Saturday, November 22, 2014

William Wright

William Wright is author of seven collections of poetry, including Tree Heresies (Mercer University Press, forthcoming in spring 2015), Night Field Anecdote (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011), and Bledsoe (Texas Review Press, 2011). Wright is Series Editor and Volume Co-editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, a multivolume series celebrating contemporary writing of the American South. Additionally, Wright serves as Assistant Editor for Shenandoah, translates German poetry, and is editing three volumes, including Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (with Daniel Cross Turner). Wright won the 2012 Porter Fleming Prize in Literature, and has recently published in The Kenyon Review, Oxford American, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Poetry Review.


Red as a cardinal in winter, it leans ruined
in the gray field, form falling against a sycamore,
its older, wiser wife.

Closer in, a fox den
in the hay tunnel light where green eyes haunt
the nearby woods and stars cast silver

glyphs on the rotting floor:
Rain has felled the structure’s roof.
Here horses pitched and leaned

into chaff, awaiting work,
this room still alive in smells of oil, dung,
and cedar-heart. Swallows twig

warped boards, black widows
float, wait
in corners to wrap and gore what passes.

Wasps caulk the loft’s cracked seams,
and mice hide from owls, eyes,
their lives the barn’s heart

beating behind the walls.

What to name it but beauty
this world craves, but will never allow,
not wholly,

the horsemint scent that finds
the barn’s chinks. Moonflower
gripping, twining

the rusted scythe and the burled
yawn of the caved-in door. Or the beauty earth
sculpts of us without consent,

remnants hallowed, restored.
Autumns, when the air shucks
summer rain to hollow starriness,

the moon strikes the barn just right:
White moths hoard here where hanging
lanterns have long been snuffed,

where the only fires are the moths themselves,
their flock  come to love this place and perhaps
the stars, too, all pure, radiant, dying.

When was this poem composed? 

The final draft of the poem was completed on 8/10/2012.

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

About fourteen drafts – approximately a month.

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

I do believe that something inexplicable lies at the center of our creative selves, though I believe mostly that to write good poetry is difficult; I feel the same about any good writing. Nonetheless, parts of me during the process seem to fade: I liken it to staring at something for so long that it takes on an otherworldly luminosity—the world that surrounds it seems to diminish.

But in order for the poem as a whole to glow, I have to go back and stare at it—and every word that makes it—until it seems complete.  

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

I am a huge fan of sonic lushness—of even excessive explorations of sound. I am also haunted by the fact that a poem is only as good as its weakest line. So even in short-lined poems such as “Barn Gothic,” I’m perhaps overly conscious of imbuing each line with sonic dynamism. The result is often that my poems, relative to other the work of others now being published, appear (or sound) antiquated. 

One fellow poet recently wrote to another fellow poet that I was a poet of “old traditions.” I’m not sure what this means, other than to suggest that I am conscious of form to the degree that my work sounds “old” not in its lack of originality (I hope), but in its prolixity or its ornamentation.

I don’t subscribe to any notion that I’ve found my “voice,” if one ever finds such a thing, but in “Barn Gothic,” as in most of my work, I do think of each line as its own micro-poem. I want the lines to be more than coherent units of syntactic meaning—I want them to be evocative in and of themselves. This isn’t anything groundbreaking or original, but it is the current center of my technical application.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

My process involves symptoms of very real neuroses—part of which include pacing around and biting my nails, nodding my head, and uttering to myself. “Barn Gothic” involved a lot of this, as I remember.

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

Eight months in journal form. The poem will appear in Tree Heresies (Mercer University Press), which will be out in spring of 2015, about three years after I wrote “Barn Gothic.”

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? 

My practice varies, but with “Barn Gothic,” I revised every day. Often with poems, though, I let them sit for months and even years. Some I come back to and think, “I wrote this? I’m impressed with a self that no longer exists!” Most of the time I come back and think, “I wrote this? Wow, I was a really bad writer! Perhaps I still am!” Then I ball the latter poems up and throw them in the ever-overflowing wastebasket.

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

The factual element of the poem lies in its sensory images: There are old, rain-warped barns in the middle of a fallow fields in Edgefield County, South Carolina. I used to take walks at night there, and I came upon one that seemed especially spectral. 

During clear nights in autumn and winter, when the atmosphere is dry and the sky is strewn with stars, these barns are illuminated with an intensity that resembles bioluminescence—or, more threateningly—the glow we associate with intense radioactivity. I was once (and only once) brave enough to walk into such a place, and I heard things—scrapes and squeals behind the walls. 

The factual begins to decay in this poem, though, when the imagination implants the horses and the sensorial engagements with another time: the oil, the manure, the cedar tang in the air. The scrapes and squeals and little pops and tics of the structure falling slowly, slowly, but inevitably, led to the imagined work that took place in the barn a century earlier—the metal scrapings and all the agrarian sounds associated with another time. 

Is this a narrative poem?

I would say so, yes—or at least it could be argued that the narrative element plays as important a role as the language that renders it. It’s a story about time—or Time with a capital T, if I might borrow the motif from Robert Penn Warren—and the characters—the barn, the sycamore, the horses who are no more, and the creatures that inhabit the abandoned structure now, as well as the moths, all play important roles in the story, of course, but the presiding character that acts just behind the perception is Time—the character that introduces and is the beginning and the end.

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

I was listening, every night, to a relatively rare reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, one of the few novels I’ve read more than twice. During this time, I was revisiting poems from Earth Elegy by Margaret Gibson, as well as James Wright’s Above the River: The Complete Poems. Finally, I was engaged in translating Ernst Stadler’s poetry, a German contemporary of the Austrian Expressionist Georg Trakl. Stadler’s poetry, like Trakl’s, is often populated with dark imagery; however, unlike Trakl’s dreamlike image clusters, Stadler’s work is far denser, with more explicitly emotional resonances. He’s not quite the poet Trakl is, but he has a baroque quality that’s nonetheless very interesting. Something of these elements must have combined to create a bit of “Barn Gothic.” I’m not sure.

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

I want an openminded and openhearted reader. I want a reader who understands that contemporary poetry need not necessarily be completely free of ornament. Most readers of poetry are ideal—at least those I’ve encountered. There are lots of kind people out there.

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?

I work with three other poets during “marathons” of writing—which take place three or four months every year. During these months the four of us write poems every day, and to be accountable, we send the daily poem to the other three. None of us are obliged to send comments about each other’s work—just the work itself. “Barn Gothic”—at least its first draft—came during one of these.

To be honest, I don’t get much feedback on my poems at all, but I do share the poems with a small group of folks who are self-destructive enough to write poems every day during 1/3 of the year. 

During the months between these marathons we all revise at our own paces. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I think it’s a bit more kempt than other poems. The lines are meant to be a bit “quicker,” and I want the end words to be evocative such that they are a smaller poem within the bigger form. This is a bad answer, though, as the latter point is something I strive for in every poem. 

What is American about this poem? 

The poem attempts to capture another time in American life—one (on the surface) perhaps partially indistinguishable from other agrarian cultures.

 “Barn Gothic” attempts to acknowledge our history, but it’s an ideal history if only read in that interstitial way. It’s more concerned with the elemental. It attempts to capture and re-awaken something of the past while acknowledging that all moments—moments long to come—will be re-scripted as history. And that the notion of the past itself will be consumed. 

Is that American? I don’t know. 

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

I’m one of those guys—for better or worse—who believes a poem is never finished, and so, alas, “Barn Gothic” is constantly being abandoned.