Charles Wright is the current Poet Laureate of the U.S., but he hasn’t let that title go to his head. Wright still prefers poetry to politics, and most of his friends are poets — a crowd he’s run with since maneuvering his way into the University of Iowa Writing Workshop as a grad student. In the intervening years, Wright has won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book award. When Wright came to campus in November, WKND sat down with him to chat about his career arc, his writing process, and advice for aspiring poets and writers. The following conversation has been condensed.
Q: So, I was accepted into the University of Iowa high school writers program, but on a total fluke. I hear you have a similar story. For the Yalies aspiring to graduate study: How does one fake their way into graduate school?
A: Well, I’m not the one to ask that question, because I never got accepted into the school!
I just showed up having gotten into the [University of Iowa] English department, so my name was down, but I never sent in a manuscript. If I had, I would never have gotten in. So I just signed up for the classes and went to the first workshop. Kept doing that for two years. That’s it. It turned out that I told them that I’ve never gotten in — which didn’t surprise the teachers at all— but each one thought the other one let me in. It was very laissez-faire in those days. Not as structured as it is now. I had more fun in Iowa City than in any other place I’ve ever had in America. I really liked Iowa a lot. Anyway, what kind of a fluke was it for you?
Q: Well, I live in Iowa City, and I hadn’t applied to the program because I don’t do creative writing, really, but someone had to vacate their spot, so they called the local school and said, “Do you have anyone who you think could do well at this program?”
A: That’s not a fluke. That’s a good way to get in.
Q: Was there a teacher who believed in you?
A: I don’t know if he believed in me, but there is a certain teacher I believed in very much, a guy named Donald Justice, who was my teacher for two years. The other person, who really ran the program, was a man named Paul Engle. But Don did most of the teaching; Paul was always out trying to raise money. Quaker Oats money. Any way he could get money, and Justice was very good to me. You have to understand to me that I had just spent four years in the army, and I arrived in August for September classes. How dumb is that? But I didn’t pay attention in school, and I didn’t know anything about poetry, so I hung on to every word that came out of Donald’s lips. And they were good words, too, because he was a wonderful teacher, a really good poet, and a really bright man.
Q: I know you spent time in Europe, and it sounds as if that’s where you discovered your love for poetry. And yet a lot of your poems start with you sitting at home, looking out the window. Is it important to travel?
A: I dunno, it’s fun. Or, it was fun. I hate to travel now, because I’m so old, but I used to love it. I spent six out of my 10 years in my twenties in Italy. The first three were in the army, which is where I was reading and thought I was trying to write poems. I wasn’t. So it was good for me, it was very, very good for me. I don’t know if it’s good for everybody else. Anything I say is just about me, I don’t pretend to say what’s good or bad for somebody else.
Q: Do you think you would have found poetry had you not gone to Italy?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know, I don’t know. I was interested in writing and worked on the Davidson literary magazine, whose hero was the Yale Record. Isn’t that the name of the magazine, the Yale Record? That was the old one, and we thought it was just the greatest. I tried to read stories, but I couldn’t write stories. I just can’t write narrative. So, I don’t know what I would’ve done … probably gone into journalism. I spent a summer as a reporter at my hometown paper, and I liked it a lot. And I had been accepted at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
Q: Why did you turn down the spot?
A: Well, because I thought I could get into the [University of Iowa] writing program. Also, after a while, the idea of looking into people’s windows, or doing whatever it is that journalists have to do, began to pall on me. I’m not a natural speaker, you know. So, I just pulled out. They were very nice. And that’s what got me out of the army, was my acceptance into Columbia. Yeah, I’d have done that or gone into advertising, I’m sure.
Q: Is there room for more poetry or creative writing classes at American universities? Or are writing workshops a dangerous idea in any way?
A: That’s a double-barreled question! I guess there’s room for more creative writing. It can’t hurt to learn how to write and learn how to read, and that’s what writing courses do. And that’s where writing courses should stay. In the undergraduate curriculum. There are too many graduate writing courses. And this is said by someone whose life was saved by one, informed by one. But that was then, this is now. I find it’s mostly a place to stay off the streets, and to network, nowadays. I mean, they all know all that stuff because they’ve been taking the undergraduate courses, where they should be. I was an exceptional case, because I was a history major. I had never done anything, never had a poetry course, much less a writing course.
Q: Slam poetry, or so-called spoken word poetry, is popular on campus, do you see any relationship between that —?
A: I’ve never been to one. I see no relation at all. I am totally anchored to the page and the sound that is inherent in the language, as it is written and heard in the mind, not through microphone. I mean made up for the microphone.
Q: Your poems, for all their intellectual subtlety, are also immediately gratifying. Is it important for them to give a certain satisfaction on the first read?
A: I hope so, I hope so. But most poetry has to be read a couple of times before you start to see what’s running underneath, you know? I always feel that anything that’s too immediately apprehended is probably not as serious maybe as it should be. That’s probably my fault. But sure, I like people to like my poems. I don’t care if they do, but I like them to.
Q: Nature pervades your poetry. Do you see any role for activism — either for you personally, or in an artist’s responsibility generally?
A: I’m not a politically involved. I’m just not. Back in the sixties they used to say, just writing a poem is a political act. Well, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But I don’t take on political questions as such, or environmental questions, as such — although I think that how I write about the landscape has something to do with how I think the environment should be. But no, I’m not a political poet.
Q: I read that you retreat annually to a residence in Montana.
A: Yeah, my wife inherited a place up in the mountains in Montana, we go out every summer, spend 3 months out there. I seem to have gotten a lot of my poems written out there. I’ve been going there since 1967. So, that’s a long time.
Q: Does solitude enhance your writing process?
A: It does. I like being alone when I’m writing, although it didn’t always happen that way. When I was younger. You know I taught for 40 years, so I was always involved in that. But solitude is kind of necessary, I don’t mean loneliness, I mean solitude. Where you can get to a place where you can just think about things.
Q: If you couldn’t be a southerner, would you rather be an Iowan, a Californian, or a native of the northeast?
A: Well, I don’t want to be an Iowan [chuckles]. There are too many jokes about Iowa! But that’s why I jumped on it and said I’ve had more fun there than any place in this country. But the northeast would be good, I wouldn’t mind that. I’ve stopped teaching now, so it’s all a matter of nothing.
Q: Is writing difficult?
A: It is now. It used to be easier when I was younger. It’s very difficult now, because I’ve probably written all the things I could possibly have to say at least five times, in five different directions. I don’t want to do it now. It is difficult, and I guess more difficult for prose writers who have to get caught up in the narrative and the structure that’s long and extended, and characters and all that sort of thing. Lyric poetry is different from that obviously. I mean it’s not easy but it seemed more natural than literature. I never had a spell of a year or two where I couldn’t write. I had six months at one time.
Q: What broke through that block?
A: I don’t know, a poem I guess. I don’t know. It was so long ago.
Q: Here are three dreaded words for an interviewee: you once said, “Poetry is our last refuge.” As you get older, do you find it any more or less of a refuge?
A: Well, when I’m doing it, that’s what I meant. When you’re it, it is a refuge from the world around you. And you’re in the world you created, and I still think it’s a refuge in that sense. Teaching poetry or writing poetry won’t keep you from getting shot on the street. Not that kind of refuge. But it is somewhere you go hide, to a certain extent. It’s a hiding place. Everybody’s gotta have a hiding, some way. You’ll find that.
Q: Are many of your friends poets?
A: Most of them are. It just seems to be that way. I once asked Donald Justice, how come all your friends are poets? He said that’s the way it is. Every poet’s best friends are poets, because you see them, you read their work. My best friend is Mark Strand, who was here yesterday. He and a guy named Charles Simić and James Tate are my three best friends, and they’re all poets.
Q: College students interact primarily with college students. What would you say to your fiction-writing, struggling, undergraduate self that a peer couldn’t have told you?
A: I would tell myself, get into the library and start reading. That’s how you’re gonna do that. The gaps in my reading, the gaps in my education, were … But that’s the only way you can learn to write, is to read. To see how it’s done. To see how other people do it. Find stuff you like and try to imitate it. Intimate someone else. Imitate someone else. And pretty soon you’re gonna find out that it has rubbed off on you in various ways, and you start fighting your own weight. But unless you read, you’re not gonna really learn what is acceptable, what will be acceptable to those other than yourself, and that you can’t just say, “I’m so lonely.” I’d say go to the library.
Q: Has anything pleasantly surprised you about your role as poet laureate? I know you were reluctant to take it on.
A: I’m really surprised, how seriously it’s taken by other people. Not myself, but other people. Of course, it is in the library of congress, and oh, oh, you know, it’s not really anything. It’s an honor to have been asked, and you have to do a lot of traveling, which I hate. But, doesn’t help the poetry. In fact, Charles Simić said the year he was poet laureate, he didn’t write a poem, and he writes 100 poems a year. So, I found that it’s not quite as arduous as I thought it might be, but I’ve just started.