A Conversation with Joshua Weiner

The Virginia Commonwealth University English Department presented Joshua Weiner the 2007 Levis Reading Prize for his poetry collection From the Book of Giants, on September 27, 2007. The day after the award presentation and reading, Weiner sat down with Gregory Donovan and David Wojahn for an informal discussion that encompassed American attitudes toward the political and the personal in poetry, the choices involved in working with free verse and received forms, the backgrounds to the composition of Weiner’s poems, and other subjects. The conversation took place in Anderson House on the VCU Monroe Park campus in Richmond, Virginia.


David Wojahn: Briefly, I’d like to introduce our guest today, Joshua Weiner, author of two poetry collections: The World’s Room and From the Book of Giants. Both of these books are, I think, truly remarkable achievements. Joshua teaches at the University of Maryland, and has won a number of prestigious awards and honors, including a Whiting Award, the Rome Prize, and the Witter Bynner Fellowship at the Library of Congress.

I was reading a review yesterday in the new issue of Poetry, a kind of snide review of a book by Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard, and the reviewer—I can’t remember her name—offered a very long sort of diatribe right in the middle of the review. She seemed to be saying, “I blame Robert Lowell for this condition” as she suggested that Lowell seems to have caused too many poets to think continually that there needs to be some sort of interface between the political and personal, the historical and the personal. It seems that kind of complaint, which I find a little absurd, is nevertheless voiced fairly often in the last decade—or couple of decades.

Your work really insists repeatedly on the interface between those two polarities. Does it feel sometimes that you’re in a lonely situation, being one of those sorts of writers, given the prevailing mood of American poetry these days?

Joshua Weiner: No, I haven’t thought of my own loneliness at all in relation to this feeling of engagement with the world that’s taking place outside of me, that involves me, obviously, because I participate in it. I think it’s rather thickly populated, the world of poetry, with poets who are doing precisely this kind of thing. So I feel like I’m not just in good company, but exemplary company.

There are great poets who have done this and who have felt that it was something that needed to be done. It’s just a natural instinct, if you think about the poets who come into their own after World War II, even if you think of the Language poets, who are very much politically engaged, and yet who seem to put a lot of critical pressure on the presumptions of enacting that kind of interface.

I feel as closely in company with all of them as with Lowell or Ginsberg. Not in terms of their aesthetic strategies, but in terms of their sense of the need for that degree of engagement. It sounds to me—to reduce the question—like somebody who didn’t care for Natasha Trethewey’s book and who then diagnosed a general cultural view that doesn’t hold.

DW: Well, it did seem like she was considering Lowell as the Typhoid Mary of this condition or convention.

JW: What’s interesting is that Lowell is the whipping boy not for that problem, generally, but for another problem, which is the problem of what’s too conveniently called “confessionalism,” or writing from an autobiographical presumption.

DW: I think she was saying that he was to blame for both of those things at once.

JW: Because of his family history, Lowell’s feeling of where that interface was located is unique. Those that followed him didn’t have that sense of historical lineage and inheritance. But that just seems one dimension of it, really. If you’re writing from your own experience, and it includes political experience, then it would be an unfortunate diminishment to conclude, for no good reason, that it was somehow programmatically off-limits.

Gregory Donovan: In your introduction to your reading of “Weegee: Coney Island Beach at Midnight,” you mentioned that you had taken the stanza form from Thomas Hardy. That seems to be a characteristic, complex commitment in your poetry.

Here you’re working with such a hardboiled subject as the photographer Weegee, with subject matter that is very American (you even mention that in the poem). Speaking through his voice, you are talking about being American, while at the same time you are committed to formal sensitivity. Could you talk a little bit about the background to that commitment?

JW: When I started writing poems, I started by apprenticing myself to those formal procedures, to the major traditions of accentual-syllabic verse and Anglo poetry. In some really fundamental way, my ear was tuned to relative stress, to qualities of end rhyme and internal rhyme, to measure, to the acoustic identity of measure. I worked exclusively—because that’s how I was being taught—with those forms.

This was in college. I didn’t really try to write free verse until after I’d graduated. And it was in reaction to my education. I thought, working with these traditional formal materials is really difficult. I hadn’t felt the degrees of freedom that I had dreamed about in poetry when working with those materials. When I finished school, I thought, that’s it for me. I’m done with the British tradition of poetry even as Americans practiced it. I’m just a free verse guy from here on out.

I was at a loss, though, trying to figure out where the end of the line was in free verse. And that was a great bewilderment to experience. I had to learn again what constituted a line. Where it would start, where it would finish. What would be the rationale?  Was it acoustic? Was it ideational, or imagistic, or figurative?  And then the next line—

The unpredictability threw me into some kind of aesthetic freefall. I was overly rhetorical as a young poet, and I had a penchant for bombast. I needed to destroy that, so I wrote haiku for nine months and tried to figure out how to work through implication suggested in the image, how to pull back from the feeling that one needed to make a direct statement. I moved into Latin American surrealism as a way to short-circuit my rational disposition. My reading widened.

What I found a few years out from that education—which had given me a lot but had also seemed to suggest a very narrow path to continue on—what I found was that my ear had been re-formed by these other interests, and so I turned back to those traditional meters and those stanza shapes and those kinds of acoustic shapes, and it felt entirely different. It felt entirely natural to me. It no longer sounded artificial to my ear.

At that point I decided that I would simply do whatever pleased me, whatever delighted me the most. And the difficulties that earlier felt merely as if they were difficulties, became difficulties that had in them delights. And they were more intense pleasures, I found.

I had begun scholarly work on the poet Thomas McGrath, who was a real leather-and-nails, old-style radical, Wobbly poet. But he had studied with Cleanth Brooks, and he was probably reading Latin American surrealists before they had been translated in this country. He has this long, six- to eight-beat line that somehow combines Whitman and Robert Bridges’ “Testament of Beauty,” and he was a poet of uncompromising political commitments combined with a really wide range of formal instincts. I thought his work provided some clues about how to proceed both in terms of political engagement and that interface between political experience and personal experience. But also the need to find the poem, the form of the poem, somehow emerging through the occasion of the poem.

This was something that Thom Gunn’s work taught me as well. The ambition became to master as many formal impulses as I felt and thereby to ready myself to respond to any occasion I arrived at, in any procedure that occurred to me. I came to put a premium on formal flexibility combined with a sense of formal rigor.

DW: I’m glad you mentioned Letter to an Imaginary Friend, because McGrath is a terribly underrated poet, and he was an important model for me as a young poet growing up in Minnesota. That hexameter line in Letter to an Imaginary Friend is just so capacious. It’s amazing how much tonal range that line permits him, because that’s a very funny poem—it’s a savage poem, a highly rhetorical poem. It’s got just about every quality of emotional experience that you can get in a poem. And you almost have to have that to sustain a six-hundred-page book. And he does it, pretty much. There are some slow passages, but not a lot of them.

JW: It’s full of love and outrage, that book. And it is unique.

DW: But I’m also thinking about the paradigm that you’re talking about—about beginning as a poet very much connected to an Anglo-American formal tradition and then moving towards other literatures, other traditions, moving to free verse. It puts you in a fairly different situation from poets of a certain age, like Greg and me. When we grew up, we were told that the wars were over—that free verse had won, and there was absolutely no reason why you should try to write in rhyme or meter anymore.

Your condition is almost like that of poets who were growing up during the middle generation, or poets growing up in the twenties, like Wright, Merwin, Rich, who begin as fairly studious formalists and then start to experiment with free verse. It was a very difficult transition for a lot of them before they went to free verse, but they also often came back to received form as they grew older. They were able to make that kind of mixture in a way that seems to parallel your own story.

JW: I think if I hadn’t turned away from where I had started and tried to kind of catch up with the century prosodically in some sense, then I would not have been able to write in the shapes to which I returned with any kind of effect. And one of the things that I learned in that process was that the challenge, the exigency, of writing free verse was to do it as if the form were as crisply emergent as a stanza in Hardy.

And that the exigency of writing in more formal meters and stanzas is to do it as if it were entirely an act of improvisation and freedom. The kind of rhetoric of the one was transposed to the other and vice versa. Eventually, it didn’t seem like there was really any difference in terms of what was required. The ear needed to play in both cases with equal vitality and sensitivity.

GD: I’ve noticed that, in addition to the attention you give to formal constraints (which I think are capable of restraining rhetorical excess), you also like to mix high and low diction. And that, of course, has something of the same purpose. But there also seems to be an attitude expressed in that, too—maybe even a belief system that emerges in that mixing of diction. I wonder if you could talk about that.

JW: Well, it’s just what the language sounds like; part of its dynamism is its highs and lows. One of the ways I discovered—and it was just something that I felt instinctively—was that the dynamism in a poem relied in part on the mixture of levels of diction. Because it’s expressive and it’s interesting not just semantically, but at the acoustic level, too. The more vulgar diction has stronger and harder consonants; the more elevated diction is polysyllabic and the vowels tend to be shorter and the consonants softer. So even at the acoustic level, it’s one of the dynamic qualities in any poem. It’s expressive of a disposition.

But I think all these kinds of choices—they’re not so much choices; you’re being led by impulses—are expressive of disposition. I try to think of form in the largest possible terms, in terms maybe we inherited or that were best articulated by Creeley and by Duncan, poets who were working out of that tradition. And I came quickly to feel that the most immediate dead end was formalism. That formalism was the conviction that form was the end, that the practice of the form somehow contained an essential value. I don’t think that it does. The idea of form as always only an extension of content is a really fundamental truth for me.

GD: Your poem about Weegee was one that was discussed quite a bit in an advanced undergraduate poetry workshop that I’m teaching right now, and among the things that came up for examination was the narrative in that poem—that there is a “snake” in the poem that waits to bite you until the moment when that word rape is used, and when that happens, there’s kind of an explosion which you’re actually restraining from featuring.

I thought that restraint was part of the purpose of the stanza form that you’re using, but also, moving aside from just thinking about form, I’m interested in how much you feel you allow yourself to depend on narrative to hold a poem together, or whether you try to resist it a little bit.

JW: Well, both. The first book has a stronger narrative in it from beginning to end and there are more autobiographical moves in the first book, too. And by the time I had finished that book, I had become impatient with those strategies of self-revelation. I wanted to see whether there was a way to respond to these calls that did not necessitate narrative framing. I was tired of constructing narrative frames, because narrative demands that you do certain things in order to establish dramatic occasions and physical space. And like a fiction writer, you have to do a certain amount of story-stuff in order for the poem to be understandable.

I was reading a lot of Stevens, Dickinson, and Herbert and trying to think about more abstract and allegorical ways of representing personal experience—and the second book has those sorts of poems in it more than the first one does. But I was very deliberately trying to discover a new way of relating to personal experience and conveying it other than through narrative.

One of the things that hit me in the process of doing that was the new edition of Lowell’s Collected Poems. When I started rereading Lowell on the occasion of the publication of that book, I was just smashed all over again. I was in Rome, sensitive to my position there as an American in Italy and all the things that that suggested from World War II forward, as well as what was happening at the time in the Gulf. And Lowell seemed once again to offer himself as a model of how to rethink personal experience in relation to larger forces, and that’s one of the streams that run under the second book.

GD: I really saw that in a poem such as “Trampoline”—although that’s not the only one, of course—where there are several layers of meaning and the use of repetition is part of how you achieve that, but there are also orchestrated motifs that are being played with. In that poem in particular, the impulse you mention clearly comes into it. In my conversation with my students about that poem in class, we all arrived at the realization that there seemed to be a trampoline-like effect in the way that the repetition was being used and the way that the rhythms and rhymes were being used, and that rebounding allowed the repeated words to take on additional meanings.

JW: The impulse behind that poem really is formal. I wanted to write a poem that used metrical lines of varying lengths in a symmetrical pattern—I’d never done it—and I just wanted to make that sound that you hear in Hardy and Herbert. It’s kind of a Renaissance standard; it’s just a different kind of music. The discovery of the trampoline and that motion, and watching my son on the trampoline—the form just leapt out of that occasion and I knew that that was the way I wanted to do that poem.

It comes up again in the “Weegee” poem: I was reading Hardy and I found that poem and I just loved the sound of it. What happens when a longer line shifts to a shorter line and quickens the sequence of the end rhymes and then opens back up again.

I don’t know whether Hardy just invented that particular stanza? There is a lot of invention of stanza form in Hardy. He just makes stuff up, rigs new structures, and they’re often asymmetrical and they have these Gothic attributes that also appeal to me. They’re memorable, those bursts that catch in your ear, and I knew that what I wanted for the “Weegee” poem was the shape of that sound for that hard-boiled American voice.

DW: There’s a kind of quality there—it’s a very different way of evoking what the mind seems to be doing when it’s at work. It’s a sense of that stutter, that hesitation, that difficulty of ideas coming out in the way that they want to be formed. You see that so much in the vulnerability of Herbert, and in some ways it’s the hard-ass element of Hardy. But they’re two sides of the same coin, really.

JW: Those forms—I inhabited them with an ease I had never felt before. They really unfolded very quickly in what sounded like a right way.

DW: I can see where you make the connection to “Weegee,” too, because I think in a lot of Hardy’s poems, he deliberately writes a bunch of ugly lines so that when a beautiful line comes in, it has greater resonance.

JW: Weegee is a cruel photographer in some sense. On the other hand, he is a photographer who expresses tremendous empathy with his subject. At the end of Naked City, there is a chapter about how to become a photojournalist. He talks about his equipment and how he goes about things. One thing someone who has ambitions to be a photojournalist needs to practice is taking photographs at something like six feet and ten feet. If you’re relating to the subject, you don’t have time to work with the camera; you just have to know your camera and set it to take shots at six and ten feet.

There’s a kind of coldness and calculation in that, but it’s a calculation that’s required if one is to relate to the subject above the operation of the machinery: “I haven’t got time for gadgets because all my energy is concentrated on the drama which is taking place before my eyes.” Something like that. And it strikes me that Hardy has some aspect of that cruelty and empathy in his own poems, too, the deterministic point of view that also expresses empathy with all of us who are caught in such conditions.

GD: It’s interesting you point that out, because I think one of Hardy’s inheritors is, of course, Philip Larkin, and in his work, mixing high and low diction and using full rhymes and meter were strategies that allowed him ultimately to gain a remarkable intimacy with his subjects—and that’s surprising in a poet who’s so witty and assertive—yet the end result is that you feel very close to them.

JW: It’s creating a certain shock value. One of the things Larkin does is to figure in the verse forms a sound that is identified as poetry, and then he brings to it a diction that a lot of readers would not think of as belonging to poetry on the one hand. On the other hand, those same meters and the same sound of end rhyme is what battens down a lot of obscene versifying, and he was listening to that tradition, too. I think it was a way for Larkin to inject vitality into a poetic tradition that maybe he felt, in the culture in which he lived, was becoming a little too tame.

Also, just at the rhetorical level, the effect of vulgarity in lowering the sound of the language and bringing in some aspect of the street is exciting. It seems like a very American interest and less often a British one. But “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”—I mean, I think anybody who knows something of British poetry in Britain knows the first stanza of that poem, “This Be the Verse,” and probably a lot of people who don’t have a particular feeling for poetry know that stanza as well, because of the appeal of the obscenity—not just the language, but the obscenity of violating certain kinds of notions regarding family, which is so appealing to all of us.

DW: In a crude, deterministic way, it’s absolutely true. I mean, you can’t argue with those stanzas.

GD: You trust the wisdom more because he’s willing, in a way, to make an ass of himself and to call you in as a coconspirator in that, so both the reader and the writer are transgressive, and both are taking delight in that.

JW: What also struck me with that poem is how it suggested that some of the things we like about poems are the kinds of lies they tell about our own experience; sometimes they’re romantic lies and sometimes they’re antiromantic lies. That poem of Larkin’s, and other poems of his, are antiromantic lies about experience; in other words, they’re only partially true. And the part that is not true is also a part that we want to hear.

GD: I guess that—with any poem that takes up an extreme position—the other side of that poem is its leaving it to us, ultimately, to live in the echo of it, and to decide whether or not we believe the extremity.

JW: Well, you have to have a point of view. And there’s no way to establish one without leaving stuff out—the narrowness of Larkin’s point of view, and he’s obviously an exquisite poet and I love his poems. I go back to them and I’m astonished by them, but I’ll go back more often to Wordsworth because his heart seems larger.

GD: That’s interesting that you point that out. I taught Wordsworth in a graduate course not that long ago, and his qualities of sincerity and openness no longer seem to be valued in our culture. That directness or willingness to show vulnerability without mediation is in Wordsworth, and that’s one of the things that either you “get” and love, or you don’t like his work at all.

DW: You know, Larkin seems to have come out of the womb as a sixty-year-old man. I mean, there is no childhood in Larkin. I’m now thinking about a poem like “The Bed” in your book, which really is a Wordsworthian poem or Jarrellian poem—and Jarrell himself was in some ways a disciple of Wordsworth—and the way that you capture the complexity of that family narrative through the child’s point of view and the vulnerability of all the people involved in that poem is just, I think, pretty astonishing.

JW: I was reading, at the time—and that poem is most immediately coming out of reading—William Arrowsmith’s translation of Pavese and the poems in that book he titled Hard Labor, and I was entranced and charmed by the rhythms and by how Pavese unfolds the narrative surrealistically, imagistically, with tremendous mystery and tenderness. After I had worked on the poem, I realized how much Jarrell, and how much Bishop—the Bishop of “Sestina”—is in there as well.

GD: A poem of yours that enacts a similar attention to a child’s needs is “In the Country,” where a child is being first introduced to death and also to horses—that’s one of those “layered” poems as well. By the time we reach the end of the poem, we understand that the horse reaching its neck over the fence toward the child is actually Death reaching over, and that the child, at this point in his life, has chosen only one word to deal with everything in the world—and it’s a pretty good choice he makes, because everything in the world is, in some sense, “hot.”

JW: I think that’s right. There’s something about the end of that poem—that action of the father’s of not pulling the child back from danger. That itself contains a kind of dangerous attitude towards experience that I found thrilling to discover in myself and let live in that poem. And it’s probably there in “The Bed,” too.

GD: It reminds me of the ongoing struggle that thinking people—thinking parents—have to face, about when and how to introduce children to terror. The fairytales which I grew up with, which were truly horrifying, are now being cleaned up and sanitized. And one can understand why, and yet—the older wisdom behind those stories was that “No, you have to find a way to introduce children to the possible harshness of the world before they’re introduced to the actual harshness of the world.”

JW: Maybe the Victorians were the ones who started cleaning up the Grimm’s tales and making them fairy tales when they were just, in fact, recorded tales; they were a kind of folklore that didn’t have this fairy-tale designation. And their power is in the catharsis. They’re full of a kind of violence that you don’t find in the Britishising of them.

At the end of “Cinderella,” the stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the shoe and then birds fly down and peck out their eyes. But there’s an incredible reassurance in those stories, because the veniality and cowardice and cruelty of these human figures is always rebalanced by forces of nature. It’s always the stepsister or the stepmother—an unnatural mother—they’re the ones who are cruel and receive the retribution and it always comes through some natural force that retips the scales—and there is some unconscious reassurance in that.

GD: Your poetry, as many others have observed, and as you’ve clearly stated, owes something to the work of Thom Gunn. I think you understand Thom Gunn in a particularly sensitive way, and I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about that and maybe even to advocate for his work. What is it you’ve felt as an affinity to his work?

JW: This is a big subject for me. One of the reasons I went out to Berkeley, maybe one of the primary reasons I tried to go out there, was because Thom Gunn taught there, and I had become a fan of his poems in college. One of the things I think I was attracted to early on was a kind of heroic masculinity finding shape in those poems up through Jack Straw’s Castle, up through the mid-seventies, in Passages of Joy. The Man with Night Sweats had not appeared, the AIDS catastrophe was just becoming known. So I think that sense of the heroic, that visceral sense of strength in the verse itself appealed to me.

The other thing, and this was maybe the more important thing: I was just instinctively awake to the way that he responded to his own experience in poetry. I came to poetry through Dylan Thomas. That was the first poet I fell in love with, and that’s probably not so unique. I think a lot of people fall in love with poetry through Dylan Thomas and hearing Dylan Thomas read— the rhetorical power from line to line and those incredible sequences of sounds—but it seemed completely Venusian, unreachable, distant—you’d have to pray to be struck by lighting.

The scale of Gunn’s work was entirely different: it had to do with the level of the diction as well as the way he was discovering poems around him. I had no idea of the actual history of post-war British poetry and the way that Gunn was part of a reaction against the kinds of poems that Dylan Thomas was writing, that there was a real interest in rescaling the language following a poet like Dylan Thomas. It just happened that my own experience was parallel or analogous as a reader or as somebody who had a desire to write poems, so that was really important, though I didn’t realize it in those historical terms.

The other thing is the way that Gunn relates to his subjects. In his poems, Gunn gives the human figures a degree of reality through which they remain capable of resisting the imaginative impositions of the poet. This tension is actually something that Gunn dramatizes in his poems, in a poem such as “Sweet Things,” or “Old Meg” for example, in which this street character is given the last word in the poem, and that word is a curse on the poet who approaches her with a certain degree of presumption about who she is.

That was a really fundamental lesson. It had nothing to do with making poems, but had everything to do with how one dramatizes one’s relation to other people in poems and a recognition that, ethically, there’s a necessity to lend to those figures a degree of reality which is greater than the frame of the poem could possibly contain. It’s something, for example, that one doesn’t find in Wordsworth, in the way that Wordsworth relates to those characters in his work. They’re emblems, and they become vehicles for reflecting back the poet’s own egotism. Think of “Resolution and Independence.” Wordsworth doesn’t care about the leech gatherer; he’s only interested in what the leech gatherer can tell him about his own powers.

DW: I’m thinking of that great Gunn poem of going to that boys’ school in Los Alamos—it’s called “A Drive to Los Alamos.” He and this other guy are looking at photos of the boys’ school—the terrible boys’ school this guy went to in the 1920s—and at the end of the poem the guy says something like, “That was Jack Matthews,” and then Gunn says, “I make up the name, since I do not remember it, but he did.” Just such tenderness and empathy—but an acknowledgement of that distance. There are a lot of beautiful Gunn poems like that. They have it both ways.

JW: One thinks of the power of poetic imagination as emerging from fullness, but there is also tremendous power in acknowledging limitation. And that implies a dramatic shape as well, and a structure for poetry.