David Wojahn

Q&A with David Wojahn

David Wojahn is the author of six collections of poetry: Spirit Cabinet (2002), The Falling Hour (1997), Late Empire (1994), Mystery Train (1990), and Glassworks (1987, winner of the Society of Midland Authors Award), all from the University of Pittsburgh; and Icehouse Lights (1982, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award). He is also the author of Strange Good Fortune (University of Arkansas, 2001), a collection of essays on contemporary verse. He is the editor (with Jack Myers) of A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry (Southern Illinois University, 1991). He also edited The Only World (HarperPerennial, 1995), a posthumous collection of Lynda Hull’s poetry.

He has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Illinois Arts Council, the Indiana Arts Commission, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as writing residencies from the Yaddo and McDowell colonies. Among his other awards and honors are the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship; the William Carlos Williams Award and the Celia B. Wagner Award from the Poetry Society of America; Vermont College’s Crowley/Weingarten Award for Excellence in Teaching; the George Kent Prize from Poetry magazine, and three Pushcart Prizes. His poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in many journals and anthologies, among them The Paris ReviewThe New YorkerThe Best American Poetry series, The American Poetry ReviewThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Chicago TribuneThe Kenyon ReviewNew England ReviewThe Georgia Review, and TriQuarterly. Wojahn teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.


I heard a rumor last year that a group of writers were trying to persuade a publisher to collect all of Lynda Hull’s books into one volume. Please tell me that this is true, providing us with a book that would be indispensable to contemporary verse. “The Only World” is one of the most impressive books I’ve read in recent years. Coincidentally picking up “Heaven’s Coast” a little while later, I have come to see her style greatly expressing the counterpoint of addiction/desire–our lure towards and resistance against. From this point, what would you say about the intersection or tangencies one’s experiences has with one’s voice? I’m thinking of Eliot saying something about poetry being an attempted escape from emotions and experience (hopefully I remembered this right). Thanks.

G — NY

There’s been a lot of interest in a COLLECTED of Lynda’s work, and it’s especially important for this to happen, given that her books are now out of print. But it’s easier said than done. The line from one publisher, a
respected university press, in fact, was that poetry books don’t sell very
well, especially books by dead writers who can’t market their product. But I
feel confident that the book will eventually find a home. Yusef Komunyakaa,
who knew Lynda well and was one of her teachers, has expressed an interest
in writing an introduction to the book, and this may help matters. I hope it
won’t be long before a publisher takes an interest.
< > for the matter of “addiction/desire,” I fear I don’t have anything useful
to say, neither regarding how those issues affected Lynda’s poetry nor about
them in general, save to say that both things are powerful forces, and
mysterious ones. We too often commit the hubris of thinking our desires can
be gratified, or that gratifying them is going to give us the consolation we
feel we need. These longings may prompt us to creative activity, and I guess
the displacement of those longings is much of what poetry is about. But it’s
not the only thing that it’s about.


In “Dirge with Proofs,” the asterisks that separate the single lines give the impression that there are several voices speaking in the poem, though you could read it as a single speaker also. What is your sense about this?

Karrie Anne — Stratford, OR

“Dirge with Proofs” has a single speaker, someone who is more or less me. But maybe your sense that it is spoken by several different voices comes from the poem using a lot of dictional shifts, and I often want poems–especially when they’re in received form–to veer between a more formal diction and a colloquial one. Berryman, who I count as one of my most important masters, of course employs this technique a lot.


Hi David, Good to find you on the Web! Are you doing any summer workshops in the United States this summer 2004? How is your own writing coming along? Is there another book coming out this year? ~kij

Karen Jaquish — Indiana

Good to hear from you, Karen. No summer workshops this year. I’m presently at work on a section of new material that I want to include in a NEW AND SELECTED POEMS.


What’s your favorite movie(s)? What�s your favorite vice? What�s your favorite flavor of ice cream? (sorry to be so non-literary! I�m honestly curious) thanks!

Allison — Denver

Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST, Malik’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE come to mind. I’m not sure about a “favorite” vice. Hagaan Das used to offer White Russian and doesn’t anymore, sadly, so I no longer have a favorite.


When did you first establish a definite routine for writing poetry and sending out poems to publishers? Did you create a specific system for submitting your work early in your career as a poet? Have you ever, for any period of time, given up on yourself as a writer? What would your response be to the following statement? As in the business world, and within the culture of ivy league networks, one must “know somebody” to get anywhere, i.e., to publish and become well-known in the field. For the average, working class poet, the possibility of succeeding, regardless of talent, is merely an illusion.

Cheri Miller — Baltimore, MD

I probably started sending poems out with a strict routine during graduate school, and the most important things I learned, early on, is to detach as much as I could from the process. For a long while I followed a program where for every five days I wrote poems or essays, I’d have a single day devoted to po-biz stuff–mailing submissions out, sending queries, etc. This helped me to keep the poetry and the po-biz separate, which helps, and each week sent me the message that I always needed to regard poetry as (at least) five times more important than po-biz. I don’t follow this routine as rigorously as I once did, but adopting it certainly helped me to keep things in perspective, made the rejections a little less crushing.
< > for your quote, sure, connections help; they help in any field. But to suggest that anyone who hasn’t got the connections can’t succeed is wrong–wrong in part because the statement presupposes that publishing success is what poets should be after. The goal should instead be to let writing poetry and getting better at it be its own reward. It’s hard to do that, I know, unless you get some sort of recognition now and then. But the older I get, the more I find that my main delight and struggle is with the writing process itself. It gives me joy and pleasure, even as its challenges increase. I was so caught up in careerism when I was a young poet that I lost sight of this much of the time, and I wish that hadn’t been the case.


Who are you reading now? What�s the best novel you�ve read in the last year? What�s the best collection of poems?

Crystal — Durham, North Carolina

I’ve been reading Willis Barnstone’s magisterial translations of Antonio Machado, who is a very great poet indeed–look at some of his later poems, such as “Siesta.” This month I also read John Barrie’s THE GREAT INFLUENZA, on the 1918 Flu epidemic, and a book on the explosion of Krakatoa by Simon Winchester. Though I love fiction, I read mostly history and non-fiction and read it at the same time that I’m reading poetry. Best collection of poems in the last year? Lowell’s COLLECTED; even the lesser stuff of Lowell’s–and there’s a LOT of lesser stuff in the book–is important to me.


2 questions: 1: While I am loathe to label you a writer of “poetry of witness,” there are often moments in your poems that have a documentary feel, moments that expose or highlight for the reader an experience outside the reader’s own. Such moments and images are typically connected to political or social hardship. It is a hard thing to do, to present such images and situations without sounding “preachy,” and I think often the compulsion to write such images and scenes is tempered by the poet’s attempt to try and remove his or her personality as much as possible, to simply present the image, without commentary. Yet to my mind there is inescapably a sense that somewhere, at the bottom of these seemingly “objective” illustrations of poverty, hardship, etc, the motivation is political, that the motivation is to expose these problems in order to inspire cultural/social improvement. I’m wary of anything artistic whose primary impulse is prescriptive, and I certainly am not suggesting that this is your motivation for creating such images, but I wonder if you could speak to your interest in such visceral and compelling images/scenes. Also, does it concern you that even while depicting such scenes and images in way to expose problems in the world, if you will excuse the obtuse way of putting it, that such imagery is guided by the “if it bleeds it leads” sensibility, that violence will justify the importance of the scene? Isn’t there something compelling about such vulgar and gross imagery, something akin to enjoyment of pornography? 2: The last few books you’ve published have included an increasing number of single-line stanza poems (monostychs, if that’s how it’s spelled). This formal decision seems one preferred by writers of aphorisms and verse that tends towards the epigram. Your writing, however, has always seems more expansive, inclusive, and at odds with the one-liner, so to speak. When reading these monstych-stanza poems of yours, the enjambment and argument of the lines seem at odds with the monostych. The poems still proceed with arguments and meditations that spill over the line breaks, making the monostych feel like a primarily cosmetic choice. What is your motivation behind using the monostych? Moreover, why separate the monostych, as you occasionally do, with a small imprint? Is the experiment satisfying to you? I apologize that I have no specific examples that relate back to each of these questions, as I’m at work and haven’t got your books in front of me.

Charlie — Chicago, IL

Your first question is a complex one, and I fear I’m not going to be able to do it justice. I am highly wary of the term “poetry of witness,” which became fashionable after Forche published her POETRY OF WITNESS anthology in the early nineties. North American readers have tended to see the term reductively, thinking that poetry of an activist nature is best written by those who have seen political turmoil and experienced terrible suffering–and then they invariably try to compare themselves, always unfavorably, to figures like Milosz, Herbert, Neruda, Vallejo, Hikmet, etc.–writers whose politics or historical circumstances caused them to endure terrible tribulations. What right do I have, they seem to say to themselves, to write about politics and injustice, coming from the privileged lives that most American intellectuals and academics live? This stance saddens me, especially during a time in when the pressures of addressing the political and social are going to be ever-greater. You saw that timidity and fuzzy thinking manifest itself in the Hamil anthology of poets against the second Iraq War that came out last year–as important as it was for us to raise our voices against the Bush administration and all it represents, most of the poems in the collection were trivial. Largely, I think, because of the attitude I’m speaking about.

Anyway, I have always hoped that my poems would be viewed as political, as
activist, that they protest injustice while at the same time not devolving into familiar lefty pieties or agit-prop. Sometimes what your question calls a “documentary” approach is one way of achieving this, and I often find myself focusing on moments of crisis or traumatic events because those events tend to focus and allegorize injustice, bring it into high relief, both in terms of the poems’ ideology and of its craft. Do these treatments run the risk of being gratuitous? Sure, that’s the danger one faces when writing such poetry, as you see in the work of three of my favorite contemporary poets, Dubie, Seidel, and Ai. As much as I love their work, certain of their poems give me the creeps, for the very reasons you cite in your question. But part of the bravery of their poems comes from their willingness to risk the gratuitous, risk seeming to glamorize violence and injustice even as they attempt to condemn it. Needless to say, that challenge isn’t a new one for poets, since it’s been with us ever since Homer and the Gilgamesh epic.

Your second question is a lot easier to address. I use the asterisks between lines almost exclusively in sonnets, and perhaps in some degree it IS “a cosmetic choice,” insofar as the asterisks are designed in part to prevent the reader from immediately recognizing the poem as a sonnet, and therefore immediately reading into the poem all the rhetorical and formal and thematic baggage which we bring to sonnets. I want to withhold that knowledge, at least initially, dishevel or partly disassemble the sonnet while still partaking of the sonnet’s rich traditions. It’s a matter of wanting your cake and eating it too, I suppose. The asterisks also, perhaps just as importantly, call some attention to individual lines, something readers of contemporary poetry are simply not as attentive to as they should be, whether they’re reading free verse or things in fixed form.


The times, being what they are, do you feel more urgency to write political poems? Should poets, as Shelley argued, act as �unofficial legislators� or should they follow Yeats: �I think it better that in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right.� Thank you.

Patty Paine — Richmond, Virginia

Good to hear from you, Patty, and your question is something of a follow-up to the previous one.

Despite what I said about the Hamil anthology, I want to say as emphatically as I can that American poets are going to continue to marginalize themselves and continue their sad devolution toward solipsism unless we challenge ourselves to write more poems which address matters of politics, especially now, given that the Bush administration is demonic, and dead set on moving the country toward a t theocracy.

But it’s still a question of finding credible ways of writing against those people and what they represent, and writers with political agendas often don’t find credible ways, whatever credible means. Neruda, Hikmet, and Ritsos are three of my most beloved poets, but each of them wrote a lot of Stalinist drek, that undercuts the accomplishment of their finest poems, which are both personal and political. Again, it’s a question of how to do it compellingly as well as having the right sentiments.

I was thinking a lot this spring about Dante, and how seamless those moments in the Comedia are where Dante meets his political opponents in hell and purgatory. His artistry is so compelling and forceful that it never seems like he’s simply cleverly settling grudges; he’s making a case that those reprobate Florentines BELONG in hell, and you never question it. Our goal should be to aspire to that sort of artistry, one which allows political content to seem inevitable and morally unassailable, for the sake of the art as well as for the politics.
< > a side note: I was so interested in this aspect of Dante that one of my latest poems has a section which started out as a fairly straight translation of the twenty-sixth canto of THE INFERNO, the one where Dante and Virgil meet the “givers of fraudulent counsel”–not the mere liars, but those who tell The Big Lies. In the process of this, however, I realized I had to put George W. Bush down there, there in the eight circle. So Dante and Virgil encounter him, encased in a ball of fire forever. I hew fairly closely to Dante’s language and approach in the piece, try to follow his kinds of similes and a loose terza rima. It’s both homage to a great poet, however inadequate, and a placing of George W. where he so rightly belongs. Mind you, this is only a section of a longer poem.


How do you decide how to lineate your poems?

MGT — The �city that reads�

When I write in free verse, it’s always trial and error, so that a draft of a poem might start in short lines, then try long lines, throw in the towel and try it as a prose poem, before going back to short lines again, and so forth. With metrical poems–and I write more of those than I do poems in free verse–it’s of course a lot easier.


In an earlier Poets Q&A, Campbell McGrath writes: “Meter does not play any part in my poetic process. Rhythm and breath and musicality, including many of the traditional tropes and tricks of the trade, but not meter.” What is your opinion on why many contemporary poets seem to have an aversion to meter and form?

Hope Griswold — Norwood, Ohio

You know, I don’t think contemporary poets have an aversion to form, and I wonder if Campbell isn’t being a bit disingenuous here, insofar as he’s written a number of very fine poems in received forms, in meter, or using a nonce form that owes a lot more to received forms than it does to free verse.

When I was in graduate school in the ’70s, the conventional wisdom was that
meter and form were dead, becoming as extinct as the Neanderthal, and
practiced only BY Neanderthals. But that’s not the case anymore; students I
work with almost always are eager to study metrics and form, and find it
invigorating to work in meter and form. They rarely do so exclusively, but
the sense that there was some sort of polarity between received forms and
free verse that pertained in the sixties and seventies–I remember one of my
teachers gleefully quoting William Carlos Williams’ contention that the
sonnet was a t form–just doesn’t exist anymore. The problem is
perhaps not about poets “having an aversion to meter and form” as much as it
is that American poets are too-often willing to let slack and unadventuresome writing, be it in free verse or in form, be acceptable.


Who do you trust the most to read your work?

jds — Columbus, OH

My wife, and three or four friends who have read my work with care for twenty-odd years.


How important is it to read your work aloud to an audience?

Jeremiah J. — Garrison

Crucially important, though it’s important to make a distinction between honoring the poem’s inherent sonorities and formal integrity through reading it before an audience and merely reading a poem because it’s a crowd pleaser. The former is in some ways one of the last steps in the revisions process–you see if the poem can bear up under a public reading, and where it might be improved thanks to your experience of presenting it to an audience. The latter is just pandering, and lots of poets succumb to that.


What was your first publication? How did it make you feel? Were you later embarrased by it? When can a young poet know when to send that first batch out?

Chris Dean — ???

I don’t recall my earliest publication, but I did have a number of poems published in some pretty obscure places, the sorts of mimeographed and stapled things that proliferated in the ’70s, with names like (honest) THE GREAT CIRCUMPOLAR BEAR CULT, STEELHEAD, and ROAD APPLE REVIEW. None of this stuff made it into my first book, and I’m fairly relieved that I don’t have copies of any of it.

When to send out? As soon as you feel that the work is strong enough to be seen by an editor. But you of course need to be prepared for the work to be rejected many times before you finally get something in a decent journal.


How important is criticism in shaping your work? Is it easier to receive criticism now than, say, 15 years ago?

Mary — Trenton, NY

I don’t know if criticism is ever easy to take, but I’m more receptive to constructive criticism than I once was, if only because I’m older and can trust that if the newest work isn’t always successful, I at least have a
body of work behind me.


Who are you biggest influences outside of Literature? And �inside�?

Rebecca A. — Newport, Kentucky

Singers, mostly, especially Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Richard Thompson, Paul Kelly, and a few others. Visual artists: Richard Diebenkorn, Donald Evans, among others.

I’ve already mentioned some of the poets who continue to inspire me, but I’d
add to the list Cesar Vallejo, Weldon Kees, Cesare Pavese, Tomas Transtromer and C.P. Cavafy.


I heard or read you quote one of your former teachers somewher, who said something like, “the task of writing poetry is to say the most difficult thing?” When does one know one has it in them to say the most difficult thing? I mean, as poet no longer young, and unpublished, and, let me be honest, abashed by how much poetry is out there–how does one get over that hurdle of feeling as if this stuff I’ve been writing for years and years is really all that necessary?

Charlie — DC

I wish I could say something by way of consolation regarding self-doubts, but of self-doubt all serious poets are composed, and one who lives in a state of self-doubt is probably a better poet than one who thinks his work is of great merit.


I’ve read quite a few of your poems. One of my favorites is “My Father’s Pornography,” but I could never figure out why the intrusion of the Emperor Hirohito. Would you mind explaining?

RT — Nowhere in Maryland

Hirohito’s death happened to coincide with the writing of the poem you mention, and I guess the allusion has something also to do with patriarchal matters which are one of the things which the poem seeks to address.


Has any of your work appeared in online journals? Do you think online magazines diminish the ethos of print publishing?

Rajiv S. — West Seneca

Online journals seem no better or no worse than print journals, though I do sometimes worry about how the huge proliferation of publishing venues for poets, at a time when (paradoxically) poets seem increasingly marginalized by this culture, might dilute the validity and integrity of our writing.

David Wojahn