Ex-Obie Wright Talks Poetry
A 1977 graduate of Oberlin, Franz Wright has
published five full-length collections of poetry, as well as translations
of Rainer Maria Rilke, René Char and Erica Pedretti. He has received
two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship,
a Whiting Fellowship, the Witter Bynner Award from the American Academy
of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. His latest
collection, The Beforelife,
(photo by Elizabet Oehlkers Wright)
confronts the terror of addiction, finally
revealing a hard-won triumph over fear and speechlessness. He will read
from these poems on Monday at 4:45 p.m. in King 106. Staff writer Tim
Willcutts interviewed Wright via e-mail between September and March.
Tim Willcutts: How important was Oberlin to your development as a writer?
Franz Wright: Oberlin — the town itself as well as the College — was
of the first importance to me, both as a young writer and as a person.
I grew up in northern California with an abusive stepfather and was
pretty screwed up, pretty badly in need of the safety and sense of acceptance
I immediately found there in the persons of David Young, Stuart Friebert
and my beloved religion professor, Thomas Frank. And though I had never
spent any real time in Ohio, my arrival there in January 1972 was a
homecoming of sorts, a spiritual homecoming to me, as my parents were
born there, in the southern part of the state. I loved the town of Oberlin
immediately and frankly never wanted to leave. It was an intensely exciting
place to be in the 1970s — and of course, Field was published there,
and it is difficult to convey how important the magazine was to poets
all over the place, at that time. I still think of that time as the
single happiest time of my life. And I still believe that if I had stayed
in California I would have either gone crazy or become some sort of
latter day beat poet, or both. Honestly, Oberlin saved my life — and
I mean that quite literally, I don’t mean just my life as a horribly
fragile and insecure poet.
TW: Many of your poems deal with conditions of overwhelming fear and
loneliness. One of the distinguishing characteristics of your poetry,
I find, is its refusal to suggest any relief from suffering, any way
out. Its vision is not compromised by hope and is thereby more lucid,
almost objective. Would you say one of your ambitions has been to describe
suffering more honestly than others have in the past?
FW: My impulse, my desire for many years — unconscious at first I suppose,
but with growing deliberateness — was to write something so completely
personal that it crossed over finally into a kind of universality, but
that is just a technical way of saying my wish was to write something
which spoke for some other person who had gone through some things I
went through (abuse as a child, mental illness and alcoholism, for example,
or all sorts of other afflictions) but was not equipped to describe
them himself. So to put it somewhat melodramatically, the poems sometimes
came out of a desire to speak for the silenced; for those who had not
undergone some recognizable form of affliction like war, say, but an
invisible suffering, a suffering for which they could receive no credit
or sympathy from others, on the contrary, one which has the effect of
making them loathsome to others. The objectivity you mention, in terms
of poetic technique, came perhaps out of this desire to speak for others
— to say what someone else, silenced by his affliction, was going through.
TW: In “To the Poet,” you describe the poet as a surgeon who must “locate
the source of the horror, and start to heal.” Do you believe poetry
can be a healing force? How so?
FW: Certainly poetry can be a healing force, the serious reading as
well as the writing of it (and I believe the ability to read poems successfully
is as much a “gift” and a spiritual discipline as the ability to write
them and maybe a more desirable one, since it’s clear trying to write
them can drive people crazy). The problem is, as you put it, how so?
It might involve the fact that the poem articulates, in a clear and
beautiful and somehow startling (or awakening) way, something everyone
— including the poet — has always felt but never found the words for.
Making a good poem, a poem that “works,” that is, takes on a life of
its own separate from its maker and clearly transcends mere self-expression,
involves a sensation of gratitude and awe which I personally find difficult
to distinguish from love. In my experience, the writing (I prefer to
say the hearing) of a successful poem always involves the sensation
of having been its instrument or medium — it always strikes me as something
far more intelligent and, somehow, radiantly encompassing than my mind
is normally capable of coming up with. There is a power in poetry that
sets it apart from the normal prose of our thoughts. I discovered this
for myself when I was about 15, the way a poem that came to me, even
an individual line, was something I could carry around invisibly and
silently repeat to myself — like the name of a girl I was in love with,
corny as that sounds, because when I did so nothing could make me unhappy.
TW: There is a sense throughout The Beforelife of a triumph over silence.
You refer several times to a long period of speechlessness that preceded
the writing of these poems. How did you escape that speechlessness?
How did you write The Beforelife?
FW: Supernatural intervention — quite literally, a miracle occurred.
From one day to the next — from one hour to the next actually.
TW: In “Nothingsville, MN,” you point out “The infinite / Sadness you
dread / And need so much of / For some reason.” Do you feel there’s
a beauty unique to suffering? A beauty we need from time to time?
FW: I believe life is (as the Buddha, the Awakened One, pointed out)
suffering. There is a jubilant liberty, too, in experiencing the reality
of Kierkegaard’s observation that suffering is the characteristic of
God’s love. In refusing to give up, until one reaches a point where
one assents to the simultaneous terribleness and glory of being here
at all. It is a privilege to suffer, the alternative is not getting
to be here.
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