Franz Wright is the author of fifteen volumes of poetry, including Ill Lit: New and Selected Poems (1998), The Beforelife (2001), Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2003), and God’s Silence (2006). He is also the translator of work by René Char, Erica Pedretti, and Rainer Maria Rilke. In 2004, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. He is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Whiting Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the PEN/Voelcker Award for poetry. The son of poet James Wright, he began writing as a teenager. When he sent his first poem to his father, who was no longer living with the family, James Wright wrote back: “You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.” James and Franz Wright are the only father and son to have won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Born in Vienna, Wright grew up in the Midwest and Northern California. He has taught at Emerson College and the University of Arkansas. He has also worked in a mental health clinic in Lexington, Massachusetts, and as a volunteer at the Center for Grieving Children. At the age of sixteen, he suffered from his first episode of clinical depression. He was later diagnosed as manic depressive. For many years, Wright battled alcoholism and drug addiction along with depression. He is now in recovery, a transition he chronicles in his recent volumes of poetry, which also explore his Catholic faith. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Beth. He was interviewed by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler.
Image: When did you first know that you wanted to write? Was there any experience in particular that drew you to writing poetry?
Franz Wright: I was pretty well-read by the time I was fourteen, but it never occurred to me to write. I was interested in being a musician or a scientist. Then something happened when I was about fifteen. People have asked me this question before, and I say these ridiculous things like, “It hit me like a lightning bolt.” That wasn’t really true. In the summer my mother and stepfather and I used to go to Clear Lake, California, up above Napa Valley. I woke up early one morning and had a strange feeling. I took a walk around dawn out into a walnut orchard, and I sat down. This ecstasy came over me, and I started to write. I ended up writing a seven-line poem. I sent it off to my dad, and we started corresponding about it. It was clear to me that I had to have this sensation again. I had never felt anything like this. I felt that this was what I was supposed to do. From that day I never stopped being obsessed with this sense that I had a calling to do this. There was something mystical about it, like a religious calling. Everything else would have to go. It was a kind of dread I felt. I thought I could see my whole future. I would probably have to give up any idea of having a normal life. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because later the real reason that I didn’t have a life was that I was a drunk, and I was crazy. But I think I felt, as a kid, long before I ever got into trouble with drugs and mental illness, that poetry was what I was supposed to do. It made me happy in a way that nothing else did. There was no other comparable experience in my life. I have always lived for that sensation, what I felt when I wrote that first poem.
Image: What made you think you had to give up a normal life in order to be a poet?
FW: I don’t know. That was my instinct. I felt that there were people who could successfully negotiate the real world and at the same time be artists. And there were some people who had a lot of difficulty with normal life. There were a lot of people, whose poetry I was aware of, who were not capable of doing anything else but be an artist. They led difficult, sad lives. I was very much afraid that I was one of those people. It turned out to be true. It wasn’t a choice. It felt inevitable to me.
Image: Was your father one of those people whose art made for a difficult life?
FW: No, my father had a very successful life. My father was not a particularly competent person outside the world of teaching, but within that world, he was superbly competent and powerful. He was one of the real teachers. There were a number of them, like Berryman, Roethke, my father. To hear them talk about literature was a phenomenal education. His was the most brilliant talk I have ever heard. It was comparable to what people say about Oscar Wilde or Samuel Johnson. He gave these incredible, endless, inspired monologues about literature. He talked about characters in fiction as if they were real people he was personally acquainted with. He talked about Catullus as if he lived next door. In the classroom he was great. He was able to make a living as a teacher. My father was very big on responsibility and taking care of himself, on having some kind of a life and then from that foundation pursuing the writing.
But I wasn’t like that, even though I did very well in school. I had problems partly due to my upbringing and my father’s absence. My mother married a man who was very brutal and who abused us physically. He beat up me and my brother. We were shattered from our parents’ divorce. I was about eleven or twelve when I got this stepfather, and that kind of finished me off. By the time I was eighteen, I felt like a broken person. I was terrified of the world. I had no idea how I would live. Going to Oberlin saved me for a while, but I was dreading the day when that would be over. I did try to go to graduate school at UC Irvine with Charles Wright. Even that was too much reality for me. I couldn’t stand the atmosphere in the academic world. I remember leaving graduate school after the first six months and thinking, this is the real fork in the road.
My father’s influence was so pervasive, and I was very proud, as a kid, of being his son. I think I had an exaggerated idea of who he was in the world. Now I realize what it means to be a famous poet. I’m a famous poet. It doesn’t mean shit. When I was a kid, I thought my father was a godlike figure. I started publishing when I was nineteen, and people would say, “Well, it’s easier for you because of your father.” Looking back, I think the contrary was the case. When I hear of the child of an established writer trying to write and publish now, my first reaction is always skeptical. That wouldn’t have occurred to me when I was a kid, but it occurs to me now, and I’m sure people saw me that way.
Image: A lot of writers talk about how writing keeps them sane and helps them make sense of their lives. Has that been true for you?
FW: I can say that writing gave me a reason to try to be well as much as possible. Whenever the illness or drinking got really out of hand, writing gave me a reason to say “wait a minute” and to try to pull myself together and get well. I don’t think there’s anything particularly therapeutic about writing. Just the opposite. Writing drives people crazy. But writing gave me a powerful sense of calm and mission. I had to shape up for it, from time to time.
I perceive the world in terms of language, as I think any real writer does. From the time I was a kid, even just through reading, I felt that it was like having two lives, like living twice, as some Japanese poet put it. I had the good fortune to have this second infinity, this second universe, inside of me, which I carried around with me. It’s like being in love, like having a wonderful secret. It makes the world radiant. I needed something to make things alive. I found that in my love of poetry. Not just writing it, but in the love of poetry itself. I always thought of writing poetry as an attempt to be part of that company of people who made this reality possible in the world.
I remember very early having the sense that there is one poet in the world, and sometimes if you’re very lucky and you work very hard, you get to be the poet for a while. The rest of the time, you’re trying to earn your way back to being the poet for a moment. Meanwhile, you love poetry itself. It still makes me uncomfortable to call myself a poet. I think of myself as someone in the service of poetry. If I happen to be in that blessed state of consciousness where I am able to write, I guess at that moment I’m a poet.
Image: What is this blessed state of consciousness that allows you to write?
FW: I don’t know where it comes from. I never have. It’s almost as if a physiological change comes over me. Then I am articulate and perceptive to a degree that I simply am not most of the time, in my normal state of mind. I try to write every day. To me, ninety-nine percent of the time that means a confrontation with how stupid I am. When this mood comes over me in which I do my best work, I feel a sense of brilliance and ease. I live for these moments, but they are so rare that if I were to only wait for them, I would write two poems a year. I try to work for several hours a day to dredge up and amass material that might be useful when this mood of inspiration comes over me. But I believe it’s a terrible mistake to wait for inspiration. I seek it.
And I’ve sought it in lots of wrong ways—drugs, sexual promiscuity, all kinds of deplorable behavior. I hope that I am changing, but for most of my life, I used any intense experience as a means to inspiration. Sometimes that worked. Usually it just ended up hurting me and other people, of course. I know now that’s not really where inspiration comes from. It comes from somewhere else. All I can do is to be ready for it, to orient myself toward it, to wish for it, to desire it, to try to be worthy of it. There’s a tremendous humility that’s required, a willingness to fail and fail and fail your way into those fleeting periods of genuine inspiration.
Image: It sounds like you are describing a spiritual experience.
FW: They have elements in common, but I think they are different. I try not to confuse them. Moments of spiritual and religious certainty, moments of creative inspiration, and intense moments of love for another being or for the world—they all have similar emotional coloring, but I think of them as distinct. When I’m in an artistic state of inspiration, I am very ruthless and selfish. I will do absolutely anything to maintain it. I will sacrifice myself and anyone else who happens to be nearby. It reminds me more of the ecstasy of crime in a way, to tell you the truth. It’s a problem. One thing it has in common with spiritual states of exultation is that to get to them you must go through long, arid, terrible, painful periods. You have to go through them with the same joy and willingness and availability that you go through the good periods.
From my own experience, looking back now, it is clear to me that everything that gives the appearance of being a fortunate and good and happy experience is its opposite and leads to disaster. And everything that appears to be a disaster and is painful and horrible leads to a state of spiritual awakening. So I am much more able to accept as a good thing these painful periods in which inspiration seems to desert me altogether. That means that it’s on its way.
Image: Seven years ago you became a Catholic. What led you to become a practicing Christian?
FW: I had always loved Christianity—the beautiful language and rituals, the history, the greatness of the first followers of Jesus. I have always admired their incredible, horrific acts of faith in the face of a reality that probably makes ours look like a picnic. To live in the Roman Empire in that time must have been so profoundly terrible that it makes even the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as bad as they are, look good. These people’s incredible, miraculous belief in something physically impossible was intriguing to me intellectually. I studied early Christianity in college, and I maintained an interest in it, particularly the German Protestant theologians of the twentieth century who developed ways of studying the texts of the New Testament, in an attempt to determine, for one thing, which were the authentic words of Jesus. The early Christian communities interested me very much. Wherever I happened to be living over the years, I always found myself wandering into Catholic churches. My mother is Greek and took me to Greek Orthodox services as a child, but for some reason, I was always drawn to Catholic churches. I would wander into them, sit in the back, and attend mass. When I became a Catholic, I had been sick for a very long time, two and a half years. I thought I had lost my mind and that writing was over for me completely. I was suicidal.
Then something happened. I met the young woman I would marry, and I stopped drinking. I started to get better. I moved to Waltham, where we live now. One day, as I did most days, I found a Catholic church and sat in the back for mass. On this morning, it just came over me. I thought, “Why not become one of those people I admire so much?” People who believe something is possible, who refuse not to believe it. Christianity is my tradition. It could be Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism—I believe these are all different languages for the same experience—but the Catholic tradition is where I feel happy and at home. It seems to me the summation of all of the attempts to live this life of belief in the impossible. So I followed the priest after mass on this particular morning and said, “How do I join?” In those days, I looked pretty horrible, like I had been beat up. My clothes were dirty. I didn’t have any teeth. I weighed about sixty pounds more than I do now. I had fallen into this state of real despair. The priest was afraid of me, he told me later, but he took me into the initiation course. I attended those meetings, and after about a year, I was baptized. I was forty-seven years old. It was a very happy time for me.
Of course, right after I was baptized the whole sexual abuse scandal broke. All my friends were making fun of me to begin with, and then after that happened, they couldn’t let up. The problems with women’s issues, sexual issues, gay issues, all these political things, the weird, archaic, Byzantine politics of the church, the pope with his jewels and crowns and riches, the evil of certain priests—none of it bothers me. I would say, “What do you think the church is there for?” It’s not there for saints. It’s there because these are precisely the people who are aware of and believe in the existence of evil, who are all too aware of its reality. Evil’s power increases, as Dostoyevsky noticed, proportionately to our disbelief in it. To believe in its existence is to gain some leverage over it and to find some way through it. It’s people who dismiss the reality of evil who are in the greatest danger of succumbing to it. The church is a place for people who are vividly aware of their own evil and their own failings and do not wish to be evil, and who find with dismay that they are, again and again. That’s why there is mass every day. That’s why you have to be forgiven every day, because two hours after you leave, you become an evil person again, in terrible need of forgiveness. I don’t have a problem with the politics of the church. I believe that women will be ordained, possibly in our lifetime. I believe that things are going to change. In fact, I think the breaking of the sex abuse scandal will hasten those changes.
I feel excited and elated and grateful about formal participation in the church. To me, the church is the people at a weekday mass, the handful who are there in some little church. It’s not the Vatican or the pope. The lesson constantly reinforced in this is that other people are not who they appear to be, or what I wish them to be. Simone Weil noticed this. I myself am not what I wish to be or think I am. To know this is to be very close to actual forgiveness. And without forgiveness, everything is dead. Without my ability to forgive, I am dead. I can’t be forgiven. I know there is a connection in understanding that other people are in this struggle to rise beyond themselves. To see that in people, to know that about people and about oneself, I believe is really the key to everything.
Image: What does attendance at mass most do for you?
FW: It makes me happy. I have a different day if I go to mass in the morning than I do if I don’t. It makes me feel awake and alive and at home somewhat. During that period when I was being initiated, I would go to mass and I would no sooner sit down than entire poems would appear full-blown. I could see them in front of me, as if they were written out. It was all I could do to keep from running out of the church to write them down. I found out after a while that if I just kept calm, I would remember everything I needed to. This was the most astonishing experience of my life. I had not been able to write a word for three years before this. There was a period of about a year when I wrote all of the book that became The Beforelife. I probably wrote three times what’s in the book, but I cut it down to fifty poems. Then I started writing the next book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of those poems were written either walking to, during, or walking home from mass. I would get home and just type them out, and often I wouldn’t revise them.
Image: It is interesting that going to mass brought you back to poetry. Can you say more about the actual experience of the mass that helped this to happen?
FW: I had an experience that I imagine other people must have when they are surrounded by their families. It was of being in a place where you feel a completely unqualified acceptance and love, where you feel completely safe and at home. I had never felt that anywhere. The ritual of the mass seemed to be literally real but also a focusing of all the energy in the universe into this place. It was an experience of participation in the human family, like being at a meal with your family. I felt love from these complete strangers around me. I was able to carry that with me out into the world. It was clear that for my entire life I had felt absolutely terrified of other people and did everything possible to isolate myself. I didn’t work. I didn’t teach, except for a few jobs off and on. I lived in sinister places and surroundings, sometimes doing illegal things to survive, sometimes being homeless. I lived in great terror of the world and of other people. This new sense of unqualified acceptance and love was the most moving experience of my life. It made me want to write again.
One thing I need to make clear is that none of this would have happened without my wife, Beth. She is the real door to all of this for me. Beth had been a student of mine years ago, and we had lost contact for about seven years. She had gone on to graduate school and was in Berlin for a while. I contacted her when I was very sick. During that period of illness, I sat up one night writing Beth a letter. It was the first time I had used a typewriter in a year. It took me all night to write a two-paragraph letter. I sent it to her family’s home, and she got the letter and called me about two weeks later. We started meeting in town. I hadn’t been out of my house in a year, and I would have to get on a bus and a train to get into Boston. It was a very frightening experience. I wrote a poem about it called “Thanks Prayer at the Cove,” a description of the visions and psychotic hallucinations I would have on the train. Beth made it clear immediately that she was willing to be with me even if it meant taking care of me as an invalid. I think we had been in love a long time in an unspoken way. She’s this dazzling, beautiful young woman in her early thirties, and I’m this old, ugly, beat-up, junky failure. She made it clear that she was willing to take care of me for the rest of my life, and that gave me a desire and energy to get well.
I believe that God works through other human beings. I see this all the time in drug addiction and alcoholism recovery. We are all the agents of this energy—love—that comes to one another, but sometimes in such a shockingly clear and overwhelming way that it can completely change your life. To be with Beth meant this awakening. There’s something genuinely saintly about her. It really looked like she was going to be taking care of someone who was mentally an invalid when we were first together. I couldn’t bathe myself or dress myself for many months. I couldn’t get out of bed for eighteen hours a day. It was ugly. What Beth has done for me is completely undeserved on my part.
Image: How did this major change in your life influence your writing in terms of the style and tone?
FW: I don’t see the great change in my writing that some people have described. There was a change in tone and subject matter, somewhat—though there are some dark things in the three most recent books, and there are some happier poems in the early work. All that happened was that I was able to write again, after thinking I never would. The energy from that was so shocking and exciting. I think that comes through. There’s a joy and an energy, even in the darker work, that is different.
I’ve noticed in my most recent book, God’s Silence, the word light appears many times. Before that it was dark, dark, dark. Again, I think of my writing and my religious experience as very separate, though I know that the religious experience colors the writing. For me, there is no real poetry without a previous visionary experience. In a way, the writing is an attempt to save the experience, to give it a permanent form, to carry it through life after it has waned. Before I began writing again seven years ago, I thought of poetry as a kind of religion. I thought of the poem as the holy thing, the aim of everything. If there’s a change, it’s that I came to see there was no necessity anymore to finish a poem. The poem was a step to the next point. The poems were all attempts to find a place to store the joy and certainty of the ultimate goodness and coherence and tenderness of reality.
I had this experience of certainty, and I needed to find a way to preserve it, because I’m not a good enough or disciplined enough person to maintain it. If I were, I would most likely stop writing altogether and do nothing all day long but remain in a state of religious contemplation. I think that would have a much more positive effect on the world than what I do. But I can’t break free of my love of literature. It’s too deep in me. There’s something idolatrous about it. The best I can manage is to use what I know how to do. Writing poetry is the one thing I seem to know.
Image: Can you say more about how the visionary experience precedes the writing of the poetry?
FW: There has to be some overwhelming experience of love, or of something, that the poem chronicles or records. It cannot be the subject of that love. If it’s only that, if it’s only language, then the poem is not going to survive. Poems that survive are the ones that come out of human beings who have had some experience that needs to be testified to or recorded or given body. They are not just pleasing in themselves. We need to be able to master and explore and mine the nature of language itself, but it’s the degree to which the poem is more than that which gives you real art. Some previous, wordless experience is being given a verbal equivalent. This is what I am looking for: poetry that lets the wordless original experience shine through the words.
Image: Do you consider yourself a Christian poet?
FW: I would be honored to consider myself a Christian poet, but I don’t think I’m a good example of a religious person. My preoccupations are rooted in Christian experience and in a Christian perception of reality. This may be a heretical perception, but one of the ways I would verbalize this is that the figure of Christ stands for an awakening to the fact that all beings are the incarnation of God. We are all words made flesh. To be a sentient being is to participate in the Incarnation. A part of God is brought into physical reality in every human being, not just in Christ. Christ is the great sun that eclipses everyone else, but we all participate in a minute way. It is a great effort for us to remain conscious of this. We are seldom in this state of awareness. We’re like sleepwalkers, as Kafka said.
I do not see Christ as a symbol at all. The Incarnation is completely, literally concrete and real. I am not a gnostic. I believe gnosticism was made a heresy for a good reason. I don’t buy that we’re all Christ. That’s not what I mean. I mean that we all participate in the Incarnation. We are sparks of it. At our best and most awake, we have the same powers, as Christ is constantly telling us. In Buddhism the symbol is to wake up. In Christianity, it is a movement from blindness to sight.
We’re not able to maintain the awake, visionary state, and we constantly fall back into the material reality of what can be touched and seen. That’s why the figure of Christ is so compelling. Not because—in a gnostic sense—he is all spirit. No, because he is a real, physical human being as well. To me, the most moving realization, the visionary hope for this other reality in the cosmos, comes from knowing that God took the trouble to assume human form. He had that infinite degree of mercy for human beings that he would actually participate in what it means to be a terrified, failed, crushed, physical being. It is the greatest accomplishment of human beings to see this possibility, to recognize the figure of Christ. No human endeavor can go beyond the achievement of seeing the possibility of the infinite participating in our pain and terror and failure.
Image: Earlier you said that Christianity is your path, but that all the religions are expressions of the same experience. Yet what you believe about Christ and the Incarnation makes Christianity stand alone. No other major religion makes a claim for God coming to earth in human form and dying to save us.
FW: I believe the other major religions are all attempts to articulate the same experience, but my personal bias is that the figure of Christ is the ultimate expression of that impulse and outshines them all. Look at the concept of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism. You get little pieces of it in other religions, but you don’t get this full, naked revelation, this unapologetic, totally ridiculous idea of God entering a human body and participating in death even. There is nothing more terrible or more splendid than that.
Image: How do you feel espousing this belief as a writer in the United States, where the majority of your fellow writers would probably disagree with you?
FW: That’s okay. I think the opposite is the problem: that there are so many people who call themselves Christians. I find it refreshing that there are people who aren’t Christians. It’s the Christians who disturb me. I find Christian fundamentalists every bit as intolerant and vicious and hypocritical as our purported enemy, Islamic fundamentalists. Those people are now represented by the leadership of this country. It’s a terrifying thing, the clash of two fundamentalist branches of these great visionary systems and religions. Islam, of course, sees itself as a step beyond Christianity and incorporates Christ into a larger family of holy beings we can turn to. Islam is very interesting in that respect. It doesn’t take it to the final step. Islam doesn’t believe in the sacrifice and death of Christ. I think that’s nonsense. But Christ is there as a figure in Islam.
Image: What would you say about the prevalence of irony in contemporary literature?
FW: That’s always a problem. Irony is the path of least resistance. Irony is easy. Anybody can indulge in irony. To believe in what’s hard—what’s in fact impossible—is a different matter. Yes, our culture is riddled with irony. It’s sick with it. It’s a hideous affliction in our culture, which is very adolescent and puritanical, embarrassingly adolescent and unevolved. There’s an absence of any tragic sense. In other cultures, people have a reason to acknowledge the tragic substance of life, that life is made out of suffering. In America we have this weird mythology of normalcy being happiness and success, but reality isn’t like that.
Image: Why did you title your most recent book God’s Silence? What does the phrase “God’s silence” mean to you?
FW: To me silence does not indicate absence. It points to our freedom to achieve a higher spiritual destiny or to be murderers. We can do anything we want. God doesn’t comment. It’s a reflection of the concept of free will. Of course, the big task for human beings is to surrender and suspend their own will and to live in the light of God’s will, but this is the thing we constantly fail to do. When we are suspending our own will, we enter a realm of infinite possibility, but we can’t maintain it. Christian mystics talk about silence as the language of God. In my tradition, I practice something that was initiated by Thomas Keating, an associate of Merton, called centering prayer. It borrows from certain forms of Buddhist meditation. It’s an attempt to sit in a state devoid of image or thought or language and to become aware of the presence of God. Language is something that has to wait. First we have to live in the silent presence of God, and then what we need to say will be revealed.
I don’t know what I’m doing when I write. I never know. Maybe at the last moment I know. But I’m listening. Writing is listening. Religious experience is silent listening and waiting. I have always been able to tell whether something I am writing is genuinely an expression of revelation or if it’s just me exercising my intellect. I can feel the difference, see it and taste it, but I don’t know how I can do that. Writing isn’t something I can try to do. It’s something that happens to me and that I can prepare myself for.
Image: Can you talk about your work at the Center for Grieving Children?
FW: Getting involved with the children’s center was an offshoot of the period of time when I was getting involved in the church and when I was first married to Beth. There was an overflowing of happiness in my life, and it took the form of a desire to do some things I had never been capable of doing before. I wanted to work with people who had had my experience of mental illness and addiction and to work with children in a condition of bereavement, because that is how I experienced my childhood.
I spent my childhood mourning my father’s absence and trying to maintain contact with him. I saw in these children whose parents had actually died the ultimate expression of that grief. I work deliberately with children who are around the age of seven or eight, who have lost a parent, because that was the age I was when my father left. I don’t do poetry with them; I just work there. It’s a very structured program that provides these kids with a safe place where they realize they are in the company of peers, other children who have had the same experience. It’s very much like recovering from alcoholism in that way. The experience of loss is the norm in this house, whereas in school and in the rest of their lives, they are freaks.
Image: One theme that recurs throughout your work is death. In these very moving lines, you write: “How does one go / about dying / who on earth / is going to teach me— / the world / is filled with people / who have never died.”
FW: It’s an interesting connection you are making, and you have revealed something I wasn’t aware of. When I harp on the subject of death, it is not a morbid preoccupation with death itself. It is a means of becoming more intensely alive and more intensely conscious. “Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens said. He meant that to ponder one’s absolute not-hereness can have the effect of making being here doubly intense. This is something that’s very big in Zen Buddhism. There’s a monk who says, “Do you see this glass that I am drinking out of? In my eyes, it’s already broken, but that doesn’t depress me. It means I can enjoy it all the more while it exists.” He’s talking about his own body, of course. We’re already dead. Everything we’ve ever perceived or said or thought, everything that’s ever happened to us, what’s happening at this very moment, will be completely erased as if it never occurred for all we know. We have to deal with this possibility. For me, this is a source of energy. It makes consciousness ten times more intense and more vivid. It doesn’t frighten me. It makes everything light up.
The writing of a poem can only be followed by a sort of death state. I have no guarantee whatsoever that this most joyful experience in my life will ever happen again. I’ve always felt that each poem, no matter how short it was, had to sum up everything I have to say, as if it were my last chance to do so. For me, to finish a poem is such an event, I feel that it will never happen again. I can see all of the blind steps I took to get to this point where suddenly I turned a corner and I had written a poem. I don’t know how to retrace those steps and make it happen again. I’ve tried. I always think I’ve discovered a formula, and it doesn’t work. I have to learn how to do it again each time. And there’s no guarantee that I will.
Image: For many years, you were an outsider in the literary world. What effect has this had on the direction of your work?
FW: I’m still an outsider, and I’m determined to remain one. I think the academic world is death for an artist. It’s a way to make an extraordinary event commonplace and everyday. In the world where I live, being a poet is the most outlandish thing anyone could imagine. I want to keep it that way. This is all I have. I’m not letting anybody fuck it up or take it away from me.
Image: With the acclaim your work has received in recent years, have you been able to hang on to this sense of being an outsider?
FW: Getting acclaim makes you feel even more embattled and besieged, that your work is this precious thing you have to protect, that everyone’s trying to destroy it. I’m tremendously narcissistically insecure, but this can also be a strength. You never feel that you have achieved what you’re after. It’s always receding in front of you. You grab it, and it’s gone. You have to start all over again.
My self-esteem is so low that getting the Pulitzer Prize just made me break even. It made me feel that hey, I have a right to exist. I can walk down the street. The wind blows a piece of paper to my feet, as Bill Knott says, and it’s not a petition for my death. My in-laws like me better than they did before. I’ve got more money. It doesn’t change anything about the writing process. It’s as great a mystery and as a great a source of anguish and uncertainty and despair as it ever was.
Image: What advice would you give young poets?
FW: My first impulse is always to say, “Do something else.” Seriously, what kept me going as a young person was love. Not ambition, but love. If you have a talent for something, anything, no matter what it is, and you love it so much that you must pursue it no matter what frustration and pain and rejection you have to go through, then inspiration will find you. If your motive is pure, if your motive is love for this thing, inspiration will find you. If you work at it, if you love and adore it—the art, not your own ambition—inspiration will come to your assistance. And success will come, though we know there are great exceptions to this. We know that success didn’t come to Emily Dickinson or Van Gogh. But maybe it did. Maybe the ultimate success came to them. Maybe their joy would have been diluted by worldly success. Mine has been. It’s a disaster. You don’t know this until it happens, and then it’s too late. You can never go back. You can never get your private, anonymous love back. Maybe they were the more fortunate ones. They lived in that state from which real art comes. If fame comes, there’s an element of self-consciousness that can never be eluded after that.
I struggle, as I get older, to accept the fact that one doesn’t have to be so absolutist about everything, that one can do more than one thing at a time. I can try to be a representative of the art of poetry as well as a practicing, secret struggler with trying to write a poem. But nothing is going to stop this feeling of failure and pain at not writing what I think of as a real poem today. Nothing is going to alleviate that pain. Nothing can take it away. And that pain is all I have.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.