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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