Ann Fisher-Wirth: An Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

October 26, 2009

Poet Ann Fisher-Wirth, published in 32 Poems

Poet Ann Fisher-Wirth, published in 32 Poems

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

I’d never say anyone was “just” a poet, because a poet is a pretty amazing thing to be. But writing poetry is not the only thing I do. I teach American literature, poetry workshops and literature courses, and a wide range of courses in environmental studies at the University of Mississippi.

I also teach yoga, and that is a really important part of my life. I’ve been married for nearly 26 years to Peter Wirth. We have five grown children—mine, his, and ours—and rapidly expanding numbers of grandchildren. We live in a very cool old Victorian house with two huge pecan trees in front of it, in Oxford, Mississippi.

I’ve lived in the South for almost 30 years, but I grew up first as an Army brat all over the world, and then in Berkeley, California, so I love to travel and hold many places in my heart.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I don’t see one form as more powerful than the others. Instead, I see some examples of each form as more powerful than others. They engage an audience in different ways. But the written poetry I love best has a strong oral and aural component—it is a rich pleasure to say it or hear it—and the spoken word poetry I admire most is full of verbal felicity and sophistication.

If writing helps humanity become more tolerant it is because it has stimulated a listener or reader to enter into the experience of a real or imaginary other, and to affirm what George Eliot calls the “equivalent center of consciousness” which is that other. “Collaborative,” in your question, I see as a red herring, for much of the world’s most important work is done in solitude. But certainly if we are led to imagine others, we may also learn to communicate with others rather than consign them to oblivion.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Environmental issues and consciousness-raising are my obsession. Truly they are. I am convinced from everything I’ve read that we have very little time left before we reach a catastrophic tipping point for life on earth. We may already be there.

One helpful book is Lester R. Brown’s Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which can be downloaded free from the Earth Policy website, and which fully documents how desperate a situation we humans have created environmentally, and how thorough-going and rapid our response must be—far beyond anything now being considered by those in power.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I’ve read many “writing” books over the years—Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, The Practice of Poetry, The Poet’s Companion—and they have all been helpful, cheering, or inspiring in their various ways.

I am part of an online writing group through the (mostly) women’s listserv known as WomPo; in this small spinoff group we have not all met each other but we have become a very effective source of critiques (and loyal friendship) for each other.

Also I have a good friend/poet colleague with whom I share work—and both my husband and one of my daughters give me really good, tough feedback.

Finally, every few years I’ve been able to attend the poetry workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I was just there two weeks ago, in fact. It is absolutely amazing for one’s writing.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

I don’t think poets have any obligation to do anything but write the best poems they can. Some of the greatest poetry is elitist and definitely inaccessible by mainstream readers. Some, equally great, is not.

As a poet, my obligation is to the poem. That seems a simple statement, but in truth what it means to serve any given poem in the process of its creation is enormously complex.

However, as a professor I take very seriously my opportunity to open poetry to students, and open students to poetry. All infants and children love poetry; it is bred in the bone. It is a great wrong that so many aspects of our culture stifle children’s appreciation of poetry as they get older. So I look upon my teaching as excavation. The love of poetry, the understanding of poetry—they’re down there, somewhere. The evidence is that even people who never read poems turn to poems to help them affirm and commemorate life’s great passages: birth, marriage, a society’s great tragedies, death.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I’m pretty crazy about silence. If I listen to music, it’s classical. Summer nights in Mississippi, I can’t help but listen to cicadas.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

It’s true, most of my friends are writers, and if they are not writers they are professors. I have gotten to know hundreds of writers since I began focusing on writing, and some of them have become wonderful friends.

I’m also very close to a number of people I know through the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment—again, writers and academics. But how could I escape it? My mother was a teacher, my sisters, brother-in-law, husband, and two of our five children are all teachers. It’s a great way to live.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I walk quite a bit and do yoga. Also I am really lucky, in that my life is full of people and work that I love, and that plays an enormous role in well-being as one gets older.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

Well I do drink a fair amount of coffee, and a day never passes without some cookie or another. I wouldn’t say “inspired” is exactly what they keep me, though. Nor am I particularly good at overcoming writer’s block; I suffer from it quite a bit. That’s why I went to Squaw Valley; you have to write a poem a day, and so many of the participants are such good writers that it would be mortifying not to hold your end up by writing something pretty good.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

My ideal writing space would be a rather large room in an old house very much like the house I live in, with bookcases that would store infinite numbers of books.

My actual writing spaces are rather cramped and I have used up every inch of available bookcases, but other than that, they are very nice. I have a computer at my office and a computer upstairs at home. I always finish poems at one of these. But I generally start poems in a journal, just scribbling, often with my nondominant hand.

One sine qua non for any space I would be able to write in is that it be natural—that is, made of things that occur in nature, like wood. Another is that I must have personalized it. Every object in my writing space (and in my living space altogether) has a history, evokes a place or person, triggers memories or sensory information; it is an extension of my mind and body. My mother was a painter and instilled in me a keen awareness of color, tone, atmosphere—both the aesthetics and the karma of place. My office at school is in a beautiful old building. My house is beautiful and old, quite unmodernized, full of quirks and crookedness, and I love that.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

My third book of poems, Carta Marina, was published by Wings Press last April. I am delighted with the beautiful job they did, and I’m doing whatever I can to help support the book. Next December my chapbook Slide Shows will come out from Finishing Line Press, so I’ll be working to publicize that, too.

The huge project I’m working on is an anthology of contemporary ecopoetry, coedited with Laura-Gray Street, that Trinity University Press will publish in a couple of years. Also I’ve written many poems that have not yet come together as a book manuscript, and I am trying to find what the shape of that manuscript will be.

This fall, I’ll be busy teaching, but I’m on sabbatical next spring. Aside from visiting the splendidly burgeoning grandchildren, working on the anthology, and writing, I’ll also be giving some readings in Sweden—because Carta Marina is set in Sweden—and teaching for two months in Fribourg, Switzerland.

From Carta Marina

December 16

Red taillights lead me uphill, downhill—

I watch them from the bus’s steamy window,

pressing my cheek against cold glass

as I’m carried from the airport past fields and factories,

past Märsta in the midnight

where the old men still hunt elk-moose

till bloody haunches fill their freezers.

It’s not this man or this man, not

these golden daughters or this dream-ravened swaddle:

no, it’s the doors closed or the doors opened,

it’s the heart gone night. The gods

stream back and forth across the threshold.

You can ride it, you know,

get on the dark bus and let it carry you.

That’s how I’ve always been, going home, going nowhere—

uphill, downhill, the taillights like rubies,

past fields where the trees are just darker effacings.


Ann Fisher-Wirth’s third book of poems, Carta Marina, appeared from Wings Press in April 2009. She is the author of Blue Window and Five Terraces and of the chapbooks The Trinket Poems, Walking Wu Wei’s Scroll, and (forthcoming) Slide Shows. With Laura-Gray Street she is coediting Earth’s Body, an international anthology of ecopoetry in English which Trinity University Press will publish in 2012.

Her poems appear widely and have received numerous awards, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award, a Malahat Review Long Poem Award, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Award, and eight Pushcart nominations and a Special Mention. She has had Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden. She teaches at the University of Mississippi.

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