Refuting History: An Interview with John Wood by Daniel Westover
January 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
The following interview was conducted by email in late January and early February, 2011 and was published by The Asheville Poetry Review (www.ashevillepoetryreview.com).
DW: In literary circles, you are best known as a Southern poet, an Arkansas native who founded the first M.F.A. program in Louisiana. The Southern Review called you “The most engaging and lucid of the postmodern southern poets,” and when you were profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lawrence Biemiller wrote that you were “as well rooted [in Lake Charles, Louisiana] as one of the city’s live oaks.” And yet, in 2007 you left Louisiana and the South altogether, retiring to Saxton’s River, Vermont. I am wondering, first, if you still (or ever did) consider yourself to be a “Southern” poet and, second, how your move to New England has affected you as an artist. I am struck, for example, by how deeply some of the poems in your new book, The Fictions of History, engage with Puritan figures like Cotton Mather and Edward Taylor.
JW: No, I never thought of myself as a “Southern” poet, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell The Southern Review I didn’t appreciate the nice compliment. I appreciated it very much. I don’t think of myself as “postmodern” either, but again who could complain in the same sentence with “most engaging and lucid”? Of course, there are some Southern characters in my work because I lived in the midst of them—nutty, dancing preachers and hysterical women and so forth. There was a church on the end of the block I grew up on. They got very loud there. We lived at the other end of the block but on Sundays and Prayer Meeting nights you could hear them clearly, and I would sometimes go peek in one of the windows and watch the show. My mother was friends with Pastor Jimmy and Frank, the man who lived with him, a fact my mother found wonderfully amusing. She would take them extra tomatoes, okra, and so forth from the garden, as she did other neighbors. I would go with her sometimes, and though I didn’t know the word at the time, their house was a masterpiece of “camp.” Pierre and Gilles would love to have photographed it. Growing up in a world in which dancing happy, gay Holiness preachers at great risk to themselves and their boyfriends would yearly smuggle Bibles to the Soviet Union—and all the other assorted crazies of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the 1950’s leaves an impression. I grew up in a loving family, had wonderful friends, even had a few good teachers at Pine Bluff High, but Pine Bluff was something I only wanted to get away from. The idea of the emotional importance of “place,” “roots,” and all that has always struck me as an intensely Romantic delusion. Yes, of course, it can, and particularly in fiction, ground the world of the narration, as it does in the brilliant stories of Flannery O’Connor and Alex Taylor, two of my favorite short story writers. And there was much about living in Louisiana I enjoyed—primarily my graduate students, who were wonderful, many wonderful friends, our neighbors, and certainly not all but most of my colleagues in the English Department at McNeese —and, of course, the food, but I hated the heat and the political conservatism. The Fictions of History might seem to suggest that I came North and discovered the Puritans, but I have been interested in Edward Taylor for years because he was such a great poet. And I’ve also been interested in the Mathers because like so many “true believers” they, for all their professed Christianity, were deeply mean-spirited and un-Christ-like. New England has, however, affected me as an artist because—and it might seem odd for me to say this after what I just said about “place”—because of the great physical beauty of it here—especially in Vermont, which is more rural than the rest of New England.
DW: Taking your above phrase, “intensely Romantic delusion,” slightly out of context, one could argue that your poetry from the very beginning has been concerned with the cost of our Romantic myths. Whether they take the shape of an idyllic photograph, the promise of unblemished heaven or the town of Mayberry, Romantic fictions sacrifice nature’s wholeness—its darkness and brutality as well as its love—for the myth of universal brotherhood, a myth that, you have written elsewhere, we can no longer believe in after the bloodbath of the twentieth century. For example, the title poem of your new collection revisits the story of Stefan Zweig, the Buchenwald child made famous by the novel (and subsequent film) Naked Among Wolves. You begin the poem with that seemingly triumphant moment, that symbol of selfless humanity, when the prisoners who had protected Zweig by hiding him among typhoid patients carry him from the camp on their shoulders. But following this, you immediately turn to the cost of that liberation, namely the sixteen-year-old Roma boy Willy Blum, whose name the prisoners switched for Zweig’s on the transport list for Auschwitz. The poem ends with the image of Blum riding eastward toward Auschwitz in brutal contrast to what the poem calls the “canonized” lie of Zweig’s liberation. In fact, you’ve dedicated the book in part to the memory of Willy Blum. Is this what art must do, in your view? Refute, or perhaps complete, the version of history we tell ourselves?
JW: That’s a very perceptive question, Daniel. Romanticism is the angel I have wrestled with all my intellectual life. I never sit down with the intention of hauling my own Romantic dilemma into my work, but, as you noticed, it does keep appearing in the poetry and the prose. When I think of the books I’ve written on photography and art, one even subtitled Romanticism and Early Photography, and the way my disappointment with Romanticism has intruded itself into so many of the essays I’ve written as introductions to books I have edited, it could seem like an obsession. Thinking back to your previous question about place, place seems nearly irrelevant compared to time. Whether I had grown up in Arkansas or Tuscany or Fujian, the great fact of my life will always be the 20th century and that I grew up in the most murderous century in history, a time that harnessed the Industrial Revolution and its technology to killing, to the most proficient and expert killing the world had ever known. And the great irony was that we had all been converted to the religion of Romanticism. We had come to believe in the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Humanity. That’s what Beethoven has us singing about in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” at the end of the Ninth Symphony. We believed Schiller and Rousseau and Robert Burns. And I still hold to all of that on Faith, like some kind of good yet doubting Catholic, but I can’t really believe it in the face of the 20th century. La Rochefoucauld understood us far better than Rousseau did—and so did Jonathan Swift. I had the good fortune to study with T. C. Duncan Eaves, a great 18th century scholar and the greatest teacher I ever had, which is the ostensible reason I did my Ph.D. in the 18th century, but another reason I think was probably that the tougher, more brutal, pre-Romantic world seemed more realistic, more a prophylactic against the fallacies of hope. That’s a lot of background prior to actually answering your question, but the question seemed to demand it. You asked if I thought what art should do was refute or complete the version of history we tell ourselves. I had never even thought of that, Daniel, until you expressed it so well. And I was really surprised because I had never thought of my work that way. You understand me better than I do myself because that is clearly what I have done in poem after poem, as well as in the prose. It’s not often one learns something about himself in an interview. I, of course, wouldn’t say that I think that’s what art ought to do in someone else’s case, but it is certainly what I have tried to do, even though I didn’t know I was doing it. Of course, Daniel, you may have ruined me, like the novelist in David Lodge’s Small World who can’t write anymore after he’s been shown the word he uses most frequently is “grease” and various forms of “grime” and “gray.” I’m delighted to have an excuse now if poems won’t come. Actually, I think that “writer’s block” is another Romantic delusion. Can you imagine Swift or Pope or Fielding or Dr. Johnson ever complaining about such a thing!
DW: I’m happy to play the scapegoat if you need one! But what about these artistic dry spells? What is happening, or not happening, during those interims when poems don’t come if it isn’t “writer’s block”? Presumably it’s not the craft that leaves but rather something to do with stimulation or motivation. You take up this subject in the new collection, most directly in “Simple as Arithmetic,” where the aging speaker longs to find new themes and words worthy of those themes. He watches other poets churn out volumes, “their words / multiplying like bastards,” and wonders if “perhaps they hear the things / I miss.” As long as there have been artists there have been debates about the relationship between inspiration and craft, and writers have often been willing to do a great deal to court inspiration. (I’m thinking of Yeats’s Steinach operation, for example, which he thought would foster creativity.) What is the poetic process like for you? How has it changed over the years?
JW: Certainly, no serious writer would argue that writing is not hard work. “Simple as Arithmetic” was, of course, not written as a complaint about not writing but a complaint about certain prolix contemporary poets who have already produced more than Yeats did in his entire lifetime. Yes, Yeats did have the Steinach operation, but his principal concern was his impotence, which he thought when restored would aid his creative powers, but the operation, as Richard Ellmann discovered from his interview with the physician who performed it, was a fifteen minute procedure that today we call a vasectomy. From Yeats’s first book of poems right up to 1934, the year of the operation, he produced on average a book once every six years, and that doesn’t include the narrative and dramatic books of poems, though the final three books did come out more quickly. But you are certainly right that writers do at times have dry spells. If you are in the midst of a divorce, if your children are ill, if it doesn’t look as if you’ll get a job or tenure, then you are often too preoccupied to write. But these are givens, the normal conditions of life, and they’ve been that way surely since the beginning of writers and writing. But it took until recent times for us to get that pretentious term “writer’s block,” which since there was no mention of it in previous centuries suggests that it is another delusional, modern condition, another of the proliferating syndromes, complexes, addictions, and trite melodramas of our age. We seem unable to shake off all the most fictional of Romantic beliefs—particularly that writers are of a special breed, a special, more sensitive sort of creature who is able to feel things more deeply than the rest of pitiful humanity, but sometimes all that great creativity just gets blocked, which is a terribly unfortunate word choice. Whoever first used it could not have been very sensitive to language and the other uses of block and blocked. My experience has suggested to me that writers and other artists are no more sensitive or insensitive, kind or unkind, charming or disagreeable than any other profession. Scientists are also always getting stuck. Should we have physicist’s block, mathematician’s block, chemist’s block? Hard work is just hard. But getting back to your question about the poetic process, I have to say that I find that the poems do get harder to write, but I don’t believe it has to do with any kind of blockage or loss of creativity. I think it has to do with not wanting to write the same kind of poem over again, of wanting to find new material and move into new directions—Puritans, gangsters, concentration camp prisoners, and so forth. It would be no effort for me to write another poem in the voice of a Southern preacher or a person with an awful disease or write another poem about my mother, father, or grandmother—other than it would be so boring I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t learn anything about anything in the process of doing it. And so the poems come slowly, but they always have—except for those wonderful little gushes of work we all sometimes get. The prose, curiously, is another matter. I attempt to write a good solid, even at times a poetic, prose, and I work hard at my sentences, but I never have had to wait on an essay after getting the first paragraph written or had to wait on the chapters or sections in a book. So I guess I really don’t know what the poetic process is like for me—other than in terms of the craftwork—but I don’t think it has changed over the years. I just wait and try to be patient for some part of the material of a poem to present itself to me and then hope that it goes somewhere.
DW: You mention some of your chosen subjects, or perhaps I should say the subjects that have chosen you. You have sometimes written about—and written in the voices of—characters that have been marginalized or rejected or that, for one reason or other, exist on the fringes of society. For example, your last collection, Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century, is a collection of poems inspired by, and published alongside, photographs of patients suffering from debilitating skin diseases. This book demonstrates what I see as a continual need to adopt voices different than your own, perhaps especially voices that, for one reason or another, we reject as “other.” It’s a quality that burns from the page in, say, the poetry of Vassar Miller. Like hers, your work insists that what the modern world rejects is still worthy of attention and of love and of artistic expression. But not everyone feels this way. In fact, American publishers balked at Endurance and Suffering, and this despite the fact that your previous books had been successful both critically and commercially. Can you describe your attraction to the misfit, the outsider? Is your need to understand what we reject or ignore an example of the learning process you describe above?
JW: Yes, absolutely, and thank you for the comparison to Vassar Miller, whose work I greatly admire. There are many reasons why both readers and writers of poetry are drawn to it. One, of course, is obvious, the music; a good poem captivates the ear. Think of Stevens’s magnificent blank verse in “Sunday Morning” and particularly those final downward sweeping lines. Some poems we like because they engage us intellectually. “Sunday Morning” again is a good example. Other poems we might not even fully grasp, like some of Dylan Thomas’s or Hart Crane’s, but they can engage us at a deeply emotional level because of the majesty of the language, though it might at times seem uttered in tongues. We are also drawn to their opposite, those faceted lines of precision, clarity, and conciseness: “Man like the gen’rous vine, supported lives; / The strength he gains is from th’embrace he gives.” [Editor’s note: The quoted couplet is from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.] We all love stories, but often we prefer the shorter way a poet might tell them in a narrative poem, as Frost does in “Out, Out—.” And on and on. But one of the things I most love about poetry is the poem that gives me an insight I’d not previously had—an apercu, a little moment of satori—something that makes me better understand someone or something. And so I try to bring that into my own poems when I can. As you know, I’m also a photographic historian and critic, and so I had long known those photographs that inspired the poems in Endurance and Suffering, but they repelled me, and I couldn’t understand why anyone but a historian of medicine would even look at them. But one of them, the naked girl with elephantiasis, stayed in my head like some cruel story, the sort you’ve heard, hate to recall, and would never tell someone you love. Over the years she would come into my thought, and once I thought of her in terms of those last lines of the poem. And so the poem came, and it made me feel differently about Mason’s other photographs, and soon I had a book no American publisher wanted but, fortunately, was successful in Germany.
DW: Yes, those last lines, where the woman becomes all women—lover, daughter, Mother Earth—are very moving; spiritual is the word I find most fitting. In fact, I’ve always thought of your poetry as spiritual in its embrace of beauty and faith and miracle even as it refuses to define these in Romantic terms. I am speaking not of religious zeal, the kind packaged and commercialized by the “God-hucksters” you reference in “The Angels of Our Expectations,” but of something that can be called blessing. It’s partly the ability to find grace in the commonplace, as Bruna Sandoval does in Richard Wilbur’s “Plain Song for Comadre,” and to be surprised by beauty, similar to what Yeats experiences in “Vacillation.” Here I’m thinking, for example, of the “accidental blessing” described in your “Self-portrait after Stanley Spencer.” But it’s also the ability to find a more difficult blessing—internally, introspectively. I have in mind “Gestures of Place,” also a kind of self-portrait, where a meditation on age and change within a changing landscape eventually removes the speaker’s fear. When I consider this kind of poem, the word that comes to mind is prayer. Are you comfortable with my using words like “prayer” and “spirit” to describe your work?
JW: Oh, yes, and I’m pleased you would use those words. As strange as it might sound, I’ve always thought were I given but a single adjective to describe my poetry, it would be “religious.” The spiritual, whatever that is, haunts the majority of my work. Intellectually I don’t consider myself religious, but emotionally I certainly do. There are things I cannot bring myself to believe but which I deeply feel. Again it’s that conflict of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The art I am the most deeply moved by is Christian art. After Yeats, there is no poet I love more than Hopkins. No place in the world I’ve been touches me as deeply as the Arena Chapel in Padua, that little space frescoed by Giotto. I’ve gone there twice, once with my son, which made it even more intense, and I hope I can go again before I’m done. The room containing Duccio’s Maestà at the Museum of the Duomo in Siena, which I’ve been to several times, is another place that affects me nearly as much as the Arena. And I could name a good many other places and works that are nearly too intense for me to stand before, such as many of the paintings of Stanley Spencer, whom I egotistically, I suppose, did my self-portrait after. And the music that is the most overwhelming and moving to me is nearly all Christian choral works: Elgar’s The Kingdom and The Apostles, Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi, the Parry/Elgar setting of Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient times,” Howard Goodall’s setting of John Henry Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light.” I can never listen to these without weeping, and I could name others. I cannot explain why I can’t intellectually accept what I can emotionally with ease. It obviously has to do with art’s own peculiar, illogical power over us, that art can stun us out of sense, yet the emotional reward is worth more than the sense ever was and may even hold a greater truth.
DW: Another characteristic of your work that could be called “religious” is its agonized, at times severe, response to human affliction. The third section of The Fictions of History is called “Jeremiad,” and, like its name suggests, the section contains both lamentation and invective. For example, your poem “Bright Blade: The Hatred of History,” which is dedicated to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, depicts riotous crowds clamoring to see executions. We see people burning horrifically at the stake, and we watch as terrified prisoners are carted toward the guillotine. The poem ends with the image of the blade rising, suggesting that the Reign of Terror, or at least its contemporary equivalent, is not finished. Another poem in this section, an untitled response to Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil,” suggests that, contrary to Arendt’s belief, there are those among us who simply love torture and suffering. The imagery in both poems is bleak, some might even say grisly. Can you say a little about the emotions behind these poems and why they contain such unflinching, difficult imagery?
JW: As I say in the introduction to David Conolly’s new translation of Cavafy’s poems accompanied by photographs by Dimitris Yeros, “The history of the world has never been the history of progress, as the 19th and 20th centuries would have us believe. The world’s history has been an unfortunate chronicle of waves of ignorance sweeping over us in cycles of human stupidity. Intolerance will, of course, return; it always has.” However, it’s not just intolerance that is so painful and angering. Intolerance is but another form of what in the poem “Mouth” I call “the meat wagon / of appetite and aggression”: the thumb screw, the electric chair, stoning, water boarding, and all the other forms of human cruelty we’ve never been able to rid ourselves of. They are always flourishing somewhere—even here—or in Guantanamo, which is the subject of my Easter poem based on the most grisly, your word is absolutely right, of Cranach’s three crucifixions. When we look at our history—and I’m not even speaking of our ancient history, just the past century’s—we want to ask what we know are stupid questions: Why doesn’t religion work? Why don’t people realize kindness is preferable to cruelty? Why do we let such awful things happen to others? The answer to all of them is because we are humans, the cruelest of all the animals and the very furthest from the angels. In the untitled poem you referred to, I say I don’t think we can do anything about our cruelty, that we can’t kill it out of us or love it out or educate it out or even breed it out “no matter how clever we turn / at learning the twisting ironies / of our snake-ribboned futures.” I grew up thinking that if not human perfectibility, at least improvement was possible. That belief shaped and still shapes my politics, which are leftist, progressive, and radical, but I don’t believe improvement lasts very long. It just can’t hold back those repeating tides of ignorance. And all this makes me angrier than anything else, and so it enters the poems. Until shortly before The Fictions of History went to the designer, the Jeremiad was the concluding section. But I decided it was altogether too bleak to end with, that I should end with the Exultation, whether in truth I felt exultant or not. You’ve known me for years, Daniel, and you know that I personally am a happy man, happy in all aspects of my life, especially my family, my brilliant and wonderful wife who has cared for me for forty years and my brilliant and wonderful son with his own beautiful family. I’m incredibly lucky, blest even, but those less lucky than I, particularly those who still are tortured by governments, including our own, and even under the current administration whose crusade against the good Julian Assange is deplorable, an administration in which I had such hopes, especially that American children could come home from their fathers’ and grandfathers’ interminable wars, haunt me constantly. But I’m not so egotistical or foolish as to think I could make less of a mess than others have. It’s just that one would think that surely together we all ought to be able to do so and do it in a way so as to make it last.
DW: In her recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, Susie Linfield laments the fact that in photography criticism, “you will hear precious little talk of love, or terrible nakedness, or passion’s pitch” because for photography critics, emotional response is “an enemy to be vigilantly guarded against.” She takes issue with the fact that critics see photography as “a duplicitous force to defang rather than an experience to embrace and engage.” And yet your own photography criticism couldn’t be more different than what Linfield describes. You treat photographs as works of art—works that, like all art forms, require emotional engagement in order to be understood. Of course, this also means that rather than being static historical artifacts, photographs can be dynamic and open to multiple interpretations just as literature can. In fact, as Editor of The Journal of Contemporary Photography you often commissioned criticism from other writers: poets, novelists, and dramatists, who, unlike you, have little or no background in photography. Can you say a little about your rather atypical approach to photography criticism? Does your work as a poet and literary scholar lead you to approach the discipline in this unique way?
JW: You are absolutely right: “all art forms require emotional engagement in order to be understood.” And I think the fact that I am also a poet and literary scholar significantly influenced my approach to writing about photography. Before Steven Albahari asked me to become the founding editor of The Journal of Contemporary Photography, I had already published several books on the history and aesthetics of early photography: three on the daguerreotype, one on the autochrome, the first color process, and one that principally dealt with fin-de-siècle photography, which looks very much like the paintings that were contemporary with it, especially Belgian Symbolist painting. And I had also co-written a book and co-curated an exhibition for the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum. So by the time I began The Journal I already had some well-founded prejudices: I wanted to avoid in most cases writing by photographic historians and critics, even though that is what I am; and I wanted work from writers I knew would be emotionally engaged with the art. Too much writing about all the arts today both avoids emotional engagement and intelligible prose. Some critics appear to think unintelligibility means profundity. Here is a passage from an essay that actually may end up in a book I was recently asked to review as an outside reader: “But _________ knows and claims the sources and influences of her work, going as far as to seek the philosophical mortise and tenon of Bataille, where it would lead me to reread rather Michel Onfray, because it transcends, or at least tries to appease and pacify the old dialectic of sex and terror, relegated to the ideological backstore of unsold accessories.” Muddled writing reflects muddled thinking. My preference is for passion and clarity in all things. Because photography is omnipresent in the world today and is today’s major art form, because everyone alive grew up with photography and most everyone even carries several photographs secreted away in wallets like tiny paper icons, I don’t believe one has to be trained in the history of photography to have original things to say about photography’s power, persuasion, and deceitfulness. I wanted The Journal to have the best possible writing on photography, and so I went to the best and smartest writers I knew for essays, short stories, and poetry about photography. The first issue opened with a poem by Richard Wilbur and closed with one by R. S. Thomas. In the six volumes of The Journal (it is no more and 21st Editions now only publishes books), I also published Edward Albee, Ann Beattie, Robert Olen Butler, Neil Connolly, Morri Creech, Annie Dillard, Scott Ely, Amy Fleury, Dana Gioia, Susan Ludvigson, Ann Patchett, Raúl Peschiera, John Stauffer, John Stilgoe, Frederick Turner, Michel Tournier, Daniel Westover, Edmund White, Paul Zimmer, and a great many other brilliant writers. And I didn’t have those writers doing what might necessarily be expected of them. Dana Gioia wrote on Jock Sturges in the context of Greek Classicism; Edward Albee wrote a poem on a photograph by photographer Dimitris Yeros of a naked boy covered with snails; Ann Patchett wrote an essay inspired by the work of Julio Pimentel, at that time a wonderful but unknown Brazilian photographer. It’s my belief, and it was constantly borne out, that any good writer can tell me amazing things I’d never even thought about within a field I know more of the factual history about than he or she does. That’s what’s amazing about photography. We all know it intimately and we can bring unique perceptions, memories, and fragments of ourselves to it. In addition to the work with 21st Edition, I’ve published books with a number of other US publishers, as well as with French, German, Dutch, Greek, and Norwegian presses. Even though The Journal is no longer published, Steven Albahari and I have continued publishing books, mainly poetry, Pindar, Blake, Baudelaire, Whitman, and so forth, but also contemporary poets—now over twenty volumes—combining poetry with work by the world’s leading contemporary photographers: Joel-Peter Witkin, Sally Mann, Eikoh Hosoe, Flor Garduño, Jerry Uelsmann, and others. I’ve edited all but one of the forty volumes we will have published by the end of this year and written the introductions for all but three of them. It’s been a wonderful experience for me getting to bring a love of literature and photography together and being in the position to publish some young contemporary poets whose work I found filled with passion and clarity.
DW: Working with younger poets was also an important part of your teaching career. You founded one of the oldest M.F.A programs in the country and directed it for twenty-five years. Now, of course, M.F.A. programs are everywhere, and Ph.D. programs with creative dissertations are becoming increasingly popular, largely as a response to a job market that favors the Ph.D. Debates about the culture, ethics, and ultimate usefulness of writing programs are common, but as someone who has been involved with creative writing programs almost from their inception, you have an uncommon perspective. What are your feelings about the current state of these programs, and what should their ultimate purpose be?
JW: I’m unhappy with a good many things that have happened in the world of academic creative writing in the thirty years since the founding of the McNeese MFA program—not that thirty years ago everything was wonderful. In 1967 there were 13 colleges and universities with creative writing programs. I went to the one at the University of Arkansas and had a very good experience. Now there are over 300 M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. programs in creative writing, as well as over 150 undergraduate degrees in creative writing. And I doubt that the experience at a great many of these is as rich as what I received over forty years ago. First of all, I think that an undergraduate degree in creative writing does a disservice to the student. Anyone who wants to be a writer needs to know as much about everything as is possible, and that can only come from a rich a study of the humanities. A young writer needs art history, music history, philosophy, the history of the world, the history of science, foreign languages, and as many of the classics of literature as possible. There must be a well-fertilized ground out of which the writing can grow, unless one is fortunate enough to be an Alexander Pope or a Rimbaud, but wunderkinder are extremely rare in poetry, unlike in music and mathematics. I’m also troubled by much that has happened in graduate creative writing programs. Graduate writing programs once were about the notion of a community of writers where one would go and study and write for several years under the tutelage of a writer who knew the craft, could teach it, and was expected to say something was “bad” when it was and show how it could be made better or “brilliant” when it was and why it was worthy of praise. Guest writers and editors were brought in each semester to meet with the students and give them individual conferences. Those conferences are becoming things of the past, and that is to the detriment of the students. I think it’s a waste of money to bring in writers if they are only going to give a reading, go to a party with the faculty, collect their checks, and go home. That’s of no more value to the student than watching a video of someone give a reading. And I am completely unimpressed by ads for programs that list some twenty faculty members. What if Raphael had had twenty teachers instead of simply Perugino? The director of a large program I won’t identify was complaining to me how bad he thought it was for the students to have him in workshop one semester, then the next semester with a colleague who was his antithesis, and the next with another with another hobby horse. But “writing” has become a big business, and colleges know they can make money with it if they can attract a lot of students, and so a long list of “the writing faculty” can bring them in. Programs and mediocrity have both proliferated. And as we all know, there are now even “low residency” programs. Would you care to go to a brain surgeon who had gone to a “low residency” medical school? Would you take financial advice from someone who had a “low residency” MBA? Would you trust the expertise of anyone claiming to be a professional who had gotten her or his training from a “low residency” program? Nothing I am saying is meant to disparage any writer teaching in a low residency program. In fact, one of the best poets I know teaches in one, but the very design of such programs works against what the writing student needs—real access, that is, weekly non-email, face to face time with their mentors, the kind of access to their teachers that they would have in a traditional MFA program. And the Ph.D. in creative writing is just a bastardization. I discourage every student who asks me to avoid them and to get a real Ph.D. Some people say that an academic Ph.D. program will hamper one’s writing. That’s a myth of failed poets and disgruntled academics. If you want to make poems, working on a Ph.D. won’t hamper it at all. It will, in fact, enhance the possibility, I would argue, because you will be exposed to so much more literature. I don’t think other literature triggers poems—or at least it shouldn’t, otherwise we become self-referential, academic, obscure, and so forth. But literature is drawn from life, and reading as much as possible is the way to get more life than we are exposed to in our own small existences. And, of course, I should say that one doesn’t need the MFA to become a fine poet. But a good M.F.A program can save you at least a couple years of work by directing your reading, exposing you to work you might not have found on your own, and teaching you the fundamentals of the craft.
DW: Your own, lifelong study of the humanities is evident throughout both your poetry and your critical writings, but it seems to me that in the later work, and perhaps in The Fictions of History most of all, you reference literature, music, painting, sculpture, and philosophy even more directly. You have previously written poems inspired by art, but the poems I have in mind are less like meditations than conversations. One might call them humanistic dialogues. In fact, The Fictions of History concludes with two such poems, “Beauty and Goodness” and “Korē.” These poems confront specific works of art (the Greek Kouros and Korē, the Jain Tirthankara) and see them as testaments to human need and desire. You suggest that beyond—or perhaps beneath—the fractured histories we tell ourselves lies what ultimately connects us: a “human dream / invoking [its] insatiable demands.” Can art, by taking and expressing the shapes of human yearning, see through, even combat history’s fictions? Or is art, like every other human creation, susceptible to becoming part of those fictions?
JW: Thanks very much, Daniel, for your generous words—and for this excellent but difficult question. It is sad to say, but anything good, true, and beautiful, including art, can be twisted into the service of the evil, the false, and the ugly. That has happened to religion again and again. Consider the Crusades, Christianity’s ugliest and most brutal moment, a series of events that in the scope of their horror were certainly equal to some of the worst things people did to other people in the 20th century. The Church and certainly the State have let us down again and again, and even art has been conscripted into the service of the despicable. Dafydd Wood, my son, has written at length on how German, Italian, and French fascism in the past century appropriated Classicism and used it to further its aims. But if I should have to choose the least harmful faith for swearing an allegiance to, it would be Art over Church or State. I think that art comes closest to doing what tolerant religions and governments promise or should promise, that is, to universally embrace us all in the loving brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, regardless of whether humanity has always been loving or not! All religions, even the religion of art, is about striving for perfectibility. Newman said, “To live is to change, and to grow perfect is to have changed often.” There is nothing like art for making us see and realize that we are all one and that we share the same spirit. And so, to answer the other part of your question, I’d certainly argue that art can by taking and expressing the shapes of our universal human yearnings, see through and definitely combat history’s fictions. There are cultural nihilists who argue that we are bound to our own culture and time, that the culture we were born into is a destiny we can’t escape. But art is the very thing that has always allowed us escape—to leap centuries, languages, cultures, and prejudices. It is the fount at which we can all drink and feel the same intoxication. If this weren’t the case, why would the whole world, not just a single cultural segment, appreciate the beauties of Li Bo, Shakespeare, the poems of the Bushmen; cave paintings, Rimpa paintings, the Impressionists; Shang, Benin, and Rodin bronzes; the music of harps, kotos, sitars, gamelans, and pianos; the films of Bergman, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray; the Coen brothers, and on and on. Art and its content, which have slight cultural variations as lovely as the slight cultural variations in human faces, is a universal that is less susceptible than other faiths, or so I think, to the fictions of history and their ingratiating dangers.
John Wood received the 2009 Gold Deutscher Fotobuchpreis for Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century. He is the only poet to win the Iowa Poetry Prize twice, first for In Primary Light (1993) and second for The Gates of the Elect Kingdom (1996). His Selected Poems 1968-1998 was published by University of Arkansas Press in 1999, and his new collection of poems, The Fictions of History, is available from 21st Editions (www.21steditions.com). Wood is also a leading art and photography critic whose books have won many awards. He co-curated the 1995 Smithsonian Institution/American Art Museum exhibition “Secrets of the Dark Chamber.” He is Professor Emeritus of English literature and photographic history at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he directed the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing for over twenty-five years. He and his wife Carol now live in Saxtons River, Vermont.
Daniel Westover is a writer and critic whose research focuses on the English-language poetry of Wales. He is the author of Toward Omega, part of 21st Edition’s Silver Series (www.21steditions.com), a book that features photographs by Vincent Serbin. He is also author of R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011) and co-editor of a recent issue of Literature and Belief, dedicated to the work of Leslie Norris. Daniel earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wales and an M.F.A. in creative writing from McNeese State University. His work has appeared in North American Review, Southeast Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Measure, Crab Orchard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife Mary and their two daughters in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he is Assistant Professor of Modern British literature at East Tennessee State University.