“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