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LIDIA VIANU -- WAYNE LANTER
I don’t know where I fit, or if I fit at all
Interview with WAYNE LANTER (born 1937), American poet and editor
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Your poems abound in short narratives, and the long poem At Float on the Ohta-gawa is a lyrical novel, a new genre, I should say. During the stream of consciousness, it was lyricism that flooded fiction. I have a feeling fiction is overwhelming lyricism for Desperadoes (writers after 1950). Do you value the narrative in your poems?
WAYNE LANTER: For a very long time now I have suspected that all literature is narrative—even lyric poetry. The first literature, songs, ballads, epics, coming from the first human impulse to share a view of the world, was narrative. Certainly drama is, and fiction—maybe even sermons and eulogies. It is possible to think of philosophical essays as stories where ideas serve as characters, themes as plots, etc. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Plato’s dialogues are basically moral, political and/or social stories. Even art (painting and sculpting) and music, it would seem to me, is narrative, to a point. For my part, I look for story lines, the logic and alignment of certain events, actions following one another, or ideas flowing from one another for my poems. At least in longer poems, it would seem to me, some sort of narrative is essential. After all, poets want to be read. And narrative is a reading guide, a device that makes reading a bit easier, and more interesting.
LV. Which do you enjoy writing more, fiction or poetry?
WL. Well, I spent, and still do spend a good bit of time writing fiction, and some of it has been mildly successful. But by nature and inclination I prefer the rigors and dogged work of poetry. I’m a bit like Borges. When asked why he wrote mostly short pieces, he said there were just too many interruptions in modern life. The doorbell or phone is always ringing. We have to spend too much time taking care of ourselves. Technology hasn’t saved us from that. In fact modern technology is designed to eat up time and keep people busy serving it. On the other hand, I do enjoy writing and working on prose, when I have the time.
LV. Are you deliberately trying to prove hybridization of literary genres can create new categories, or, at least, do you agree to this attempt theoretically, when you talk about your poetry?
WL. When I sit down to write a poem I have an idea in mind, what I might call a metaphor, usually, and spend the first bit of time trying to find a way to approach the material. Each idea has its own peculiar requirements—things such as tone and diction and length of lines. Karl Shapiro said that ‘God gives you the first line, and the rest is up to you.’ Well, maybe not God, but some thing that catches the eye and mind, some paradox or irony, some double entendre that offers a possibility, something that can be exploited poetically. Occasionally I loosen up the lines so the cadence and casual quality of the ideas read more like prose than poetry. Sometimes the verses, and certainly the sections of the longer poems, come very close to being chapters. But I’m not consciously out to hybridize literary genres. If it happens, well, that’s all right. I’m sure new genres will be created, if we can find places and times where they might be presented – places where they might make sense enough for people to accept them. But if I cross breed genres, it’s not because I’m promoting a theory, but mostly because that’s the way I write. And since I’m different from all other people, as they are different from me, I suspect I cannot do what others have done or will do. In that sense all poets, all writers are unique. And so, I suspect, what they write is also unique.
LV. Reading your poems is sometimes like a puzzle which could be called, ‘Find the full stop.’ You begin, in your first volume, The Waiting Room, by using punctuation and capitals, but you slowly lose them as you continue with more volumes. Is this fusion of one meaning with the next a new poetic diction?
WL. I don’t know. Although I haven’t given it much thought, the idea (practice) came from W. S. Merwin and from talking to John Knoepfle, who wants to write poems that can be received on paper in the same way, say, a fifteenth century sermon was received in church—a melting of the oral and the literate. No capitalization, no punctuation—so the listener/reader is required to create phrases and sentences of meaning. It’s a wonderful poetic device. I can write a phrase, then use several words from the end of the phrase as the beginning of the next phrase—sort of an overlapping of words and meaning. That way the words have two, and sometimes three or more meanings or associations. Each word carries a greater weight. Then, too, the poem is dominated by line breaks instead of by sentences. Since there is no punctuation, the reader (can) needs to create the sense of what is written, within a large, but still limited context. I do this because it is second nature to my thinking and because it’s fun. I sometimes worry, however, that in At Float I overdid it. Maybe in a poem that long it interferes with the fluidity and makes reading too difficult. Steve Thomas, a carpenter-poet friend of mine read At Float and observed ‘I see, no seams.’ Another friend pointed out that the language in At Float is something like writing English in Japanese. The words are more like characters than words.
LV. Canonical Hours is a peculiar volume. It brings a special form of suspense to poetry: it is the search for meaning. Those poems require a new way of reading, which is as full of suspense as the text. Reading your poetry, on the whole, is an experience full of suspense. The reader runs breathlessly between predicates, filling in the full stops, connecting ideas. Your ideas become thus his ideas. What is your attitude to this new reader you educate in the spirit of assuming the text and adapting it to his own sensibility?
WL. Well, if the world is not more complex than it was in the past, at least we know enough to have a better appreciation of the complexity, and surely a deeper awareness of just how flawed our perceptual apparatus really is. Nothing is what it looks like. That’s the tale told to us by twentieth century science and philosophy. So we need to pause at every turn to reconsider, and that’s what I want the reader to do in Canonical Hours. Of course readers are already familiar with the process. Good readers read everything. They read the sky, the night, the wind. And they know that whatever they think about what they have read, they are, at best, only partially correct. They already understand that the senses are unreliable, that consciousness is an uncharted mine field. That’s why they read.
LV. A new kind of expressivity?
WL. Yes, perhaps, a new expressivity, or maybe an old way of communicating committed to paper—maybe closer to the way we talk. We seldom speak in sentences, even the most literate of us. Who was it? Gertrude Stein said F. Scott Fitzgerald was the only person she ever met who thought in sentences.
LV. Or just a deliberate game, to keep the reader alert and make him feel like a creator himself?
WL. Yes, that too. Reading is a creative activity, decoding so to speak. Merwin reminds us that to read a poem properly we simply have to take the time to stop and read it. Maybe the way archeologists read hieroglyphics. Maybe this enhances that. Maybe this requires a bit more attention from the reader. After all, not everything in life is a cartoon strip.
LV. You are a miser when it comes to using epithets, metaphors, the paraphernalia of traditional poems. Yet you do create a strong sense of atmosphere and your images are intense. Is this over-simplification of poetry, or complication, if we think that the reader has to cut out each meaning carefully from the next, a feature you create on your own?
WL. Well, I’m from the Midwest and it has been the (American) Midwestern tradition to take literature from the land, and only in passing from other literature. An overabundant use of classical allusions seems to me a bit incestuous. I can appreciate Dante and Shakespeare and Milton, but not every thing needs to be described or composed with reference to poets past, or to other works of art. That’s all a little too self-conscious for me. It’s also too academic. It’s as if the poet is writing with a vision of students running off to Poetry Appreciation 101 with their dictionaries in hand prepared to explicate his poem and discover its true meaning. On the other hand there is still a strong aversion in American poetry (some of it) to the Romantic impulse and the tropes and figures of speech it heralded. In other words, there are a lot of different ways to write. As you say, I use metaphors, but sparingly. There is in the cold hard images of the material world a kind of natural metaphor. In fact one of my interests has been the physics of the twentieth century where reality, the material world, as you go into it, into inner space, or outward into space, is in some very real ways metaphorical. When you get far enough in, the material world vanishes from the senses and slips into metaphor.
Anyway, when we look at the material world we distinguish one thing from another. Then we interpret it for ourselves and for others. I’ve always thought intelligence should be defined as the ability to distinguish and compare. When asked what the Jesuits taught him Joyce was reported to have replied, ‘to order and to judge.’ Maybe that’s what intelligence is. Maybe the more intelligent among us are just looking at the world more closely and making (ordering and judging) the links we have difficulty seeing. I certainly wouldn’t think of it as simplification, since trying to see what is really there is damned hard work. Damned hard complicated work. In the USA during the last few years we have heard a great deal about the computer revolution and the Information Highway. Well, I tell people that if they really want to get on the information highway all they have to do is take a telescope and a microscope out into their backyard and look around. Take a close look at the grass and trees, the stars. Then try to understand what is seen.
LV. Do you feel you belong to a larger group of poets who do (approximately, since every Desperado is his own trend) the same thing?
WL. There are poets I admire and there are poems, especially poems, I wish I had had the insight and talent and skill to write. It is important for all of us, whatever we do, to compare ourselves with the best—the best as we see the best. But I’m not sure there is any larger group to identify with. Sometimes I think my language groups me with a lot of other American Midwestern writers. Twain, Hemingway, Anderson, Masters, Lindsay, Hearst, Knoepfle, Justice, Dacey, and even Sandburg. But that may have to do with the farm land and coal mines and rivers in the Midwest, looking out across the prairie, twenty or thirty miles, watching a sunset or seeing a storm coming in, and not much to do with what we are talking about. So I don’t know where I fit, or if I fit at all.
LV. Would you like to be grouped with other poets?
WL. Not especially. I’ve never been much for joining or wanting the solidarity and/or identity of group membership. That may be too confining. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your view, we are caught in the trap of our own skin, and there’s no chance of getting out. I’d agree with Wittgenstein on that. Belonging to a group, seems to me, another fantasy meant to delude the self and to avoid the obvious. Since I have no political agenda, no paradigm or scheme to promote, I am better served not wanting to match up with other writers or to be grouped with other poets. What happens after I’m done—well, that’s someone else’s business.
LV. Who are your models?
WL. That depends on what I’m writing, when I’m reading. Maybe Richard Hugo, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, James Dickey, W. S. Merwin, John Knoepfle and then British and Australian poets. James Fenton, Carol Ann Duffy, Clive James, Peter Porter, and the Irish, Heaney, Mahon, Cairin Carson, Muldoon. Then, too, Derek Walcott. There are numerous others. Joseph Brodsky, Philip Larkin, Howard Nemerov, Adrienne Rich. And as I said before, poems, very wonderfully written poems.
LV. Is it your impression that you could be similar to any of them or of your contemporaries (considering that the main Desperado feature is being dissimilar to everybody else)?
WL. Probably not. I’m not out to break a mold, worrying about not looking like those who came before me—and there’s an awful lot of that nonsense going on in contemporary poetry—or to start a new school, to be on the cutting edge, so to speak—which usually means messing around with form, and actually going back to the idea of a century or so ago that good poetry is a matter of writing neat forms, whether it has meaning or not—since I am only intent on describing the world and the difficulty humans have in that world, I may or may not be similar to other poets. Still, I suspect, someone else will have to talk about that.
Then to answer your question, I suppose, if we push the generalities far enough I could be similar to some of these poets. There is something of the working class in my poetry, say as there is in Levine—something of place as in John Knoepfle. And so on.
LV. Your poems are burdens. The reader has to be prepared to carry a hulk of life when he reads. You never write empty words. Your narratives are a way of loading poetry with experience. The word seems crystal clear and innocent, but is explosive, has a hidden cargo of soul. Is the intensity of your poetry a deliberate aim, or is it just inherent to writing, not planned?
WL. What is planned? That specific observation? Probably not. I try to find images, symbols that fit what I have in mind, to get the reader to see and to understand. I realize that this, the use of objects or things the reader can hear, see, smell or touch, rather than abstractions, creates a vivid reading experience, an intensity, and therefore, as you say, a burden. And while I’m a Platonist in that, I’m always certain there is another level of meaning beyond or behind, sheltered in the shell of what the senses can gather in, I don’t think a poet should, or can, responsibly begin there. Abstractions, in and of themselves, too easily give way to fantasy, give over the responsibility of what the writer has to say, or can create, to the reader. Good sensual images direct thinking a bit more. Not every whim of the reader’s mind is art. Also, if the experiences I write are good enough, if they have a universal validity, then the poems will be intense. Of course, I could cover the intensity with bantering or humor, but for me that would be dishonest and misleading. There’s nothing humorous in loss. I’d rather stay with a straight-forward presentation. I think that gives poetry a powerful simplicity. And a simple power.
LV. Your poems, most poems, have characters. Actually, you are the master of what could be called the character-poem. Do you think these characters become a coherent plot in a volume, or are they meant to be left disparate, perceived as unrelated experiences?
WL. Yes, a little of both. They are disparate in their experiences, in the content, the conditions of the experience, but tied together in the web of my mind and the more obsessive preoccupations I have with the world. Sometimes I write a line or two, a paragraph, and put it on my stack of shards and forget about it. Months later, on numerous occasions, I have then written the same line or paragraph, only sometime later to find the first, to discover that I have already written out this particular idea. I tend to think about the same problems year after year. Or without being too reductionistic, the same problem. Since human life is primarily a process, and man is trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to prolong his position in the process, it seems to me most of what we deal with most of the time is loss.
In truth I do not much care what people think or feel, as long as they do not act on it. The only way we can know what another has in mind is by some communicative act—maybe a word, a touch a pose, etc. At that point, at the moment of act, our inner drives, for good or for bad, become important to the world. The actions of narratives are the energy fields with which characters surround themselves, sometimes harming those who stumble into the danger zone, sometimes harmed themselves by wandering into the energy fields of others.
LV. Do you have the feeling that each of your volumes is a plot in itself, a veiled novel of sorts, which partly captures the readers’ interest by narrative devices?
WL. That could be. Certainly each volume is a record of the times during which it was written—a record of my thinking at that time. Yes, by using narrative devices. That’s a good observation. The Waiting Room was early, simple, very straight-forward narration, sort of a collection of stories (certainly linked in my mind and within the time I lived them) during the years I was writing it. At Float was a nightmare, maybe a missed memory, events I should have understood better, earlier, a story that had to be recreated both in conception and in writing. Yes, both books are stories in and of themselves. Again, there is a unifying theme, a point of view, maybe even a plot in each of the books, and in that a story. In some poems I feature images or characters that appear in other poems. Omar Wilson from ‘The Moon at the Edge of Grandfather’s Farm’ is the son from ‘Grandma Wilson.’ Threshing Time is in large the interview with James Hearst. But one poet read it and said ‘My God, they should make a movie out of that.’ I guess she found a story in there some place.
LV. The narrative kernels you choose involve a sympathetic approach on your part. ‘Death in a Polish Woods,’ is a remarkable lyrical version of a deeply impressive, tragic story. You are not a joker, you do not play with words (but you do play upon them), your view of life is stern. A Desperado intensely dislikes being told he is getting involved in his narrative, as much as he hates being told he manipulates his reader far worse than any writer before him (and he really does so, with all due respect). You do side with your heroes – lyricism allows you to get very close – and you do point the path for the reader to take. Do you find this natural, artificial, untrue?
WL. Faulkner thought good writing had always to do with the verities, not virtue, but the deeper truths of the human heart. And it seems to me that good writers in their best works occupy themselves with these truths. These are the deep-seated drives and principles that make us human, and will always be there as long as we are human, especially when we are put into a difficult situation, one of life and death, or when our self is threatened—when our lives or the lives of innocent others, and our sense of things like honor and courage and pride and sacrifice and justice are threatened.
Certainly I was in sympathy with the German soldier in ‘Death in a Polish Woods.’ I could hardly have been otherwise. I had been teaching an introductory ethics course and had tried to get the students to understand the Socratic admonition that it is better to suffer a wrong than to do one to another person. I found the story in an ethics textbook about the young German, although I never verified the actual case, and simply took it from there. Yes, I empathize with him, but still tried to stay away from the murky nonsense of sentimentality. You see, there is something extremely powerful in a determined human mind, a mind that sets itself and will not be moved—something enormously admirable. Of course that is if the mind-set is focused on helping people survive or refusing to participate in their demise. In many cases religious mind sets do just the opposite. In ‘Death in a Polish Woods’ a man was determined not to give in to the slaughter of innocent people, just as the other soldiers and the SS were determined to destroy people. He did not want some day later to have to say, ‘I wish I would have,’ or ‘I should never have.’ He made up his mind to die because he did not want to be the kind of person the German military was forcing him to become. Humans have done that for centuries. It’s called courage, and he died courageously. A courage that is grounded in his enormous respect for other humans, innocent humans who were being victimized. And, I should say, a fear for himself—not physically, but for his ‘self,’ (soul, spirit, psyche)—or however you want to characterize it. For a very real moment in his life he was an individual who could not be intimidated, not even by certain death. Have I taken his part? Well, yes, I hope so. I’m looking over his shoulder, telling it from his point of view—even in simply creating a dramatic occasion on paper that further exposes his travail and his courageous resolution. Yeh, I’m teaching. Hopefully. But why else write if not to expose and educate, to inculcate? Mine is not an idle, haphazard point of view in face of an uncaring universe. Maybe the universe doesn’t give a damn about man. Well, okay, but with or without a god, by god I do care.
LV. I am trying hard, as you can see, to apply a label to your nimble writing. Will you allow that to happen? Now? Ever?
WL. I’m not sure how to label what I do. Even coming out of the Midwest, as I have said earlier, what I write has more to do with the spirit than the geography of place. I had a mostly unpleasant childhood and very early on got down inside myself, introspectively, and I am still most comfortable in the deeper recesses of spirit. It seems to me a perfectly natural place to conduct business.
Maybe it comes down to what one values most. There are so many ingredients in poetry. One could apply all kinds of labels. But if the labels get stuck on too early, by the time the writing is done, finally, the glue will have cracked and new and different labels will be necessary.
LV. You mention Yeats in one poem (The Churchyard at St. Colmcille), quote Eliot in another (St. Joseph’s School Mothers Quilting), and repeatedly mention Frost in Threshing Time. What is your relationship with Eliot’s poetry, against which your own generation – deliberately or instinctively – rebels?
WL. Well, we may have rebelled, but we took very sincere and careful instruction from that from which we chose to rebel. Very little of contemporary American poetry would be possible without Eliot. Or, let me put it this way. Contemporary American poetry would be entirely different if hadn’t been for Eliot. In a lot of ways he set the bar. He is the standard. He moved the American/English vernacular in poetry into the twentieth century. He was in the beginning, and still is today, modern man.
Perhaps, after Eliot showed us the way out, we dropped back into the cave, now confident we could have it both ways.
LV. I can enumerate a long line of reactions in your poems that run straight against what stream of consciousness poetry (if you accept this label) used to do: you avoid the music of poetry (but find your own, austere music to replace Eliot’s fireworks), you ban the tragic show (but are no less tragic than Eliot), you shun the encoded words (yet make a puzzle whose key you do not offer to the reader). Do you feel any different from Yeats and Eliot? How would you define this difference, if there is one?
WL. Good question. I have absorbed a great deal of Yeats and Eliot. I say absorbed because I have to keep going back to them to see what I missed, to reabsorb what they have to offer and what I didn’t get the first several hundred times.
The difference is that both Yeats and Eliot are sitting on high stools looking down, and in some ways looking askance at the world below them. They operate at a great moral distance from the pain and suffering, and from the joys and exhilaration of the human experience. Listening to Eliot read, he reminds me of a great ghostly voice, a mythic voice, droning on from his mountain top about the condition of the creatures down in the valley—maybe a town crier, albeit a brilliant and superbly talented town crier, who somehow got into the choir loft at high mass and is given in the great silence of the cathedral to chanting about the charred and warped condition of our souls.
LV. One poem is entitled ‘Notes on Romania.’ No other poem mentions a Romanian experience, but you also write about Hiroshima very intensely and I wonder if you have a Japanese experience. You mention Ceausescu, Suceava, Bucharest, villages, children with AIDS. What is your image of Romania? Does that mean you know my country or anyone that has visited it?
WL. That’s a very special poem. That day I had been trying to get a class to understand Aquinas’ proofs. Trying to get them to understand the problems inherent in believing in or positing an absolute. After the class left, I was standing in the sunlight near a window, chalk covered from an extended session of scratching out proposals and assumptions on the chalkboard, quite weary with my inadequate attempts to elucidate the problems and gain on my students’ religious proclivities, when a former student appeared in the doorway. She had been in the Peace Corp in Romania and I had not seen her for several years. We spent the next hour or so talking about her experiences in Suceava. I was already somewhat aware of Ceausescu, from having read about his régime over the years. Later that night I thought about what she had told me and about how we Americans, most Americans, do not trust authority, certainly not absolute authority, and yet long for it. The poem, the sadness of power misused, of people suffering, came out of that.
It is one of the major tragedies of humanity, and I wrote about this extensively in At Float and in ‘Death in a Polish Woods,’ one of the tragedies and an unfortunate paradox that no matter how we try otherwise, the final determinant of existence is physical. No matter how good or how intelligent a person is, it can all be destroyed by killing the person. If in a room of thirty people, one person wants to break the precious vase—there is no way to keep it from getting broken. Eventually it will be broken.
LV. Your poem on Hiroshima reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and A Pale View of Hills, but he is Japanese, so I can understand his commitment to the cause. How did you come to know the Japanese spirit so well as to make the reader feel steeped in Japanese spirituality when he reads your volume? Have you ever been to Japan?
WL. No, I have never been to Japan. And I suppose it is arrogant to assume an intimate understanding of a country with which I am only incidentally, and even then at a great distance, familiar. But I was not unsympathetic with the Japanese people and their culture. The protagonist in At Float is Japanese-American. And I tried to combine the best of both worlds, as I understand it. I was especially sympathetic with the Japanese in America who were sent to concentration camps in the American west.
When I began At Float, when I started to think about writing it—1995, the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima—there were articles in many of the popular magazines about the bombing. As it was, I could hardly have avoided them. Of course, one thing led to another and I realized that to understand, or at least to appreciate how the Japanese got into the war and why they didn’t get out, and maybe how they were victimized by their own hubris, or tragic flaw, I would need to know a great deal more about the culture. The bibliography for At Float ran to well over three hundred books and articles. I was going to publish it with the poem—and may at a later date—but thought the poem itself with a referential glossary would be enough.
The reverence for nature, the idea that man is part of nature, that I found in Shintoism was/is sufficiently removed from the Christian idea of dominating the earth—but very nearly aligned with my own feelings, as well as with those of some of my ancestors who happened to be American Indians. So it was quite easy for me to get into the images of the Tea Ceremony, the rock garden and, of course, the machinations of Stone Monkey. American and European and African folklore are all populated with tricksters of one kind or another. If it all works for the reader, well, that’s just good luck.
LV. Is Japan an old obsession or a sudden inspiration?
WL. Certainly not an obsession—probably a cultivated inspiration. The psychology of belief and what it can produce is pretty much the same the world over. Shintoism has a deep respect for nature and its spirits and is trying to placate the kind of blazing devastation that Oppenheimer and the other American scientists turned loose by splitting the atom. Remember we are not yet done with the plague of the nuclear nightmare—and we may never be.
LV. What does it take to write a poem in your opinion?
WL. Courage. Love of language, and then hard work. After I’ve gone through fifty or sixty versions of the poem and have gotten something halfway acceptable—and I look back at all the time, the effort, the changes, the times I thought it was good enough, nearly finished, when it was still raw and crude and illogical, then I sink into despair and fear that I will never do it again. Then I come across an idea and as Lady Macbeth says ‘screw courage to the sticking place,’ and dig in to try to make the language carry the idea, try to make something out of it.
LV. Your poetry is a trap for the naive reader, who thinks he will never be caught in emotion and suddenly finds himself a prisoner of your soul. Avoiding old traps or devising new ones?
WL. Maybe using old traps to devise new ones.
LV. Since you do not rely on musicality, exquisite imagery, lofty ideas, rejecting the artificial with all your might, could you define your poetic approach?
WL. Yeh, we Americans are skeptical about lofty ideas. Ideas of national destiny or talk about wars of epic proportion bother us. We always have the feeling that there must be someone pushing the idea, and seldom for good reasons.
I begin with language. That, for me, is the true difficulty. I work for hours and hours to get the thing to sound right. Sometimes, when it works, I don’t know even why it works. But the sound, the cadence, the stress of the syllables has to ring true in my head before I turn it loose. It is an almost impossible task, but once in a while it comes out right. Otherwise, I see the poem as an exercise in sensibilities, and hope mine are sufficiently seasoned and refined. Bad lines in writing come from the barbed edges of the writer’s less mature and inexperienced soul.
LV. You have written a novel. Where do you draw the line between fiction and poetry?
WL. The line would have to be drawn not so much in language usage as in things like action and plot and depth of character. Even then there’s a great deal of similarity. Walcott’s Omeros, for instance, which is an epic (in a loose sense of the definition) narrative, clearly poetry, but with many of the characteristics of fiction. Faulkner and Joyce, on the other hand, have incorporated poetry into their prose, their fiction. Poems sometimes get breezy with narrative and the language loosens up to the point that they look and sound like prose. At River King we are in the habit of saying that for a piece of writing to be a poem it must have something of poetry about it. If we think of poetic devices as balls on a billiard table, the more balls in use, the more poetry you have. Of course, the balls can be used poorly or with great effect. That’s up to the player.
Then too, mostly fiction is longer than poetry, mostly, and more involved with plot and narrative devices, the tangle of human emotions, beating through the jungle as a whole, while poems deal only with a few vines (I should have said lines) at a time. Poetry takes a closer look. It’s more like a magnifying glass. You asked before about crossing lines in At Float. I was very interested in character, plot, action—all kinds of things that usually belong to fiction. Still, as always, the quality has to do with how well these elements are integrated and how the writer uses language to integrate them.
If it doesn’t, well, you can always try again.
Maybe it would be a good idea to rid ourselves of these categories, since we are always talking about the exception. I have seen brilliant pieces of writing that worked beautifully, although I didn’t know how to classify them. Is it poetry or drama, drama or fiction, fiction or poetry? The language of fiction tends to be loose, the language of poetry generally tighter. Now what?
LV. The review you have founded, River King Poetry Supplement, inherits Eliot’s idea in the Criterion. Ideas gather and mix, heading for an international status of this very national art of poetry. What is your priority as an editor of this poetry review?
WL. I know when I say our priorities at River King are to publish the best poetry possible it is a so-far-so-obvious statement. In the beginning we saw no reason to limit River King to American poets. I had for a long time been reading English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Australian poets and so decided it should be ‘English language’ poetry. Of course, that would include translations. And, as you know, in the case of your translations of Marin Sorescu we also printed the Romanian text of the poems. We are open to all and any language/translations, provided the English version of the poem is what we might consider ‘quality.’
Otherwise, we meant to produce a journal of poetry and short writings about poets and poetry. We do not take ads and do not print reviews. Once in a while we use the ‘Al says’ column to give our views on the state or condition of the contemporary poetry world (mostly American) as we see it. Although I’m not sure why we shouldn’t talk about poetry in other countries, in other languages.
We are especially interested in young writers and those writers who, while not so young, may be beginning their writing careers. I think that is a obligation for a journal like River King. Let the big slick mags deal with what I call the Disneyland poets. The glitzy big names. Likewise, we want to cover as much of the spectrum as possible, from the formal to the very, very informal. Many contemporary poetry magazines and journals limit themselves to one kind of poetry. In fact some are so selective that the poems sound as if they have all been written by the same person. Our only criteria is that the poems be well thought out, and well written. But, then, in actuality, good writing is always well thought out.
LV. You have published a long interview with James Hearst, whom you knew well. Some writers intensely dislike interviews, they feel they must absolutely look smart and ignore the point of it, which is to offer readers a revelation of what authors do not have another opportunity to say. How do you feel about interviews now, at the end of another one?
WL. I have been rather amazed by this one. I should say that interviews, when the questions are penetrating and well-posed, as these questions have been, can be, for the writer, a new way of seeing what he or she has done, and, in this case, what he thinks. Threshing Time, which as you noted is a long interview, was actually a series of conversations, in fact, five conversations I had with Jim Hearst over a couple of days in the spring of 1977. When I transcribed the material I was so impressed with what Jim had said, I decided to reduce my part to a minimum. So conversations turned to interviews—which is better.