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Tryst Interviews David Wevill: Part II

*Part I of David's feature can be read in Issue 20: http://www.tryst3.com/issue20/wevill1.html | http://www.tryst3.com/issue20/wevill2.html

Mia: The prose poem in your book, WHERE THE ARROW FALLS, what are these natural images and can you give us a few examples? I quote: By natural metaphors I mean, those which are necessarily part of the world, not those which we have added for our convenience as ways of saying, 'I am'.

David: That's a long-ago piece. I think what I meant was, we strain after a kind of exaggerated and hybrid imagery and ignore the earth under our feet. A kind of human-centered subjectivity. I think this view is a bit puristic now, in long retrospect, but felt that way at the time. I did feel connected to the natural world, rather than models of the natural world, then.

Mia: With regards to the above, is McLuhan-man referring to Marshall McLuhan? How did he end up in your poem and what is the significance of his presence?

David: I respect McLuhan for his thought. But I think that became a kind of cult, as such things do ("the medium is the message", etc) and an excuse for further abstraction. The harder job is to try and see what is really there.

Mia: I’ve been following your poetry since the 80s so that I shall never be ‘finished’ reading a book of yours. I go back periodically to see if I can gain, not necessarily a better understanding, but another perspective. For instance, your prose sketches in CASUAL TIES have mystified, baffled and tormented me for over two decades. I love this line from the poem, “The City of God”:

Your dreams are the landlocked onion domes of a city you never visited.

There are times when I feel like I’m experiencing a controlled madness. It’s kind of claustrophobic and liberating at the same time. Your poems often push the reader toward the edge, and as a reader, I sometimes feel myself pushing back.

I don’t see myself as a dumb reader by any means but there are some poems—the more symbolic ones, or ones that rely heavily on allusions—without context, I cannot enter try as I might. And there are some poems that open up to me with successive readings—sometimes many years later.

I’m not for sure where I’m going with this question, but do you think some poetry (e.g., Pound’s Cantos) is meant to be out of the reach of the average reader? Would you then recommend that aspiring poets read all the great epic poems: e.g., Beowulf, The Aenid, The Iliad and the Odyssey, Metamorphoses…etc as a frame of reference?

David: I think poets, such as Pound, were writing in a still classical age, for readers with a different kind of education, erudition. I'd recommend young writers read all they can, without getting bogged down. Important to work out a kind of personal 'ancestry' , family, find kinships among writers, texts, and ideas, both past and present. I don't intend my poems to be difficult, but there are tracks I feel I must follow, for better or worse!

Mia: Who is your target audience?

David: Someone like you, someone like me. I'm not very good at hitting targets, but I hope that if I can get the poem out of myself it might have a chance of reaching someone else, somewhere -- if not immediately, then, as you say, years from now. The passage of time can resolve things.

Mia: Your writing has changed dramatically several times in the course of your life. I think that’s a natural course for any writer. In your book, CHILD EATING SNOW, the poems have become more grounded, framed within a narrative style. In SOLO WITH GRAZING DEER, the poems are more reflective and personal—close to autobiographical. I will further discuss those two books in your next feature. What were the most satisfying and prolific writing times in your life? What events, places, memories prompted those writing phases?

David: I tend to write in bursts not necessarily connected to any special period in my life. When my children were young that meant a lot. Close personal relationships, love, that too. Coming to the States did a lot for me, and when I feel connected to a landscape, past or new. I wrote more when I was younger, and more fully I think.

Mia: I miss some of your earlier writing—it was veracious, feral and carnal, plaintive and playful, isolated and removed but never without musicality. However, I’m just as intrigued by one of your newest books *ASTERISKS.

What’s happening with your writing lately? Are you content with where it’s going or where it’s arriving? Is it a reflection of your place in life now or your past?

David: I was young then, and, as I said, writing more fully, with a fuller voice -- trying things on, building a language, exaggerating sometimes. I guess I was reaching out more, reaching for things beyond me, and the language shows that. Older now, the poems are more spare, as the bones start to show through! Abstract in the sense they're not as fully fleshed. Recently, I've experienced a lot of silence.

Mia: Several recurring themes appear in your poetry: Orpheus, Christ, Snakes, Shark. Germinal makes two entrances in BIRTH OF A SHARK and in OTHER NAMES FOR THE HEART. I find these themes curious because they’re not as archetypal as they’re personal—in other words, I feel they mean something to you rather than using them as the means for poetic device.

David: There are recurring themes as you say. Personal, I think, but having their roots in myth and archetype. Orpheus fascinates me, our great prototype who never was, whose songs therefore are unknown, but to whom all of us impossibly aspire in every poem! Christ I take as a tragic figure (I was raised christian but fell away long ago). I connect germination with fruitfulness, and am terrified of meeting a shark. There are deep themes that one drags along with one, that don't vanish, but might get overlaid by time and experience, other concerns.

Mia: What is translating poetry like for you? I’ve translated some fiction from French to English and a poem or two. It was very challenging choosing one word over another, and the results were nowhere as good as the original though I tried to remain faithful to the poet’s voice, I kept hearing my own voice—it was unsettling.

David: I wish I could help more here. I'm not a linguist, and most of my translating (there's really not much) was done with the help of native speakers. Especially the Hungarian Juhasz, which was commissioned by Penguin long ago. San Juan's The Dark Night is almost more a version than a translation -- impossible to capture the rich Renaissance Spanish and formality and make a readable modern poem. Yes, important to try for the original voice, though one's own does get in there. Octavio Paz says somewhere that translating is "to penetrate the vision of another" –not an easy thing, but important.

Mia: Now that you’re a professor emeritus, are you able to take on private students, graduates, post-doctoral, fellowships? Do you miss teaching?

Davd: I miss and don't miss teaching. At the moment they've got me back teaching a small undergraduate workshop (like the one we had), and I have taken on a few graduate students for the Michener Center. It's good to keep engaged to some degree – the walls can't talk very well, though they seem to listen!


Copyright © 2011 David Wevill

Canadian poet and translator, Wevill first made a name for himself as a poet when he was included in A. Alvarez's anthology THE NEW POETRY (Penguin, 1962). In 1963 Wevill was showcased in A GROUP ANTHOLOGY (Oxford University Press). Wevill's published works include, but not limited to: PENGUIN MODERN POETS (Penguin, 1963);BIRTH OF A SHARK (Macmillan, 1964); A CHRIST OF THE ICE-FLOES (Macmillan, 1966); FIREBREAK (Macmillan, 1971); WHERE THE ARROW FALLS (St. Martin's, 1974); CASUAL TIES (Curbstone, 1983); OTHER NAMES FOR THE HEART (Exile Editions Ltd., 1985); FIGURE OF 8 (Shearsman, 1988); CHILD EATING SNOW (Exile Editions Ltd., 1994);SOLO WITH GRAZING DEER (Exile Editions Ltd., 2001); DEPARTURES (Shearsman, 2003); ASTERISKS (Exile Editions Ltd., 2007); and TO BUILD MY SHADOW A FIRE (Truman State University Press, 2010).

Wevill is also the former editor of Delos, a literary journal centered on poetry in translation and the poetics of translation. He is a professor emeritus in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin where he taught for 37 years. He has four children and six grandchildren.