Robert Wrigley: Interview & Two Poems
with Managing Editor Shawn Rubenfeld
Robert Wrigley is an institution. Besides being a decorated poet—a former Guggenheim Fellow, a two-time NEA fellow, winner of six Pushcart Prizes, author of ten collections of poetry, etc.—he is a dedicated teacher and all-around interesting person. Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, Wrigley received his MFA in poetry from the University of Montana, where he studied under Richard Hugo and John Haines. Since then, he’s taught at the University of Oregon, the University of Montana, and Lewis-Clark State College. Currently, he is a professor of poetry at the University of Idaho. Wrigley was generous enough to sit down with me to talk about his most recent collection of poems, Anatomy of Melancholy, and his most recent honor, a PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award).
Thanks for sitting down with us, Bob. First, congratulations on receiving a PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award) for your new collection of poems, Anatomy of Melancholy. Of course you're no stranger to winning awards—having notched six Pushcart Prizes, The Theodore Roethke Award, The Celia B. Wagner Award, The Frederick Bock Prize, and Fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Can you talk a bit about what makes this specific award, the PNBA, special to you?
As much as I chafe under labels (I get called a nature poet, a wilderness poet, a western poet--I joke that the only adjective I like seeing applied to the noun "poet" when it's aimed to me is "living"), I am very much of this part of the country. It's where my image horde is; it's what I see and experience daily. I've had opportunities to go elsewhere and teach (opportunities I don't usually regret), but I can't really imagine myself not living among mountains and mountain rivers. I love the dirt and rocks and trees and rivers, the vast wilderness of Idaho. It's not for everyone, but I'm very comfortable here.
And I've probably set foot in, and bought books from, most of the independent bookstores in the region. I love them. Independent booksellers do what they do because they love books. I get that.
What are some of your favorite independent bookstores?
Bookpeople of Moscow, of course. It's the heart or the soul of this very sweet little town. That a town of 25,000 people (when school's in session anyway; about half that when it's not) has a thriving independent, well, that says something very fine about the place.
I also love (LOVE) Open Books, the poetry-and-poetry-related-titles bookstore in Seattle. I've read there after each of my last four or five books and always have good crowds. It's a kind of holy place for me, a shrine to poetry and poets, with actual poet-owners.
Landscape and place are so important in your work. I'm told that you have made a conscious decision to live and write in the Northwest. What is it about Idaho and the Northwest that you find so appealing?
You'd have to go to Alaska to find more wild country than you find in Idaho. I've been to Alaska and it's amazing, but it's a long way from the rest of the world. From here in Idaho, you can get just about anywhere--great cities, white water rivers, trout streams, mountain lakes, deserts, great forests--in a few hours.
I'm not especially fond of the culture of Idaho at large. I've taught here for close to 40 years and for most of that time I've been made to feel like an enemy of the state. The place, for all appearances, seems to despise education, which is no doubt one of the reasons we have such a large population of minimum wage workers. But it's my home, and I will not give up on it. I remain, for some crazy reason, optimistic that things might, someday, change.
I love the way you use language. Phrases like "nefarious marionettes" and "a kind of lumpenproletariat/ fungus" are especially wonderful. You and words get along really well. Do you have any favorites?
Words are as the dead fish unto the dog: they must be rolled in and savored. I like their stink upon me, I guess. There are only a few words I won't use. So I can't say I have favorites, but I love when words talk to one another, when they ring and echo and reverberate. I find language enormously musical. My aim is to play the language like the musical instrument it can be.
Have you ever made a word up?
In the poem "The Church of Omnivorous Light," I refer to the sound ravens make when they're upset (in the poem, the speaker approaches a gut pile, where a hunter has dressed out a deer, and the birds--feasting--are none too happy to be disturbed). I call that particular sound "righteous gacks." Gack is not in the OED, so I like to think I did make it up. Although just to be sure, I looked it up online a moment ago, and found that it's in the Urban Dictionary: the sound one, apparently, sometimes makes after snorting a powdered drug. I prefer my usage.
It's interesting to see how process and routine change with experience. What was the writing life like for you as a grad student? How has your process changed (if at all) since then?
The challenge then and most of the time since then was finding / making / stealing / creating time to write. There's no substitute for it. You have to put in the time. Writing, I like to say, is the easiest thing in the world not to do. So I had, and have always had, to find a way to create a regular writing schedule. That's easier now, but still a challenge sometimes. Certain times of the academic year are just too busy to offer any empty space, so one doesn't write. When I don't write, I feel undone, incomplete.
There was a time, early on, when I preferred to have written. That is, I liked having written a poem. But somewhere along the way I came to love the process more than the product. Heading out to my writing shack excites me still. I love those times when I look up and discover I have been working on a single piece of writing for three or four hours. Didn't seem that long, but I was lost in time, and somehow that always made (and makes) the time seem like a bonus in life. It seemed (no doubt only seemed, but still...) like it was time that was somehow not held against me. It seemed, and seems, like I'm prolonging my life by writing.
What advice can you offer young poets/writers?
If your aim is to teach (not everyone's is, of course) then remember this extremely important fact: you are a writer who happens to teach; you are never a teacher who happens to write. If an institution insists otherwise, go elsewhere. The smart institutions understand this. They want teachers who are first and foremost the practitioners of their discipline. It is also a fact that that understanding allows writers to be far better teachers than they would be otherwise.
General advice-wise: increase your reading by a factor of 5, and increase your writing by a factor of (at least) 3. Writers who don't read are hobbled. Read and write outside of your comfort zone. If you can't use end-rhyme, devote yourself to learning to do it. If you can't figure out how to seamlessly blend in back-story, work that until you see how it's done. Experiment. Imitate. Some days just write sentences. Long, complex ones. Love syntax. See how a sentence is itself a fully enacted narrative or a shapely lyric. Collect interesting words and learn their derivations. And, finally, get your rump in a chair and put words on paper, according to a schedule it is your sworn duty to stick to.
Finally, you're stick somewhere for the next ten years and you can only bring three books with you. Which do you take?
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare; The Collected Works (poems and sermons) of John Donne; and a big fat unabridged dictionary (if not the OED). Or perhaps I'd forget the dictionary and hope for the best, in which case I'd want Proust's In Search of Lost Time, in English, of course (although a bilingual translation would be more useful). The first two books--Shakespeare and Donne--I'm absolutely certain of; the third, not so much. A guy can read a lot in ten years, but I could read Donne's "The Sun Rising" every day of the time, between coconut cocktails and speared fish.
TWO POEMS by Robert Wrigley
In the side yard of an apartment house,
a length of twine extended from a downspout
to the trunk of sapling, and hung upon it
in the motionless air, an array of lacy
intimate garments, as they are sometimes called
in department stores, and one of them—
some kind of bright red, sequined one-piece—
thrashed while the others hung still.
A bird had got inside and could not escape.
I left my briefcase on the sidewalk
and slipped between a pair of shrubs
and easing as carefully as I could my hand
into an elasticized leg hole noticed the filigreed
open crotch and was momentarily distracted,
before reaching inside and gathering
a panicked and exhausted house sparrow.
I held it a few seconds, and stroked its dull head
and its black throat feathers. A male.
Unfortunately, just after I released it,
the woman whose laundry it was,
such as it was,tapped at the window just above me
and gave the OK-sign and smiled, then flapped
her arms to let me know she’d seen it all,
and still, I think, I blushed before I walked away.
The red bit of lingerie was either a merrywidow,
a camiknicker, or a romper. I am not sure how
one tells them apart, although I’m sure
it wasn’t a babydoll, a peignoir, or a French maid.
The bird book describes the female house sparrow
was “dull brown above and dingy whitish below,
”with a barely there “dull eye-stripe,”
a plumage the male must nevertheless find appealing.
IT WAS LIKE THIS
So abundant around camp, the huckleberries
I spilled in the dust just before breakfast
hardly seemed worth picking up and rinsing,
but I thought I should. But in the time
it took me to fetch from the kitchen box
the colander in which I planned to gather
and wash them clean, a pair of cedar waxwings
lit among them and began to feast, heedless
of the dust, and I made no move to shoo them
but moved off downstream to pick more.
By the time I returned they’d disappeared.
You were beginning to stir in the tent,
and by the time you emerged I had two bowls
of berries on the table, bagels toasted
and eggs scrambled, the coffee perked,
and even, in the vase made from a hollow
bone, plugged at the end with a wine cork,
a spray of vivid Indian Paintbrush awaiting.
We were halfway through when you noticed,
on a bare limb of the pine at the edge of the river,
the waxwings seated side-by-side and watching us,
uttering from time to time their brief
and beautiful song, which the field guide says
is a high-pitched whistle—See! See!—
shortly before you saw in the dust,
just south of where we sat, the mosaic of their tracks
and two last berries they missed or abandoned
when I returned. This is the whole story.