The following interview was conducted in Petaluma, California, on July 20, 2013 by Paul Magee, an associate professor at the University of Canberra.
MAGEE: What would you describe as your key points of connection to the world?
From the ground up. Have always thought of myself as a kind of autochthon. A poet told me once that if you take root, you will grow. Though I have moved coast to coast in my life, I was very rooted before I started changing addresses, and in particular before moving from rural areas to urban areas. I have a lot of regard for the intelligence of the city, but I never felt that I needed to be divorced from one, in order to be attached to another.
However briefly I find myself in a strange place, I am intent on locating myself; where I came from at this point is portable; I carry it with me.
PM: Do you mainly have the human landscape—the lives people live there—in mind, when referring to “the ground” and “taking root”? Or are the geographical aspects important too?
CDW: Both, geographical and human, geography wedded to its people. I aim to be attentive to the entire character of my context.
I try to be. I cannot guarantee to consistently be the best listener.
PM: The impression I get from your work is of myriad speakers coming off the page.
CDW: Working on a longer project that has a documentary inflection, I might conduct very informal interviews. I do a lot of talking to people at those times, a lot of listening. I also indulge my reading addiction in relation to my work. I watch films. I play music relevant to where I am working; collect totems, arrange them on a shelf in eye-reach.
PM: Is that research process a way of taking root then, in relation to your topic?
CDW: Surely. One With Others, a little book of her days, was set in the Arkansas Delta, about forty-five miles from Memphis. I was listening to the Memphis sound; talking on the phone and making trips to the Arkansas Delta from my home in Rhode Island. Voraciously reading. A significant library of material on civil rights is there to tap into, much beautifully written, thoroughly researched and precisely situated. I dove in and informed myself in the reading for about a year and a half. But it was critical for me to go there repeatedly as well.
PM: That book comes across as autobiographical, and about a friendship.
CDW: It was initiated as a tribute to my late, literary, combustible, side-splitting friend Miss Vittitow.
PM: So there was no fiction in it?
CDW: Not much, a fair amount of hearsay. The language had to be so right. I tweezered every word into position.
It started with the impulse, “Maybe I’ll write a memoir.” But I am not partial to the genre. Once I started, I realised that what was important to my friend was an historical moment, when she fully engaged in her time and her place, and this was key to representing her, representing her in a way I felt she should be represented. So it became about that time and locale, as much as about her.
PM: Would you be happy to have any locating labels added to your description as poet? You might, for instance, be referred to as a postmodern poet, or a political poet, or for that matter as an American poet. Is there a label you feel you could come at?
CDW: I am an American poet. My English is American English. My ear is American. I do write of Mexico, but it is North America, same land mass, same ranges, planes and canyons of earth and blood. I feel fundamentally “in the American grain,” as Williams put it. This would be the label I would be comfortable with.
PM: Do you feel you write differently when travelling?
CDW: Do not write on the fly. I write at home. I have to be somewhere long enough to establish it as home. (We’re now in California, but our home is in Rhode Island. This is to be a gradual relocation for us, because we are still working in Rhode Island, where we have lived for thirty years.)
When travelling, I take notes. My notebook used to be essential to the work. Every project required a particular notebook, and I taped and glued and scribbled in it. It would be extra if I could draw. I am not so dedicated to this habit as earlier on. The scribbling became more and more illegible, notes more and more cryptic—even to me. Notebooks serve me as mnemonics, but I do not mine them so much as intuit a relationship of hand and memory.
PM: What do you think of the label “ethnographer”? Would you be happy with that, as a way to name something of what you do?
CDW: Yes, but not as a professional journalist or ethnographer. But I have my own idiosyncratic methodology and it works for me. It enables my struggle for a clearer vision. I stand with what Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is."
I’m now working on a book about beech trees. Hallelujah! Not death, not prison, not racism . . . Reading about trees. It is hard, because I am so short on science, but this a pleasure ride. I cannot visit beech trees in California because they do not grow well here, they do not like the salt, the soil. I have encountered a few notables, such as the one in front of the horticulturalist Luther Burbank’s homestead in Santa Rosa. But up until the time we came West last month, I was collecting my beech tree library. I printed out fat folders of notes. I had a smart, curious, focused intern working with me. I was visiting arborists and foresters and botanists, all the tree people in the area I could easily access. I made multiple trips to arboretums such as Arnold Arboretum in Cambridge, MA and Blithewold in Bristol, RI, and lush cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge and Swann Point in Providence.
PM: Is this so as to capture the arborists’ speech?
CDW: To talk to boots-on-the-ground people. I also enjoy talking to scholars. The director of the Arnold Arboretum is tree-steeped. Wonderful that he made time for us, a reassuring touchstone. I developed a relationship with the arborist of Juniper Hill Cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island, who is also an arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts. He took me on a tour of some of the grand signature beeches in Newport, and led a Bartlett-sponsored seminar I attended in Newport. Rich stuff. Finding ever more striking specimens, a treasure hunt in itself.
PM: What about other inputs into your work? Do you, for instance, set any store by critical reviews?
CDW: A critical review, if about someone else’s work, might give me ideas.
PM: About another’s work?
CDW: Yes. Some operative insight about writing.
On the other hand, I might be reading a poet I admire a lot and part of the gratification is overridden by wondering, “How did she do that? Is that something I can do and make my own?” I read with covetous, vested interest; with a sense that I really would like to reach such exactitude on my own terms.
I want to be a virtuoso. (Ambitious.) So I look to other virtuosos to figure out “How is this done?” (Naïve.) I am interested in techniques, and strategies, artfulness put together out of somebody else’s consciousness—the practical effects that I have missed, whatever offers a little idea, a wee leap to attempt.
PM: Is there any link between that sort of reading and the sort of thinking you do when interviewing people for a project? In both cases, you are trying to learn how they do things . . .
CDW: The psychology is at least compatible. How do you make this thing that you do effective?
That would not have occurred to me, but it is a nice segue.
PM: What about the voices of the dead? I am thinking of past poets you admire, and wondering if you ever ask yourself when composing what he or she would do at this point?
CDW: Maybe the great dead orient me toward what Merwin calls “the language that poetry is trying to speak,” a constant reminder that I am aiming for the poetry Merwin refers to as an irreducible language.
What else does he say? It’s “the vernacular of the imagination at one time common to men.”
PM: So the reading of older poets is that reminder. But they are not the raven on your shoulder?
CDW: No. However, you do need a virtual mountain of poetry at your back, to understand the language that poetry is trying to speak.
PM: Just before you referred to making work effective. How do you gauge that? Are there, for instance, any particular effects you would like your work to generate in your reader?
CDW: I would hope for a reader to be totally smitten. Moved, stirred-up. That is the shameless self-centered, seductive aspect.
If I feel that I have bumbled onto some savage insight, into a weird complex of human behaviour—I mean, a peep, of something that we hyperbolically call truth—then I want to be on the ball to communicate that.
PM: You want a recognition from your reader that there is something there, something they should acknowledge as real?
CDW: Argument is part of the fabric of my writing, an argument with the conditions of the world as given.
You make art because you are trying to understand what it means to be a (dumb) human animal.
PM: Trying to understand—and then to put forward a position?
CDW: Yes, or at least a meaningful, articulated awareness.
PM: Is one of those desired effects, then, that the reader learn something new?
CDW: It would make me happy for them to learn whatever it is I think I have learned.
PM: For them to go through a similar process of discovery perhaps?
To share the possibility that this is a valuable way to explore the world. Poetry is so reflective. More the pity more people are not reading it. Couldn’t everybody benefit from reflection? There is more than enough evidence that we are not mindful and heedful when and where it is most needed. You find yourself wondering how we’re going to get on.
PM: I’d like to ask you some questions about what goes on in the actual moments of writing. I would like to start by reading you a quote from Auden, and asking for your reaction to it:
When we genuinely speak, we do not have the words ready to do our bidding; we have to find them, and we do not know exactly what we are going to say until we have said it, and we say and hear something new that has never been said or heard before.
We must find the words to say it. Cultivating your own word-hoard and knowing what/when/where to retrieve; then, where to put it—that is the literal task.
Do I think that we have a shot at saying anything new? Not really. I wondered about that quote. It sounds like the hubris of someone painfully young who puts outsized stock in originality. Okay, we’re all just as different as snowflakes, but also just one among many, as Stevie Smith says (with disdain). For the most part, I think we all feel the same things. What you’re trying to do is to articulate this in a distinctive way.
I am not a huge booster for originality. When I do encounter an original, I know it. Maybe I have met three. Not necessarily artists. We are just trying to put an extra fine point on it—what we think we see, what we honestly perceive—as we possibly can. Aiming high without a snowball’s chance in hell of hitting the mark.
I can see how Auden’s reference to novelty would sit at odds with you there. But there also seems a concern in the quote with just being there in the moment, much like we are now, trying to come up with the words that might match where we want to go with our speech. There is something about the value of spontaneity. What I would like to ask you in relation to that is whether the act of composing feels like it draws on some sort of spontaneity? Whether it surprises you.
That’s the real deal: when something unexpected looms up. You were half unaware that you had actually prepared, or that you had so tuned your eyes and ears. It is an ultra-sweet moment. For spontaneity, much preparation. You have to be there and for adults it does show up often enough. It is not possible to retain the child’s spontaneity. There are child-like artists, who are wondrous. They may be cases of arrested development, but for spontaneity you cannot match them . . . Yet you aspire to be present for the times when there is a flash that you could not have laid out so specifically.
PM: One model of composition might suggest that every line has to have that feeling to it. But it sounds like you are experiencing it as something that is there—I mean as a feeling in the author, while composing—only occasionally.
CDW: Writers have so many different ways of doing what Pip called “turning to at it.” In Great Expectations, he asks Biddy, “How do you know when you’re turning to at it?”
PM: So when you are writing, are you looking for formulations that surprise you in some way? Likewise when editing, is it a matter of paring back text to get to the things that surprise you?
CDW: I aim for minimal loss from the editing, so that I do not trample something secretly valuable. In the editing new lanes can open up.
PM: Can I ask how fast you write? Does it feel like a rapid process?
CDW: Not a fast writer.
PM: Is it line-by-line then?
CDW: It’s a construction, a building project, laborious, sometimes tedious. Initially, of course, terrifying. You have to talk yourself through massive doubt and be bold enough to put a whole garage of lousy words down.
PM: So it is a matter of going back to things multiple times to try and get the right words? Does it ever just come at one time?
CDW: Very little arrives at one time, in one breath, in one circumstance, in one place.
PM: And in the editing, do you generally retain the sequencing of the original drafts? Or do you shift things around a lot?
CDW: Very modular—unless writing a “stand-alone” poem (which I love by the way). But when you are writing extended poems, book-length, the discrete poem slips away from its stall. When I have finished a long project, I often set myself to the task of relearning how to write a single poem.
PM: Is the relearning an important aspect of that task? I mean, is it important to you to feel you are out of your depth a bit, again?
CDW: Not sure that I have that many of those little gems left. I have become acclimated to longer projects demanding more of my attention that require different kinds of manoeuvres than the single poem. I so want to retain some lyricism. Prose can drain that out of you.
PM: The sense of words bounded by the line-break?
CDW: The line, yes, but more importantly, sincerity and economy of language.
PM: Many of your books seem to shift between those two modes. Deepstep Come Shining comes to mind.
CDW: The most fun I have had writing. By far.
PM: Please tell me.
CDW: Being fundamentally dark, pessimistic, but with a helpful add-on of humor... Deepstep was a joyous writing experience. A road trip. A buddy book. A lot of serendipity in that project. Debbie proposed it to me [the photographer, Deborah Luster], that we take a road trip, and do something related to dreams of the blind. “Sounds cool,” I said, “but we’re not going to interview blind people are we? I think that would be rude.”
“No, no,” Deb said “We’re going to visit outsider artists in north South Carolina, northern Georgia.”
PM: Outsiders artists who were blind?
CDW: No, outsider artists, untrained artists. It was metaphoric. Debbie’s then-husband is a folklorist and he laid out an itinerary of artists for us to visit. He stocked the truck with music connected to that part of the country (he also DJ’d a radio show of Americana music). So we had an interesting, obscure soundtrack. Debbie had an itinerant photographic studio in the back of her Explorer or whatever the vehicle was. We drove from Beaufort, North Carolina through South Carolina and ending at Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia, Howard Finster’s obsessive construction, which evolved or devolved to your classic family cottage industry.
In the end, Debbie did not develop her images. She was not satisfied with anything she got (maybe she will return to those pictures one day and be pleased). But I had a frog-fat notebook. My husband Forrest and I went to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, an art colony near Lexington, Virginia. Our son was ten. He went to camp, the same camp that Forrest had gone to as a child, having grown up in Virginia. twenty miles from where we were. We spent a month at the VCCA. I wrote my book there and had a blast. Studios were in an old dairy barn. Very funky—I had a junked couch, a desk, and a chair. I was still using a typewriter then, my ultra-heavy, trusty IBM. And I had a white wall on which to mount my poem. I stared at it every day, like the painters in the Center were doing. I worked on it in an expressly visual way. It is my outsider painting, untrained, unfettered.
PM: I would like to ask more about the dimension of your work that is like painting. When composing, does it feel like you are actually seeing the things you are describing?
CDW: The words for seeing things can come later. But I make the notes on the spot. Finding the right words is a finicky, time-eating pursuit. I like words period. All tracks of diction. Trashy language, haute language, archaic language, colloquial, idiomatic, specialized. I have some facility for metaphor (my father, by the way, was keen on words too). The right words, as I said, come later. I like to move close to the edges of what I see.
PM: So the perception is not necessarily there in the initial writing?
PM: It is more that you have a description of—
CDW: —a description of a description I have yet to describe. The nouns have to do a lot of mental work. The verbs do the back work. Adjectives and adverbs are clutter, but sooner or later, you need a few.
PM: What about your mood when you are putting all this together? Would you say you have to be in the right mood to compose?
You have to be willing to wait it out.
I was thinking of something, going back to seeing . . . This is not related to mood, but to the painterly aspect of the writing. I was saying I like a very incisive language. At the same time, I really like a lot of texture. So that means I build up the paint. Even though I like something to be very clean, I am likewise attracted to layering.
PM: Can you elaborate on that?
CDW: Layering in and laying in different registers of language. I am not enthralled with a smooth, overly consistent language.
PM: Is it something to do with giving the reader a sense of the physicality of the words?
CDW: Yes, physicality. I also think that if it’s not all in the same register, it makes the work more animate.
PM: So it is about subverting language’s capacity to serve just for information? It is about getting into all those other spaces?
CDW: It can be hard to get up in those spaces. Everything having been written. Everything having been said. You still have to get up in those spaces.
PM: Is it a matter of initially just writing, and not really looking at what you produce too critically, so as to come back later and critique it? Or does it feel like you are composing and critiquing at the same time?
CDW: Both at once. The biggest inhibition about writing is self-censoring on the front end. That’s the usual struggle: just to let myself get it down. Then I can go after the art.
PM: Does that mean you enjoy the editing more than the writing?
CDW: Más, mucho más.
PM: Does that mean, too, that when you are editing you do feel you know what to do?
CDW: Increasingly confident as I go along. But never capital C confident, I have to admit. And the last longer work I did, I almost gave up. I thought I had taken all of the life out of it, laid waste to it on the page.
PM: This is One with Others.
CDW: Yes. Then I exhumed a passage written very early on, almost an abstract of the whole. Suddenly I knew where to put it and my book was done. I realized, I didn’t kill it. It was just waiting, just being held in suspension. The book that made me feel so futile in the act, was written.
PM: One with Others feels like it has a clearer narrative than your other books.
CDW: Probably does, since there is a protagonist, an anchor, a hero, if you will.
PM: Does the greater narrativity of a book like One with Others give you more of a handrail, in the writing?
CDW: Sure. It also bears a connection to being from the south, the “upper south,” as I prefer to call it. From my warren, people are talkers. . . They like to tell a story, much more the case than in the city. Storytelling is mother tongue, mother’s milk of the American South. I always had the impulse. I just never knew how to tell a proper story. So I both deliberately subvert the story, and involuntarily subvert the story. When I tell Forrest my dreams, he walks out of the room. He complains that I “tell it in real time.”
Whereas if I just threaten to tell a story, I can “simulate” a page-turner, an immediacy to the writing, even though there is no bona fide story being expressed.
PM: That is a very strong phrase, “to threaten to tell a story”. When you find that effect in your work, are you conscious of thinking, “Yes, this is the aesthetic that I want”?
It feels right. I arrived in San Francisco, as did Forrest, just as the Language poets were shifting into fast-forward. I found them tactically shocking, yet metropolitan and informative. They are a sharp and driven lot, fairly diffuse at this point in time. I don’t dwell in abstraction to the same nth many of those heady and wonderful writers do. And I don’t subscribe to all the cant about narration. I am not persuaded every time a story is told a master narrative is being cooked up that is injurious to life on planet earth or to the language between apposing orbs. I understand a story is a construction. Our lives are storylines. I do not harbor antipathy toward narrativity. I am not drawn to abstraction when it is altogether central. I like writing that explodes in the senses. But I want to say that with a rider. I do admire a lot of the difficult engagement of more analytic and conceptual writing. (Less the latter, which can be boresome as soon as you get it.) I am conflicted about strictly intellectual approaches. They are outside my jurisdiction.
PM: I have heard poets saying that the emotions expressed in the reading of their poetry can only really be the reader’s emotions. Which might be to suggest that the aim of the writing is to spark off emotions in the reader. But is it more important to you to think of it from the writing perspective?
CDW: I would say so. I believe most writers maintain a strong ethos about their practice.
PM: And those considerations would be more in your mind in writing and editing than, say, thinking about what effect the work will have on a reader, a reader who might thereby experience catharsis, or whatever?
PM: What about the differences between you in the act of writing a poem and you at other times, between poems. Do you feel you are a different self in those moments?
CDW: That’s a good question. Part of me thinks I have a consistent personality, but until fairly recently I defaulted to being afraid of you-name-it. But writing has always been for me a free space, where I can say anything. Anything I can find the word for. You have to submit to a certain social circumspection when you move about in the world. There is a distinction.
That said, I am no doubt more revealing than intending to be in the work.
PM: Is this sense of freedom part of what has sustained you in your practice over the years?
CDW: It is a space over which I have some charge. In the external world, one is naturally more subject to the context. And because of the forces of the world, one can feel quite hopeless and helpless, impotent even, and writing provides a bit of a reprieve. It is part and parcel of a beastly need to be consoled. Curiosity has likewise been sustaining to writing, a means by which to keep interested.
PM: Are you referring to a consolation that arrives through the practice of writing; or through the responses you get to the work you publish?
CDW: The practice of writing is consoling. The sense that I have this one tool, this one weapon. I have this one thing on my side.
PM: You have not mentioned the acclaim your writing has garnered as something that keeps you going.
CDW: Does not keep you going. Many talented people have not been so well treated; the reward system is suspect at best and no collateral of actual excellence. It is not that I think I am not good at this. I wouldn’t bother, if I did not think some dragged out goals were achievable. There are and always will be those equally and more deserving. It does not do to be easily pleased or appeaseable. I can count on my goad: “I didn’t get it right that time, but next time.” The more sustaining aspects have to do with sadness, and with autonomy, and curiosity.
PM: When you are writing, why do you stop writing?
CDW: I do not love endings, not because of any principle about closure—although I have tried to address the topic of closure. I just don’t dig endings. Miles Davis once said in an interview, “Endings just drag me.” As a reader, honestly, most of the time, I read the ending first to get it over with.
PM: You mean when you read novels?
CDW: The first betrayal is to read the ending. It is anxiety-producing not to know the ending; then I can enjoy the book.
PM: Does that mean that you are actually creating a reading that comes closer to the sort of reading you would practice with poetry?
Not with every book. Not when reading crime fiction on the plane. I have no predictive skill even with altogether transparent-to-others structures, never suspect what will happen on the next page. (This does not hold to film, wherein the clues are so conspicuous).
But a book of art, the real literary deal—I’ll read the ending first every time.