“The Only Way to Reach Inspiration: Write Your Way To It”: An Interview with Robert Wrigley

Jeremy Voigt: W. S. Di Piero recently posted on the Best of American Poetry Blog that “[Poets] shy from putting prose out there because it’s a giveaway…You can’t fake it. It reveals quality of mind, for better or worse, in a culture where poems can be faked.” Do you think that poems can be faked in our culture? Your poems are invested in syntax and narrative motion (tools perhaps most often associated with prose) as well as the lyrical, so do you agree that prose elements can be a test of a writer’s abilities?

Robert Wrigley: I think Di Piero’s probably right. So yes, I think poems can be faked. And some kinds of poems are more easily faked. Some kinds of fakery are easier others. But think about that for a minute:  What’s easier to fake, do you think? Abstract Expressionism or Botticelli? I would wager that most people will say the former, but I have stood before Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” at the Uffizi, in Florence, and a painting of Jackson Pollack’s: “One: Number 31,” at MOMA, and guess which one brought me to tears? I believe the only tool the poet possesses that is not also possessed by the writer of prose is the line. I also believe, as Pound put it, that poetry has to be as well-written as prose. If you can’t wield syntax, give it up. Try welding. I don’t shy away from prose, but I’m not moved to write it. And frankly, I dislike writing about poetry, at least writing about it from any sort of academic platform.

JV: Beautiful Country has a slightly different focus than your previous books. Animals are still there, the personal life is still there, as well as the interaction between these two, but this time there is more of an outward focus on culture with poems such as “Exxon,” and “American Fear,” and then poems that combine these cultural themes with the personal such as the title poem. Was writing this book different than your previous books?

RW: It’s the first book after the New and Selected. That seems like a kind of—what? A kind of dividing line for a poet. Basically the book was “conceived” while my wife and I were in Italy, in fall, 2007, as guests of the Rockefeller Foundation, at the Study Center in Bellagio. There were people from all over the world there—brilliant people—and what they wanted to know was how the US could have gone so completely insane. The beacon of liberty and freedom had started a trumped-up war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, had no weapon of mass destruction (yes, it was a country run by a tyrant: no shortage of those, is there?). Then there were black sites; extraordinary renditions; and torture.
In all honestly, there wasn’t much to say to those folks, but I thought at the time that what I wanted to do was to make a book of poems that was a kind of portrait of my country, the country I love, and the country I want to see, someday, live up to its own ideals. And that’s what Beautiful Country tries to do. If there’s a “centerpiece” poem, it’s probably “American Fear.” That’s a poem I struggled with for nearly a year. The version in the book—the “finished” version—is 120-odd lines long, but earlier drafts have 500-600 lines.  The poem almost ran away with me, but I’m quite happy with the result, at this point.

JV: What does the revision process look like for you? How do you know when a poem is finished (or should be abandoned, as Valery says)? Did you find your revising eye working differently since you had recently reviewed your body of work while putting together your New and Selected?

RW: When I’m putting a book together, I’m looking for connections, or sometimes I’m building them in.  Certain images or references that can bind individual poems to one another, I’ll build in. Although I don’t do much of that, really. It’s a sad fact, but books of poems, no matter how well-made and/or elaborately assembled they are, are never canonized; only individual poems are. It’s a strange thing, and sort of sad too, I suppose. For the poet, at least. One can tinker forever on poems: spend an hour on a poem, move a word; spend another hour, put it back. Eventually, one just gets more interested in making something new, I guess.

JV: You have been quoted as saying, “poetry can have a redemptive function. It can look at the chaos you see and make a kind of sense of the smallest part of it.” How does poetry make sense of the world or the self for you? Is Beautiful Country working to make sense of America as it emerges in the early 21st century?

RW: It’s the “smallest part of it,” the sense that may come to you as you read, or write. Sense, as in a kind of agreed-upon understanding of experience, is overrated. The senses, however, are not overrated.  I do think one of the aims in Beautiful Country is to make something about the country clear. I’m not going to try to make America make sense; much of it is beyond explanation—the best as much as the worst.  For me, poetry is an expression of identity; it defines me. It’s also offers a place to stand and take note. It becomes a way of knowing, a kind of epistemological strategy. The best I know, I know through poetry. It has taught me indeterminacy and truth; it has taught me the great beauty of complexity. I don’t know about America. Sometimes I fear that the farther we get away from our ability to read poetry, the more imperiled the republic becomes.

JV: Beautiful Country ends with a poem set in Italy, but the poem ends with a line pronouncing the face of the whole earth beautiful. Could it be that part of the redemptive possibilities of poetry lie in the universal nature of it (showing up in nearly all cultures across time)?

RW: Yes, exactly.

JV: Religion and organized religion—two separate entities—come up in your work a great deal. Do you see “writing as a form of prayer,” as Kafka says, something akin to organized religion or as something wholly different?

RW: Yes. Writing is how I pray. I don’t know any other way to pray. I don’t believe in any sort of deity. I don’t have much use for belief. Stevens said something like, when a man reaches that age at which he no longer believes in God, something else must take its place. In my case (Stevens’ and mine), what’s taken that place is poetry. Art is the human animal at its best. It’s not organized, nothing like organized religion, writing.  It’s like prayer, sure. Solitary, a kind of offering, a plea, a song, a howl, a shriek, a whisper.  Sometimes all at once.

JV: The erotic is another theme that you return to. It is often contextualized in situations not traditionally considered erotic, after tick grooming for example, or in close connection with poetry. I am thinking of “Introduction to Poetry” in Beautiful Country.

RW: Poetry accommodates the erotic and the erotic accommodates poetry. The erotic is poetic and the poetic is erotic. It’s a sort of true story, “Introduction to Poetry,” at least the part about Herrick. When I first read that phrase “liquefaction of her clothes,” I was in love, with the poetic and the erotic. It might well be that I’ve never gotten over that moment. Rexroth said, “I write poetry for two reasons: to seduce women and to overthrow the capitalist system.” That seems sensible to me.

JV: Sound plays an important role in your poems and seems to have taken on more emphasis since Reign of Snakes where prosody seems to sort of cut loose at times. Beautiful Country reads to me like an evolved marriage between prosody and subject. Is this something you have consciously developed?

RW: Well, I love making noise, or singing too, in poems. In Reign of Snakes, especially in the Earthly Meditations cantos, I’m just pushing musical connection about as far as I can. I’ve got friends who want me to go back there, to do that again, but that doesn’t interest me. I’ve done it already. So what I’ve been working at lately—some of the time in Beautiful Country, and a lot more since then—is something more like a kind of musical-rhetorical approach. Intense monologues, deep investigations, via sound and a kind of argumentative, case-building syntax. Honestly, if you’re writing well, I can’t see how you can avoid paying attention to the interrelationships and connectedness of prosody and subject. If you’re not, well, you’re probably not living up to the demands of the art.

JV:  Would you talk about your writing process? Do you practice prosody in exercises, or only in composing poems? What is a typical writing day like for you?

RW: I go out to my shack (actually, it’s pretty plush—12 by 16 feet, heat from a woodstove, several thousand books, a guitar), I build a fire (in cold weather), and I usually put on some music. Usually jazz, usually something instrumental and purplish: lately that’s been Goin’ Home, a wonderful album by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan that Phil Levine first turned me onto years ago. Although sometimes it’s the Brandenburg Concertos too. Then I start putting words together. Sometimes that’ll mean an exercise. I love sonnets, just as a way to loosen up. And I don’t stop. I mean, on a good day, when I’m just putting words together, I’ll write drafts of half a dozen poems in a single day. Most of them will be ugly ducklings, but they give me somewhere to start on subsequent days. The only way to reach inspiration is to write your way to it. Inspiration is not something that happens to you; it’s something you earn. So I work hard to pass over, to get through—something like that.  I work hard to arrive at that place where inspiration happens. Lots of times, I just waste paper. But that’s the only way I’ve found that I can make it happen.

JV:  I’ve heard you talk about the importance of the sentence, and the line and the techniques and tensions they are able to create. Could you expand on the metaphor of the “grid” as the thing syntax is draped over in poems and talk about the tension of the sentence and the line?

RW: That “only tool” the line is? Well, that’s the best tool there is, frankly. If you’re going to live up the possibilities of the line (and the line is why there still is poetry), then you’ve got to write exceptional sentences, because draping exceptional sentences over the grid of the lines allows you to say everything that is in the sentence and everything that is in the line as well. The line can say something entirely other than, counter to, or in addition to the principle assertion of the sentence. (That’s why I’m not so very interested in prose poems. It’s like giving away the best tool. Although I’ve been thinking about writing a prose sestina or a crown of prose sonnets; that would interest me.) The “grid” is the warp, and the syntax is the woof and the poem is the tapestry made therefrom.

JV: I read that you write books towards a title, as opposed to writing individual poems and then collecting them, could you describe this process? How does it impact the poems?

RW: All five of my books with Penguin—my last five—I’ve written that way. In part, that simply means that, as I’m making poems early on in a book’s composition (when I don’t know what the book’s concerns or themes might be), I start looking at how things connect, what my subconscious obsessions might be.  When I find that obsession is usually when I find a title for the book. That’s when I get very seriously focused and start thinking in real book terms. I’ve always been a poet inclined toward obsessions, and I’ve never found any good reason to resist that inclination. I’m in the early stages of a new book now. I don’t know where it will go, but at some point in the next year or two, I’ll see it. It might be that it has to do with that musical-rhetorical approach I mentioned.

JV:  Biography seems oblique in your poems, though the voice does not distinctly sound like a persona, do you write directly from your life? Where does the line between autobiography and fiction blur in your process?

RW: All my poems are based on personal experience, whether I’ve had it or not. What line? You write fiction, you can use your own experiences, history, you name it. You write nonfiction, well, then you write nonfiction. You can’t make any of it up. Poetry? Other animal entirely. Sometimes people ask “did that really happen,” about a particular poem, and I’m reluctant to say anything but “why do you ask?” Indeed, I write a lot from experience, but I’m not writing autobiography. It’s just another tool, and I’ll use any tool I can get my hands on.

JV: You have spent the majority of your life in a particular rural geographical location, what is the most salient aspect of place, and this place in particular, that has impacted your work?

RW: I suppose it’s just the place that allows me to write, and by that I mean that feeds me in some way.  Moscow, Idaho, is indeed a rural place, but it’s also a university town and a very sophisticated place, in the middle of one of the most amazing landscapes anywhere. I think the place is my lens, the lens through which I see, but just as importantly the lens through which I project. As much as anything else, I’m just happy here. I’ve written when I was miserable too, and written well. But I’d rather be happy.

JV: You have cited James Dickey, Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, and Richard Hugo as influences on your writing. How have they impacted your poems? What other writer has had the largest impact on your work?

RW: Plath has mattered to me enormously. The intensity, I guess. There are times when I’m convinced the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian was the finest poet of our time. I adore Stevens and I read him regularly, but it would be hard to say how that love has affected my own poems. I read Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies probably once a year. In “American Fear,” Ginsberg was a great aid.  Really. I’ve been reading a lot of Szymborska lately. She’s wonderful and very hard to emulate. Writer that had the most significant impact, no contest: Dickey. He was a problematic man but a fearless poet, and when he was good, he was, to my mind and my ear, as good as any.

JV: How did you first come across Dickey? Was there an instant connection or did it take time to develop a relationship? I’m fascinated by imitation and influence. Did you imitate Dickey and abandon him at some point, or read closely and adopt tools?

RW: When I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, I had two professors who’d written dissertations on Dickey. Mid-seventies, and Dickey was a growing presence in the academy. They both wanted me to love Dickey’s work, but I didn’t. It was six or seven years later that I went back to Dickey, and it was as though I heard his voice for the first time.  There’s a poem in my second book—“Moonlight: Chickens on the Road”—that’s basically my sort of Dickey-inflected narrative. Wrote the poem, more or less, in a single sitting, on a school day, back when I was teaching a 4/4 teaching load and dying under papers to grade. About 40 minutes, I think. And that poem made me hear the necessary rhythms. It allowed me to torque up the diction and the meter, the alliteration. It was the first time I really took to Dick Hugo’s notion of choosing music over meaning, frankly. That’s not such an easy thing to do, if you don’t yet hear that music—the music of the spoken word sung, let’s say; the music of syntax and syllable.  Hugo’s advice is perfect, but I needed Dickey’s sort of music to make me hear my own.

Robert Wrigley is the author of multiple books of poetry. He teaches at the University of Idaho, and led a sold-out workshop at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference in 2009. His latest book is Beautiful Country. Jeremy Voigt is the author of Neither Rising Nor Falling. He will be leading an afternoon discussion group of the poetry of Emily Dickinson on Monday, July 18, as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.   


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