Ringed by an Atoll of Fear: an Interview with Greg Wrenn by Cate Lycurgus

June 30, 2017

Greg Wrenn‘s first book of poetry, Centaur, was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Brittingham Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in The New Republic, AGNI, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. A former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he is an assistant professor of English at James Madison University. He is currently at work on an eco-memoir about an Indonesian coral reef. (gregwrenn.com)

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: So many myths involve transformation or coming into being; and in your first collection, Centaur, the initial sequence of poems describes a man’s metamorphosis into one of these half-horse creatures. I know I tend to shy from myths, but you manage to distill new powers from them. Why are you drawn to these stories, and how do you see them facilitating or informing your work?

Greg Wrenn: I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to your question, but I immediately think of my college Hinduism professor defining myths as factually untrue but “deeply true” stories. Truer than any mere transcription of life could offer. When so much feels false and self-promoting around me, reading Ovid feels like drinking from a pure brook, standing barefoot on granite. But I’m also drawn to myths because they often involve animals, which are also utterly truthful. Horses don’t lie. They don’t pretend to not be anxious or furious or aroused. Taking on the body – or half of the body, I should say – of a non-human animal, the speaker in “Centaur” is trying to heal the wounds that civilization’s lies inflict. And when I say “lies,” I mainly mean the repression that comes with being “civilized.”

CL: Immediately Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy comes to mind—the lines about animals’ gazes that open outward as they move “free from death…in timelessness, as fountains do.” I agree—it seems animals have an ingenuousness we only exhibit in vulnerable moments. More and more I realize how much I value honesty in poems; if I sense posturing or dissembling, it’s a big turn off. Is candor something you think about in your poems? How might writing persona or alternately-voiced pieces change your approach or do some of that re-wilding to heal those wounds?

GW: Candor is something I value a lot in essays. But in poems I can actually value a kind of dissembling that is different from “I-need-to-publish-another-poem-so-I’ll manufacture-sincerity-by-writing-about-birds” falseness I think you’re referring to. I like the truthful dissembling of wearing a mask. In my first book, there’s a poem called “Self-Portrait as Robert Mapplethorpe” – I needed to put on the Mapplethorpe mask to get at a brutal, nymphomaniac tenderness that otherwise might have been unavailable to me had I spoken autobiographically.

CL: The lines of that poem are so tender. “…for a minute, reaching into you,/ /I forgot I was human,/ that I was at all—//am, am, am!” enacts to me, from beyond Mapplethorpe’s grave at least, such a jubilant morbidity especially with the final lines that read “I’m told// what to do, I don’t do it, and then?” As a reader I know what “and then” entails, but to hear this question and apply it to the present moment creates new comprehension. Similarly, in another persona piece, “One of the Magi,” the poem concludes:

I see his unhealed

wound, a fresh
umbilical stump

that purses and dilates
so urgently.

Do I unstopper,
pour, and smear?

Gift him everything
human, myrrhed virus?

I’m actually curious about your use of explicit questions—so many of your poems include or even end on one—and the interrogative powers of verse. How do you see them functioning?

GW: I once had a poetry teacher tell me that my use of questions was a distracting tic, but I didn’t find that feedback useful, since questions naturally fill my thinking and speaking. So many of my lyric speakers feel they are speaking into an abyss that cannot respond, to an unknown, unpredictable world too distracted to respond. And so the many questions aren’t just there to solicit information – they reflect the existential insecurity of a being on the verge of destroying himself, in a world on the verge of destroying itself. In my second collection, Sanctuary, my speaker actually dialogues in call-and-response fashion with the snorting, cruel Minotaur, who for him has become an expression of his shadow self, his capacity for self-destruction. The Minotaur is that deathly abyss, given a body and voice, that can be interrogated directly.

CL: It’s interesting that the question—maybe especially the unanswered question—has this power, as though to ask, even, diminishes its strength. Many writers write at the edge of this abyss—Langston Hughes’ “Suicide Note” comes to mind, or Anne Sexton’s assertion that suicide is the opposite of the poem, that somehow by writing we stave off our own deaths, our own destruction. Do you think writing has this power?

GW: Writing my first book wrote me out of life-negating anguish—but writing is one of many ways of allowing energies to pass through one’s being that would otherwise stagnate and knot up. But like the surgery in the title poem, finishing those poems didn’t end my suffering. It just made it more bearable, more workable. And tragically, for poets like Plath, Jarrell, and Sexton, poetry-making can’t always offer us enough affirmation that we return to something resembling joy. As Henri Cole, one of my poetic heroes, said in a Paris Review interview, “A lyric poem presents an X-ray of the self in a moment of being, and usually this means dissonance.”

CL: I love the idea of the momentary X-ray, and yet that statement could also play into the common perception of poets as navel gazers. While your poems so intensely bare the self, I never get that feeling, however; and the first poem of your Sanctuary, “Late Invocation,” actually sets this inside-out precedent:

…as when the comet, only

a smudge above

the colonial mansion, no tail,
                           rained primordial dust

and I inhaled—sing in me,
                           you…

How do you manage the dangerous tango of myopia and perception?

GW: I think what can help poets get out of narcissistic nearsightedness is to have an addressee, to have some sense of to whom they’re speaking. In the case of “Late Invocation,” the speaker is addressing God, the Muse, or the unconscious and asking, in his tentative, halting way, for inspiration. To have an interlocutor is to acknowledge lives outside our own that are lived just as vividly, blindly, and painfully as our own. And to have an interlocutor is to create intimacy. Without Ramon Fernandez listening, Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” would be a much colder poem. With “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know, / Why, when the singing ended and we turned / Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights… Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,” the speaker recognizes mysteries about existence and form, and he asks his friend for help. That reaching out beyond the self to a beloved or imaginary friend is one way to make the dance floor less perilous.

Do any writers come to mind for you as I talk about this?

CL: Yes! So many of the writers and poems I most love call out to some form of divinity, or to the natural world, or to the beloved, three addressees who resonate with most of us, in some form, I’d imagine. I’m fascinated by the specific and more directed poem as well; pieces like Nikky Finney’s “Condoleezza Suite,” written to the former Secretary of State (and even from the perspective of her high heels!) or recently Solmaz Sharif’s piece “Personal Effects,” which, although incorporating some of the Department of Defense’s Dictionary, actually serves as elegy that addresses her Uncle Amoo, or even “To Dorothy,” one of my favorite love poems by Marvin Bell, which begins “You are not beautiful, exactly/ you are beautiful inexactly.” What a first line, I always marveled, and so much better because actual Dorothy read it and was probably getting ready to rip the paper right on out of that typewriter!

I appreciate this address, but on the other hand wonder also about the perils of an entirely established poem. How do you view mystery as operating in your poems or creative process? To poetry in general?

GW: The mystery of poetry—and of existence itself, I might add—lies in form. How is it that in certain poems form and content resonate whereas in others they feel forced together? Perhaps this is why I’ve taken a temporary break from poetry—I can’t find that resonance between form and content right now.

Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, its depressed speaker speaking to a racist country too sick and distracted by endless war and greed to talk back, has to be in prose; it has to have that flatness because outright singing can’t be mustered, would feel ridiculous or false. Frost’s “Mending Wall,” a single long verse paragraph of blank verse, visually resembles a wall, if you turn it ninety degrees—through form, Frost has created a beautiful wall of stone words, unlike the wall in the poem, which is in constant need of repair and a source of contention between the neighbors. Of course the poem can’t redeem human nature—Trump insists construction of the border wall will begin in months—but through the mysterious workings of form, it certainly feels like it can. That kind of consolation, especially in these difficult times, shouldn’t be underestimated.

CL: Maybe mystery of address then is more acceptable than mystery or ambiguity of what’s at stake—in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, to take your example, Rankine addresses everyone, no one, politicians, friends, the call operator, the television, etc. but no one questions what the speaker or readers stand to lose through this sickness and distraction.

And while I definitely agree poems can be consolation, I wonder if that sells poems short. I’ve had this conversation with many, both in terms of political and ecopoetic work; and increasingly I’m convinced poems do have real power, or real transformative power—in the sense that they require a different type of attention. A poem that operates on all cylinders, that marries form and content, sense and sound, the head and the heart, our interior and exterior worlds, demands a certain type of looking, and witness, and care not only for the one crafting the poem, but also for the one reading it. If we could cultivate that sort of mindfulness as a people, well, I think our modes of being in the world would be different—our world would be different. Which is to say—it might not redeem us, but could revise us, essay by prose poem by stanza by line at a time. Or maybe I’m overly optimistic here.

Has reading and writing poetry changed how you move through your days? If those resonances aren’t echoing now, what sorts of writing provides that consolation, or does crucial work?

GW: What you say about the transformative power of poetry is beautiful and true. Poetry, it seems to me, should both console and trouble us, make us want to change the way we move through the world, spend our money, hold our shoulders. Like mosquitos in fossilized amber, poetry preserves human emotions, and so sometimes I turn to it in order to feel something beyond low-grade terror and numbness. Reading Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” giving it the close attention and slow reading you referenced, ends up actually troubling me, making me feel inadequate and flat: I see that recently beauty hasn’t shaken me to my core, that beauty hasn’t created a joy inside me that feels as if it’s tearing me apart, stretching and ripping my soul in deepening, onward-leading ways. The poem helps me see just how anesthetized I’ve become, and so I’m inspired, haltingly, to step out of fear and into love, to leave the backyard shed, so to speak, and thrust my hand into the garden’s dirt, to create beauty even if it seems everything around me is ugly.

CL: In what ways are you stepping out and diving into love? Could you share some about the memoir you’re writing?

GW: That’s a great question, and I appreciate the chance to talk about my ongoing nonfiction project. The eco-memoir is a series of letters to my great-niece in the 23rd century, who has appeared to me in dreams. Specifically it’s about the reefs of Raja Ampat, which are still remarkably intact at a time when most others have deteriorated beyond recognition. I’ve spent a couple of months there diving and writing. The act of speaking to my unborn great-niece, describing underwater beauty that will be long gone in 200 years, is, I suppose, an act of love. I alone can’t give her a world with coral reefs and polar bears, but I can try and transmit what it was like to experience them in a time capsule of underwater beauty. My book is an attempt to step out of my own paralyzing fear about our planet’s future and into something like care and concern for our descendants.

CL: In your writing to descendants, I recall columnist David Brooks’ recent definition of a life well-lived: one in which you have devoted substantial time and effort and resources to an endeavor which you will not live to see completed. I suppose you won’t see the 23rd century reception of this collection, or what the reefs look like then, yet you’ve dedicated quite a bit to this project. There are so many ways to think about success—and we do, in terms of publications, or grants, or ‘likes,’ or jobs—so how do you gauge your own success, or that of your work?

GW: I’ll be frank with you, Cate. I’ve evolved a lot with respect to literary validation, and painfully so. We live in a culture in which almost no one reads literature—a goldfish, I heard the other day, has a longer attention span than we do. Tethered to our smartphones, we’ve become de facto cyborgs. It’s a daily fight against distractedness and shallowness in my own being, and I don’t know how effective my efforts have been. The sad spectacle of social media makes all of this unavoidable: even if poets are reading, my real sense is that they zip through the work and then post cute selfies in which they hold the book of the author they’re ingratiating themselves to. There is little in the way of thoughtful reflection; there is a lot of rage but little contemplation; and connections, a compelling life story, and a good Instagram game seem to guide the choices of editors, award committees, and “readers” alike.

So I don’t assume anyone actually reads—truly absorbs—anything I publish. Nowadays, to be honest, I write because it gives me pleasure—and because I need to say urgent things that if I didn’t express, I feel I might wither away. It’s a bit like sending a concentrated radio signal toward an Earthlike planet. You probably aren’t going to get a response that indicates signs of intelligent life. And if you do, you’re ecstatic. But the lack of a genuine response doesn’t stop the quest. Or it’s a bit like Whitman’s “noiseless, patient spider” throwing its gossamer thread off the edge of a promontory—of course, the thread has nothing to stick to, but it is the quest of miraculously making one’s own material and launching it forth, of seeking connection using something from deep inside you, that is meaningful. If I’m writing something I feel is inspired, that took courage and wakes me up, that is enough these days. That is success. I doubt my seventh great-niece in the 23rd century will ever read my letters to her, but I hope she does.

CL: You never know! What you say about awakening to pleasure applies to reading as well, right? The knowledge that someone else has felt the same joy or desperation I have is one of my primary reasons for doing so—to feel less alone. Once we realize (and sadly it may take our whole generation) that our cyborg status has left us shells of people, some my crave engagement in a real way. In that event, you might keep your niece from withering away, and she your great niece and so on…but back to pleasure—I know so often what gives me joy seems beyond language and, though inspired, makes for my worst poems. So how do you set to writing about Raja Ampat? How did (or have) you settle on the form and point of view?

GW: The form of Reef developed quite organically, and it surprised me. On my third trip to Raja Ampat, I had a dream in which my great-niece, whom I call Adara, asked me what the ocean was like when it had fish. Before I had the dream, I thought I was writing a more vanilla work of environmental creative nonfiction that was fairly journalistic. But after the dream, I knew I had to write it as a series of letters to her, to make my observations and reflections a kind of time capsule of underwater beauty. Not feeling like I live in a culture that could pay attention, I guess I had to imagine an engaged, curious addressee, a descendant I care about who lives in a post-apocalyptic age with little to no digital technology.

CL: How do you see these letters as in dialogue with or maybe in opposition to other environmental texts? Or memoir and imagination, which could seem oppositional, blending? Have any models or writers guided you in this endeavor?

GW: As I write about Raja Ampat’s coral reefs for my distant descendant, I attempt to answer some questions that humanity hasn’t collectively faced before: What is it like to experience a gorgeous ecosystem that will collapse in my lifetime? To be moved by a beautiful ecosystem that one is indirectly, unintentionally helping to eliminate from the earth? To live on a planet whose long-term habitability is uncertain? Such questions did not face Henry David Thoreau as he swam in Walden Pond or Annie Dillard as she waded in Tinker Creek, but they are unavoidable now. Even eco-memoirs like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Cheryl Strayd’s Wild veer away from the fact that the Sixth Mass Extinction is underway, that the climate is changing rapidly and unpredictably. I would say, though, that Maryanne Robinson’s Gilead and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me have been enormously helpful in drafting an epistolary, elegiac memoir addressed to a child with an uncertain future. I suppose what I’m writing could be called speculative, sci-fi environmental nonfiction, even as I blend in my underwater observations. Recording how one imagines the future is paradoxically factual. It is testimony from dreams, reverie, fantasies, and obsessions—a choppy lagoon ringed by an atoll of fear.

CL: Say you met someone who had never encountered a poem before, ever. What one would you give him or her, maybe to hold shore up against that atoll of fear?

GW: The poem that comes to mind is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #55:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

The feeling that “the end is near” has been with us for a long time, as has the beautiful, nourishing lie that a human life can be rendered accurately into language for “the eyes of all posterity / That wear this world out to the ending doom.” I don’t know what songs will be sung as the coasts are inundated and the last coral reef bleaches and crops fail, but there will be poets on hand to sing as we mourn and regroup as best we can. There will be singing.

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

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