Thursday, December 25, 2008

#12 - Mark Wunderlich

How often had you sent out The Anchorage before it was chosen for publication by The University of Massachusetts Press?

The manuscript was in circulation for about three years. I was very eager to have it published—no surprise there—but that eagerness blinded me to some of the manuscript’s flaws. I had an early version of the book which I had worked on as my MFA thesis at Columbia, and I promptly got that into the mail. The first year out, that manuscript became a finalist for the NPS. There is something particularly cruel about that contest in that finalists are notified of their status months in advance. The next many weeks morph into a looming preoccupation with the tedious business of poetry contests. I remember it as a time of wild fantasy and hope—all of it built on an incredibly teetery foundation. I didn’t win, though I learned one of the judges had chosen it as a runner up, and had gone with the more mature writer, thinking (and this may be apocryphal—I was told this all second-hand) that I would have my chance eventually, and the older writer should have her due. I found bitter comfort in that news, and in the next couple years my manuscript got knocked out of that competition early on, which was discouraging. Ultimately it was for the best. That same year I received a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and I moved to Cape Cod to spend three seasons writing new poems and making the manuscript sharper, smarter and more substantial. The place and those months changed my work and my life and helped me make The Anchorage a better book..

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

The book found its shape rather early on. I had the bones of it in place while I was in graduate school and had it divided into four sections. Lucie Brock-Broido had just arrived at Columbia, and we spent a couple late nights at her kitchen table, smoking, and making decisions about the order of poems. I kept much of that as it stood.

I very much liked the process of assembling the poems into an order. Making a book is its own discrete task. One reads the poems and begins to shape a kind of narrative that exists somewhere above the individual poems. A new life emerges, somehow—one created by the book itself. I saw a new self emerge from it like a twin that was of me, but not me at all. It’s an odd experience, and one I found very heady and engaging.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Was there a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I wanted the poems to be in journals, and the manuscript to find a publisher. I was tremendously ambitious and organized about the whole matter. I funneled all the anxiety about my invisibility in the world of arts and letters into the administrative details of keeping work in circulation. Publishing individual poems was always exciting—it still is. At this point in my career, I’m a little embarrassed by the ambition I had, and by my desire for recognition. I’m more embarrassed of the feelings of loathing I felt at the success of others whom I deemed less talented or deserving. I think competitiveness is a mainstay of the world of writing, and it tends to live a subterranean and nocturnal life, replaced in the public discourse with pieties about the noble pursuit of art. The reality is more complicated, and more painful for most who write. I try to let my students know that the real pleasure—the enduring pleasure of writing— is the act itself. The other great pleasure is in reading and understanding the work of others. The other stuff just makes your soul smaller. How’s that for piety?

The book is in four sections, but the third section is entirely comprised of prose poems. Was it planned like this, or did you see them fitting as a section of the book later in the process?

The prose poems weren’t written as a group, but were added piece by piece while I worked on other poems. When I began to shape the book, it fell into quarters and it made sense to me to keep the prose poems together as a group. I have always loved reading letters, and the letters of writers are one of my favorite sorts of books to read. I thought of that section as a collection of letters—like a pack of them you’d find in a desk drawer. The prose poems were conceived as letters to the Beloved who was a figment and a conflation and a missing body, all at once.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

The book was so pretty! It was such a beautiful object! The pages had that excellent library smell! The cover was gorgeous! There was no part of it I did not love. I had one hour of pure, uncomplicated happiness. I thought my elementary school librarian would have been so proud. As the day went on, my mood was punctuated by flickers of doubt, until the reality of the situation came crashing down upon me: What had I done? I was utterly unprepared for the day when I got the one thing I wanted more than anything else. And so I took to my bed. I was in a funk for weeks, feeling both exposed and embarrassed by publication.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

I had one of those rare experiences in that I got just what I wanted for the cover. The image, a photograph of a Roman bronze sculpture of a soldier, was taken by an Italian photographer named Mimo Jodice. As soon as I saw the photograph, I knew it would be perfect. UMass press encouraged me to contact the photographer directly to ask permission, which I did. A friend of mine who spoke Italian wrote to the photographer in my behalf, and a deal was struck. The press had a small sum of money available to pay for the image. When I found out how much it would cost (too much), I wrote a second letter that aimed to both flatter and beg. The photographer’s wife, who managed these affairs, liked the idea of helping a young poet, and so the price was reduced, a slide was packed up and mailed to Amherst and it became the cover.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

The degree and extent to which I anticipated that moment can hardly be fathomed; that state of anticipation was marked by an extraordinary degree of psychological naïveté. In short, I wanted to be (in the small way poets are) famous. How embarrassing it is write that, but it’s true. Granted, I think that urge may have been somewhat less shallow than that which drives people to become contestants on Temptation Island or Fear Factor or The Amazing Race, but not by much. Anyone who writes and publishes has to believe that they are worthy of being heard by more people than can be reached with a simple phone call. A big part of writing is really a narcissistic urge.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

Some really lovely things happened as a result of the book being published. I got letters from people who read it and liked it, and were moved to write to me. I did a book signing at the Grolier Bookstore in Cambridge and when I arrived the window of the store was filled with copies of my book—a huge display. I was invited to take part in an arts festival in San Francisco. For the event I was paired in a reading with Adrienne Rich and, in addition to reading my own work, I was asked to introduce her. She is, of course, a poetry rock star, and there were 500 people at the reading to see her, and as the opening band, they heard me too. It was such an honor to share a stage with her and a bit of an out-of-body experience. Each of those things surprised me. I sometimes marvel at the good fortune of all that.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

I can’t really think of anything that, had it been said to me, I would have had the sense to listen to. Why give anyone advice? Each publication experience is different. I was particularly lucky in that the book got attention. Most first books of poems don’t get a great deal of attention (actually most poetry books, period). The best advice would be to Lower Your Expectations, but who wants to hear that? Why not let someone anticipate good things and hope for the best?

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

The Anchorage was, for a first book (actually for any book of poems) quite widely reviewed. I know writers who make a point of never reading their reviews lest they read something wounding or debilitating. I am not that person. I poured over my reviews, memorized them, practically. There were a couple very nice ones, more mixed-positive reviews and many more rotten ones than I could fathom. There was a tone in several reviews that seemed bent on bringing me down to size, deposing me from whatever cushy, well-funded clusterfuck they imagined I inhabited. I was just a guy in his 20’s who published a book and didn’t have health insurance and was struggling to work and pay rent and have friends and write poems, and I realized that what I had was coveted and resented in the same way I had periodically resented and envied the achievements of others. Although my first reaction to these bad reviews was defensive, I also knew that much of what they said might be true. Every review has a subtext, a position or world view they support, and then there is the text of the thing itself—the intersection of taste and rhetoric. In some way I internalized those reviews and thought about them as I wrote new poems. Instead of stopping me, they helped me. They certainly made me tougher and more resolved.

Your second book, Voluntary Servitude, was published a few years ago, and I’d like to talk a little bit about that. First of all, there seems to be more utilization of white space, and a more highly compressed style of poetry than The Anchorage. Was this a natural progression in the years after The Anchorage, or was there a conscious effort at this compression of language and style for the book?

After publishing The Anchorage I soon hatched the idea of writing a book of poems around An Idea; I decided that what I needed was a project. I started writing these historical poems, poems based on folk tales, and they were just plain bad. Dead on arrival. Zombie poems dug from the grave of my first book. There was no urgency in them—they read like a project. All Haunt and no House. I printed the manuscript out one night, went to sleep, and when I woke and read it in the sober morning light, I knew it was shite. I took the manuscript, walked it down the hall of my apartment building in the Mission District, and chucked it down the garbage chute.

Voluntary Servitude was born, many months later, on the back of a post card I wrote to myself in Provincetown. I had withdrawn there for a month to read, go to the beach and chase boys and one day while writing a postcard, I penned a line that read to me like a line of a poem. I wrote a few more lines and soon the card was full. I wrote my own address on it and mailed it to San Francisco. Over the next few days I wrote more of these, and when I returned home and opened my mailbox, out fell these cards with the fragmented beginnings of poems. Those became the core poems of VS. I saw in these postcards a terseness, a tighter and more compressed line, and I knew that the more declamatory, self-assured voice of The Anchorage had been exterminated. In my early 30’s I found myself marveling at the self-assurance conveyed by those earlier poems. Voluntary Servitude was partly an effort to put that particular unmediated voice to rest, and, if that weren’t quite possible, I at least wanted to complicate matters. I knew also that I wanted the book to move from beginning to end with no pauses or breaks to enact a single gesture.

One of the reasons I’m glad you decided to do an interview was the fact that I haven’t seen any of your work in recent journals or magazines, and I’d like to know if you could shed some light on that. Are you working on a new book?

I am working on a new book and made good progress on it this last summer. My work slowed down when I got a real job. I teach at Bennington College, and though there are many marvelous things about this job, small colleges also demand a great deal from their faculty members. (The whole point of sending your kid to one of these places is to get them lots of individual attention which means demanding a lot from the faculty). I am just now getting my footing and finding time to get my own work done. Also, my partner and I bought an old, deeply messed-up house a few years ago and have become a gay cliché by pouring our energy into its tasteful restoration. That has often been more compelling to me than sitting with my own thoughts and writing. That being said, I’ve got a manuscript nearing completion I’m pretty excited about.

Why haven’t we seen any of these poems in journals or magazines?

These new poems, although not at all in the confessional mode, seem very personal to me. As a consequence I have been rather protective of them. I was in no hurry to have anyone read these poems, and have instead kept them home, not allowed them to date. Some of the poems meditate on ideas of faith and God and I find even typing that here to be a difficult confession. At some point I had a sense that the poems may actually be bad, though I don’t care anymore if they are. I’m compelled by them and want to keep writing them, and maybe someone will want to read them. I have a small group of coming out in Poetry, and others will, with any luck, be on the way soon.

Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?

I have been a reader and judge for a number of contests, and I can’t stress enough the need to get the reader’s attention from the get-go. A boring first poem is often enough to get your manuscript tossed. A boring second poem almost certainly will. Be audacious. Surprise the reader and whatever you do, don’t think you know what the judge is looking for based on some notion you might have of their taste, as in, “She would never like my work, so I’m not going to send my manuscript.”

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

That depends how you define change. If you are thinking of change in terms of political policy, or inciting riots, or shaping political movements, the answer is no. And thank goodness. Those ideas of change are real, but also pedestrian, common, worldly and as the Quakers used to say, “of the Creature,”—not the province of the imagination. Political change is basically about hard work. It’s dull, often frustrating, relies on absolutes, and you have to have an appetite for it to do it successfully. If by change you also mean small movements of the spirit, or an expansion in one’s mind which tunes it to the possibilities of language and human yearning, if by change you mean bringing the voices of the dead back to life, or being able to imagine someone else’s world or experiences, if by change you mean making the impossible imaginable by rendering it into language, then yes—poetry creates change. The changes it creates are mostly invisible and impossible to measure but they are, in the end, the kinds of changes that make us more expansive, more tenderly human, more capable of love, less lonely, more generous. Any attempts to belittle those kinds of changes, or dismiss them are typically generated by sad, narrow, rigid, bullying minds. Good poetry resists stupidity.

Mark Wunderlich’s first volume of poetry, The Anchorage, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1999 and received the Lambda Literary Award. His second volume, Voluntary Servitude, was published by Graywolf Press in 1994. He is the recipient of fellowships from Stanford University, the NEA, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Amy Lowell Trust. His work has appeared in journals such as the Paris Review, Yale Review, Slate, Poetry, Ploughshares, among others, and his poems have been widely anthologized. He has taught at Stanford and Barnard College and in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, San Francisco State University and Ohio University. As an arts administrator, he served as the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers Conference, and has worked for the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, Inc., the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was an Arts Administration Fellow. He is currently teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
  • Buy The Anchorage at Amazon
  • Buy Voluntary Servitude at Amazon