Ryan Wilson’s first collection of poetry, The Stranger World, won the 2017 Donald Justice Poetry Prize and was published by Measure Press this Summer. This interview was conducted via email by Daniel Rattelle over several weeks, and has been lightly edited for clarity.
How have the responses been to The Stranger World so far?
So far, so good. I remain vigilant among the potentially-ballistic vegetables when I’m in the produce aisle, but the folks at the West Chester Poetry Conference seemed to receive the book warmly, and I’ve had a number of very kind notes about it, for which I’m grateful.
Everyone has a different story, so I may as well ask: why form?
Eliot once wrote, “There are not, as a matter of fact, two kinds of verse, the strict and the free; there is only a mastery which comes of being so well trained that form is an instinct and can be adapted to the particular purpose in hand.” A lot of the poems in my first book are in traditional forms because I’ve been in training for the last dozen years.
Neither the hammer nor the screwdriver nor the wrench is the more valuable tool: the trick is to learn when to use each. Or, to change figures: the horse is going to gallop; the pertinent question is whether or not the poet has a hold of the reins. I can appreciate the formal structures of Leaves of Grass and Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as well as the inherited forms of Tennyson and Frost.
If some poets can manage form successfully without the training I needed: Godspeed. Walcott once told me he didn’t know the names of the metrical feet. He was clearly a genius, so I guess he didn’t need the kind of work that I did. I mean: he didn’t do too badly, did he? I’m not an exemplar of anything or a champion of any movement; I’m just trying to make things connect.
It sounds like The Stranger World is the fruit of much of your adult life, is that fair to say? What’s the oldest poem in it? Which is the poem that has given you the most trouble?
The oldest poem is “The City Under Vesuvius,” which I began in the Summer of 2007—almost exactly ten years ago. I was reading a goodly amount of philosophy at that time—Simone Weil and Existentialists like Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, and Sartre—and I’d just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I was living in a diminutive and dingy single room in Boston. I shared a kitchen and a bathroom with two doctoral students—one from China and one from the Czech Republic—both of whom were much smarter and more sociable and more likeable than I. I was totally broke: I had, I think, $100 to live on for an entire month before school started, and I had no food. I’d just been dumped by a longtime girlfriend back in Baltimore, and I had nowhere to stay except in this broom-closet I’d rented—sight un-seen—off of Craigslist in Boston, where I knew no one at all, except for Franz Wright. Anyway, somehow what I’d been reading and how I’d been feeling combined with a notion I’d taken from a book by Josh Bell called No Planets Strike, which featured some eccentric love-poems to a woman called Ramona. For me, the result was a love poem written from the dead to the living.
That was also the most troublesome poem. When I first wrote it, it was too far on the other side of the looking glass. It was in loose blank verse and almost nothing at all like the finished version: a much more broken and bossy poem. Probably the poem changed because, during the revision process, a few dollars eventually found their way into my pockets after school started, and I was able to survive, mostly on 7-11 food, for the year. Anyway, a few dozen drafts, a lot of help from Robert Pinsky, and a year later, “The City Under Vesuvius” came out in heroic couplets—maybe because I’d taken an interest in the Renaissance use of couplets in poems about coupling—and ran in an online journal, Unsplendid, that has gone on to become one of my very favorite journals.
So, I suppose the short answer is: yes, the book is the fruit—or a representative portion of the fruit—of my adult life’s poetic work. Even if I too often disregard Horace’s advice about putting a poem in a drawer for nine years, I’ve always admired the Bishop / Larkin ten-year-plan for books of poetry, so I don’t begrudge the years it has taken me. I have every expectation that the next book—should there be a next book—will take another decade.
You’re a relatively young poet, do you see an interest in form among other younger writers?
I’m not sure of the cut-off for “younger,” and there are many different types of forms, as I was mentioning. If you mean writers under 45 who work sometimes in inherited forms, there are a great many I admire. Off the top of my head, I’d mention: Austin Allen, Erica Dawson, Caitlin Doyle, Stephen Kampa, Jee Leong Koh, Emily Leithauser, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Matthew Buckley Smith, Caki Wilkinson. . . . Then again, I also admire very much the prose poems of my friends Sabrina Orah Mark and Sara Peters, and the looser forms one often finds in Jericho Brown and Richie Hofmann. And I am, of course, forgetting to name a great many “younger” writers I admire.
But to offer a more direct answer, I suppose I’d say that, in writers under forty-five, I see less of an antagonistic relationship between formal traditions. Almost everyone I know appreciates poems from a wide variety of formal traditions. We contain multitudes, and I don’t think that’s as scary today as it might have been for our parents’ generation, or for our grandparents’ generation. The freedom to experiment that I see today reminds me a little bit of that which the Modernists seem to have felt. There’s so much poetry to be grateful for, so much to praise, to wonder at, to be enchanted by, to be delighted and instructed by: I just don’t see the good in picking teams and squabbling. There’s no one way to write a poem.
Can you talk about your use of personae?
The Stranger World does not include any poems in which I, Ryan Wilson, am the speaker. All of the speakers are personae, or, in the case of the translations, other poets, or other poets’ personae. The speakers and the voices and the tones and forms of my poems generally derive from an image or a series of images that seem harmonious. The groundwork of my writing is always observation. (As Richard of St. Victor said, Amare videre est.) Based on what I see and how I see a given phenomenon, or what I imagine and how I imagine someone seeing a given phenomenon, I extrapolate a voice, a tone, a rhythm, a form, etc. The goal, then, is not some sort of “authenticity” to myself, but fidelity to a certain action of seeing, to a moment of clarity, whether real or imagined.
So you’re from Georgia originally? The Stranger World is a dark and violent book. Is there any intentional Southern Gothic at work in it?
I am from Georgia. I grew up in Macon, about 35 miles from Andalusia, which was Flannery O’Connor’s farm. But, without trying to be persnickety, I should say that I don’t really think much about genre, or even in generic terms, when I’m writing poems. While the scholar and the critic obviously need to consider genre, I don’t think any poet sits down and sets out to write in a particular genre. Besides, the Southern Gothic, as a genre, is a particularly vague one. As O’Connor herself wrote years ago, “Southern Gothic” seems to apply to all sorts of very different writing. For instance, someone might describe Erskine Caldwell as a Southern Gothic writer and also describe William Faulkner as a Southern Gothic writer. But the ends—as well as the means—of those two authors greatly differ.
If The Stranger World is “a dark and violent book,” I guess that’s because I see the world we live in as a dark and violent place. (Who doesn’t, these days?) Part of my ambition in The Stranger World is to journey with readers toward the discovery of genuine hope without ignoring the very real horrors of the world around us, and of the world within us. To my mind, any hope built on the denial of reality is false hope. Vanitas vanitatum!
As Derek Walcott once said, “The fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.” The poet cannot simply forget History: too easy. The poet has to love the world in spite of it. The poet has to be able to move—like Hermes—between visions, or worlds: between an honest vision of History’s tragedies and an honest vision of Love’s comedy. And, in a certain sense, I think the poet has to end up siding with Love’s comedy simply to put words down on the page at all, though those words may smack of wormwood and gall. Poetry is almost always in some way about love of the world and love of people, even if much of it is about those loves being thwarted. There’d be no reason to write if love didn’t persist.
I always saw a connection between Baudelaire and Flannery O’Connor. Can you explain your attraction to him?
Why do we like the things we like? “We love the things we love for what they are,” Frost says. Well said, but not terribly helpful, Mr. Frost! There’s always something mysterious in that faculty Descartes calls admiratio. Why am I attracted to Baudelaire’s poetry? Well, for lots of conscious and unconscious reasons, I suppose.
Maybe the greatest conscious attraction for me is his navigation of what Nietzsche calls the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Baudelaire is the first poet to dramatize the tension between Modernity’s homogenized, bourgeois, outward conformity and the chaotic interior beneath that façade. Baudelaire is the great poet of secrets, of suppression and repression and denial. His clear and orderly forms are juxtaposed against his shadowy and mysterious content, mimicking the unsounded life beneath the smart clothes of the bourgeoisie in his time—or, for that matter, in any time.
What does Baudelaire have in common with O’Connor? I think it comes down to horror, or, maybe, more accurately, to what Rudolph Otto calls the mysterium tremens. Following Otto, I would compare two passages. Here’s the first, from the Confessions of St. Augustine: Quid est illud, quod interlucet mihi et percutit cor meum sine laesione? Et inhorresco et inardesco. Inhorresco, in quantum dissimilis ei sum. Inardesco, in quantum similis ei sum.1 Compare Augustine’s sentiment with Récéjac’s statement that Le mysticisme commence par la crainte, par le sentiment d’une domination universelle, invincible, et devient plus tard un désir d’union avec ce qui domine ainsi.2 Both statements ring true to me, and I think they would ring true to Baudelaire and O’Connor as well.
Yes, I think that’s it. O’Connor, Baudelaire, and, well, you, seem to be Catholic in a similar way. While I’m on the subject, can you tell me a little about what you’re studying at Catholic University of America?
Well, it’s pretty easy to spot the odd man out in that triumvirate! If we do have a similar vision of Catholicism, I would say that’s likely because I’ve admired and studied O’Connor and Baudelaire for so long. The biographies of the two could hardly be more dissimilar, but they shared what I think is a fairly orthodox understanding of the drama of the human soul. That is, they saw how the interaction between time and eternity, this world and the next, spleen and ideal, creates a series of paradoxes, ironies, and ambiguities.
As for my work at CUA, I’m writing a dissertation that centers on Robert Penn Warren’s poetry, the major portion of which begins with an understanding of “original sin” germane to Catholic writers like O’Connor and Baudelaire, though Warren was no believer and had his own idiosyncratic sense of what “original sin” means. The book is largely an expansion of an article I ran with the Sewanee Review, examining how Dante and Eliot influenced Warren’s development as a poet.
Now I’d like to ask (the obligatory) what’s you’re writing process like?
My writing process is like being a recidivist criminal. Hermes / Mercury, who in antiquity was thought to have given people language, was also the god of thieves. He also invented the lyre, from which all lyric poems descend. I steal forms, images, interlingual phrases, intralingual phrases, metrical tricks, rhymes, archetypes—anything that’s not nailed down. And sometimes things that are nailed down. For instance, I keep all sorts of lists. I have a list of the most prominent nouns, verbs, and adjectives in the Bible, and I have a list of nouns, verbs, and adjectives that seem to me particularly contemporary. I have a list of my own neologisms, generally stolen from Classical texts; for instance, I coined “barythymia”—a word stolen from Sappho’s recently discovered “Brothers” poem—in a recent essay for The Hopkins Review. Suffice it to say: I keep a half-dozen notebooks at a time.
No. What’s it like? It’s like sneaking into the king’s forest at dark and cutting down a giant Sequoia with a rusty pocket knife, then living inside the tree-trunk and whittling the tree down into tiny figurines shaped like horses. Once the whole tree has been whittled, I set the figurines down beside me in the grass so that I can worry over them and pet them and sandpaper them smooth until one of the wooden horses stands up on its own rickety little legs, whinnies, and trots off. Then I burn the other figurines to keep warm until I find a new tree.
Well put, sir! What was it like translating Horace? I thought it was interesting that you chose to rhyme the Odes.
I should start by saying that I owe an immeasurable debt to Rosanna Warren, who introduced me to the serious practice of translation while I was studying in Boston. I’m not sure I had ever really read a poem until I began translating. I recommend translation to anyone and everyone interested in poetry.
Anyway, after I graduated from Boston, I was fortunate enough to get a job teaching a 5/5 course load at a small college in Georgia for a couple of years, and what little time I had apart from my teaching I devoted almost entirely to teaching myself languages, or freshening up those I’d studied, and to translating. Looking back, my files indicate I did versions of slightly more than 300 poems in two years, the lion’s share of which were from Catullus, Horace, and the French Symbolists.
Translating Horace taught me more than I could say briefly, but I would note that, until I started seriously translating him, I’d gravely underestimated what poems could do. While I do not, of course, share Horace’s worldview or opinions, the subtlety of his arrangements, the richness of his diction, the precision of his renderings, and the masterful calibration of his images taught me a great deal aesthetically. The Odes continue to fascinate and to astound me, and I’ve also profited from study of the epodes and epistles. Horace also gave me—among many other things—the notion of the biformis vates, the “two-form poet,” which has been crucial to my own poetry, and which parallels, in certain ways, the kind of duality I brought up in Baudelaire.
How did you first become interested in the Classics?
Lackadaisically. I wasn’t terribly interested in my Latin classes in high school. And, to be clear, I blame myself for that, not my teacher, who was generous and enthusiastic and persistent just as a good teacher should be. On the other hand, I was a dreadful student. Later, I started realizing that a majority of writers whom I admired had not only loved but had also been informed by the Classics. I don’t only mean the more obvious folks from the Renaissance and the 18th century: I mean folks like Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde, Arnold and Pater, Whitman and Tennyson and Swinburne and Pound and H.D. and Eliot and Frost and so on, not to mention folks like Lowell and Walcott. And then some of my very favorite writers from the generation of Southern writers immediately above mine, like Donna Tartt and A.E. Stallings, had reclaimed the Classics from the neo-Confederates who saw the vanquished South as an analogue for the vanquished Troy, and thus the postbellum Southerner as a Roman. That kind of bogus Latinity flourished in the South after the Civil War, and had soured most literary Southerners on the Classics until writers like Tartt and Stallings came along and revised how Southerners could relate to the past and to past mythologies.
Of course, Tartt and Stallings aren’t doing the same thing. They’re near together in age, and both are widely—and rightly—celebrated writers from the South who have some background in the Classics, but they’re doing different things. Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, takes its title, translated, from Procopius’ Ἀπόκρυφη Ἱστορία, which depicts the decadence of the Byzantine empire under Justinian and Theodora. Procopius is said to be the “last historian of the ancient West.” Well, Tartt seems to me in her novel to be writing a version of the “last history of the modern West.” That is, she presents a modern decadence parallel to an ancient decadence to make an emphatic, if implicit, point. Stallings, on the other hand, often turns to Classical myths for embodiments of particular emotional states. That is, she often captures contemporary moments where an individual is in an emotional position parallel to the physical or emotional position of some ancient, and generally mythological, figure. Nonetheless, both Tartt and Stallings resuscitated Classicism for Southern writers of my generation by avoiding entirely the previously accepted analogue between Ilium and the South, and, in doing so, they liberated every Southern writer who follows them to utilize the Classical tradition.
As for my story: well, about ten years ago, I started to brush off my Latin and to work on Greek. I’m only an amateur, but the amo behind that “amateur” echoes throughout the corridor of the last decade.
I noticed the loosening of an otherwise rather tight meter in the two long blank-verse narratives; what’s behind this? Is it just for sustained readability? I’m reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad and the way you use blank verse reminded me a lot of that.
While I very much admire Fitzgerald’s Homer, which deploys a much looser blank verse than his Vergil, I wasn’t thinking of those versions while writing my narratives. And I would add that the meter of my poem “L’Estraneo” is much tighter than that of “Authority,”—no looser in fact than Frost’s blank verse. On the other hand, “Authority” is a poem about uncertainty—about a mystery—and I wanted a form that created a kind of uncertainty, so a very loose blank verse seemed apt. That is, I want the reader to face the question: “Is this blank verse or is it not?” And I want the answer to be uncertain, as it is for the reader of Anthony Hecht’s poem, “A Hill.” Hopefully, that uncertainty relates in a corollary way to the poem’s style and plot, both of which aim to point up the dangers of leaping to conclusions and of thinking about people typologically rather than specifically. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Dostoevsky’s characters tells the story of a man who says, “I love humanity, but I wonder at myself, because the more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” Like most poets—I suppose—I’m a little bit of a misanthrope who also happens to be crazy in love with specifics.
That beautifully illustrates your reluctance to think in terms of genre, and I don’t want to push the case too far, but aren’t categories important? Isn’t what makes you a poet rather than, say, a novelist or grant writer, a categorical difference?
Typological thinking and categorization are both, obviously, important. Both have their places in logic, and also in rhetoric. Moreover, science relies almost entirely on these, and science has done some irrefutably wonderful things. I am not absolutely against these methods of thought—indeed, to be absolutely against them would not only be absurd but would also ironically negate my own position.
I think the danger is when we apply these methods of generalization too rigidly to human persons. That is, categorization is necessary and often efficacious when dealing with objects in objective reality, but human beings are subjects, not merely objects. One piece of formica is essentially the same as another piece of formica; the essence of any given human being is dramatic and in flux, at least in this life. Consequently, the categorization of persons, while perhaps utile in a given circumstance, belies the truth of those individuals, and as a poet I am concerned primarily with truth and knowledge, not with utility or facility.
For instance, I like to think I’m a poet, but I don’t quite fit that category either. I’m also, in no particular order, an editor, an office manager, a teacher, a critic, a scholar, a translator, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a sinner, a Catholic, an answerer-of-many-e-mails, etc. To define me exclusively as a poet is to misrepresent the various roles I play and, thus, the full dramatic reality of my life. It’s like mistaking a single line for the meaning of a poem, or like mistaking one word for a drama.
I don’t think any human person is, ultimately, reducible to any type or label. There is a world beyond our words, and, as C.S. Lewis writes, “All reality is iconoclastic.” It’s iconoclastic because reality is always greater than, and more powerful than, our conception of it. Were the case otherwise, and were the human person reducible to a type or category, we could judge any individual without compunction; however, the Lord says, Judge not, that ye be not judged. That’s a constant reminder of human limitation for me, especially of my own limitations.
So, in short, I prefer to think of human definition in terms of Thomistic actuality rather than in terms of abstract types. I am a poet when I am writing a poem. An action in a given moment may conform to a type, but the individual generally lives a life before and after that moment which may be at odds with the type. And while we may more easily group dead individuals into types, even that task proves difficult, as any study of biography would demonstrate. Often those who are initially depicted as something like saints are later depicted as something like demons, and vice-versa.
Besides writing poetry, working on a PhD, serving as editor of Literary Matters, and what I assume must be massive amounts of extracurricular reading, what do you like to do with your remaining free time?
In the little time I do have, my wife Kelly and I like to cook together and listen to music. We like to go to the pictures and to go to Mass. We keep a small garden. We go to family gatherings. Sometimes we have friends over for barbecues. We spend a lot of time with our faithful friend, Achates Baudelaire, a rescue Lab we brought home earlier this year (Fidus Achates is no ordinary Fido, but I am a Latin-dork). Probably my primary outlet for non-literary energy is playing basketball. Even though I’ve had a number of leg-injuries in the past two years, I’m still an avid player and a fan of the game, and I keep telling myself that, with enough patience and hard-work, I can get back to playing above the rim next year, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. We’ll see: it’s been two years and several injuries since I could dunk the ball, but I’ll keep trying. Like poetry, basketball’s a lover’s quarrel with Time.
1 “What is that, which illuminates me and pierces my heart without hurting me? I bristle and I burn. I bristle, insofar as I am unlike it. I burn, insofar as I am like it.”
2 “Mysticism begins with fearfulness, with the awareness of a universal and invincible domination, and later becomes a desire for union with that which so dominates.”
Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, GA, and raised in nearby Macon. The editor of Literary Matters, he holds graduate degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and Boston University. His writing appears widely in periodicals such as First Things, Five Points, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. Currently, he teaches at The Catholic University of America and lives with his wife in Baltimore. He also serves as an assistant editor for Dappled Things.
Daniel Rattelle is a poet and, occasionally, an arts journalist from Western Massachusetts. His chapbook, The Sleeping House, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing.