As Interviewed By:
The Secret Glory
An Interview with Franz Wright
about Franz Wright’s poetry while working as poetry editor of Random
House’s online magazine, Bold
Type. Upon publication of his first book with Knopf, The
Beforelife, I contacted him for an interview. He agreed, and I sent
him a preliminary set of questions. He promptly declined. First-round
rebuffs are not unusual for interview assignments. Although deterred, I
and I later became friendly after I met him in person for the first time
at the downstairs bar of Makor, on West 67th Street in
Manhattan, where he was reading that evening. His editor, Deb Garrison,
introduced us, and we hit it off immediately. We shared a morbid sense of
humor and a profound respect for serious poetry. On another occasion I
arranged to have tea with him at the Algonquin Hotel, the famous literary
haunt near Times Square. At the chock-a-block outdoor New Yorker
Festival readings at Bryant Park that year, he waved me backstage past
security (chronically insolvent, I stuffed my bag with fruit and bottles
of water from the food service trucks). Later that night we attended a New
Yorker party, where we encountered the likes of Salman Rushdie, David
Remnick, and the magazine’s stable of rather unstable cartoonists. Our
acquaintance warmed, and we wrote to each other regularly over the next
year or so.
I approached him again about the possibility of an interview, he agreed
enthusiastically. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and his
writing career rose on an updraft that continues to this day, despite his
occasional inclination to brawl with critics and battle with magazine
editors. On the poetry best-seller lists issued by Soundscan, his last
three books have enjoyed successful rankings, placing him among Billy
Collins and Mary Oliver as the most popular American poets publishing
interview took place over the course of several days and represents, to my
knowledge, the most extensive interview conducted to date with Franz
You were born in Vienna in 1953 and lived in the Northwest, the Midwest,
and northern California. Can you say a few words about your childhood?
mother (first American-born child of Greek immigrants) and father (middle
son of carpenter, factory and railroad worker West Virginian hillbilly
Irish) were high school sweethearts who helped each other escape from
Martins Ferry, Ohio—across the Ohio River from Wheeling—to the wider
post-war world. My father served in the occupational forces in Japan, and
then attended Kenyon College, and my mother went to nursing school in
Cleveland. My father received a Fulbright scholarship to Vienna, proposed
to my mother, broke off the engagement, and then reproposed. They were
married, my mother’s father (whose own father, a drunk gambler, had sold
him in Paris to some sort of merchant ship captain into virtual indentured
servitude for his own fare back to Greece at the outbreak of WWI) banished
her from the family, and they took a ship to Vienna, where I was born nine
months later, March 18 1953, in their hotel room.
During my mother’s pregnancy her mother died of cancer back in Ohio and
she never saw her again. In the summer of 1953 we crossed the Atlantic
back to the US where I, filled with space and light, was no doubt already
addicted to travel or at any rate constant address change. My father
attended grad school at the University of Washington in Seattle and
studied with Theodore Roethke. My mother worked as a nurse to support us,
and my father walked me to nursery school every morning, in the orange
shadow of Mt. Rainer—we counted the earthworms which were, due to
constant rain, always out crossing the sidewalks, and he sang Schubert’s
Die Forelle and various German
marching songs and Goethe poems. It was on one of these walks that I am
said to have composed and recited my first poem (“I see the shining wind
/ I see the shining cookie up in the tree”—nice rhythm, good
parallelism). Auden awarded my father the Yale Younger Poetry Prize for
his first book The Green Wall. Roethke took him to prize fights and they went
fishing and drank a lot of beer, and he began his career as an adulterous
genius, part psychotic and part saint. He got a job teaching at the
University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where Saul Bellow and John
Berryman were colleagues—I remember all these people vaguely—drank
more. My parents had an intensely physical relationship (half sex, half
fistfights). My mother discovered my father’s love letter correspondence
with Anne Sexton, resulting in more fistfights.
My younger brother Marshall was born into the maelstrom of their marriage, while I concerned myself with Homer and the Green Lantern. We spent weekends at Robert Bly’s farm in Madison, Minnesota, where I got to ride a horse and shoot things with a .22 caliber rifle in the beautiful woods. My parents divorced. My father had a big breakdown, got fired, got a Guggenheim fellowship and moved to New York; while I—aged 8—and my mother and three year old brother moved to San Francisco, where my mother became a psychiatric nurse. I spent a lot of time wandering around San Francisco by myself and sold my comic book collection (Spiderman #1 is an example of my treasure, which would probably be worth about a million dollars right now) for the first Beatles album. My mother remarried a Hungarian Holocaust-denier who had fought for the Germans and been forced to work in a mine in Siberia by the Soviets and who regularly beat the shit out of me and my brother. We moved to Walnut Creek where I excelled in high school, taking courses at UC Berkley, and purchasing my first ounce of marijuana for $10. I saw the Beatles last concert, at Candlestick Park—I also saw, regularly, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the young L. Cohen, and read one book—a great book—per day and continued to excel in school hoping to escape from my family, which I did—I traveled in Europe for a year, then came home and went to Oberlin College back—of course—in Ohio. A big strange circle.
Do any particular episodes from your childhood stand out for you today?
such a vast topic. What immediately comes to mind is finding myself in San
Francisco (after the strange cross-country drive with my mother and
three-year-old brother) at the age of eight and, being left very much to
my own devices beginning to explore, on foot and by bike, that incredible
city—this was the early sixties—with great trepidation and loneliness
that had something exultant about it. I really had no one to answer to,
and that was both terrifying and magnificent. I still feel I could find my
way around that city blindfolded. It was really around that time, too,
that I discovered that there was another parallel world, the world of
reading—the first book I recall really falling in love with was
Homer’s Iliad. There was just
such a sense of loneliness and loss—I loved my father very much and
never stopped grieving the loss of him—combined with this weird
miraculous sense of privilege and absolute freedom. Though that loneliness
was very painful, physically painful, and along with it my lifelong sense
of social ineptness, it gradually transformed into something I loved and
treasured and would not have traded for anything. I experienced very
powerfully a sense of some special destiny, without having the slightest
idea of what form it might take—but for a long time that sensation was
enough. I will have to give some more thought to this, I guess. I could be
more specific, but the specifics would not be very different from anyone
else’s childhood, probably.
You mention that you met many writers through your father. What literary
personalities stand out?
Bly is the most vivid. He always seemed ten times more alive than everyone
else. It was startling. He was gruff but funny, with children, a lot of
fun but serious, intimidating. He showed me how to ride a horse and shoot
a gun, and that was big stuff at six and seven years old. I vaguely
remember Roethke and Berryman, I was introduced to Sexton, the young Bill
Knott—the lovely John Logan, sort of like a drunk saint. When I was
visiting him in New York during late high school and during college years,
which happened once or twice a year, we got together with Kinnell, Merwin.
Dickey was a trip, as I think I have mentioned. Probably lots of other
people I am forgetting.
Are you still in touch with any of the ones still alive, like Kinnell,
just saw Galway at the Dodge Festival and we got to talk briefly—a
beautiful man. Knott I run into once in a while in Boston or Cambridge,
and this extraordinary genius and recluse has never failed to treat me
with the utmost friendliness. I am always startled that he recognizes me
at all. Robert and I correspond once in a blue moon—a kind of marvelous
uncle. These illustrious people have always treated me very well, perhaps
partly out of their fondness for my dad. The person who has meant the most
to me personally is Donald Justice who just recently died. He is the
person I most miss talking with and corresponding with, him and Larry
You mention a number of concerts from the golden age of rock music. What
influence has music had on your writing?
influence of music on me personally and I hope very much on my writing has
been incalculable. That is one incredibly fortunate thing about my
upbringing, which, as I think I have hinted, was mostly a botched
improvisation on my part, as my parents were too busy being lunatics to be
of much practical assistance. However, they did love me, and that is
something. Anyway, one wonderful thing was the constant presence of
classical music in the house, as my father spent almost as much time
listening to it and forcing me to listen to it as he did reciting
Shakespeare and forcing me, thank God, to listen to it, until he departed
when I was six or seven.
I loved music, have always loved and
physically hungered for music, of every kind. As a child I used to
mentally improvise classical music in my mind to fall asleep—it never
occurred to me that this might not be a normal activity, and at four I was
playing little Mozart pieces and so forth on the piano, and studied
classical and jazz trumpet between ages 10 and 15, when I gave it and
everything else up for poetry. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan when I
was in fourth grade in San Francisco, and from the first note of that
weirdly joyous music I burst into tears and—like every other child in
the country—was never the same again. I attended high school between
1967 and 1971 and lived in northern California. I was at Altamont, along
with just about every other teenager in the Bay Area at the time. As a
teenager, I was of course heavily under the influence of the astonishing
range of very great young rock musicians and composers of the time, and
remember going to hear Neil Young at Winterland Ballroom a lot, as well as
the free concerts the Grateful Dead put on in Golden Gate Park. As an
adult I developed a love of every conceivable form of music. There is no
genre I am not interested in, and lately it is a lot of sacred music, Bach
to Bruckner to Bill Evans to Arvo Pärt. But I listen to and am quite
knowledgeable about jazz, and there is still rock and roll. I love Paul
Westerberg and would very much like to have a talk with him (we have
mutual friends, but have never met). I love West African music. At this
moment I am listening to Salif Keita.
Have your poems ever been set to music?
FW: A poem of mine called, I think, “The Wish,” which is about a wish to be a wolf spider and begins “I’m tired of listening to these / conflicting whispers / before sleep . . .” was once sung by, I believe, a Pittsburg group connected with their symphony orchestra at one of the James Wright Festival get-togethers in Martins Ferry, and I have heard that some of my translations from Rilke’s Marien-Leben (“The Life of Mary”) have been, but that’s all I am aware of. A composer named Nathan Pawelek set “Shaving in the Dark” to music, and it was performed last May by the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra—I had an invitation to attend, and wish very much that I could have. Track 5 on the Brooklyn band Clem Snide’s forthcoming CD Hungry Bird is a six-year-old recording of me reciting my poem “Encounter 3 AM”—which will appear next year in Earlier Poems—with a quiet and very lovely Eef Barzelay guitar background or overlay or whatever it’s called. I was skeptical, but in fact it is terrific, chilling really.
Outside of music, what influences would you name?
fifteen on, primarily, Rainer Maria Rilke—the poems, the letters, the Notebooks
of Malte Laurids Brigge—all of this material ought to be banned to
naive teenagers who already happen to live in a sort of nineteenth-century
conception of literature and the world, like I did for clinical reasons I
do not completely understand, until they are at least thirty years old.
Many of your earlier books are difficult to find. Has there been any
interest in publishing a comprehensive book of your earlier work?
lot of the poems in my first four full-length collections appear in Ill
Lit: Selected and New Poems
(Oberlin College Press, 1998), a book that has started to sell a little
better since it came out that an L.A. rock band named itself after the
book (Ill Lit). They are pretty good. I think they’re on tour right now
in the west and southwest. But those early books are still around and not
that hard to get hold of. I should add that I am trying to get free of my
nineties commitment to Carnegie-Mellon University Press (who never
distributed my books and never paid me a cent). In another year or so,
those three books’ rights should revert to me, and Knopf has expressed
some tentative interest in someday doing a big collection, but I may not
live to see it.
What are your feelings about the teaching of poetry?
programs have multiplied more than the stars of heaven, that most of them
are run by idiots who sit around allowing a roomful of fifteen young
writers to subconsciously ruin each others’ best but embryonic impulses
by their approval or disapproval, the blind leading the blind. And that
the proliferation of MFA programs has filled the country with a fog of
mediocrity that has made it virtually impossible to distinguish bad from
good poetry. And that what a young writer needs is a mentor—and if he or
she can find that in an MFA program, fine, but that the only value of an
MFA degree is to allow one to teach in an MFA program—if you can first
manage to eat all the other smaller fish who are trying to do the same
If you mean the writing of poetry, it
can’t be done, but everyone knows that. Of course, there are a lot of
things real writers in the same room can teach one another, little
always-recalled tricks. And they can have a huge influence on one another,
whether through admiration or hatred, I guess.
How then would one explain the great number of MFA (master of fine arts)
programs for poetry in the United States today?
some of my best friends teach in MFA programs. But seriously, I do not
understand the proliferation of MFA programs over the past quarter
century, and have no opinion about it. It’s a subject that offers
endless possibilities for someone like me (who never seemed to be able to
fit into any adult real world
situation for most of his life) for cheap shots, for example: Can you
imagine Arthur Rimbaud taking part in a creative writing workshop? But
even I realize how childish that is. I have no advanced degrees myself,
but that is not something I am proud of—it just didn’t work out like
that for me. I have had a couple opportunities, briefly, to teach, and
enjoyed them very much—though I must say I infinitely prefer the
teaching of literature courses. That is a hell of a lot of fun.
If you could choose four poets in the English language, from any period,
to teach in a course, whom would you choose?
sounds like one of those rapid free association questions. Ok, before I
have time to think about it, right off the top of my head: Walt Whitman,
William Blake, Theodore Roethke, and George Herbert.
Along the lines of free association: When I say the word “James
Dickey”, what is the first thing that comes into your head?
don’t know if that’s really fair. Like a lot of poets of his
generation he was a more or less hopeless alcoholic and this led him into
some deplorable behavior (and look whose talking)—but I believe his best
work is fantastically beautiful poetry, and I think it is largely
forgotten that his influence on other poets was huge, as big as Robert
Lowell’s or then Robert Bly and my father (I think my father was
seriously influenced by Dickey, as much as he was by Bly). I think he
wrote some truly great poems, in his middle period.
Q: It has been remarked that poetry consists either of moral discourse or visionary observation. What do you think of this statement, and how would your poetry fit into this description?
Your poetry often treats subjects such as emotional and physical recovery.
Can you say something about your choice of this subject?
I guess the famous dictum is “write what you know.” Actually, I have
always believed it should be the exact opposite, and wish very much that I
could be more like, say, René Char, and spend more time in the lyrical
absolute than in my wretched personal concerns—and I think I am making a
little progress!—but it is the inescapable fact that my life has
involved a sometimes nearly lethal struggle with drugs, alcohol, and
mental illness (as well as sex and rock & roll, during younger years).
I’m a pretty regular baby boom kind of guy in that respect, I suppose.
But I think it is also true that from the very start poetry represented
for me a way out of a very dark and hostile world into a radiant and
serene one, so even when the poems seems to be very dark, I did not
experience them that way: I experienced them as blessed moments of escape
and relief from my self.
Some poets, like Geoffrey Hill, claim never to have been disappointed by
anything they have published. Others, like Ezra Pound at the end of his
life, have experienced an incredible sense of remorse. Have you ever
regretting something that you have published?
90% of it.
You have written poems in what might be called a darkly humorous mode,
such as ‘Body Bag’, from your collection The
Beforelife, which consists of a single line: “Like the condom in a
pinch one size fits all.” Your work is generally very serious. What role
does humor play in your work?
don’t know. Some people seem to find my most serious poems funny, or
they’re enraged by them, or something. But never mind that. The parts in
my poems that are funny just seem to appear at certain moments—maybe
there is a sense in many extreme situations where humor is the only
appropriate response to the horrific, a sanity-protecting thing kicks in.
One thing I will say about this is that it may have originated in an
attempt to emulate James Tate, whose “funny” poems are sometimes his
most terribly poignant. I think he is an inimitable master in this regard.
There are famous stories of Ernest Hemingway sharpening pencils and lining
them up on his desk as a way to prepare him emotionally and mentally for
the start of the writing day. Do you have any rituals that help you to
generally won’t even attempt to write anything down unless I feel a
genuine upwelling from (for the more secular minded) the subconscious or
an infusion of necessity or energy from above. But yes, there is one thing
I still do, which is take a walk, at least an hour, someplace I feel
comfortable and safe and happy. I have a number of these fortunately in
the town I now live in, west of Boston, Purgatory Cove along the Charles,
a very beautiful cemetery not far from my house, Walden Pond or Flint’s
Pond in the Lincoln Woods about a twenty minute drive away, and so forth.
Words are often generated by walking, for me.
What is your usual technique of composition?
usually starts with a fragment that occurs—mentally—and which I carry
around in my mind for a while to see if anything else is going to come
before setting it down in one of the little pocket notebooks I always
carry (this often involves furtive and evasive procedures like going to
the men’s room, or hiding behind a tree or something). I transfer
fragments to bigger notebooks and to typewritten sheets, which accumulate
over time—I really use any means available at that point, typewriter,
computer. I still prefer working longhand in a notebook, but then certain
technical advantages emerge when you got to type something, I find.
Do you compose in lines, mentally, as William Wordsworth did, or do the
lines emerge from the larger written form only later on the page, as one
finds when looking at the manuscripts of W.B. Yeats, who usually began
with a block of prose?
fragments tend to fall very quickly into verses, since I don’t take a
real interest in them unless they possess a certain rhythmic and musical
quality as well as imagistic or intellectual quality.
You have remarked in the past that you sometimes have the sensation that a
poem comes to you as a unified whole all at once, while you are walking or
in another meditative state. Is this true?
has certainly happened, but it is rare, of course. Just the other day I
wrote a poem of about fifteen lines, one I am very pleased with, just
about as fast as I could get it down, a few minutes maybe. They do
occasionally appear fully formed. But again, this is rare. I have very
often spent years on poems. I once spent six years on a five-line poem.
What do you think of poetry in the United States today, opposed, say, to
twenty or thirty years ago? What has changed?
gotten sort of old and grouchy and set in my ways and tend not to read
that much anymore (except a few books by people who lived hundreds or
thousands of years ago), and I think this is partly because being
obsessive about writing poetry kind of ruins the magic of reading it. I
don’t enjoy reading it the way I did twenty and thirty years ago. I know
there are a hell of a lot more people writing it (as Richard Howard
quipped, more people write than read poetry now) and that there is a
dizzying array of groups or cliques or schools of poets. But maybe that
has always been true, and as there are so many more human beings on the
planet now, there is a commensurate increase in the number of people
foolish or suicidal enough to want to be poets, I mean in the United
States of America. There are of course cultures, in which there is some
degree of prestige attached to being a poet, but ours is not one of them,
and the reason for that is that there is no money in it, which makes it
somewhat suspect in our eyes.
If you could change one thing about literary culture in the United States,
what would it be?
really don’t have the faintest idea—maybe wish writers and reviewers
of poetry could be less petty and prejudicial and more generous, open
minded and spiritual, which is absurd and sounds a bit like saying I wish
for peace on earth, and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. It’s never
been that way and never will be, except in the hearts of certain rare
individuals (and I am certainly not claiming to be one of them). And maybe
a certain degree of hostility isn’t so bad, it may help younger people
form their own critical sense.
Do you have any particular critics or publications in mind when you say
immediately comes to mind, the New
Criterion, and their main spokesperson William Logan (who should
really learn how to write prose, by the way). My idea is that they should
start a literary version of one of those rightwing talk radio shows. That
way they could reach many more young reactionary unpublished paranoids who
are convinced a vast conspiracy exists to keep them from being read, and
this might serve to somewhat quiet the malicious and envious hatred that
keeps them awake at night gnashing their teeth at the thought that someone
out there might have a few people reading his books. Logan in particular
never bothers to write about anyone with his inimitable spirit of hatred
and mockery unless the writer gets a certain degree of attention, and in
this way he is oddly snobbish. But think of being a most ignored and
mediocre writer, both of verse and prose, who has to teach English at the
University of Florida in Gainesville. I suppose he should be pitied. See
what a tolerant person I am?
Are there any literary magazines, newspapers, or other reviews you read
that regularly, no, though I still try to keep up with a couple, like Field,
which comes out of Oberlin and reminds me of my college days and my
beloved teachers David Young and Stuart Friebert. I think they still do a
hell of a job combining established poets with unknown very promising
ones. They also begin each issue with a symposium on a particular poet,
either American or European, with excellent and thoughtful and generous
essays by real writers, as opposed to illiterate and highly opinionated
hacks, who really out to be writing for British tabloids or something.
Q: Can you name three American poets writing today, of any age, who you admire?
Howe, Olga Broumas, and Jean Valentine.
All women here, but when asked about your four ideal poets to teach in a
class they were all “dead white men,” so to speak (Walt Whitman,
William Blake, Theodore Roethke, and George Herbert). How do you explain
this discrepancy between the living and the dead?
just mentioned those four off the top of my head. On another day, it might
have been four others. And I certainly see no distinction between great
male and great female poets. You’re a poet or you’re not (and if
you’re not, count your blessings).
In many ways, two important poetry editors have championed you, Deb
Garrison at Knopf and Alice Quinn at The
New Yorker. Can you comment on your relationship with them?
think they are both utterly brilliant and dedicated editors, with a
genuine gift or calling to do what they do. In my personal case, I can’t
tell you how many times they have improved a poem of mine with a single
glance and suggestion, immensely improved it. They have the eye. In any
field (education, medicine, sports, etc.) you get a lot of competent
people at work, but a few will stand out as genuinely gifted, genuinely
called to do their work. And I think Alice Quinn and Deborah Garrison are
What role should an editor play in the life of a poet? Certainly it should
be different from that of an historian or a novelist.
been fortunate with editors. The other one who stands out is David Young,
in that they have become friends and, when necessary, counselors in a
sense. People I can turn to for advice.
What differences are there between publishing with a university press like
Oberlin and a commercial publisher like Knopf, which is part of Random
House, which in turn is part of the international media conglomerate
get more publicity, better distribution, so you do tend to sell more
books. And you get more reviewer attention. And I have to say the snobbery
of reviewers and places like Publishers
Weekly, and other such magazines, astounds me—they never paid the
slightest attention to my work until Knopf published it. Actually, it must
have more to do with ignorance than snobbery. As everyone who knows
anything about contemporary poetry knows, a good deal of the best work is
published by small or university presses (while a good deal of absolute
shit is published by major publishers)—but I suppose you have to know
where to look or be into it enough to know where to look.
And what are your experiences with independent presses, ones even smaller
than university presses?
don’t know what to say about that except many of my favorite books over
the years have come out of independent small presses and are now even more
precious as they are impossible to find anymore. An example from hundreds
that comes to mind is Cid Corman’s masterpiece of a translation from
Char’s Leaves of Hypnos.
Tapping the White Cane of Solitude,
was published by Triskelion Press in 1976. How did it come to pass
Triskelion published your first book?
was a small, handset type press run by David Young (and editor of Field
and professor at Oberlin College) and another professor there, Dewey
Ganzel, the Twain scholar. I was a junior at the time, 1976, and David
suggested we do a chapbook, as I’d been publishing poems for several
The Earth Without You was
published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center a year later. The
One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes was published by Pym-Randall
Press the next. Going North in
Winter was published by Gray House Press in 1986. Entry in an Unknown Hand was published by Carnegie-Mellon University
Press in 1989. And Still the Hand
Will Sleep in Its Glass Ship appeared from Deep Forest in 1991. Midnight
Postscript (1992); The Night
World & the Word Night was Carnegie-Mellon again, in 1993. Ill
Lit: Selected & New Poems appeared from Oberlin in 1998. Then we have
the two from Knopf, The Beforelife and
Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,
for which you won the Pulitzer Prize. How do you explain the range of
different publishers you have used?
forgot Rorschach Test, another
Carnegie-Mellon book, maybe the best of them but probably also the most
disturbed. I don’t know, I think deep down I just never believed it to
be worth the trouble to even try sending a manuscript to a major New York
press, and so never even tried. Whenever someone expressed interest, I
would just let them have the work, and somehow someone always did.
Carnegie-Mellon was a good place, and Jerry Costanzo, the main editor
there, cared very much about the books and did a good job with them but
was unfortunately unable to pay me any royalties or to distribute the
book—don’t think I ever once saw a copy of any of those books on a
shelf in any bookstore. That never happened, in fact, until The
Beforelife appeared in 2001. My wife and I used to go into Cambridge
and walk around to various book stores just to look at the strange fact
that I had a book on a shelf in a poetry section. It seems funny and
pathetic now. Ill Lit, from Oberlin College Press, got around a little better,
though not much, but it felt good to be back with people I was friends
with and knew cared about me.
You have several chapbooks as well. Hell
& Other Poems appeared from Stride, in the UK. God
While Creating The Birds Sees Adam In His Thoughts was issued by David
Dodd Lee. How do these projects get started?
writes to me and expresses an interest in doing a small limited edition
chapbook, and if I have work on hand—say I am in the middle of working
on a book, which come to think of it, I suppose I always am—I say, sure.
I love those little books. I think in some ways the ideal book of poems is
twenty poems. Though saying that, I am reminded that I am now trying to
finish one that is over one hundred poems long right now. I am trying to
figure out a way to produce a longer “statement” which also works as a
whole, not just a miscellany of poems.
Some of your other books prove a bit more elusive, such as the early 8
Poems, Midnight Postscript,
and Knell. Can you tell me where
York, New Hampshire, and Minneapolis. 8
Poems was a Xeroxed and stapled pamphlet done by my dear college
friend Dan Simko who died a couple months ago in NY—someone pointed out
a rare books online service offering it for sale for fifteen hundred
dollars or something like that recently. I remind you, very few people
took much notice of my work until about three years ago—it is very
You are married. Is your wife also a writer? How has she affected your
writing and your life in general?
quite a good writer, an excellent writer, and a very gifted translator who
is official American translator of a number of fascinating contemporary
German poets. She literally saved my life, took me on when I was still in
a state of psychotic depression (which lasted nearly three years) and made
it clear she would have stayed with me even if I had remained a
semi-invalid. Brilliant woman, and an absolute babe.
How has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life?
think it has made me a more confident person, it seems easier to hold my
head up in certain social situations—not literary ones, necessarily, but
just normal ones. It’s helped me sell more book and get readings, and
that helps me make a living, such as it is. Psychologically it has helped
me feel a bit less overwhelmed by my father’s shadow, that sort of
thing. I consider it a great honor, and it still amazes me, and I think it
will always amaze me.
Your father won the prize as well. Are you the first son of a winner to
take the prize home as well?
that’s what I have been told.
The Pulitzer Prize is a widely recognized award, due in part to the great
emphasis journalists themselves place on it. Do you get the sense that the
prize somehow legitimizes the practice of poetry to our society at large?
really don’t know. But maybe this is my chance to say that poetry’s
unimportance in this country may not be such a bad thing. It maybe has
helped, in some oddly Darwinian way, to give it its greatest moments.
Antionio Porchia said somewhere, the truth has few friends, and they are
suicides. To devote yourself, I mean really devote yourself to poetry in
the U.S.—it does (in spite of the usual flood of mediocrity, or half
measures) tend to separate the nuts from the shells.
You are about to read at the Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest in the
country. What are your feelings about public readings?
don’t mind reading, and actually—I am thinking of my one participation
in the New Yorker Festival
in Bryant Park—I think it is easier to read in front of thousands of
people. It’s the readings where five people show up that are tough.
Anyway, the whole thing is very unpredictable, for me. Sometimes I’m up
for it, and do pretty well—sometimes I make a fool of myself, for some
reason, or that’s what it feels like. My feeling is that the public
reading of poetry is basically a mistake—but then I think of the
excitement I felt when young at getting to see and hear a poet a greatly
I think there is one danger inherent in poetry readings as we know them. I
think there is a danger that the poet will be subconsciously affected, or
his writing will be, by the kinds of responses he gets from an audience.
We long to be loved and admired, no matter how strong someone is, or
self-reliant, I think this is true—and if you notice that a certain type
of poem goes over well with an audience, there may be an unconscious (or
perhaps quite conscious) tendency to continue writing in that vein, and
then you do not grow and your work may not develop and deepen in the same
way it did while you were writing to no audience, no applause, no
chuckles. I can think of poets whose work has suffered because of too
early success in this way, too many readings, too much exposure to reading
Has the culture of public readings given too much attention to performance
and personality over poetry? Is there even a division between these?
don’t know, but I think poets should be as solitary and invisible as
possible—no problem there, really. Since poetry, like crime, can only be
accomplished in absolute privacy and secrecy. (Even prayer is something
people can do together.) But what the hell, why shouldn’t poets get out
and get a bit of attention or even adulation, and make some dough at the
same time? I find that as long as I am sober, I can handle the scene, and
then just go home and return to being my normal wretched, lonely and
sometimes euphoric self. I really don’t have that much experience with
all this, haven’t, until now, given that many readings or attended more
than a handful of them.
When James Schuyler, formerly a bit of a recluse, finally gave his first
big public reading at the Dia Center in 1988, the crowd was large and very
eager to hear him. Many younger poets remark on how important this reading
was for them. Have you enjoyed the readings of any particular poet in this
I was sixteen or seventeen I drove from Walnut Creek into San Francisco to
the San Francisco Art Institute to hear Robert Bly read, and what actually
happened was that he appeared with a big stack of books by other poets and
proceeded to read from them and comment on them with a passion I have
never before witnessed in any poetry reading I have attended. I think that
made an impression on me that has remained indelibly as an example of the
power of love for poetry and an ecstatic readiness to be of service to it.
I should add that the young Andre
Codrescu (this was about 1969 or 1970) happened to be in the audience,
drinking a bottle of wine and his lively and erudite interjections livened
up and added tremendously to the whole thing—it must have gone on for a
couple hours—an exciting time. Afterwards we went to a party somewhere,
and I found myself surrounded by many poets I was in awe of—I think
Ginsberg and Bill Knott (I may be imagining this) might have been there as
well, though very quietly—and remember overhearing Robert and Andre
comparing notes on the benefits of fucking in the snow and so forth. This
was some wild shit for an extremely shy but poetry-obsessed teenager.
Do you feel any anxiety before your own readings?
feel great trepidation, usually, right before my own readings, but a
strange wild excitement as well. And I have learned, over the years, I
think I have learned how to convey my passion for poetry in a reading.
Usually they go fine—though I have memories of some that are searingly
embarrassing to me still.
it’s not like someone’s going to stand up in the back and say, “That
line sucks!” But you can tell. You can feel when you are getting through
to people in an audience, whether there are five of them or three
thousand—and you can definitely tell when you aren’t, and it is then
you sincerely wish to get down on your hands and knees and crawl off the
stage. I should add that I have gotten much better at it recently, maybe
from doing it so much. I am much calmer, and somehow that helps me be more
passionate, as opposed to hysterical. When you’re frightened about what
people think, you’re lost.
must have both, clearly. And have them to a terrible, excruciating and
always imagined him as being a rather impassioned writer—the stuff is
torrential no matter what else one may think of it. And I do happen to
think he is a very great poet. It’s just not my thing. The earlier
New Testament, Neue Gedichte, and the pornographic stories of Apollinaire.
advice would be read all the great poetry that preceded it first.
But there’s so much. It would take someone years just to get through the
big names in English poetry. Wouldn’t this tactic discourage a new
they had no interest in reading previous poets—even if they only went
back to the seventeenth century and the Romantics—why would they wish to
read the poetry which was largely written in response to or in reaction to
it? Besides, there aren’t really that many great poets, are there?
already have—did you ever see that one in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays
Rimbaud? It was actually rather touching, in an idiotic way. The whole
idea is horrifying, and I’m glad poetry is so unpopular here that it
hasn’t often occurred to them. The one about Iris Murdoch was good. I
steered clear of the Plath one, but then I steer clear of anything
relating to her extremely promising but almost infinitely overrated work.
If they made the story of Franz Wright, who would play you?
don’t know about stories. I do know there are brief intense moments in
life that are instantly recognizable as somehow cosmically symbolic or
significant, or—and they usually involve great suffering—are clearly
occurring as terrible and unavoidable teachings. Sometimes, later on,
years later usually, when the pain of them has faded, they can be written
Q: I would like to take a single, extended line, from the poem ‘Year One’, in your most recent collection, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard: “Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.” How did you arrive at this image?
brother and I came up with it together during a conversation in a mental
hospital in California in 1989, where he was staying for a while. I think
we had taken LSD.
Q: Is it unusual for an image to stay with you for that long before it appears in a poem? I think that must be nearly a decade and a half after its inception that the line appeared to the public.
all the time. Image in search of a context, again in the Glückian sense.
I keep many, many notebooks—and am blessed with or inherited a kind of
semi-photographic memory from my father.
Q: At the end of a poem, Allen Ginsberg would sometimes cite the drugs he had taken while writing it. What effects have drugs of all kinds—even coffee, cigarettes—had directly on your writing?
had a huge effect, for about twenty-five years, but largely a negative
one. One of the most sinister things about addiction is that in its
initial stages, in the early years, it seems to produce a state resembling
religious enlightenment, or a Blakean sense of the infinite in the small
and particular, the eternal in the moment. And this is the right thing to
be looking for, but drugs only produce the delusion of having this
experience, and pretty soon (if you’re made that way) you start needing
them just to leave the house and function in the world, forget about
visionary sensations. The other effect they have—Ill
Lit is a good example, Berryman’s Dream
Songs are an immortal one—is that they may lead you into writing
what amounts more or less to a textbook on what it’s like to be a
narcissistic and terrified psychotic.
I’m going to give you some quotes, and I would like you to respond to
them in any way you like. The
American literary critic Burton Rascoe once wrote that “what no wife of
a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s
staring out the window.”
am blessed with a wife who understands that quite well—perhaps because
she is a lovely writer herself. Sometimes she will glance at me while we
are driving or eating dinner and say something like, “Writing again?”
Robert Frost said “A poet never takes notes. You never take notes in a
statement and its silly analogy both strike me as inaccurate.
Walker Percy thought that “a good title should be like a good metaphor;
it should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.”
lovely—hard to improve on that.
Toni Morrison said, “I always know the ending; that’s where I
start.” Does this relate at all to your style of composition?
I know what she means, but in my case, for most of my so-called career I seemed almost to cultivate a deliberate unconsciousness as to subject material (I think I have become a good deal more conscious of what I want to say now, though not too conscious I hope)—language, phrases, images, lines come to me in a fairly random way and after a while accumulate and begin to suggest what Louise Glück marvelously described as a context. Somewhere very near the end of composition process I become aware of a subject or context or something, and then can bring conscious faculties to bear. But if I’m not a bit shocked or moved myself by what occurs, I consider the whole effort a failure. I have noticed, technically, that a good poem has the look of a single correctly spelled word, symmetry and something very satisfying, like good shoes.
Maurice Valency said, “failure is very difficult for a writer to bear,
but very few can manage the shock of early success.”
was lucky—I had some early success, beginning to publish at 18 and
having a little book while I was still an undergraduate—but it was not
the sort of overwhelming success that, say, Jim Tate dealt with so well,
and that others have not dealt with so well.
Commenting on his reasons for giving up boxing when in college, T.S. Eliot
wrote, “I was too slow a mover. It was much easier to be a poet.”
think many things Eliot said, when he was aware they would be quoted, were
meant to throw people off his track. I wonder if there has ever been
another poet so politically concerned with his reputation? Not that this
makes him any less great as a poet—any more than being a practically
psychotic addict lessened the magnificent humanity and visionary powers
of, say, Baudelaire or Berryman or Hart Crane. But Eliot was probably such
a passion-torn (far more than Yeats, who talked about it so much) and
guilt-ridden person, it is no wonder he resorted to these sorts of
charming quips and evasive tactics.
Stephen Spender wrote, “Great poetry is always written by somebody
straining to go beyond what he can do.”
Aside from its perfectly clear literal meaning, it reminds me of the experience I always have upon completing what I consider to be a successful poem. First I get down on my knees, in reality or in thought, and thank God. But even then, in the back of my mind, I am rejoicing at having hit upon the formula, the way to write the poem. But as soon as I try to apply it, I immediately discover it won’t work, that it’s as if I had suffered a stroke and have to learn how to write all over again. Every poem is an attempt to write The Poem, and is a failure.
Religion seems to be central to your writing. Can you say a few words
about how religion has affected your life and your view of the world?
religious faith is very real and literal, almost to a childlike
degree—though with my ancient skepticism and dread of abandonment thrown
in—and I can only say it has made it possible for me to go on living. I
would not have been able to go on living otherwise.
Could you write without this faith?
but it would be the same old lurid and sensationalistic in-love-with-death
or oblivion crap I wrote so much of. But the point is, I very likely would
not be around anymore to write anything at all. Not that that would be any
tremendous loss to letters, as they say. Part of what makes it possible to
go on writing is an intensely acute sense that it is not just the poem but
what the poem is pointing to, and that it’s all
going to go, all of it, Shakespeare, Homer, Basho, everything—the sun
itself will die, and all will return to whatever it is, whatever Light it
emanated from to begin with.
What poems about God or religious faith do you feel are particularly
poems of the skeptically religious—of, for example, Blake, Rimbaud, Hart
Crane, Rilke—often feel more satisfying to me in this way than the more
obviously religious poets like Donne or Eliot or Hopkins or lot of others
anyone could mention. You know who is really interesting in this way is
George Herbert, who so clearly a believer yet whose whole work seems to
amount to a serious doubt about his worthiness even to speak of or to God.
That is especially poignant to me.
In his poem ‘Affliction III’, Herbert writes:
My heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God!”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod [. . .]
you say something about those lines?
reminds me of something Louise Glück wrote in her last book, and I am not
quoting it correctly but it amounts to: “I am the light, your anguish
and humiliation—did you imagine another? There is no other.” [Editor's
note: This is from the poem "Stars" in her collection The
Seven Ages, Knopf, 2001: “I am the light, / your personal anguish
and humiliation. / Do you dare / send me away as though / you were waiting
for something better?”] I think what Herbert is getting at (Hopkins is
marvelous at this, too) is that our suffering is the terrible and only
teacher—Kierkegaard said famously suffering is the characteristic of
God’s love—and I think everyone senses that failure and brokenness and
loneliness cause us to perceive us as God might, as naked and ignorant and
blind. Our suffering may be the real form love takes, but we also know
that at the end of it waits infinite peace and radiance, that has been my
experience anyway. Why things are arranged this way, who knows—pretty
soon we are all going to find out.
Q: Yes, the Kierkegaard epigraph to your selected poems Ill Lit is “one must never desire suffering. No, you have only to remain in the condition of praying for happiness on earth. If a man desire suffering, then it is as though he were able by himself to solve this terror—that suffering is the characteristic of God’s love. And that is precisely what he cannot do.” Can you talk about that a bit more?
reminds me of the big misunderstanding, especially in certain forms
Christianity takes—the mortification of the body to approach the
spiritual side of one’s being, as if further mortification than what is
daily offered us, for free, were not enough. It’s like the difference
between anorexia and true selflessness or self-denial. Rilke has a
wonderful remark about this: “Asceticism, of course, is no solution: it
is sensuality with a negative prefix. For a saint this might become
useful, as a kind of scaffolding. At the intersection of his various acts
of renunciation he beholds that God of opposition, the God of the
invisible who has not yet created anything. But anyone who has committed
to using his senses in order to grasp appearances as pure and forms as
true on earth: how could such an individual even begin to distance himself
from anything! And even if such renunciation proved initially useful and
necessary for him, in his case it would be nothing more than a deception,
a ruse, a scheme—and ultimately it would take its revenge somewhere in
the contours of his finished work by showing up there as an undue
hardness, aridity, barrenness, and cowardice.”
Some critics have referred to the extreme uses of drugs and alcohol among
artists a form of “inverted asceticism.” Is there anything to this?
like I said before, drug use among artists is the catastrophic and
incredibly obvious mistake of looking for the right thing, illumination,
in the wrong place—as if the chemical contained what was necessary, when
all along it is within us, obviously. The problem is it takes a lifetime
of discipline to access that state of illumination—it must be sought,
found, then constantly maintained—and with drugs at first you get the
impression that it’s something you can turn on and off with a switch.
But it is understandable—the world is so awful, and artistic aspirations
go so against the grain of things as they are, it is natural to despair,
in the midst of so much ugliness and chaos, of finding any other way to
enter that other state, that other place of illumination. And the other
horrible problem is that it sometimes really works, initially—if it
didn’t work, to some degree, it wouldn’t be such a problem.
Have you ever been interested in writing criticism, reviews, or perhaps a
won’t write a memoir, but I have some ideas for essays actually, and
would like to try to put together a book of them—but we’ll see. I feel
there are so many more important things I need to do—and I don’t mean
writing more poetry—and time is short.
If you could speak to one writer in history, actually sit in the room with
them for an hour, whom would you pick?
of the writers I might choose, I don’t think I could bear sitting in the
same room with. My father was about as much as I could deal with, that was
sufficiently awe-inspiring and as much love as I could endure.
Any other historical figures, aside
from writers, who you would like to meet and engage in conversation?
I would like to meet Jesus, but I would certainly not wish to engage him
in conversation—I would like to follow him everywhere he goes, at a
great distance, far enough away to keep an eye on him and to be able to
hear a little of what he says (or find out from somebody closer to him),
and hoping very much not to be noticed by him.
Why not to be noticed? What would
don’t know. It’s a hard thought to cope with. Maybe the George Herbert
dilemma again—one feels, how can I possibly be worthy of God’s
attention, and on top of it, maybe it would be best—considering the way
I have spent most of my life—not
to be noticed at all. When all the time unqualified love and mercy and
forgiveness are precisely what we are being offered.
Are you a Catholic?
I ought to add that I was only baptized a bit over three years ago. And
that I often attend Greek Orthodox services, as well as trying to get to
Mass every morning, and that I practice certain forms of Buddhist
meditation and have a lifelong interest in that—for several years as a
teenager, I studied Zen Buddhism seriously with a Korean Zen master in
What position does the Church take on the role of the poet in society?
don’t know. I can say the priests and other parishioners I have come in
contact with have taken a very lively interest in the fact that I am a
poet—so much so that I wish I had kept this to myself sometimes.
Do people treat you differently after they learn that you are a successful
poet? Do you every find people expecting a certain type of behavior or
guess that happens in certain public situations, like the recent Dodge
poetry festival [Editor's note: the interview was begun before he had read
there, and continued afterward], or sometimes with certain people at
readings, but not too much—not among people I’m in daily contact with.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a new book of about 100 poems called Prescience. It begins with a 200-line poem that deals with the place I found myself back in 1996, just before entering a two-year period of psychotic silence, frankly. Thought it is about a bit more than that. It should appear one of these days before too long. Deborah Garrison and I are just beginning the editing process. [Note: The long book was retitled God’s Silence and issued by Knopf in the late spring of 2006. There are plans to publish his first four books of poetry as Franz Wright: Early Poems in 2007, also from Knopf.]
Do you intend the word “prescience” as a title for your new book to
refer to divine omniscience or simply to a foreknowledge of future events?
I should add when I said it is due to appear soon, I meant in the pages of
The New Yorker. As to
prescience, I like the word on the page because it looks like pre-science
as well as meaning the ability to know of things before they occur or
whatever. I am also using it because it as title of what I
consider—though it is a fairly inscrutable poem, and quite formal, in
its way—to be the central poem of the collection. It appeared last
February in The New Yorker while I was down in Fayetteville. I don’t know what
else to say about that. I think sometimes I will use a title to draw
attention to a particular poem, though, and that may be true in this case.
Also, none of this is written in stone. I may very well change the title
at some point, though I doubt it.
Allen Ginsberg would sometimes rewrite poems for decades after their first
publications. His books went through many printings, and he was so
lucrative for Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, that he could change
poems each time they appeared. Do your poems continue to go through
changes right up to the publication of a book? Do you ever wish you could
change something after it appears?
very often. Though when I got the opportunity to do a selected from my
first four books (along with translations and some new poems) in Ill
Lit, I quite radically revised some of those poems. It was very
enjoyable, like getting to work on somebody else’s poems.
Are there any other projects you are looking forward to attacking?
I am dreaming of a book of essays. And I would like a new translation
project. I have always secretly longed to work on Johannes Bobrowski, the
great post-war East German poet, a sort of updated [Georg] Trakl who
commemorated some of the
disappeared Jewish communities and villages in eastern Europe—which, I
suppose, he had an involuntary hand in making disappear, like Gunther Eich,
another very major and magnificent post-war German poet who found himself
faced (in a way different I think from Paul Célan, since he was more a
normal German citizen) with the recreation of a language destroyed by the
demonic uses it had been put to by you know who.
Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to become a famous
Are there any famous poets? Sounds like an oxymoron. I like what Mark Strand said, it’s like being famous in your family. But I am not one to be handing out advice. If I had had the slightest idea of what I was in for, I don’t know if I could have gone forward with all this. Well, probably I would have. I would say that the one and only reward of writing is the experience of writing—if you take it seriously, technically and spiritually—the experience, that secret glory, itself. That’s all there is, let’s face it.