Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Interview

I am prepared. I have studied my questions very carefully. I know what it is I want to know and know therefore what to ask. 

The above seems to be a standard approach to any kind of interview. I know what it is I want to know and know therefore what to ask.  If it were that simple.

On Wednesday, October 3rd, I will ask Richard Wilbur five questions. I know what I want to know. I am prepared.

But the truth is, five questions will not be enough. Every time I read a Wilbur poem (even if it is a poem I have read a hundred times, like Love Calls Us to the Things of This World or A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness), I have more questions.

What that tells me is that the poems are THAT good. Who doesn't change over time? Poems, unlike corporations, are alive forever. They represent the inner selves of their creators. They represent and present themselves to readers/listeners. An interview, a series of questions, is only able to capture where the reader and the poems are in that moment. Next year, the reader will have a different view perhaps or be in a different frame of mind or situation as he/she encounters the poems. But I have promised to ask five questions and only five. I have no wish to exhaust the poet in any way. I do not want to press him to go beyond a comfortable session. I am willing to limit. What this has done for me is quite marvelous. It has forced me to focus. It has forced me to consider what is important to me in Wilbur's work of a lifetime. Imagine an interview that is a total REview. Unwieldy and awkward. Presumptuous. Rude perhaps. Five questions is plenty. IF they are really good questions. I know what I want to know.

Now imagine a focused conversation. Meeting Richard Wilbur has been on the top of my "bucket list" for a decade and a half. This interview is more than that. As a serious poet, I want to KNOW about him as a poet, not just iconically, but as a worker over words and ideas. I think of his poem, He Was when I think of his laboring over his poems. Unlike the speaker of the poem,  I want to let myself see him as a real person. Despite a bit of admitted hero worship, I want to be aware of the reality of this man who writes the most beautiful poetry I have ever read. I believe that he has laid solid ground for so many poets and readers who have encountered his work:  Having planted a young orchard with so great care (New and Collected Poems, 1988, He Was, p. 332, line 13).

I want to see his poems as perhaps he intended them to be seen and known. Oh I am not going to ask him what made him think of writing this poem or that poem. I know why we write, what gets to us that makes us unable to stop writing. I want instead to know how the world, filled with things and sensibly full at that, drives him to save it on paper. I want to ask about how he and my father both served in WWII and came home alive to make families and go on despite what they saw of war. I want to find out how my father, a dropout at eighth grade, decided to write a poem in 1992 when he revisited his foxhole and the place where he was captured, even though he never wrote another poem before or after. I hope to discover the genealogy of poetry that Wilbur and my father share.

Moreover, I want to listen to his voice as we talk, and have it in my head as I write about his poems or read them in the future. I want to be in the room with that big vocabulary and those big ideas about the world. I want, above all things, to be able to write about his work in a way that honors it and him.

I am prepared. I have studied my questions very carefully. I know what it is I want to know and know therefore what to ask.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Welcome to a Beheaded Thursday

Have you ever awakened to the feeling of being disconnected to everything around you? It's like the head you laid on the pillow the night before has been severed and remains in the dream state while the body gets up, dresses itself and moves on to the day. Welcome to a beheaded Thursday.

Actually, I'd rather have the head part going onward and leave the body in sleep. The body needs so much tending: feeding, washing, dressing, brushing teeth, all that necessary "stuff" of morning. For me, today was one of those "shot out of a canon" mornings. I had forgotten to pick up the farm share yesterday afternoon, mostly because the head was on duty and in the world of poetry. So, my hubby, who normally gets up early woke me to remedy my faux pas. I threw on clothing (do I like what I'm wearing right now? NO) and drove to pick up the goodies from the farmer who is by fall and winter a teacher. I think that redeems my boo-boo from yesterday. But the point here is that the body was up shockingly early and the head was not ready for prime time. The head, you see, was working late which required the body to hang around the office.

I'm prepping for the big interview with poet Richard Wilbur, which is one day less than a week from now. The head is revved up with possible questions and a desire to read more of Wilbur's poems before the interview, just to be better prepared and to be completely IN the work. The body, however, got worn out in a hurry and pushed itself beyond the normal late night limits of a body and then had to jerk itself up and out way too early. What happens when I have these late night sessions is that the body needs to rest more the next day and the head needs to be a work while this is going on. This morning the head stayed home while the body drove off into the sunshine for veggies and a chicken. Beheaded Thursday indeed.

I am happy to report however, that the head is awake now and replete with dreamed interest and materials. This happens. Dreaming, I can vouch, is a helpful state for writers. Much happens in the head during REM sleep. I am lucky that the part of my brain which works as a ghost-writer has a photographic memory. I awakened with some great ideas for the interview and a sense of things being pretty well jelled, save for the fifth question to ask Wilbur (I said I'd limit the interview to five questions).

A fascinating thing about the beheaded state is that Fate sometimes intervenes and brings a serendipity along to help. This happened today and took the persona of my 20 year old grandson, Christopher who just happened to spend part of last evening in discussion with his college mates over a Wilbur poem, Still, Citizen Sparrow as well as Wallace Stevens' anecdote of the jar poem. Christopher and I ended up in  a brief chat on FB a bit ago about these two poems and poets, with my asserting that Wilbur and his poem far outdo Stevens and his. (No disagreement there from Brilliant Grandson). The resultant serendipity: I asked Christopher if he had a question he'd like me to ask Wilbur next Wednesday, a question HE might ask if he were there with me. Fate, in the person of my grandson, has now provided me with the fifth question. I had four solid ones before this morning and now I am ready. The question he posed fits perfectly as a segue from one of my questions. AHA!

The whole grandson in the mix part of the upcoming interview is a wonderful thing. First of all, it reinforces for me that Wilbur is not passé as some in my grad school program were wont to suggest. (Aaaargh, meter: just making it OLD was the hue and cry)

More important than that, it shows that generations after generations are still asking wonderful questions of poets and poems.

Even more important than both of those things is the relationship I have in poetry realms with Brilliant Grandson. He may not write poetry (YET), but he loves reading and thinking about it. It's a start.

The body is now demanding breakfast. It's 1039 AM so I guess I ought to meet the demands. The head, however, is grumbling about how much there is to think about before next Wednesday.

Beheaded Thursday indeed!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The work ahead

Well, today will be a big day for me. I will phone Richard Wilbur to set up the appointment he has agreed to regarding my work on my study of his complete poems. He has agreed to answer five questions. Of course this presumes I have five excellent questions for him. I have been thinking long and hard what it is I want to ask him, what I want to know about his work. I could seriously spend the entire interview time asking questions about what I consider to be five of his best poems (I will list them later). But if I did that, I would miss getting to his view on poetry and on the world his poems inhabit. So I will spring forward into my questions, armed with those poems that might be reference points for the five things I will ask him.

I have loved the poems of Wilbur for a long time. They have a majesty and mastery of diction for one thing. I read a poem and immediately begin asking myself how he "did that." I want to know about his line breaks, his way into and through a poem, his sense of musicality, his ideas about revision. I want to be inside his head. My own head is spinning a bit at the idea that shortly I will be sitting one on one with the greatest American poet of our time. His "career" has spanned over seven decades if not longer (he is 92) and he's been US Poet Laureate, won not one, but two Pulitzers, has been massively published. He had a long and happy marriage to the girl of his dreams and they had a lovely family together. He has gone to war and come home again to write about it. For me, this rich and fruitful lifetime has given him and us as his readers a microcosm of the American experience. We only need to pick up a few poems to see our own place in the world he describes. It is this very thing that makes me want to share my own experience of his poems with others. Where do I think he stands in the world of American poetry? At the top of it all.

I therefore have embarked upon this larger-than-I-thought project, to read and annotate every poem (or nearly every poem) of the great man and write a "biography" of the poems. Not a biography of Wilbur per se, but of his writing. I want it to become a conversation I have with readers and poets of this age. I want to inflame other readers with a love of the poems that so inflame me and inform my own writing every day. Will this be some dreary academic effort? By no means. I hope it will be a conduit of reflection over the work, a way "in" for others. So, the five questions. Hmmmm, the five questions. I have to focus on the five questions and stop being nervous about the meeting. I can do this.

Oh, so you might be asking yourself which five of his poems I consider his best. Here they are, not in any particular order save the first, which I consider to be as close to a perfect poem as one might get.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The Writer
First Snow in Alsace
To An American Poet Just Dead
The House

I must say that, with except for the first poem on the list, I might almost exchange any of the next four with four others. I choose these because they have done something visceral to me as I read them. The last on this list has especially affected me. It is a poem that alludes lovingly to Wilbur's wife, now deceased. It suggests a loneliness and a longing to be reunited with her, while realizing now is not the moment. It is poignant, but not at all maudlin. That's the thing about Wilbur: he can DO that with such grace and deliberateness that we do not get annoyed and call him "confessional." We simply sigh and understand him. We who are poets sigh, understand him, and want to write LIKE him.

As I sit here writing this, my eyes wander to the battered copy of his New and Collected Poems, replete with the word COYOTE stamped on it from my undergraduate university bookstore. I itch to get back into the poems. Today, however, I will read and annotate poems from his last two books, Mayflies (2000) and Anterooms (2010). I'm also keen on knowing if he is sitting at his own desk today, writing something new.