, the tearing out of one’s soul. What they mean in Russia is, when you can’t bear it any longer, you sit down at the table with that shot glass and bottle of vodka, and you pour, then you shoot it back, then you do it again, and that sense of just ripping out something inside of you because your feelings are overwhelming you. When I found that phrase and coupled it with hummingbirds, that poem fell into place. Also, for a long time I had been writing poems in strict stanzaic structure and had become very comfortable with those quatrains that move all the way through Anniversary Of The Air and a good bit of The Burden Lifters, although I varied it a bit in The Burden Lifters. I was finding more and more that using what Robert Bly calls "free verse with distinct memories of form" was helpful to me in charging the language line by line, and in restraining the emotional content of the poems, but I wanted to break away from that. The poem "Anniversary of the Air" is an example; I decided I will not use a strict stanzaic structure, and I will lengthen those lines, and so I worked that poem, very consciously trying to do something different from what I had been doing. But then, as I finished, I went back to what I thought I was comfortable with. I had been trying to write "Hummingbirds" in that same sort of style. I was still trying to use a strict stanzaic structure, basically a four-beat line, and decided to do away with that and work line by line, let the poem meander a bit and structure itself as it wanted to down the page. For that reason I like that poem. Some poems in the new book work with strict stanzaic structures, although what dominates those poems is sound rather than form. And there are lots of different sorts of poems—as one critic wrote in Poetry, "a dizzying array of styles," not understanding that there are other structures that order the poems—but what I’m doing is writing longer poems with longer lines, and working with syllabic structure rather than stanzaic structure. Once you find out what you can do and, I want to say, what you can do well or comfortably, what becomes an easy way of speaking in poems, which I think is very, very hard to get to, once you’ve found that you need to find a way to move beyond that. So I started working with syllabics, and many poems are written with decasyllabic lines. But I also varied that and have written a number of longish poems that work with a decasyllabic line that functions in terms of twenty syllables every two lines, alternating thirteen-syllable and seven-syllable lines. John Logan did that in some of his later poems, and I found that was a way of talking that seemed natural, and in doing that I was able to expand the lines and not keep to those tight stanzas. Also, it brought about a subject matter that I think I’d been unable to deal with before, these relationships, the sexuality, for example, subjects that needed to extend themselves in a long breath, and then pull itself, then needing to extend itself again. So, for me, it’s not the subject matter that needs to find the form, but it’s the form itself, sometimes, that is able to allow the subject matter to rise, but that’s without making the form too exact. To fool around with twenty syllables, say, every two lines is one thing—it seems to me to be a looser structure than when I wasn’t counting the syllables, but was working with a four line or three line stanza and keeping that so tightly controlled. These poems seem to be looser, even though they may be more formal.

JH: Moving into Bountiful now, in that poem "Snakes," which is a poem dealing with threat and the difficulty of "knowing," you write, "But nothing should be ignored, nothing / doesn’t matter, and even the common garter / sunning on a flat rock / can easily overwhelm us." There seems to be a theme that runs through that book, I’ve seen it in other poems like "Mosquitos," "Leeches," "Ticks," "Moray Eels."

MW: That’s what we were talking about before, where those occasions of celebration and transcendence occur when we least expect them, and what we need in order to understand and be aware of those moments is a certain receptivity, always to be tuned in to what’s going on around us. And by tuned in, once again, I’m talking about being engaged with the physical world and understanding that this is the world we live in, the only world we’re ever gonna live in. So respond to it. That’s how "Snakes" ends; when I say that "nothing should be ignored," there’s an aesthetic at work. It states, again, that everything around us is suitable for poetry. Another reason I admire Louis Simpson is for his taking part, as he says, in a great experiment, writing about living in the suburbs and not getting bored to death. The task seems to be incumbent upon him to do that. This poem agrees, and says that even the most ordinary creature, a common garter snake, suddenly, in terms of context, in terms of perspective, in terms of the precise moment, transcends itself, or reveals its own peculiar, particular essence and astonishes us anew. What so many of these poems try to do in the last few books is to focus on those moments of astonishment, of revelation, in terms of the very ordinary and often domestic world.

JH: "Korean Fan" seems to me a central poem in The Burden Lifters; it’s a place in the book where several key thematic elements come together—loss, ceremony, resolution through the mediums of light and air, and the speaker coming away, ultimately, after something like communion, with a melancholy compassion and the sense that the order of things has been identified and acknowledged. The ocean may be "indifferent," but the speaker moves beyond that.

MW: There’s a Korean fan made in the 1800s that somehow, even through its glass case, manages to touch the onlooker, the museum-goer, who, through the fan, connects with the lives of the women in another culture as those lives are depicted on that fan. As we’re talking here at Yaddo there’s a bride in the garden by the fountain [laughs]. It’s interesting that you see that as a central poem; when Robert Crist reviewed that book, The Burden Lifters, for Carolina Quarterly, he saw "Keats’ Lips" as the central poem, but talked about it much in the same way that you’re talking about "Korean Fan." In "Keats’ Lips," Keats’ death mask in his apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome is the triggering source, connecting me to Keats and his work. It’s the seemingly insignificant that triggers this response and make these connections. I’ll tell you an anecdote about "Keats’ Lips." I had spent two months touring Italy, but in walking around Rome one summer, Rome being very empty except for tourists, I kept going back to the Spanish Steps and looking at the buildings on either side; the buildings were obviously constructed at the same time by the same architect. They were built in 1795. One of them, on the left side as you’re looking at the Steps, is Babington’s Tea Room, where I would go sometimes on the hot afternoons to work on poems. On the other side there seemed to be a private residence, and I was always looking at it as I walked by and thinking how great it would be to go in. I wondered if I might ring the bell and walk up the steps. I wondered if I might be able to get to the roof. I kept being attracted, and it wasn’t until I decided to do that, that I walked over and noticed the plaque on the building that said it was where Keats had lived. Despite my love for Keats’ poems, I would not have known that ahead of time because, when I travel, as much as I’ve traveled, I’ve never read a guidebook; I’ve never tried to go see the touristy things in any city and, in fact, I’ve tended to avoid cities, but generally go and choose a place I feel is conducive to the work and live there for a while: Ios in Greece, Costa Rica, Koh Samui off Thailand. So there’s no reason—I knew that Keats had lived in Rome, of course, but didn’t make that association with the Spanish Steps despite remembering the story of his throwing his tray out the window. I loved finding out that that was his house and realizing that may have been why I was attracted to the place, and then did go up and saw the rooms and the display and read what I believe is an unpublished letter by Severn that’s there under glass that I quote in "Keats’ Lips." There’s another example of being drawn to something, Keats’ death mask, that leads to some larger understanding, and taking that back into my own life and to the argument that takes place between that couple and how that connection with Keats helps, it seems, to resolve that argument and allow that couple to go on.

JH: So poetry becomes your guidebook.

MW:
That’s right, poetry becomes your guidebook, a guidebook for our lives that we create as we live, just as we teach in all of these writing workshops that the text for the course is what the students create during the semester.

JH: "One Last Spider" seems a fitting closure to the collection, a jumping off point for the poems of Bountiful—the poem deals with the tenuous nature of love and desire, but at the end, "one last spider / mark[s] his slow but sure / progress from nothing / to a thrumming architecture."

MW: There’s a poem about the creative process, and in fact the poem begins with the lousy poem that the narrator starts writing. Then he moves from that poem to this particular poem, saying here it is again, you know, line by easy line, I repeat this "trite, page-worn / scene," and that I wanted to move beyond that particular language, which is coming easily, to something that’s more important. And it involves that sexuality that I’m moving toward in Bountiful and now, more explicitly, in Green Ash, Red Maple, Black Gum. That spider is a very mild version of Jonathan Edwards’ spider. The poem does away with fire and brimstone and bestows a blessing of sorts. And it offers that notion of the line, the spider web, as creation, and those slender lines in the air are lines of poetry, but also, of course, the line of semen connecting the two lovers. I’m jumbling all of that together and trying to make something—here’s where that religious sensibility comes in again—transcendent or resplendent with those materials, saying here’s all it takes, these common materials, the semen, the spider web, these lines, but suddenly we have a structure, this "thrumming architecture," the poem itself. This poem leads directly to "Creation" in Bountiful. I like the rhymes that occur here, "tender" and "spider" and "sure" and "architecture," that sense that the language is almost gratuitous, that the words that begin choosing themselves are so much so the right words that the poet has no choice but to trust them, allow them to lead him on. It’s an aesthetic that suggests writing by ear rather than writing by eye or phrase or idea. I remember when I wrote this poem, having gone to bed with my wife and making love, then getting out of bed somewhere near midnight and going into my study to write for a few hours, and the poem was pretty much completed; I think I wrote for three hours or so and had the outline of the poem and some of the language down, then got up the next morning and started working with it again and allowed the poem to shape itself, and it came rather quickly.

JH: You’ve said that, with the poems of Anniversary of the Air, your poetry took on a less self-centered quality, but with Bountiful, I think I see, to an extent, more of the I returning, perhaps a wiser, wearier I, but there seem to be more poems where the I is central.

MW: It moves back and forth. The book is in five sections; the first section discusses the creative process. In the second section are those poems of Brooklyn boyhood that want to make use of the process discussed in the first section, and while the poems seem, to use Mitchell’s phrase, confessional, they’re not necessarily factual. I’ve been interested in that notion between fact and truth, and we know we have students who, when you criticize their poems, say, "But this is how it happened!" Finally it doesn’t matter because the facts are less important than the truth; whether it’s an emotional or psychological or spiritual or intellectual truth, one needs to convince the reader; the facts can be rearranged, the facts of the poem can be invented, but the truth of the poem can be absolute and precise. For example, in "Shadow Boxes," I never knew Joseph Cornell, nor was I aware of his existence then. People have asked about that on a regular basis since the poem appeared. But I think there are truths that are gotten to that have to do with the creative process. I love Cornell’s work; his work has been important to me since I first found it out. He didn’t live within walking distance of where I lived, but did live in the same borough, Queens, on Utopia Parkway. I could have driven over there in about twenty minutes. But that’s not the point; that poem has the same effect on me as the poem that follows it, about Raphael Soyer, whose work I had seen just before he died. I later read a memoir by his model, Harriet Shapiro, and was touched by that, remembering that uncle, the same uncle, by the way, who died after that heart transplant, who’d gotten burnt by a sunlamp, then weaving the two together. One of the ways in which I’ve worked, and I’ve been aware of this especially since the poem "Morpho" in The Burden Lifters, is taking these disparate elements and yoking them together. The third section in Bountiful has to do with a relationship. Those poems seem to me to be more personal but, again, not necessarily factual. Some of the details served as triggering sources: the fact that my dog did fight with another dog one New Year’s Eve; the fact that I did see a fox when I was with some friends. Events might trigger the poems, and what takes place isn’t necessarily factual, but they manage to get to some truth having to do with human nature, and/or the fox, and/or sexuality. The fourth section ranges a bit, begins with politics and Zenist sensibility, and uses those general subjects to focus on creatures from which we generally shy away, leeches and ticks and moray eels, but with a sensibility that means to find their worth, means to understand that they have purpose or, as I say in "Ticks," that they lend us purpose. Then in the last section are those poems set in Greece, that idea continuing with "Scorpions," for example. But it’s not the creatures themselves, it’s what they inspire in humans that becomes the subject. The long poem that closes the book is probably the longest poem I’ve published. I’ve written longer poems that have appeared in journals, but haven’t included them in books, and that poem means to bring these ideas together—the prodding burden of the past, the presence of literature and the creative spirit, in this instance Homer. I’m trying to make sense of a relationship in terms of literature, and literature in terms of human relationships. The poem itself, while not in strict syllabic or stanzaic structure, seems to be written by ear, and moves toward those rhymes that end the poem and closes with that notion of a "gorgeous sham," turning to wonder finally, in terms of the creative spirit, whether what’s been constructed either fools the reader with its artistry or manages to say something that’s somehow truthful. The poem ends up questioning itself and its author, and moves the reader back to those earlier poems, "Creation," "Night in the Tropics" and "Homo Sapiens."

JH: It’s difficult to discuss many of these poems without acknowledging that your twenty-year marriage ended sometime between the appearance of The Burden Lifters and the publication of Bountiful. For all the sadness of some of the poems in section three, some of those poems seem among the most beautiful you’ve written—the ceremony of "Bountiful," the melancholy "The Sadness of Barges," the spare and resonant couplets of "Shhh," and "Hummingbirds," a poem we talked about earlier. It seems like, out of all this pain, there’s some beauty that you manage to forge out of it somehow.

MW: Those focus on different aspects of love. They’re not all celebratory, of course, and some of them have to do with the grief or the loss at the end of a relationship. There seems to be an intimacy that I wasn’t able to get into the earlier work; that’s what distinguishes these poems. At least two poems in this section involve other characters, "River Wife" and "The Inarticulate," and through those characters mean to express aspects of love, whether they’re the brighter celebratory aspects of "The Inarticulate" or the darker aspects of "River Wife." Readers assume that these poems come out of that divorce, that particular relationship, when in moving from fact toward truth, if that’s what the poems accomplish, the poems draw on several relationships. The poems mean to speak about the relationship between a man and a woman in terms that are not specifically personal, that mingle both invented and factual events toward some larger truth. The subject of these poems isn’t divorce, finally; the subject is loss, or grief. So it would not be true to say that these poems are about that particular marriage. The poems that appear in Green Ash, Red Maple, Black Gum draw on several relationships.

JH: And, of course, you’ve been writing domestic crisis kinds of poems since the beginning.

MW:
Those poems that have to do with my Brooklyn boyhood draw on certain details but, again, aren’t necessarily factual. "Bountiful" was written, for example, before I was divorced. Perhaps I was anticipating it, as several poems anticipated the death of my father, but certainly we have so many friends who have gone through this process that it’s not unfamiliar to anyone.

JH:
"Betta splendens" seems a poem that showcases much of what your poetry is about, and what your method is about. The poem begins as an exploration of childhood and the father/son relationship—a concern that we see in many of your poems. Then the poem turns and shifts to an experience in South Dakota—it seems a lot of your poems start out talking about one thing and shift to something else—then there’s a close seeing of these misplaced tropical fish in these hot springs, which leads the speaker to wonder how they got there, and the narrator then theorizes that it might have been "Some luckless woman, her second marriage failed / tattered possessions tucked in the idling car . . . ." Domestic difficulty is a theme you’ve explored before, but with Bountiful such poems take on added significance.

MW: Someone else who was writing about my work mentioned this sort of shift or leap in the poems, where the reader is drawn in and thinks we’re talking about one thing and suddenly an anecdote or illustration comes in that opens up the poem. I first became aware of that in my own work when I wrote "Morpho" in Costa Rica in 1985, triggered by something seen in Amsterdam in 1971, so it took me fourteen years to find a way to write about seeing that dead, nude woman on a pool table in a bar. I was surprised where "Betta splendens" took me. The poem is triggered by having a tropical fish tank as a kid and remembering the names of those fish and loving those names. I’ve talked about my father, a fireman, in several poems, an uncollected poem called "Fifth Alarm," in North Dakota Quarterly, and in "Scotch in Sun" in Bountiful, for example. I should say, too, that he was appalled by this poem, the idea that he was on the take [laughs]; my father had terrific integrity and, in fact, got into trouble a number of times because he wouldn’t engage in that sort of behavior. He saw it here, and I had to explain to him, you know, it’s a poem! Also, he was never burned like this, so while the poem is triggered by the fact that my father was a fireman, and then later a detective on the arson squad, the poem’s details aren’t factual. My Catholicism winds up creeping into this poem when I’m lying in bed and crunching my eyes, focusing on those fish so I can get through the terrors of that particular night. And when I say those terrors, we’re talking about serious terrors. You know, for a lapsed Catholic to talk about those sorts of terrors is amusing. At the same time, when you’re eight or nine, and imagining a version of hell, it’s serious stuff. The leap comes when I’m in the Badlands, in a hot spring, and see tropical fish, and of course remember the tropical fish I had as a kid. I remember that connection with my father who bought those fish for me, who set up that tank and helped me learn how to take care of it, how to use one of his razor blades to scrape the algae off the tank walls. Those names began coming back to me, names I’d forgotten for decades. Then the question becomes—and this is where so much of my poetry originates—where did those fish come from? How did they get there? And my tendency is to invent a story. So there’s that woman going through her marriages and finally having to dump those fish in there. To some extent, I see this coming from Ray Carver, who was a friend. We’d met in 1973 in Iowa City and kept in touch through the rest of his life, and saw each other off and on, especially in the late seventies and early eighties. He had come to Salisbury, where I was teaching, to spend a week in residence. I had gone to Syracuse at his and Tess’s invitation, to read and spent some time with them. And our paths crossed at conferences, in Texas and elsewhere. That woman seems, in some ways, to be a character from one of his stories; I think of Ray when I read this poem. I was conscious of that because I’d told him stories about some local folks, and he’d told me he was going to make use them. I like that idea of switching around some of our characters from poems and stories, from our lives. At the end, that rainbow winds up in the poem. While it seems like she’s down on her luck, there’s a sense that by pouring those fish into the spring she creates that rainbow, those colors flowing from one body of water into another. Her luck seems about to change, and there’s a sense of possibility. That word "creation" that ends the poem means to draw the reader back to the first poem in the book, "Creation." And those colors appear in the next poem, "Bountiful," the title poem of the book, with the broccoli breathing its green aroma into the room and the yellow of those cheeses and the white breast of the turkey and other colors suggested by peaches, the yellow of those crescents.

JH: The collection ends with the speaker allowing that "the romantic ideals we once placed faith in" may be "nothing more than a gorgeous sham"—pretty negative? Do people need such shams to survive in this world?

MW:
I don’t think of that as necessarily negative, but what it suggests is that at times poetry might be a gorgeous sham in getting us through some hard times, not just poetry but art or music, whatever it might be, or there might be real meaning there, too, but the end of the book means to question all that’s gone on before it, asking if, in this process of making, we’re deluding ourselves and saying, yes, there is meaning, when actually none exists, or, finally, is it possible that, yes, there is meaning, and even if we create it ourselves, might that make it any less valid? It’s what happens, to some extent, at the end of Stephen Crane’s "The Open Boat," whether those men can be translators of the wind’s voice, or if they’re still deluding themselves about the brotherhood of men and want to impose meaning on a chaotic universe. I think the answer may be obvious in the book, which insists on the importance of meaning-making. It seems to be, in part, what our purpose is, and, in part, all that we can do. But it’s also that yearning toward a certain tenderness that we see at the end of "Betta splendens," that we see in other poems in this book and in earlier work, too, "Keats’ Lips," for example. In this book, "The Inarticulate" might be an example of it as well. Certainly not tenderness so much as forgiveness shows up at the end of "The Book of Tea," too. So these are all necessary creations, and we might invest our lives with meaning toward connecting with other people. That seems to be a common theme.

JH: While reading through some of your poems in the Yaddo gardens’ parking lot earlier, a woman approached and asked, "Is that all there is to see here, the gardens?" Is that where too many people go wrong, not seeing the importance of the small things?

MW: Do you know one of Robert Bly’s little four-line poems, "After Long Busyness," where he goes out into the field after being at his desk and suddenly imagines a horse galloping toward him? He realizes that one part of his brain that hasn’t been working is that part where imagination lies. We need to see these objects of the physical world as themselves, not as symbols or correspondence; at the same time, what makes us peculiarly human is the fact that when we engage these objects they begin to develop and inform us about ourselves. But only if we work with them, or if they reveal their own set of peculiar essences to us—we then have a way of seeing them as we haven’t seen them before, and they make the world more resonant. They let us know that our lives, as we get bogged down in domestic situations, the routine, teaching, going to the mall and buying CDs, preparing dinners, reading books—these objects insist upon their own sensuality in terms of their own aesthetics, the way they look, the way they feel when you touch them, even in terms of the language we use to describe them.

JH: Anything else you can tell us about the new manuscript? Any new ground you’re trying to break there?

MW: In terms of form, again, so many of the poems are written by ear. The poems step away, often, from stanzaic structure, but in an odd way. You see, many of these poems consist of a single stanza, but the lines shape themselves into quatrains, through staggered lines, for example, but the poems insisted on a certain cohesion. And then syllabics that I mentioned before, where we have a decasyllabic line or a variation of that line, for the most part. What else? There’s that movement toward an explicit sexuality—I keep saying "explicit," and readers will look through this for some good stuff, and they won’t find it [laughter]. I guess what it is, though, is simply talking about, not shying away from, sex, not having some sort of cinematic fadeout but staying with it and finding the language with which to express it, a language that means to be both sensual and respectful and not sentimental or pornographic.

JH: Not keeping one foot on the floor when you’re in bed with—

MW:
[laughs] That’s right. That’s exactly right. And they’re blasphemous in some ways, too. There’s a poem that compares Jesus with James Brown, for example. There are several poems about God, God as a creative artist.

JH: A thing you’ve done before with "Creation" and several other poems.

MW: That’s right. In "Creation," bringing God into the end of that poem was a triggering source for these poems—"God at Forty" and "Driftwood," for example—which detail God’s life as an artist, and speak about his work in terms of what’s current and what’s his juvenilia; the book ends with that phrase, "God’s juvenilia." These poems discuss relationships, the sense of loss when a relationship ends, the anticipatory sensuality and promise when a relationship begins.

JH: The God of your new manuscript, is this—not a traditional God, I take it?

MW:
No, he’s not a traditional God and, in fact, he’s viewed in the manuscript as a creative artist Himself, Who has the same problems we have. He doesn’t necessarily like his earlier work. He always needs to find a way to create something new for Himself; He gets tired of the solitude at times, the solitude of the artist in these poems, and He sort of bumbles His way along, as we all do.

JH: And this God in the new book, how does He feel about all the blatant sexuality in there?

MW:
[laughs] God has been through His own relationships, and the intimacy that’s created between two people is close to my notion of spirituality.

JH: You’ve said of Ginsberg that he "likes the image of himself as always divinely inspired." Is there an image of yourself you’d like to leave behind one day?

MW: My self-image is of someone engaged in the process, always. And when one poem gets finished—I wind up writing poem by poem; I never work on more than one poem at a time—

JH: Still?

MW:
It’s never changed for me; I wish it would, but I seem unable to work in any other fashion. When one poem is finished, then I begin anticipating the next poem and hope that it’s gonna be a keeper. And those poems will constitute a body of work, and I guess I’ll say that was my writer’s life. It’s a valuable life; it’s harmless and, maybe, during that long course of time, I learned something about how to make a poem.


This interview first appeared in Kestrel, Issue 11, Spring 1998

John Hoppenthaler’s poetry has recently appeared in Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Chelsea, Tar River Poetry, Pleiades, and elsewhere. His essays, reviews, and interviews regularly appear in such journals as Arts & Letters, Chelsea, Pleiades, The Bellingham Review, and Kestrel, where he is Poetry Editor. His first collection of poetry, Lives Of Water, will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2003.