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Photo: © Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright
Franz Wright was born in Vienna, Austria in 1953 and grew up in the Northwest, the Midwest, and northern California. His works include The Beforelife (2001), Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2003), God’s Silence (2006), Earlier Poems (2007), Wheeling Motel (2009), Kindertotenwald (2011), and F (2013). He was the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Fellowship, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Pulitzer Prize for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. Wright, who was the son of the poet James Wright, died in 2015.
From the April 2001 Knopf Question-a-Poet Contest 1. Do you rely on inspiration to get you started on a poem, or do you have other ways to get going, and if so, what are those starting techniques? –Barbara Blossom Ashmun "The inner clock of plants testifies to a deeper, measured tempo that counteracts our manufactured rush." Garden Retreats: Creating an Outdoor Sanctuary Franz Wright replies: I want to say that I love this quotation about the life of plants, and it does remind me of something I have been trying to get through my own head since I first seriously began trying to write poems at the age of fifteen, namely, that the–for lack of a better term–creative process has its own cycles and seasons and is not necessarily responsive to my will, not most of the time. I do experience, occasionally, what might be called rapturous states during which I almost have the impression that poems are being dictated to me and I have only to write them down, but most of the time I feel miserably incompetent and ignorant in the face of writing just about anything (including this rambling response). Honestly, I rely most heavily on my own willingness to keep slowly trying to write–and I do try every day–even though the results might often be interpreted as proof that I’m in the wrong business. Because my experience has been that this willingness to go on very slowly collecting and amassing these poor fragmentary efforts is sometimes rewarded over time: specifically, by providing me with a store of material I can draw on during those brief, extremely rare and completely unpredictable periods of inspiration. 2. Each time I read your poetry I feel deep emotions that don’t dissipate with repeated readings. I wonder, is it the same for you? How do you, the poet of such powerful pieces such as "Primogeniture," "November 14," "Thanks Prayer at the Cove," and "Written With a Baseball-Bat Sized Pencil," confront your own poetry? Does the emotion stay as raw and fresh for you with each reading? Or is this a phenomenon unique to the reader, you might say ‘nur mir allein?’ –Joan Gold PS: I am a reading teacher in a public elementary school. You might be interested to know that your poem, "Primogeniture," was read to the 5th grade language arts class by their writing teacher. It was very well received. Hopefully this experience will impact their lives and those of their own children. Thank you for this thoughtful question–and it is awfully touching to know that a particular poem of mine reached some children in the fifth grade. (Incidentally, my mother-in-law is a reading teacher, so I found this especially interesting.) I have to say in response that I very rarely reread or even think about the poems I have managed to finish, except when I am trying to put together something for a public reading–and what I experience when confronting a handful of poems I still feel I can genuinely take some pride in, is primarily disbelief and gratitude. While actually working on a poem, one that does arrive at this finished state (something that doesn’t happen all that often) or that comes to me rapidly in a finished state (something that double doesn’t happen all that often), I usually have the sensation that some enormous and undeserved happiness has occurred in my life, or somehow the whole world has suddenly changed, and in emulation of Theodore Roethke I tend to get down on my knees and say "thank you"–then I take a walk and try to enjoy this for as long as I can, because I can’t help but be aware of how long it will be, and what I’ll no doubt have to go through, before it happens again. If it happens again. 3. How do you know when a poem is finished? –Edward L. Tury This is a terrific question, a profound question, and one that amazes me because it reminds me that I have never really had the faintest idea of how to answer it. But certainly the sensation involved is a physical one, an abrupt and indescribable sense of well-being and happiness. It doesn’t happen very often. I would like to be more clear about this, and maybe I can be by saying that a poem seems finished to me when it meets or in some measure corresponds to the following criteria set down marvelously by Paul Valery in one of his gorgeous essays on the subject: "…language contains emotive resources mingled with its practical, directly significant qualities. The duty, the work, the function of the poet are to bring out and render active these forms of movement and enchantment, these stimulants of the emotional life and intellectual sensibility, which are mixed together in the customary language with the signs and means of communication of ordinary superficial life. Thus the poet consecrates himself to and consumes himself in the task of defining and constructing a language within the language; and this operation, which is long, difficult and delicate, which demands a diversity of mental qualities and is never finished, tends to constitute the speech of a being purer, more powerful and profound in his thoughts, more intense in his life, more elegant and felicitous in his speech, than any real person." 4. I was stunned by the directness of your poem about child beating. Its directness, its terse agony, carried a sense of outrage that seemed to call into question the very act of writing poetry. I think it was Adorno who said art was impossible after Auschwitz. Do you find poetry a relevant way to address the outrages, large and small, of the distinctly human capacity for dehumanizing one another? Or is poetic reverie and practice more of a consolation for something lost? Does it awaken and mobilize? Or does it simply console? –Levi Gardner I think it does both, if it is any good. When I’m moved by a poem I am profoundly consoled–that is, I feel evidence of a higher, more intelligent and affectionate definition of the terms "reality" or "human condition"–and at the same time am filled with a renewed determination to lead a more considerate and intelligent life. This occurs quite spontaneously and so, in my experience, closely resembles the sensation of love. When I read a poem which very much moves me, or am fortunate enough to write what I feel is a successful poem, I’m reminded of another of the staggering perceptions of the great French poet and essayist Paul Valery, and as I do not have the text available I am going to try to paraphrase it from memory–: "To what could this passion of the intellect [poetry] correspond, affecting so deeply the life of the person who has it, sometimes taking away his ability and, so to speak, his right to sleep, if it were not to some sovereign good which he perhaps feels existing in himself, and which a little more constancy, tension, and keen hope can, at any moment, allow him to grasp?" 5. Do you sometimes pare an existing poem down, until you have the "bare" essentials? In some of your sparer poems there is beauty and a sense of "aha," despite a lack of descriptive features. Are you working like a sculptor, who discovers what is in the stone, or in your case the poem? I think ideally I would like, in a poem, to operate by way of suggestion, to say only enough to enable the perceptive and wide-awake reader to have his or her own experience or interpretation of some things I might have felt, noticed, thought about–and a renewed sense of awe at his or her own comparable experiences. In some way any good piece of writing is a mirror, don’t you think. Or maybe a window, as George Orwell said, which is not supposed to draw too much attention to itself but provide the sight of something else. In any event, I like your analogy of the sculptor. Although I must say when things are going well in the composition of a poem, I have more the sense of being the stone that’s being worked on. 6. Do you see yourself as more a poet of hope or a poet of despair? I take this question very seriously and hope my response is not going to come across as glib. Of course I would like to believe myself a person of hope, and yet it seems to me that hope and despair are two of the illusory polarities (which include life and death). One cannot exist without the other, for one thing–and for another, and speaking here strictly for myself, the spiritual condition of hope derives from the obvious hopelessness of every mortal’s physical condition, the death sentence we are all living under. In other words, though strictly sensory evidence provides us with a condition in which there is no hope we are free to choose anyway, splendidly, to behave hopefully, to create and love as opposed to hating and destroying. We are free, in some strange way, because of our hopelessness. And I mean free as spiritual beings, and not in the sinister or anarchic sense that anything is permitted. 7. The dominant chord I hear throughout your poems is a liberation from fear. From fear of loss, from fear of death, from fear of forgetting. How do you tap into such a state of liberation? –Joshua W. Polacheck I hope I can summon the clarity and simplicity of mind to respond in some meaningful way to this marvelous question. I’ve enjoyed all the questions that have come, but have to say this one is particularly important to me as it involves fear, the emotion or mental condition which so dominated my life, until quite recently, from the time that I was eight years old, that I had long come to consider it my normal state. I did in fact have an experience, in September 1999, which apparently changed all that–I don’t think it is possible for me to describe, so let me just say that toward what proved to be the end of a serious two year long illness during which I felt and was offered almost no hope of recovery, I quite suddenly had an experience which convinced me that unqualified love and forgiveness are perpetually present and freely available to everyone (and I mean everyone), and that pretty much everything I do, and everything that happens to me, are the result of my failure to keep this fact consciously, radiantly in mind. So I attempted to take certain steps toward ways to do just that. To be specific, I completely quit drinking (a miraculous occurance for me as, quite frankly, a textbook alcoholic of the most dangerous and self-destructive kind, as well as someone who has suffered from an especially devastating form of mental illness); I did some things I have longed to do all my life but was prevented from doing by my isolation from and fear of other people and life itself, such as being formally initiated into the Catholic church, working as a consultant at a mental health clinic and as a volunteer facilitator at a marvelous center for children grieving the death of a parent; and I was able in a period of months to finish The Beforelife. And little by little I have gotten better and made some progress. Certainly the fear, that all-encompassing and seemingly originless dread (which can take many forms, including the three you mention) has left me. And I am grateful that you are able to find some proof of that in my work. I am working on a new collection which contains a number of poems which address this experience much more directly and literally. I want to say finally that I believe life is (as the Buddha, the Awakened One, pointed out) suffering, mostly, from beginning to end. We cannot know why that is, but there is a jubilant liberty in experiencing the reality of Kierkegaard’s observation that suffering is the characteristic of God’s love. In refusing to give up, until one reaches a point where one assents to the simultaneous terribleness and glory of being here at all. It is a privilege to suffer, the alternative is not getting to be here.
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