Interview With Franz Wright

“There Will Be No Great Poets Without Great Readers”
[Published in PLAYBACK:stl, May 2004; Photograph by Karen M. Peluso]

Remember January? It was in that month, and in these pages, when I presented “7 from 75,” a list of book recommendations to start off the new year. Of the 7th of these, Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (Knopf), I wrote the following: “Wright’s poems are brief bursts of light and humor and pain and passion. Whether writing of the apple tree outside his window, or the ‘kindersluts smoking and giggling’ on Broadway, Wright’s continual intoxication is ‘the / tall blue starry / strangeness of being / here at all.’ I know of no other current writer who can sit in a room, string together three lines on a piece of paper, and create in me stadiums of feeling.”

And not just me. Last month Wright, 51, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for that very book. Readers of a few resulting newspaper profiles would learn of Wright’s past—his hard-drinking, Pulitzer-winning poet-father; his manic-depression; his drug and alcohol addiction; his institutionalizations; and, most recently, his baptism into the Catholic Church and entrance into marriage. Readers of Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, or 2001’s The Beforelife (Knopf), will not find this news. That past is burned into his books’ pages: childhood fear; searing regret; dead-serious self-deprecation; a moment’s grace, peace, or certainty.

I was thrilled when I read that Franz Wright had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. When I learned that he would answer questions about his life and work for Playback’s readers, I was thrilled and moved once more. Mr. Wright wrote to me via email early in the morning on Friday, April 16, from the University of Arkansas, where he is spending a semester teaching. The job was to provide a little extra money, so that he and his wife, who is waiting for him back in Waltham, Mass., can afford to move into a bigger apartment. It will be well-deserved. -~ Stephen Schenkenberg

SS: Congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which I believe is your 16th book of poetry. Can you touch at all on your first publishing experiences, whether in journals or your earliest books? What was it like to begin seeing your poems in print?

FW: I published my first poems in Field (still one of the most highly regarded journals of contemporary poetry and poetics in the country) and my first small collection of poems with Triskelion Press, both edited by my revered teacher and friend David Young, while I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College. I don’t think I can convey how much these events meant to me at the time, just seeing my name in print alongside the names of older established poets I admired so much—that was a staggering and humbling experience, a real breakthrough, for a kid who’d been working on poems very hard every day since the age of 14 with a lot of intensity and ambition but no particular hope of success or any very real indication of talent.

SS: I first began reading your poems in The New Yorker’s pages, as I suspect is the case with a few other readers. How did you come to publish regularly in such a high-circulation magazine? Did it have any noticeable effect on the size of your audience?

FW: Though I had published some poems in The New Yorker a few times over the years, I was in my mid-forties before my work began to appear there with any noticeable frequency, and I’m very grateful to the editors there (as I am to my uncannily gifted editor at Knopf, Deborah Garrison) for all the help they have given me with suggestions and revisions. They have helped me survive financially, and yes, of course, appearing in those pages has brought my work to the attention of a larger audience.

SS: There are several phrases in your poems that will remain intact in my mind for many years. For instance, in “Year One,” you describe winter clouds as “the color of the desperation of wolves.” That’s a phrase I’ll literally never forget, and one that appears at first surprising, then perfect and whole. In terms of your writing process, do phrases and lines sometimes present themselves whole to you, or do you spend a lot time of in the editing phase, swapping words in and out?

FW: Both things take place. I keep many notebooks and I suppose they are filled with lines and phrases that have occurred to me seemingly out of nowhere, but it would be more accurate to say they represent the sudden crystallization or verbal equivalents of hidden and seemingly inexpressible preoccupations—very rarely, however, do whole poems occur like this. I sometimes find myself using lines I have had floating around in notebooks for years or even decades. And I often spend years revising individual poems.

SS: Your father, James Wright, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1972. Is there one especially important lesson you learned from him, both as a poet and a father?

FW: The most important advice my father ever gave me was to abandon the idea of writing a finished poem and to simply keep faith, as he put it, with the notebooks and try, every day, to listen very carefully and write a single clear line—eventually, he contended, the poems would develop and in a sense, in a single fortunate moment, write themselves, and I have often found this to be the case.

SS: You’re currently spending the semester teaching at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. How are you finding current students’ reception to poetry, particularly the unique demands it makes on both writer and reader?

FW: I have some incredibly talented and courageous writing students at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville this semester, though I often wonder how they will survive in a culture that is fairly indifferent to the art of poetry. I am certain this very worry, on my account, must have caused my father much anguish, an anguish I am only now beginning to appreciate.

SS: If this award brings with it the chance to promote other artists or artworks you feel passionate about, which artists or artworks might those be?

FW: There are so many great poets in this country—and to consider the list of great poets, present and past, who have not received this award (here are a few that come immediately to mind: Hart Crane, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Bly, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Olga Broumas…it would be very easy to go on and on) is to remember that prizes (while highly agreeable to the recipient, and let me say right now I do not intend to give mine back!) are not an especially good indication of anything. Devoted and discerning readers with a genuine love of poetry will find, in this country, an astonishing wealth of wonderful poetry being written and freely offered—it is one of the finest things about the United States, though I’m afraid far too few people have the skill, patience or the opportunity to benefit from it. I am always haunted by Walt Whitman’s remark to the effect that there will be no great poets without great readers. And there is, of course, a considerable audience for all this and always has been—there is a longing for poetry that can never be eradicated by the more glaring, consumer-oriented forms of popular culture; that’s pretty obvious.