Monday, March 1, 2010

David Wojahn

David Wojahn was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1953, and educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona. His first collection, Icehouse Lights, was chosen by Richard Hugo as a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, and published in 1982. The collection was also the winner of the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Book Award. His second collection, Glassworks, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1987, and was awarded the Society of Midland Authors’ Award for best volume of poetry to be published during that year. Pittsburgh is also the publisher of four of his subsequent books, Mystery Train (1990), Late Empire (1994), The Falling Hour (1997) and Spirit Cabinet (2002). His most recent collection, Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004, was published by Pittsburgh in 2006, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the O. B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is also the author of a collection of essays on contemporary poetry, Strange Good Fortune (University of Arkansas Press, 2001), and editor (with Jack Myers) of A Profile of 20th Century American Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), and two posthumous collections of Lynda Hull’s poetry, The Only World (HarperCollins, 1995) and Collected Poems (Graywolf, 2006). He is presently Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is also a member of the program faculty of the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of the Fine Arts.


(for Roger Mitchell)

In the beginning, desolation everywhere.
Hulking, glaciered, dishwater gray, the rocks
loom up from a spit of beach.
Here the men will winter & await the rescue ship,
relieved to stand at last
on solid ground. Eleven months
they've drifted on the floes, Endurance
squeezed to sticks of timber as the pack ice
tightened: "Elephant Island."
Shackleton may save them or he may
be dead. & everyone is sick to death
of penguin steaks. On "Mount Snowden"
they've set their flag, & in the hour
of August twilight that is day, they scan
the berged horizon for a sail
or swath of smoke, they gobble
imagined feasts. Today, a Yorkshire pudding,
conjured Homerically; gravy bubbling
on the dumplings & potatoes,
aubergines in curry & a starygazy pie,
apple tarts, the Devonshire cream aswirl.
Great buckets of claret & frothy Guinness
wash it down. The Woodbines
& cigars are lit, brandy in the club rooms
& the smoking cars. Blackboro's
right foot may well be saved,
but the toes of the left are surely gangrenous.
So on this first warm windless day
the main tent is cleared, hoosh pot
filled with ice to boil & crates in a line
make a kind of gurney. Penguin skins
sizzle white on the stove, & all the blubber lamps
glow. Macklin & McElroy strip
to undershirts & Blackboro breathes
huge draughts of chloroform. His toes
are black, the flesh almost mummified.
Now the incision, snaking & laborious
along the foot. McElroy peels back
the skin. He tests the forceps & the toes
spin down into a bucket,
clanging one by one. Blackboro,
waking groggy, wants a smoke. Will someone
please read to him awhile? & from
the salvaged three-book library
they choose Britannica, N-O. Numerology
gives way to Numismatics, McElroy
bending in the lampglow
to point out burnished coins
in rows, Xerxes & a Ptolemy
with laurel crown. The Nutmeg
is tropical, hard & aromatic
is its seed. Blackboro drifting,
his hands unmittened & from Nutrition
come the Nymphs: Dryads who haunt
the forests & groves, Leimoniads the meadows
& in waters dwell the Naiads, Potameids
& Hydriads. But Nyx, Thrice-Great Nyx,
world-making Nyx, of whose breath
the earth & firmament were formed, whose realm
is All Things Of The Night, born of Chaos
& Mother of Aether, is a goddess
most fearsome, even by Zeus revered.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

Spring, 1999. I’ve had a long-standing fascination with stories of sub-Polar exploration, and had just jotted down in my notebook a couple of passages from Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Shackleton left most of his shipwrecked and stranded crew behind on Elephant Island while he and a handful of others undertook what was in essence a voyage by rowboat from Antarctica to New Zealand in order to bring back a rescue party. Much has been made of Shackleton’s heroism, but I was interested in how the abandoned crew spent their time. Two things stood out for me. First, several of them had to have frostbitten toes amputated in conditions that were obviously quite grim. Second, one of the things which the crew had salvaged from the shipwreck of the Endurance was, amazingly, a complete set of a recent edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. We happen to own an edition of the 1911 Britannica, and the entry for the pre-Olympian goddess Nyx is the last one in the “N” volume.

The poem got going when I invented a narrative that connected the toe amputations to the salvaging of the encyclopedia. Focusing on the “N” volume and Nyx was a sort of serendipitous addition to the mix. As for the title and its allegorical implications—it seemed clear to me as the poem emerged that I was trying to say something about the simple fact that we often go to the written word in general, and literature specifically, to assuage our pain and suffering. In the case of the character of Blackboro in the poem, the written word gives a very specific comfort.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

There were a couple of longhand drafts written in a notebook, and perhaps a dozen more on my laptop. The poem was untypical for me insofar as it only took a few days to finish.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Once I was able to see the connection between the toe amputations and the Britannica, the poem was relatively easy to compose. It was “inspired” to the extent that my understanding that the poem would arise from the mixture of these two details allowed it to be written fairly effortlessly. Most of my work, however, comes with more struggle.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Because the poem was guided above all by its narrative rather than by its music, I struggled with the line and stanzaic form much less than I typically do. I do recall that my initial drafts of the poem were in blank verse, and that the poem was at first divided into quatrains. Eventually the poem turned into free verse, but with a strong iambic component. Also, because I didn’t want to impede the narrative momentum, the poem eventually took the shape of a single long stanza. This is a form I have only very rarely employed.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It appeared in a journal within about a year of being written, and in a collection published in 2002.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

Some of my poems, like this one, strike me as being finished fairly soon after being started. Others require more struggle. It’s not unusual for me to work on a poem for a year or two.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I suppose the dramatic situation of this particular poem is of the sort you find in historical fiction. It adheres to some basic factual truths, but the essentials are invented.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, more so than is the case in many of my other poems; more typically, an individual poem of mine tends to juxtapose several narrative strands or symbolic leitmotifs at once. The method of this poem is more straightforward.

At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?

I agree (most of the time) with Auden’s definition of poetry as secular prayer. Of course I want poems to entertain and engage me, but my favorite poems also seek to console the reader, much in the way the the “N” volume of the Britannica consoles poor Blackboro. It sometimes can seem like an almost comically futile consolation, but it is never so comic or futile as to nullify that function. Poems, in their mysterious way, save lives.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Looking back, it strikes me that I may have been paying some sort of homage to Lowell. Lines 2 and 3—with all the adjectives, a part of speech that creative writing teachers urge students to avoid, but which Lowell can employ with immense invention and verve—sound a bit Lowellian to me.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

As I was completing the poem I felt the urge to dedicate it to my friend and former colleague, the poet Roger Mitchell—partly as a way to express my thanks for all the kindness and support he’d shown me over the years, and partly because Roger is a fanatical reader of the literature of polar and subpolar exploration. I don’t often write with a specific individual in mind, however.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

My wife is my first and always most discerning reader. I have three poets friends who usually are willing to see early drafts—William Olsen, David Jauss, Tony Whedon. My late wife, the poet Lynda Hull, seems always to occupy a place in my writing process as well. (I think many of us write in no small measure to please the Shades…)

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This one I think I have already answered.

What is American about this poem?

It’s really an Anglophile poem; the laconic qualities of Brits in general—Stiff Upper Lip conduct—gets equated with the poetic process. Also, I wanted to pay homage to British cuisine, if there is such a thing. The crew’s imaginary feasts were a perverse pleasure to catalogue—Devonshire cream, starrygazy pie, Yorkshire pudding. And certain British-isms just sound better than their American counterparts: “aubergines” is lilting when you compare it to “eggplant”; “claret” sounds a lot tastier than The House Red.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Abandoned, though finished enough to make me feel it can get by on its own….


  1. I've read quite a few of these interviews and it interests me how many of the poets have a spouse as a first reader. I don't have that so I gues I find that intriguing :)

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