University of Minnesota
Department of English

Department of English

Five X Friday

Past Alumni News Stories
Angela Smith (PhD), professor
Jerr Boschee (BA), social entrepreneur
Reina del Cid (BA), bandleader
Arthur Schuhart (BA), CC professor
Amanda Coplin (MFA), novelist
David Wojahn (BA), poet
Sarah Wadsworth (PhD), professor
Mark Baumgarten (BA), writer/editor
Andrew Nath (BA), banker
Esther Porter (BA), editor
Gerald Jay Goldberg (PhD), writer
Peter Geye (BA), novelist
Sam Kean (BA), nonfiction writer
Joyce Sutphen (BA, MA, PhD), poet
Susan Taylor (MFA), CC professor
Sheila O'Connor (BA), novelist
Susan Niz (BA), novelist
Scott Burns (BA), screenwriter/director
Swati Avasthi (MFA), novelist
Marilyn Nelson (PhD), poet
Garrison Keillor (BA), radio host
Carol Mason (PhD), professor
Amy Shearn (MFA), novelist
Virginia McDavid (BA, MA, PhD), prof
Tim Nolan (BA), poet
Kevin Reilly (PhD), administrator

Michael Tisserand (BA), writer

Town Crier

David WojahnAlthough he hasn't been tear-gassed recently, award-winning poet and BA alumnus David Wojahn still argues for a "poetry of political awareness"

David Wojahn (BA ‘76) this fall was awarded the $25,000 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, which honors the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year. Of Wojahn's eighth poetry collection World Tree (University of Pittsburgh, 2011), judge Linda Gregerson noted: "Exquisitely cadenced, politically astute, large of heart, and keen of mind, these are poems of extraordinary moral penetration. They are also a joy to read." The other judges were David St. John and current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Born and raised in St. Paul, Wojahn is a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and serves as a member of the program faculty of the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of the Fine Arts. We caught up via email.

1. Music has been an influence on and a subject of your work, and you’ve cited Bob Dylan among others. Thumbs up or down on his latest, Tempest? As someone who has “sampled” other lyricists, would you agree with Dylan's claim that every (song) writer steals?

I taught a course last spring called “Thought Influence of Bob Dylan.” It was really, I suppose, about the intricacies and perils of self-creation. So we studied Dylan’s career, but also films like I’m Not There, Rimbaud’s poetry, The Great Gatsby, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. As a result of that immersion, I’m a bit Dylaned-out at the moment. But, briefly, I think Tempest ranks with the best of the work he’s done since that great creative rebirth that began in the late ‘90s.

As for stealing and sampling, an artist as often as not does that out of the utmost respect for the tradition rather than from some sort of desire to pull the wool over the eyes of an audience. I’m always delighted when someone identifies a borrowing or recycling I’ve undertaken in a poem. I gave a reading recently in Maine, and I was very moved when someone in the audience later told me he loved how one of my poems lifted some lines from Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain.” I attempted to do that in part because the lines were extremely pertinent to the subject I was writing about, and because I think that particular Hardy poem is one of the great lyrics in English. For someone to imply that I in some small way honored that poem was a real delight.

2. Novelist Zadie Smith was here in October, and she noted in her talk that there were few things more ridiculous than sitting down every day to write a novel--one of which is sitting down to write a poem. She went on: “Saying ‘I am a poet’ is like saying, ‘I like gas lamps,’ or “I’m the town crier.’” Thoughts?

Well, I think most poets would consider themselves damn lucky if they were regarded as having the same practical importance as town criers. I suppose Smith is right to imply in those metaphors that poets are in some respects a quaint and slightly comical bunch.

But I don’t think the fact that poetry is so widely regarded as marginal or cultish, with poets getting lumped with the sorts of people who attend Star Trek conventions or do Civil War reenactments, nullifies the fact that poetry is a greatly venerable practice, with an immeasurably rich tradition that a writer connects to whenever he or she writes even a less-than-successful poem. And poetry is to my mind ever-more-essential in an era in which it is an immense challenge to try to possess the rich inner life from which good poetry derives. When I write a poem, I am for a brief time no longer a demographic, no longer engaging in the totally superficial communication that comprises the dialogues we undertake through social media. Somewhere Geoffrey Hill says the present task of poetry is to turn down the volume on what he calls “all the acoustical din.” I think he may be right.

World Tree3. You were studying at Minnesota in the early to mid-1970s. What classes or professors do you particularly remember? Were you involved with any literary magazines or groups?

There were three people I remember as being important to me in the early days. One was [BA alumnus] Jim Moore, who taught the first writing class I ever enrolled in, offered by the organization that eventually became the Loft. He’s a wonderful poet and a gifted teacher. And I was greatly inspired by classes taught by [Professor] Michael Dennis Browne, who was very dynamic and charismatic in the classroom, and immensely patient and encouraging toward me, even as I showed him ream after ream of pretty wretched versifying. And, finally, I was mentored, in very crucial ways, by the poet James L. White, whose writing I still very much revere. He died in 1981, but Graywolf recently reprinted his extraordinary posthumous collection, The Salt Ecstacies.

I was a freshman during the last semester Berryman taught. He was at the height of his fame, and I admired him. So I snuck into a few of the lectures he taught—big classes that he taught for the Humanities Program. He probably was not a very skillful or charismatic lecturer, but I was very much in awe of him, and scared I’d be found out as an interloper, though there were a couple of hundred other people in the room. I did by a strange coincidence end up walking across the Washington Avenue Bridge a few minutes after Berryman had jumped from it and was completely oblivious to what had just taken place. That particular event haunts me to this day.

There was a fairly active literary community in the Twin Cities even then. The writer Mary Logue and I ran a reading series which we cheekily named “World Famous Poets.” And I was involved in the Loft in its formative days, when it was a very small and very grassroots organization.  

4. That was a time of much campus upheaval: a spring 1972 protest brought in the National Guard. Was that where politics became intertwined with writing for you? As a college professor in these calmer campus times, how do see your students engaging with the greater world?

I was a freshman during the spring ’72 protests. I remember being tear-gassed and helping to build a huge pile of junk and debris in the middle of Washington Avenue in order to stop traffic. (The significance of that endeavor now escapes me.) And I remember writing some bad and strident political poetry that was composed under the spell of Bly and Neruda.

And yet, there’s something about growing up in the Vietnam era, and in the histrionics of the Cold War, that helped to make a lot of boomer poets of my generation more attuned to those situations where personal history comingles with public history—maybe I should call it a desire to write poetry of political awareness rather than political poetry per se. That sense of awareness is in part a legacy of the ‘60s, I think. And that desire also informs the poetry of some of the figures who I most revere—Robert Lowell and George Oppen especially, but also the Midwest’s own Thomas McGrath.

Frankly, I don’t see my current students much “engaging with the greater world,” although I think that has something to do with the fact that today’s students make such a terrific financial and time commitment to higher education that they have little time for anything else. They work hard and ceaselessly, at least in the public university where I teach, and I’m often saddened by the fact that under these conditions it’s actually an act of some bravery for a student to decide to enroll in a class devoted to a subject as esoteric as writing poetry.

5. Another one of our alums, poet Marilyn Nelson (PhD '79), noted that more people write poetry than read it. Are we becoming a nation of writers, not readers? What advice do you give students who want to be poets?

Well, Marilyn is right of course. I do have some friends who are passionate readers of poetry but don’t at the same time write it, but I could count those people on one of my hands. I suppose the good thing about the present situation is that books of poetry are largely read in a writerly way. Poets read books of verse as much for insights into craft, and into how books of poetry get structured, as they do for edification or that sort of glib and reductive understanding of poetic endeavor you are often trained to develop in literature classes. The obvious downside of the present situation is that it causes the audience for poetry to remain fairly small.

More worrisome, though, is the fact—and I think it is a fact—that readers of poetry tend not to read work outside their aesthetic comfort zone; they read the poets they want to write like, and don’t step outside what David Antin brilliantly calls their “discourse radius.” Fans of “mainstream” writers like Mark Doty or Phil Levine are not apt to seek out the work of, say, Lyn Hejinian or Ron Silliman, and visa versa. Yes, the poets who I deeply love and who have changed my life are writers I return to often, but I also try to follow the poetry of as many of the current aesthetic schools as possible. The best thing a young poet can do--and I was fortunate enough to be taught this lesson by all my important teachers--is to read widely in all the schools, all the traditions, all the historical periods. You have to be catholic in your tastes, and you have to read deeply. And I’m still trying--less frantically than I once did, but still pretty doggedly--to fill in some of my gaps.

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