Interview with Diane Wakoski

Interview with Diane Wakoski by Seretta Martin

On the back cover of Diane Wakoski’s newest book: Bay of Angels, she leans on a table stacked with poker chips. The logo on her denim shirt reads: Las Vegas. Bangles circle her wrist. From her grin we assume she must be winning. She writes: “…gambling and love are two reasons for excitement, two activities that teach us about ourselves, and two misunderstood human diversions…”

This photo shows us a moment in the life of a wise and witty poet and professor who has given us more than twenty collections of poems since her first book, Coins & Coffins (Hawk’s Well Press, 1962) Her selected poems, Emeralds Ice, won the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Society of America in 1989. She served as Poet in Residence at Michigan State University from 1975 until recently when she retired as a University Distinguished Professor. Born in Southern California, Diane was educated at UC Berkeley and began her poetry and teaching career in New York City.

My interview with Diane began a year ago June, prior to the Idyllwild Poetry Week in July where she appeared as a featured poet with Matthew Dickman. Here we are approaching June again. I’ve been savoring the process, but it’s time to share it with you.

Seretta: June seems to be a month that has conspired to take me away from my office and getting back to you about the interview. Everything had been put on hold as I finished my last semester and graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from SDSU. Ilya Kaminsky is such a dear man and gave me a hug at the graduation ceremonies. 

Diane: Yes, June’s a seductive month, slipping its tongue in long, long kisses and holding us mesmerized to summer’s opening.  But I’ve sent his sexy butt out to look for poetry and leave me alone for a while so that I can talk, answer questions, and take care of business (an Elvis phrase).  Here goes.

Seretta: Do you think of yourself in terms of “Deep Image, Confessional and Beat poetry,” or are those labels that critics tagged you with? How would you describe the group that best fits you now?

Diane: How I wish that when I was young and hanging out with Jerry Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, David Antin, my first book published by their Hawk’s Well Press, that I had been aware of the fact that Jerry was describing not only himself and his personal aesthetics as deep image, but that he meant it to describe what I was doing as well.  It’s not that it never occurred to me, but I think in those days we all were sort of territorial and felt that each one of us would define his/her own poetry.  I say I wish I had had that awareness then because it would have made me feel less isolated and given me a public identity, other than generic poet.  Or worse (to me, then, because it seemed confining) “woman poet.”

I am always surprised when people think I might be thought of as a Beat Poet, simply because of history. In 1955 when “Howl” was published, I was just graduating from high school in Southern California.  I didn’t go to UC Berkeley until fall of 1956, and I wasn’t yet a published poet when the Beats were raging in San Francisco.  As an undergrad at Berkeley I was much more interested in the so-called “San Francisco Renaissance” poets — Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, William Everson, etc.  Though I am only a decade younger than most of the Beat Poets, I wasn’t really in their world at all.

In fact, another historical distortion I keep coming across is the idea that there WERE any women Beat Poets.  Not.  The Beats were the kind of men the sexual revolution was all about: to them women were for sex and other domesticities.

The women who are mentioned often as Beat Poets are Joanne Kyger, who was Gary Snyder’s wife (and nobody thought she was a poet then) and Diane Di Prima, whose poetics are Beat aesthetics, but she was at that time a New York poet, her connection was LeRoi Jones a.k.a. Baraka.  I suppose it is easy to let yourself be subsumed historically as part of a movement, but whatever Kyger or DiPrima say about themselves, I at least can tell you honestly that Diane Wakoski was NOT a Beat Poet.

It’s easier, aesthetically, to mistake me for a Confessional Poet because of my personal style of writing.  Whereas the Beats subject matter was drugs and politics (two subjects which bore me and which I almost never mention or have any connection with), the Confessionals’ subject matter was self-identity, love, anger, failed relationships, and how to survive punishing secrets.  Pretty much my subjects.  Except, history again.  Schools of poetry almost always have some geographical connection between their members.  The Beats = San Francisco. The Confessionals = New England, especially Massachusetts.  The Confessionals also had another important geographic connection (we are talking Plath, Sexton, Lowell).  They all went to the same rich people’s mental institution for rehab.  They also were a generation or two older than I, who was poor and thus never had fancy treatment for whatever anguishes I faced.  My poetry, well it isn’t confessional because to confess means 1) to tell a priest your sins, 2) to tell a policeman your crimes, or 3) to tell a shrink the things you are ashamed of.  I never talk about anything I consider a sin, a crime, or actually anything I am ashamed of.  Not Confessional.

If, early on, there had been a publicly identified group of poets called Deep Imagists, instead of a rather obscure essay by Jerry Rothenberg defining Deep Image, I think we all could have had more visible, historical careers, as did the Beats, the Confessionals, The New York School, Black Mountain poets, etc.  Only in recent years have people identified Rothenberg, Antin, Kelly, etc. as such, and it’s nice, but too late.  I suppose I shouldn’t say anything is too late for history.  This is a time of revisionism, after all.  So, yes I am a Deep Imagist, but nobody knew it when I was young.

I got famous because of the Women’s Movement, even though I told everyone I wasn’t a feminist.  Not out of sympathy but to be accurate — after all I am a poet.  Feminist is a political term.  I am not political.  I don’t write about the political aspects of being a woman.  I don’t even write FOR women.  I write AS a woman.  Glad to be one.  See what I mean, NOT a Feminist. Whew!

Seretta: Thanks for the interesting reflections on history and your place in it. What are your most significant poetic influences?

Diane: I think it would be fair to say that Robinson Jeffers has been one of my greatest influences.  But I also wouldn’t write the way I do without having read Garcia Lorca, or Galway Kinnell, Robert Creeley or Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara, and the novels of D.H. Lawrence.

Seretta: Does writing allow you to have moments of understanding?

Diane: I think one of the reasons I became a poet is that I have always had what you might call “moments of understanding.”  They have burst out of me since I was able to articulate my thoughts and ideas.  I wrote my first poem when I was seven precisely because I was trying to articulate why something (a rose bush) was so beautiful to me.

As I previously said, I am not a political person, so I think idealistically and practically.  I recently, on DVD, watched all the seasons of a TV show I had never seen, “West Wing,” and found myself loving it.  When I finished all the seasons, longing for more, I realized that IF it were possible to have people who were that intelligent and well-educated, people who were that idealistic and willing to constantly dialogue and fight for truth, freedom, etc. I would be interested in politics.  I loved the show because it was a fantasy.

Frankly, I don’t think the future of this country is any different from the past.  Try not to get outraged.  That’s just the way a non-political person thinks.  I am a citizen, I vote, I have opinions, and I do think it is better to have Obama as president than Romney, but to me great art is about people and ideals.  There’s probably no room for politics in art.

I love the quotation from Philip Levine that you posted at the end of your email:

” -Poetry will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it’s the home of the extraordinary, the only home.”

My own version of it would read:

“-poetry is not political (politics is public action) and thus it will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the personal, my ordinary, which becomes your extraordinary, and gives us both a reason to survive.”   Diane Wakoski

Seretta: Diane, I love your spin-off quote. Now, In terms of the craft of poetry — do you often revise your poems, and is there a method or procedure you use?  Can this occur over a period of time, and would you ever revise poems that have already been published?

Diane: For years, I felt a kind of confidence in writing with very little editing.  Perhaps changing a word here or there, perhaps a line break.  But, in general, I felt that my poems arrived fully formed.  In fact, I was rather proud of that.  I soon realized, as people began to ask questions about my processes that while it was rather unusual to trust first drafts and, more or less, to reject revising, my writing process contained two steps that very few other writers shared.

Firstly, I never jotted ideas down, never kept journals, never had a pad by my bedside so that I could wake up and capture my ideas on paper.  I felt that unless an idea or image stayed with me for a long while, unless I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and during that time thinking through it many times, I didn’t really believe it was material worthy of poetry.  Thus, when I did finally sit down to write a poem, I had digested my material, and I was ready with the whole poem — more or less.

The second practice of mine, which made me trust my first drafts, was that I read everything aloud, as I was writing it, stopping and rereading before I would write the next few lines or stanzas, backtracking and rereading, rereading as I wrote.  This process gave the working of my poem a finished texture.

I acknowledge now that one of the reasons I did not revise was that I didn’t really have any concept of that art.

Seretta: What happened?  How?  Why did you change?

Diane: I started teaching poetry writing workshops.  One of the problems presented to the instructor is, after critiquing a student’s poem, to find ways to help the student rewrite it without putting words in the young poet’s mouth.  The first and most important technique I perfected was one I learned in writing essays, where I would constantly rearrange material so that it flowed better, or had more meaning because the sequence was more understandable or even to detect what materials, which might be interesting, might also not be relevant to the whole structure of the essay.  Just seeing how I could edit a perhaps ghastly student poem into an acceptable poem by rearranging the material and then cutting what didn’t fit in was a revelation to me of what I could be doing to my own poems.

Seretta: So, by teaching poetry, you came to a realization about editing your own poetry. That’s what is magical about teaching – the teacher learns too!

Diane: Once I had learned this, I suddenly realized that material I had for years rejected was un-useable because I hadn’t completely digested it before I put it on paper. I could write whatever I felt like writing and LATER figure out how to edit it into a poem, or hopefully a good poem.

Seretta: Tell me more about the rearranging, the “trope,” and what you think is essential during the revision of a poem.

Diane: Cutting and rearranging are the base of the pyramid for composition, prose or poetry, but there is a more important skill connected to poetry.  It’s one I took for granted when I was young and even when I was initially teaching poetry workshops.  Talking about the “trope” or the metaphorical umbrella shaping a poem seemed to go without saying.  Yet, perhaps in our free verse culture it had gone without saying for so long that people were forgetting that the primary difference between poetry and prose is that all writing can use figurative language such as metaphor, image, trope, etc., but poetry MUST use it.  And especially since we no longer have the traditional prosody of metrical lines and their lengths demarcated by end-rhyme and/or stanza patterns, the shaping trope of a poem may be the only thing that separates it from prose.

Once I started requiring students to think about the figurative structure that shaped a poem, then another concept became evident:  the revelation at the end of the poem that is earned by fulfilling the trope.  Again, these surprise or revelatory endings to poems are one of their distinguishing features.  Poems don’t close, at the end; they open.  And of course when I started the absolutely joyful process of analyzing the way my trope was functioning, or where it was breaking down, or not fulfilling itself with revelation, then I realized that there was some problem-solving material every poet could access.  That revising didn’t just mean tinkering with a good-sounding word or finding exact meanings (not to say that those are important activities), or that just rearranging the material (again, not to say that might not be important, but rearranged for what ??? reason???). Revising truly meant re-seeing the poem with x-ray eyes to see its skeleton, which was some kind of trope that needed to be worked out all the way through the poem.  Lordy, Lordy, as my mother would say. I found god.

Seretta: And now?

Diane: Now, revising is an everyday part of my writing and teaching life.  I believe that revising can be as exciting as writing the first draft always has been to me.  I still occasionally write poems that I think work as well as they could in first draft.  They usually work for the same reason they used to:  I have walked around with the idea in my head for some time and digested it completely before I wrote it out.  But I don’t expect that any more.  It amuses me that I intuitively knew what I did to write the successful poems I did when I was young.  It amuses me mightily that I had to learn to critique my processes so that I could continue to do it successfully so that I could grow and become the poet I am now.

Seretta: Well, since I was privileged to have your critique of a few of my poems I can say that I am a believer in the editing process that you have just described. Your students were fortunate to have you. Thank you for sharing all this with us.

Seretta Martin is a Philip Levine finalist (2012), an author of  Foreign Dust Familiar Rain. Her forthcoming book will be out in 2014. She is published in Web del Sol, Serving House, Margie, Modern Haiku, City Works, Poetry International, others. She is a contributing editor at Synesthesia Journal,  CPITS 50th Lesson book, Blue VorTEXT, San Diego Poetry Annual. She teaches at SDWInk, libraries, museums and schools. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University.

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