Five Questions: An Interview with Robert Wrigley
During the fall of 2016, Matt Meyjes and I conducted an interview with esteemed American contemporary poet Robert Wrigley. Mr. Wrigley was born in St. Louis, IL in 1951 and was the first person in his family to graduate from college, escaping a dreary life of coal-mining. Though he does think that poetry is a very useful tool in the academic process of learning, Robert Wrigley also believes that poetry contains the power to influence peoples’ lives and the world. As a winner of 5 pushcart prizes, various prizes, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, Mr. Wrigley´s natural, honest poetry has earned its rightful spot in Matt and my 2006 copy of Best American Poetry.
Matt Meyjes and Emily Lashendock: We notice the consistent theme of nature in the titles of your books, was there any significant moment or source of inspiration that drove you to focus on that?
Robert Wrigley: The fact is, living where I live puts me in contact with a lot of nature. I live just six miles from town but on a heavily forested mountain. We have deer (in abundance), moose, bear, occasional mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, owls of all sorts, eagles, hawks, and innumerable songbirds. So the fact is, this place (Idaho in general, which is vast, sparsely populated, and as wild as anywhere in the lower 48 states; and the mountain in particular) is my image hoard. I have trees and rocks in the woods that strike me as–there’s not really another word for it–friends. If I lived in New York City, I’d have a different image hoard (pigeons, taxis, subways, and skyscrapers, I guess), but my concerns as a poet would be the same. My obsessions are mortality, the place and function of love, and the sense of what it means to be alive on this particular spot on the planet’s surface. Temporarily.
MM and EL: Do you believe your upbringing in a 1950s coal-mining town influenced your poetry? If so, how?
RW: Something about living in what was really a despoiled landscape–polluted, used, plundered, industrialized–has probably made my awareness of the power of wild places more acute. I knew there was such a thing as a watershed (where water collects and moves to a river and then to the sea) when I lived in southern Illinois, but it was not until I came to the West that I began to see those watersheds as places that possessed a unique identify. I became much more aware of the importance of place in my life and in my poems. This made me see humanity in a different way as well. We are of our places. Place defines us in very important ways, no less important than any other aspect of being alive.
MM and EL: In the “Contributors’ Notes and Comments” section of the 2006 BAP, you mentioned that after learning what of dead dogs is the hardest thing in the world to do, you were then able to avoid discussions of religion at the dinner table. Were you referring to the fact that dead and possibly ‘faithful’ dogs replaced religion at the top seed of least anticipated dinner conversations?
RW: Harder question. I guess I’m not a fan of traditional notions of “God.” The idea that “God” is a man (or a male, with all that includes) offends me. It’s not that I don’t believe in something that might be a God; it’s that that particular entity is not human, nor even animal. It’s alive though. The universe, maybe? It’s not like us, but it is us. It includes us.What I said was that a dead dog is the hardest thing in the world to write about. It’s in the emotional baggage that comes with the dog dying. It’s very, very easy to become sentimental. Sentimentality is simply when the writers asks more of the reader, in terms of an emotional response, that the writer earns. Everybody is moved by the death of a good dog. So what? You have to make something more of the dog’s death. All poetry is about being human. Poetry is a human artifact; it means to begin to make some kind of sense out of what it is to be alive, and it means to make some kind of sense about what it means to be aware of one’s own mortality. So a poem about a dead dog is a poem about a human being’s response to it. It can’t just be sadness; that’s a given. Poems engage complexity. Poems can’t merely tell you that life is complex. No kidding. We know that. Poems, rather, have to make of that complexity something that informs its reader that they are not alone in their awareness. Poems tell us something we already know but hadn’t realized or never thought of in a particular way.
MM and EL: What do you believe is the most important lesson you teach to you students at the University of Idaho?
RW: Trust the process. Writing is a process of discovery, not a process of delivering information. You want information, you go to Google. You want more, you go to literature. There is no problem of human experience of the sort dealt with by psychologists, say, that poets, playwrights, novelists, and essayists have not already engaged. That’s why Freud named his most famous complexes (the Oedipus and Electra complexes, for example) after characters in classical plays. Writers will go anywhere, will talk about anything in any way that seems to get them closer to some form of understanding, or at least awareness. Emily Dickinson said “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and it’s in the slant that the reader finds a way into understanding. When we “understand” a poem, we still don’t see all that it says. The best poems are bottomless that way. They keep meaning in deeper and more mysterious ways. Robert Frost said “A poet too clear is a trifle glaring,” and that means that at the core of every poem there is a kernel of mystery that cannot be put in other words. It’s clear, but it’s clear in a mysterious way. And we love mystery. It’s a good thing, since much of life is beyond us.
And the process is both simple (just write it) and enormously difficult (it’s, well, very hard to do), but the only way to solve the problems of writing is by writing. You have to ask of yourself more than you’re capable of delivering. I try to help my students understand that the process never stops (the French poet, Stephane Mallarme, said “A poem is never finished, it is abandoned,” and there’s great truth in that). I tell my students that writing is the easiest thing in the world NOT to do. So the primary lesson is to keep on. Keep writing. It’s a muscle. Use it and it gets stronger; don’t use it and it atrophies and gets weak. I also urge them to believe in what they’re doing and what they’re saying. This isn’t easy. We’d all like to be magnificent as if by magic, but magnificence comes from work. Work means doing it as much as possible as often as possible, and it means being both demanding of yourself and of the art. When you write a poem your chances of success are slim. Your chances of writing something very good are very slim. Your chances of writing something “great” are infinitesimal. But none of that puts you off. It goads you. It makes the next poem all the more important. Samuel Beckett said it best, as far as writing goes: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”
So I also tell students to keep working, working, working. If you’re a writer, you write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.
MM and EL: Do you have a specific place or time dedicated to writing poetry? How does you inspiration to write generate?
RW: I can write anywhere, but most of my writing is done in a little building I built myself about 50 yards from my house (that’s where I am now). Writing is a habit too. We create spaces wherein writing happens. When I come out here, it’s to write (sometime correspondence, like this, but mostly poems).
Inspiration is not something that happens to you; it’s something you earn. You don’t write because you’re inspired; you write your way into inspiration (that’s the aim of the process). Writing begets writing. You arrive at inspiration without knowing, and when you arrive there, you manage to do what you never thought you could. The moment you become aware of having arrived–and thus become aware of having been inspired–you lose it, but that’s Ok. You got somewhere and you’re stunned and hope to earn, to arrive, at that place again. So the next time, you do the same thing and nothing happens. Fail again. Keep on.
When I was teaching I wrote 2 or three days a week. Now I’m retired, so I can write seven days a week and sometimes I do. I also need time away from the page occasionally. I’m just back from a week hiking in Zion National Park, and it was wonderful. I also brought back things–images, vistas, moments–that might lead me to something on the page. Then again, it can be just looking out the window. This morning, I could see from the dining room window, a long and elaborate spider web between a couple of limbs of a Ponderosa Pine tree only eight feet or so from the house. It was wet with rain and the morning sun shone through a few hundred droplets and turned them into jewels. Is there a poem in that? Might be. I’ll have to see.
Finally, writing poems is my job. It’s my vocation. And it’s also my life. Other than my family, nothing means more to me. It defines me. It’s who and what I am. There are very, very few things I would rather do than write, no matter how frustrating and difficult the process might be. Most people go through their entire lives never feeling that kind of purpose and commitment. I’m lucky that way.
Many thanks to Mr. Wrigley for his cooperation and thoughtful responses to our questions,
Emily and Matt