I took two poetry writing workshops with David Wagoner at the University of Washington, the first time as a non-matriculating post-baccalaureate. That's right: non-matriculating. I had heard that sometimes David let people into his classes without actually being enrolled at the U, and so I sent him a few poems and asked him if I might sit in on his graduate poetry workshop.
I'd been studying poetry writing for about five years, which meant I was just barely beginning to figure things out. On the first day of that first class, we were all seated at a long rectangular seminar table, waiting for David to walk in. When he did, he was wearing a bright purple turtleneck and carrying what looked like a thousand submissions to Poetry Northwest in several giant manila envelopes. He was up to his ears in poems, or so it appeared. He wore a faded jean jacket. I marveled at his thick head of hair and the youthful look of his face; he was, after all, as old as my father, who at that moment seemed much older than this man now sitting to my left.
It was a painful ten weeks, mainly because, as David repeatedly pointed out, I didn't know how to write poems in a consistent meter.
"Here you've got an iambic line, but it's followed by a ballad line. And what's this next line? It's trochaic tetrameter. Martha Silano: What are you doing?!"
There were times I wanted to cry, was about to cry, so I started to laugh. It was the only way to keep from further shaming myself.
I was a pitifully bad poet, but I knew I wasn't going to stop writing poetry, so I dug my heels in and got down to business with figuring out this thing called metrics.
I began by counting stresses in a line. I did my best to keep it to around five stressed syllables, then I'd break and start it over on the next line. In this way I was finally able to break through my tone deafness and begin to make a kind of music with my words.
It was poetry boot camp, all right, but I had no choice (I'd tried to stop writing before, and it had only made me depressed with purposelessness).
I was stuck with having to go through the process of figuring out how to do what David had asked: to listen, to make music, to capture my audience through their hearts (through the rhythm of my poems), rather than through their brains.
To this day I am certain that had I not barged in on David's poetry class in the winter of 1991, I never would have learned to emit anything close to a joyful noise. I'd still be putting ballad lines next to iambic lines next to trochees, and wondering why I couldn't get anyone interested in my work.
I needed a teacher to be frank with me, even if it meant laughing to hide my tears. A teacher who could get angry with the way we mangled the English language. Someone who reminded us that we had the burden--whether writing about geese or mountains or salmon or people--of telling the truth.
It's been nearly twenty years since that class ended, and I don't have to count stresses per line anymore, but I edit for sound and rhythm as much as I do for sense.
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and David is still doing what he began doing as an undergrad in Theodore Roethke's poetry writing class. Here's what David and I chatted about . . .
MS: Would you mind sharing with us your criteria for choosing a poem for inclusion in The BAP 2009? Did the poem have to break at least one rule? Several rules? What about music? Evidence of craftsmanship? Fulfilled expectations (Did I forget anything?)?
DW: Choosing poems for The Best American Poetry of 2009 was very like what the poetry editor of any journal faces. You know in advance what the limits are, in this case 75 poems with no possibility of any backlog. You have a year-away deadline. You tend to be over-lenient along the way, simply because it’s far easier and far better to cut than to add near the end. The list of possible criteria in your questions is a good one.
MS: Having read hundreds of contemporary poems last year, what can you tell us about the state of American poetry? Is there a trend back to formal verse, or was most of what you read written in free verse? What about music in poetry? ICU, presumed dead, or alive and kicking?
DW: This is a wild and wooly time in American poetry. Every possible old “rule” is being broken repeatedly and thoroughly, even eagerly. My inclusion of some of the woollier ones along with sonnets and sestinas, I suppose, means I was trying to indicate and represent some of that wide range. I saw very, very little of what used to be called “lyrical” poetry. But nearly all the poems I picked showed strong evidence of a good ear making good use of connections among sound, rhythm, and meaning.
MS: I have to say I was very heartened when you shared, in your introduction, the notion that if poetry was somehow snuffed out, it would re-emerge, much in the same way that life will (and has) re-emerged after mass extinctions. Are you saying that poetry is essential to being human as life itself?
DW: I believe poetry is that essential, just as dancing, singing, acting, heartbeats, and breathing are.
MS: Moving to your own life as a poet, I understand you suffered from a rather long spell of writer’s block several years back. What do you make of those periods in life when the muse falls silent? What did you do, and what can a poet do, to help those fallow periods come to an end?
DW: I have never been seriously blocked as a writer, never for long, partly because I’ve been able to write fiction as well as poetry. I’ve kept a journal for many years in addition and have discovered and rediscovered notes for poems I didn’t recognize at the time. I think Thomas Hardy may have set the example for me.
MS: Your new book, A Map of the Night, which won this year’s Washington State Book Award, is a great example of strong and vital language that sustains the human spirit. It’s also quite a humorous read. In one of my many favorites in the book, “What Billy Graham Said to Me at the Fair,” the speaker interviews Billy Graham (“He had more teeth / than you might think.”) Are most of your poems autobiographical?
DW: I’ve written many poems I suppose could be called autobiographical, some to a greater degree than others. Don’t all poets? Thoreau said, “A poet writes the history of his body.” (Nowadays he might not be excused for that “his.”)
MS: You taught poetry at the University of Washington for many years. What, in your estimation, was the best way to get each of your students to write the best poetry they were capable of?
DW: I’m still teaching now and then at the University of Washington, as well as at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and with the low-residency MFA program of the Whidbey Island Writer’s Workshop. As for writing the best poems one is capable of: Theodore Roethke, on my first day in his workshop, looked at the clueless twelve of us and said, “Your assignment this term is to read the bulk of poetry written in English.” That was a good start.
MS: What projects are you working on now?
DW: I once asked Stanley Kunitz, who was in his early eighties at the time, whether he had a five-year plan as a poet. He said, “No, I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’m writing whatever poems I find possible to write.” That’s what I’m doing.
MS: Now that you’re semi-retired from teaching and the duties of being an editor, what’s your idea of the perfect way to spend the day?
DW: I think I’ve already implied the answer to that question, but I would add that such a day would also be “perfect” for my wife Robin Seyfried and my daughters Alexandra and Adrienne.
Endnote MS: I was warned not to study with David, that he would shred me, that I might be thrown into a long silence after all his harsh criticisms. But David turned out to be the teacher I needed, the one who continues to guide me each time I sit down to write.