“I Am Your Little Ram”: An Interview with Mark Wunderlich
Interview conducted by Caitlin Cowan
Poet Mark Wunderlich’s third book, The Earth Avails, has won the 2015 University of North Texas’ Rilke Prize, an award designed to recognize exceptional artistry and vision in the work of a midcareer poet. Also the author of The Anchorage (1999) and Voluntary Servitude (2004), Mark Wunderlich currently teaches at Bennington College in Vermont. He lives in the Hudson River Valley.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with Mark during his stay in Denton, Texas, where he read from his latest collection, ate migas for the first time, and may or may not have purchased a bit of Western-wear at Weldon’s Saddle Shop. We later corresponded for this interview.
CC: The Earth Avails is your first book in ten years. You noted at your Q&A at the UNT Gallery on the Square that you’re “not terribly prolific,” sometimes drafting just five poems a year. I myself tend not to write every day and draft fewer poems per year than many of my friends and colleagues, and admissions such as yours often fill me with hope and camaraderie (like the time I heard Mary Gaitskill say that she once went eight months without writing when she spoke at The New School some years back). How do you know when it’s time to write? What kinds of events, feelings, desires, observations, etc. finally drive you to sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keys)?
MW: First, I’m very happy to be answering these questions—thanks for this opportunity. Your question, which is about the ways in which a poet finds himself or herself sitting down at the desk and getting to work is, of course, at the center of what it is to be a poet. Is being a poet an identity? A speech act? An action? I don’t really know, but I do know that I don’t write many poems. I write every day—emails, memos, reports, comments on student work—but for me the occasions for making poems need to be created. I have described the state of mind necessary for writing poems as being a combination of boredom and anxiety—sorry Wordsworth! As a person who is typically preoccupied and over-employed, I need to plan times when I can work on poems. I now write mostly during summers and during winter breaks, when I can clear the decks and sit at my desk for extended periods of time. I have also found time away from home to be productive. Days of reading, returning to my desk, making a meal, reading more, going back to my desk—that will get me to write a poem. I don’t worry about it much. I’m not going to be one of those poets who publish twenty books. I just want the books I’m lucky enough to publish to be distinctive and rigorously made.
CC: Sorry Wordsworth, indeed! I agree that modern life affords us much less time to recollect at all, let alone recollect in tranquility. Speaking of books that are “rigorously made,” The Earth Avails has a remarkable cohesion. Do you tend to conceive of books early on and write toward them, or do you tend to write poems and then try to discover what ideas you seem to be interested in later? Is it a combination of both?
MW: I think it is a mistake—at least for me—to predetermine the arc of a book before I knew what I had in front of me. To paraphrase the poet CAConrad, we are not poetry factories! It’s not our job to turn out a product, but to make complex, individual works of art. That’s what I think poems are—much like a painting, or a dance, or an installation, or a scene from a film, etc. I am interested in writing poems, not poetry, and though I understand that there is resonance among a group of similarly composed poems, for this book I did want each piece to stand independently. In order to do that, I needed to not worry so much about how things fit together, but to write the poems, one by one, as they came. After I had a group of them, I began to see how they might belong together and cohere, but I it wasn’t until I had thirty poems or more that I began to think of how I would compose the collection. I think it is important to remain open to possibilities, accidents, new ways of seeing and thinking about poems. When one is working on a project with an idea at its center, the work can become a bit rigid, the decisions already partly made. I write poems to find out what I don’t know; they are vehicles of discovery. I need room in the process of composition to move freely and to press toward unknowing, to unmake something (the ego, the will, the conceptual intellect) while I make room for association, for emotion, for music to rise up and be rendered into language. Making a book is about having perspective. One needs to stand back and see what one really has—and then begin to put the book together in a way that creates a wholly composed piece of literature that is made of multiple parts. It is a much different way of thinking and reading and seeing than what is required when writing a poem. I’m tempted to say there is more artistry involved, somehow.
CC: I’ve been thinking a great deal about the word “avail” in this collection. In a very rough sense, the intransitive verb “avail” means “to serve”; the transitive verb “avail” means “to gain.” These definitions seem to be at odds with one another. Was that of interest to you as you considered the translation of the Anglo-Saxon Bee Charm that forms the book’s epigraph (which in turn gives you the collection’s title)? Which sense of the verb do you feel fits the content of the poems contained in this collection? Both?
MW: The word is strange, and of course in this case, it is a translation from an archaic language. In the original text, the verb phrase is complex. I have seen the phrase translated as “prevails over,” or “conquers,” but the translation I was most drawn to used the much more ambiguous “avails.” As a title, it leaves the reader hanging—avails itself of what, exactly? I had trouble wrapping my mind around the phrase, and yet I kept being drawn back to it. For me, the title of the book indicates that the earth is indifferent to us, to our actions, our desires. In the history of the planet, we are neither interesting nor important. Our actions have wreaked havoc on the climate, and we are in the middle of one of the most massive extinctions of species, ever. Our use of fossil fuels is resulting in everything from the melting of glaciers in Greenland and in the Alps and at the Polar regions, to massive storms, the re-routing of the Gulf Stream, the death of coral reefs, the warming of the oceans, the California drought—the grim list goes on. Our own cupidity is the culprit, and the damage is massive. These problems are so large that they thwart our human imagination. The earth itself doesn’t care, it seems; the earth just changes in response to the movement of carbon. We are the ones who need to care. The earth avails, of whatever is set before it.
CC: It’s clear that science is important to you, as it perhaps ought to be for all denizens of the planet, especially in an age where it seems like science is regrettably once again “just a theory” when it comes to vaccination, global warming, and evolution, that last of which you mentioned was “more spiritually compelling [to you] than Genesis.” In the book, you write that you glimpse the divine in a coworker’s severed thumb: “at the pearly bone flush with crimson, / beautiful and fragile and lit with the pain / of our kind.” You later write of the thumb’s reattachment, which comes about through the surgeon’s “arrogant work.” Can you speak more about this moment? What role do you assume when confronting science and medicine in your work, particularly in a book that meditates on and enacts prayer so often?
MW: I have done many forms of work in my life as I am someone who has needed to support himself, and the poem you cite is one in which I remember and speak to experiences I have had while working. I have had good jobs, and I have worked for people whom I loved and found inspiring. I have also worked for people who were cruel and who tried to maintain their authority by bullying and humiliating their employees. When I was in high school and trying to save money for college, I got a job at a garment factory in Winona, Minnesota. The place was called Teammates, and we manufactured cheerleading uniforms. The factory was small, though the entire garment was made on site. The fabric was knit there on big knitting machines, the patterns were laid out and cut, pieces sewn and pressed, and the finished uniform (mostly sweaters) were then shipped out. The job paid minimum wage, which at the time was $3.50. I was hired as a cutter, which meant I picked up the orders, pulled the fabric, laid out the patterns, and cut out the pieces. The pieces were stacked in bins with the orders clipped to them and they were sent down in a dumb waiter to the sewing room downstairs. I worked in the big upstairs room—usually with one other cutter, though often alone, with a view of the knitting machines clattering away, and the men who tended them walking back and forth with their ear-protectors around their necks (not on their ears) so they could hear the machines “spool down” and catch them before they ran out of yarn. The factory was hot and loud, and at the end of my shift (and overtime), I was sweaty and covered with acrylic fuzz in team colors.
I didn’t mind the work, which involved numerous skills, and I have always been good with my hands. At some point, a new cutter was hired and I was asked to train her. The young woman’s name was Misti, and she was very quiet, painfully shy and nervous about the work. I tried to draw her out, but she remained unknown to me and removed in her own privacy. It was soon evident she was terrible at the job. She was incredibly slow. Her hands were clumsy. She made mistakes—shearing off corners and making ragged lines. Her pieces were sent back with unhappy notes from the sewing room. One day I was sent to help ship out orders, and when I had finished I returned to the cutting tables to see how Misti was doing, and she was crying—quietly—and holding her left hand which she had wrapped in a big wodge of acrylic sweater fabric. The fabric was soaked with blood. I got her to sit down and got the first aid kit, and unwrapped the fabric. She had hit her thumb with the cutter. The cutters we used looked like an electric pizza cutter—there was a round spinning blade on a handle, and though they had a safety guard, if you put your hand in the way, you could easily cut yourself. Her thumb was about half off below the first joint, and I remember seeing the bone, which was also cut into. I quickly wrapped it up tight, had her squeeze it with her other hand, and ran to the office to tell them there had been an accident and they needed to get Misti to the hospital. The thumb was put back together and she was sewn up, and in a couple weeks she was back at work, only now she was at a pressing table. It turns out she was left-handed, and the cutters were made to fit the right hand. She had tried to cut with her right hand which explains her awkwardness, but had been afraid to tell anyone because she really needed the job. (We actually had a left-handed cutter—which she could have used). I wrote the poem because I was thinking of some of the shitty things that have happened to me at various jobs I’ve had. Part of the poem is—in the rather toothless ways poems can—exacting a kind of revenge.
As for science or medicine, they are present in small ways in the book, but not thematically as far as I can see. I love the devotion with which scientists look at and study the world, but my own forays into the world of science have been wholly practical—animal husbandry, botany, some plant breeding, beekeeping, forestry, etc.
CC: I think the beauty of the practicality of these “scientific” pursuits also registers in your language. Though I don’t write formal poetry very often, I’m nonetheless quite invested in the sonic quality of language in my own work, so one thing that strikes me about your poetry is the richness of your diction and the beautiful aural quality that your poems have. I’m thinking of delicious lines like these, from “Lent”:
…Cold tamps sap
back down the taproot.
The titmouse pips a seed hull.
The cherry swells a node
of red and the hive stokes
the chip of sun that is their queen.
You’ve spent time studying German and other languages, and I’d be interested to know if you feel that having studied other languages has heightened your enjoyment of English vocabulary or invigorated your interest in the rhythm and melody of poetry.
MW: I was educated at Columbia University in the early 1990’s when there were a number of poets teaching there who emphasized formal prosody in their own work and encouraged it in the work of their students. I studied with J. D. McClatchy, Molly Peacock, Alfred Corn, William Matthews—all of whom were or are skilled formalists. The study of prosody was required by the program, and I loved it. But poetry is really a version of music, and any time you begin to shape a line you are beginning some kind of proposition about sound and musicality. The shape of a line is the shape of a series of sounds. In a similar vein, when you write a line of poetry you are invoking the history of English prosody—entering into a conversation with all the poems that have been written before you. You can either understand the tradition of the art and engage with it meaningfully, or you can ignore it and have the tradition echo through your work while remaining naïve to the effects. The former is the richer path.
As for the study of other languages, I have studied a number of them at different times—German, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, Anglo-Saxon. The only language other than English I speak with fluency is German, though I can read Dutch (I actually had a conversation with a Dutch toddler on the plane back from Dallas, which was right about my level of proficiency). By studying other languages, I learned more about English—its roots and cognates, what it has borrowed from other languages. There is no better education for an American poet than to study another language, even if reaching proficiency is not probable. Just having to think about syntax will make your poems better.
CC: In “Driftless Elegy,” you write, “who wants to be bound to anything / that won’t love you back?” While in this moment the line makes reference to agriculture and an old way of life, what does this line have to do, perhaps, with one’s relationship to a silent, divine being? Do you think this feeling might be part of the reason why some people move away from religion in the end?
MW: Until you asked me this question, I had no understanding about the resonance and multiple meanings that line might contain. I hope that doesn’t sound like a faux-naïve stance on my part; I really wrote it while thinking about cows! This just goes to reinforce the truth that the writer is probably not the best authority on his or her own work. I just wrote it; as the reader, you’re the one to decide what it means, or how it resonates. As for the second part of your question, I think there are plenty of reasons to move away from organized religion, not the least of which is being in communion with a group of people you ultimately don’t choose. I have my own notions about why people either do or don’t move away from religion, but I’m only equipped to speak about my own experience. The church I was part of for the first part of my life—while full of people who were generous and kind to me—also seemed to have no place for my evolving adult self. To say St. John’s United Church of Christ was hetero-normative would be an understatement. This was not a church in which anyone preached against the sins of homosexuality (or the sins of the flesh in general) it also did nothing to include people who might not fit into the most rigid modes of familial relation.
CC:The Earth Avails contains prayers and heaven-letters, but perhaps most importantly, it also holds poems which consider the sovereign sanctity of flora and fauna and poems that also offer tender glimpses of an ostensibly male speaker’s love for other men. In short, what inspired you—a gay, “nonbelieving” poet—to write a collection that uses prayer and supplication as catalysts?
MW: Despite the answer I’ve just given above, there is no ostensible reason my identity as a queer would exclude me from writing toward (or away from, or askance of) an imagined God, no matter what my own beliefs might be. That notion—that the sexual deviants will be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven—represents the most decadent and least compassionate brand of Christianity one can imagine. I have always thought that if you’re worried about your neighbor mowing his lawn on a Sunday (or by extension, where he is putting his dick), you’ve missed the entire point of the New Testament. I may not be a believer in a God as He is described in traditional Christian theology, but I do believe in the world of the spirit and the overwhelming beauty and complexity of our natural world. As someone who was raised in the Christian tradition, the language of the bible, the stories it contains, the lessons it aims to teach and to some extent, the values it seeks to instill in its adherents, has formed a central part of my world view. I don’t feel that I need to throw that all out just because I am no longer a practicing Christian. I still read the bible, and many of the poets who have taken a devotional stance in their work rank among the elite in my personal pantheon of writers. When I began writing poems that were in direct imitation of prayers, it felt very natural to me, though I will confess I found them slightly embarrassing. There was something simultaneously performed and genuine about adopting and adapting the rhetorical stance of supplication and petition and it took me a while to just relax and engage in the process of making the poems.
CC: Nevertheless, some reviews have (foolishly, I think) referred to this book as a volume of “Christian poetry.” How do you feel about such a designation?
MW: If that’s how someone sees it—it is a book that contains prayers addressed to a version of a Christian God after all—I can’t really argue with the designation. I do recoil from the label, but being labeled one thing or another is a way of imposing limitations, and poetry has always been an arena in which I have tried to achieve a brand of artistic and intellectual freedom. In poems we can imagine ourselves to be anything we can render into language, while simultaneously being freed from the physical constraints of being in a body. Poems are like artificial bodies we make—ideal selves—which we send as metaphysical representatives into the world. I can speak to you, yet I don’t need to be in the room with you. That always feels like a sort of miracle to me—a magic trick I never tire of.
CC: Conceiving of poems as a metaphysical representatives of our ideal selves strikes me as a glorious, and generous, paradigm. I’m thinking now of Robert Lowell’s oft-quoted (and often misunderstood) query in “Epilogue,” wherein the speaker wonders, “Why not say what happened?” This dare, as it were, is one I meditate on quite frequently. At your Q & A in Denton, you said that “poems are always about the poet.” Can you say any more about the role that lived experience plays in your work?
MW: Our poems are us—they originate in our bodies, our hands write or type them with tools we have, they are possessed by us. Like any object originating in one’s mind and made by one’s hands, they are an extension of our own subjectivity. I’m glad you ask this question, because there are several parts my notion of the poem being “about the poet.” I would say too that the “poet” is different from the person who writes the poems, and while the poem is about the poet, we also have to acknowledge that poems are not us, but objects made of language which we know to be fallible, and which cannot fully represent any experience. One of the pleasures of reading a book of poems is that we get to construct an image of the poet speaking through their poems. That character differs from the person who goes to the grocery store to buy Dr. Pepper, has a poor sense of direction, likes Law & Order: SVU marathons, etc. (or not, actually!), but the character of the poet constructed by the reader is a character—it’s not the person. Dickinson nails it when she says, “When I state myself as representative of the verse, I do not mean me, but a supposed person.” So, our poems are us, and they are not us at all.
As for autobiographical material as a subject for poems, as a reader, I am most interested in poems that have an urgency of intent. I want to sense that the poem I am reading mattered to the writer—that there was some uprising of feeling that rendered itself into language, and that this process was a process of discovery for the person who wrote it. Our lived experiences can make compelling occasions for poems, but they can also be pretty deadly. There are poems that address the lived life that I just love because they take the writer’s lived experience and make it into art in ways that enrich our understanding of lived experience, and there are others that don’t make much of the material at hand. I’m unwilling to make much more of a declaration that that!
CC: To return to the bestiary that populates the collection, I wonder if you might speak about something wonderful you said on your tour here in Denton: namely, that theses poems try to get at what animals are or mean rather than merely what animals are or mean to human beings. I glimpse that sincerity even in the moments of closest human/animal identification, such as in closing lines of the poem “Prayer for a Journey by Sea”:
I am your little ram,
burying his muzzle in thick grass of your pasture,
folded by you at night, herded by day,
a dedicated dog nipping at my hocks.
The day will come for you to draw
the bright sickle of the moon
across my wooly throat.
Do it with love, without regret.
How did you get “inside” the ram in this poem, for example? Or to go a step further, how does one write responsibly about animals, about the earth?
MW: I have always been interested in and loved animals. I grew up with them, and have lived with animals for many years, and am often dismayed by the ways in which I see animals described or portrayed. Most of us in the West have very little direct experience with animals that are not companions—dogs and cats, mostly. Dogs and cats are great, but we have evolved together for thousands of years and those relationships are unique in the story of human evolution. There are thousands of other kinds of domesticated animals, and the ways in which we interact with those creatures is very different, but no less significant. When we describe animals, we have no choice but to see them through human eyes. It is common for us to project our own ways of seeing and experiencing our lives onto other creatures, when we have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a goat, or a snake, or a chicken. How do they actually see things? How do things taste in their mouths? Do they get anxious? Do they experience love? Who knows? Projecting our own sentimental notions of their consciousness and feelings onto these other beings disturbs me. Somehow, our projections rob them of their inherent “animal-ness”—the integrity of their states of being—and this brand of thinking can lead the well-meaning to make terrible decisions about their welfare and treatment. I can think of countless examples of this, but one that comes to mind is of a morbidly obese hog I once saw at a “farm animal sanctuary” which could barely move on its stressed, deformed legs. Its keepers believed that they were doing a kindness by prolonging this animal’s life, offering it Reiki to heal what I imagine were stress fractures and arthritis—but really they were prolonging its suffering in the most soft-headed and sentimental way. I think it is important to try to see animals for what they are, not what we imagine them to be, and while we have an obligation to work for their welfare, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing we understand what they desire or feel, except in the most basic terms. I have known vegans who have tried to rid their lives of all animal products, but in order to do that, one has to imagine one’s own body as being impenetrable, discrete, when in fact, we are permeable. Animal life, plant life, fungal life, bacteria—it is living in and around us. What we contain isn’t just about what we eat or put on our bodies. Animal bodies are in the soil and air and plants. They are in plastics and cosmetics and medical equipment. It’s not just your leather shoes that were once part of a living being that had a face, could experience pain or pleasure, but a good deal of what we see and touch. Everything that is eaten was once alive. We eat the world, and in turn, the world eats us.
The poem you quote was my attempt to mine the Christian metaphor of the Good Shepherd, which has always moved me. The relationship between sheep and shepherd is symbiotic and benefits both species. In the end, the shepherd will take his sheep to slaughter, but this too is intimate and somehow, generous; something is dying so that something else may live.
CC: Animal sanctuary keepers offering Reiki to a pig… that has to be a poem. Have you written about that moment? Do you conceive of poetry like yours, or poetry in general, as an antidote to this kind of soft-headedness?
MW: That poor hog receiving Reiki is not an occasion for a poem because I already know what I think of it and how I feel about it. A poem that is written to prove a point is already a poem headed toward failure. If a poem were to begin with that animal, the poet’s work would be to derail the predetermined trajectory of thinking, and that too is a predetermination. Poems enact an interplay of freedom and restraint—both are necessary.I want my poems to interrogate feeling by use of rigorous thinking, to contain feeling while rooting out sentimentality.
CC: Thank you so much for talking with me, Mark. It’s been an immense pleasure. And congratulations again on your well-deserved Rilke Prize.
MW: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.