DZ: I know you grew up surrounded by poets. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to grow up in a family where poetry is ignored, as so many of us did? Do you think you would have found poetry, or would some other angel have found you?
FW: There are many misunderstandings surrounding my upbringing, maybe because I had so many. My father left home, so to speak, when I was six or seven, though my parents were still living in the same city of Minneapolis. He would sometimes come by on Saturdays–I would have been breathlessly waiting all week, I loved my father very much, stranger that he sometimes was—and take me to a movie. The thing is, he never had a driver’s license and we took the bus and we always went to the wrong movie. If I wanted to see “The Swiss Family Robinson” we would end up somewhere walking in half through “The Seventh Seal”. Then he would leave me in my seat while he went and smoked and paced in the lobby. There was a smell and a strangeness about him which I now, of course, realize was booze. There is a lot of alcoholism, as well as other forms of madness, on both sides of my family–my father’s West Virginia somewhat hillbilly heritage (his mother Jesse Lyons was, I think, the original Irish-American manic-depressive poetic genius with no way to express herself except throwing knives at her quiet husband who was a foreman in a glass factory in Wheeling, W. Virginia across the river from my dad’s home town of Martins Ferry of southern Ohio). My mother was the first born in the U.S. to a Greek family of silent brutal male drunks. Anyway, I inherited it too. Why not? (At least I had the sense not to have children—there has been just about enough insanity.) So before long, I was seven or eight, my younger brother was three, and my mother in her early thirties drove us across the country to San Francisco, where I attended 4th through 6th grade in that fascinating city where I experienced a loneliness I have never quite shaken, and a sense of loss so overwhelming, I can remember being in great physical pain when I breathed. It was worse than if my father had died–it was a situation where I felt all these other people could see him except me. So while it is true there were illustrious poets (Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Robert Bly, James Dickey, to name a handful–oh, and Saul Bellow, in Minneapolis)—this astonishes me. I remember Bly, who is still a sort of uncle, and I remember Roethke very vividly. But that was it. After a couple years my mother decided to marry a man who had absolutely no affiliations with or interest in the literary world. He was very frightening and both physically and verbally brutal with me and my brother. I found wonderful teachers in high school, and later in college, but it is not really true to imagine me growing up surrounded by writers. I was primarily surrounded by a war zone, whether it involved my father and mother or mother and stepfather.
ZJ: I am pacing my floors, wondering and wanting to have your courage. To be THAT honest. I know my poetry will stink otherwise. I don’t know why I’m so afraid of it.
FW: Ah, work, work, work—lots of suffering—ecstasy, lonely ecstasy: that is all there is. In the end, there is absolutely NO reason to write (except money, if you can get your hands on any in the course of such a perilous undertaking). It’s like deciding you are going to be a professional gambler when you grow up. Come to think of it, that is precisely what my Greek great grandfather was—a professional gambler. He was in Paris when the first World War broke, and desperate to get home, sold—yes, it is true: sort of biblical, my family, or an ongoing play by Aeschylus or Eugene O’Neil!–he sold his ten year old son into virtual slavery or indentured servitude to the captain of some merchant ship or other—they didn’t have nuclear submarines back in WWI, did they? No, I didn’t think so. When my grandfather, my mother’s eventual father, was sixteen he escaped from the ship while it docked in South Carolina…
DZ: You’re excited about your recent work. If this is a new direction for you, then where are you now and what are you leaving?
FW: Here’s hoping this makes sense. (I am not going to try TOO hard to make sense, or I will lose us in mind-forged labyrinth.) I don’t really feel I am leaving anything behind (as a matter of fact, I have just signed a contract for a book of verse poems my publisher will bring out in 2013)–I can’t really disentangle the complexities it seems all at once to solve for me, this wonderful hybrid language that beckoned to me with the offer of conveying the whole spectrum of language, from the lyrical absolute to the most nakedly literal and direct. I do know I had finished my last book of poems, WHEELING MOTEL, in an unforeseen storm of nonstop work very rapidly, fully a third of the book, and then plunging into the first seven prose pieces very rapidly and with an eerie confidence that sometimes comes to you, the sense that the things you are writing have already been pondered all your life and existed inside you, fully formed though just out of reach, and you are trying simply to find the closest possible translation of them into your own words—into the way you actually speak and think. It was staggering, too, to realize I was getting more conscious ideas into the work, and therefore, paradoxically, something very human, and very poignant to me after the decades of the obsession with technical matters, from scansion to the symmetries of the stanza, the preoccupation not just with the image but with numbers. The sense of the poem as an alternative or even improved reality over which I could exercise control probably appealed to one whose life in the actual world was so chaotic and hopeless-seeming. I was always astonished to read, as I did now and then, critical remarks to the effect that my poems were jagged and arbitrary even at the level of the line break. But all this means is that the reviewer 1) spent about fifteen minutes leafing through my book and 2) was deaf and blind. Or simply knows so little about English prosody that they cannot discern those places in a work of writing where language, in order to be true to the way the writer actually thinks, speaks, and silently experiences reality, begins to be used in a highly improvisatory fashion. So many people seem to have forgotten that the best way to break the rules is to first master them and make good and sure you know what the hell you are doing—whether you are using the language, or the language is using you to make you say absurdly obscure and even meaningless things.
Anyway, with the prose there was suddenly room for more than just the dream voice of the poem, of the intuitive and mysterious image—there were all kinds of real voices shouting to be heard, and a dramatic setting would have to be provided for them to have it out with each other and for a little while I think I experienced that eerie confidence that what you are writing has already existed fully formed inside you for a very long time but remained just beyond reach, almost but not quite audible, and you are trying to find the closest approximation or translation from that invisible text. But I don’t want to get into too much analytical doubletalk. I just found that everything I knew how to do lyrically with language had become synchronized with my conscious intellect (though some may be surprised to learn that I have one), and what’s more, I was able to stretch out and improvise more with technical effects of cadence, the interplay between meaning and music, hell—I sometimes had to learn how to rough up a sentence so that it didn’t come across as TOO regular in cadence, striving to transfer to the page the way I actually spoke and thought, or come much closer to it. I was determined to push—while maintaining an acute sense of my limitations, which is the source of what is most true to yourself and therefore most universal—to push beyond effects I was long adept at and just cut loose. The whole thing unfolded, one piece to the next, with uncanny swiftness and I think the entire book (the one hundred or so prose pieces I wrote, cutting that down to sixty-five or so) was done in under fifteen months—and I don’t think there is a piece in that book I did not write again and again, honing, polishing, until they began to take on the look and sound of symmetrical inevitability a good poem can possess combined with a wild spirit of improvisation. When working on those beat the hell out of me, I would turn to my poetry manuscript (the book will be entitled F) and immerse myself in that until I felt that genuine upwelling from the unconscious, as Roethke put it somewhere, the unconscious, the divine, whatever you want to call it, that could express itself only by throwing off the obsessive concern with and solace of form.
I believe that anyone who throws themselves off the cliff will be caught and saved—but you’ve got to jump, and how many are willing? This was a time in my life when to maintain the fires of enthusiasm and inspiration, I needed to just jump off the cliff. And I am excited about the appearance of this book as I have not been in some time. I feel it is my best, most coherent and yet most inspired work I have ever done or may ever be able to do again. And I think if nothing else it will be impossible for certain reviewers who seem terribly upset by my mere existence to say, “You see, he is just doing the same thing all over again.” Some of the obsessions may be the same, but oh the way in which they are sung, screamed, whispered, and declaimed alone as on a stage is very very far from anything I have ever attempted before. For all the excruciating complexities I had to straighten out and all the frustrations of creating a seamlessness between lyrical flight and dramatic and/or narrative logic (I think I have a better sense of what novelists or even playwrights must go through), I had the sense of discovering the ecstasy of poetry all over again, and I was and remain terribly grateful. I am working on yet another collection, presumably to appear in 2015, where prose pieces and verse pieces intermingle.
DZ: In your poem “University of One,” you write
I have been spared
the fate of those who love words
more than what they mean!
As a poet, I find those words chilling. I worry that you are describing me… I love words themselves, how they sound and how they feel in my mouth, and I love the untrustworthy connection between the word and the meaning. In the very poem I quoted, I love the staccato lines and how they knock around in my brain.
Whom did you have in mind when you wrote these lines? It sounds like you’re warning against something. Can you tell me more about what to look out for?
FW: I recall precisely what I had in mind, though it branches a bit. At 46, it was beginning to dawn on me that poetry might not be a religion, and that there might be more important things in the world. I don’t know if I can convey the obsessive and monomaniacal arrogance with which I pursued writing. It simply would not have been possible for me to live, from the time I was about 17, unless living meant the primacy of writing above every other conceivable concern, including the fate of other human beings who had the misfortune to actually care about me. But I had gone through a vast and shocking change in my life, having survived (only on account of the intervention of the astonishing young woman who has been my wife for eleven years now) two years of such severe psychotic depression that I hardly left my apartment for nearly two years, and could no longer write, and felt the person I had been until my mid-forties had not simply died but been annihilated, erased from the book. I don’t want to go into those couple years, but I can say there was no guarantee whatsoever that I would ever recover and the impression I got from the doctors I saw was that there was no hope whatsoever. I felt I had experienced, through the agency of another human being, this having come back from death, or from Hell. Around this time I had also had other indescribable experiences which led me to a formal connection with the church, where I met more people of genuine compassion. I suppose there was no way for me to come to compassion, to pity, except by becoming broken and pitiful, to have known what it was to join the millions of the humiliated, the mentally ill, the hopelessly broken, terrified, and infinitely alone. All that previous arrogance, that refusal to be a part of the human family, that willingness to use other human beings if need be to survive, all of it, seemed transformed into a kind of ecstatic hunger to become involved in some small positive way in the lives of the truly afflicted. Through further bestowals of grace, I found myself volunteering for years in a nearby day program for mentally ill people, some transitioning from long-term stays in hospitals to living on their own, which I think must be terribly frightening. For seven years I was at the Center For Grieving Children, where I’d gone through the training to become a volunteer facilitator and work with groups of 7 through 10 or 11 year olds. I think I partly wanted to see what a very sad eight year old boy was like, how he dealt with it, how he might be helped somehow. I remember holding hands with one, once, in a circle, and thinking, My God, I could just squeeze and break every bone in his hand, it felt so terribly fragile. Between the ages of 8 and 11 I thought I was a pretty tough guy, one more mask, because who was I really? I was a kid who got up at 4 in the morning to read the Iliad for a couple hours before having to go to school, who was only beginning to live in these two fairly distinct worlds at the same time, and became adamantly prepared to live in the imaginary one, sadly. So I discovered this power of love and mercy that can flow through us and illuminated a whole world that had gone dark, dead to me. I really don’t know what more I can say except that there are many things that lie beyond the power of language to describe, and to me, all these things exist there, even now, even in my dreams, or this past three years of nonstop writing. Poetry, the search for my father, the attempt to become my father, whatever it was—perhaps simply to experience everything he had—all that was dethroned, thank God. But I am still very far behind in everything.
I think I faced, for the first time, the fact that my father might have been wrong when he put poetry beyond all human concerns, which is what he did, I’m afraid—I hate disillusioning people but it is simply a fact that this is how he spent most of his life, in that self-hell. I also contemplated the liberating possibility that it might be alright to be Franz now.
(I want to emphasize what an incredibly good time I had at the Center For Grieving Children. It was not a place of sadness or mourning to me! It was one more place where I felt I was among my own kind, which I needed for a long time, to heal.)
I would like to give this additional short answer to your question. The poets I feel the greatest reverence for, Whitman and Rilke, for example (there are so many more it would take too long to list them) who actually experienced, I truly believe, some visionary experience they spent their life writing about, while becoming more and more skillful at doing so, they actually had something to write about, some cosmic experience of the unity of the above and the below, the inner and outer worlds, experienced without seam, and the experience of one’s own boundaryless oneness with the cosmos. Also those poets who have left behind the subject self and gone to actually look at and experience a thing, a place, an animal, a love, anything. I can tell right away if a poet is writing from his own experience and in his own words from his own heart. Words are not just beautiful blocks to be moved around, rearranged in their infinite ways—they are a finger pointing at something else. They should be a window, not a mirror.
Even if poetry uses the “I”, it is as much a mask as it would be for a fiction writer. All true poetry is an escape from self and an entrance, and attention to the outer world so attentive that one finds the correct word—with massive labor— in the outer world that stands for something soundless and invisible, feelings, unsayable thoughts, so much is unsayable, but there are things in the outer world to stand for them as well.
I love this poem by D.H. Lawrence: The White Horse. You know an actual human being has seen something and been moved to write something not so much to describe it as to create in the word world an equivalent experience. But the wordless experience, even in the poem, which is a kind of homage to silence and solitude, in a mysterious paradox, the impulse to say or sing something with the equivalent—
THE WHITE HORSE
The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent they are in another world.
Here are a couple others I like, an Italian, and an American:
Salvatore Quasimodo (I think I can say that after merely loving it for decades I have now experienced it and can participate in his feelings, his experience, his terror. Because I think I have an idea myself of how to produce the same effect.)
AND SUDDENLY IT’S NIGHT
Everyone is standing alone at the center of the
transfixed by a ray of sunlight.
And suddenly it’s night.
Walt Whitman: A Clear Midnight
This is thy hour, O soul, they free flight into the
Away from books, away from art, the day
erased, the lesson done;
Thee fully forth emerging, gazing, pondering
the themes thou lovest best:
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.
These are examples of poems which have become likely immortal by what virtue? The most difficult to achieve in writing of any kind: clarity, simplicity, passionate sincerity, rather than an obsession with words themselves.
They are instruments language has come to trust, for this reason, and lastingness shines from them. They do not have the stamp of dusty and total forgottenness so many poems glaringly do today, poems by poets who have never written a line anybody remembers. The real culprit is the MFA two year Masters Degree programs in writing poetry, an outrageous stupidity and capitalist scam on the part of universities and colleges as business for profit, and therefore, these days more than ever, in need of a steady stream of non-poets with big ambitions and fantasies, which are encouraged by the MFA programs—do you think anyone ever fails? No, everything runs smoothly on money, and it is an absolute disgrace to and desecration of the spirit of true poetry which is written and discovered in secret by those in need of it.
Writing has become the only major human endeavor in which you can flourish and do very well by being a shockingly mediocre poet. Look at just about any program in the country. And they lower the bar and lower the bar until any idiot can trip over it and be rewarded—a deadly situation for the poets of real talent, as well. Everyone knows how difficult it is to turn down offers of substantial money (it has been for me), and when it becomes habitual, it actually prevents poets poised to become truly great from fulfilling their promise. Their energy is channeled in the wrong way, and they know it.
DZ: Astrology is something that nobody believes in but everybody believes in. What’s it like being a Pisces?
FW: I experience it as being torn in half, in one way or another, at times—at others, enjoying the incredible gift of getting to live twice.