“Joyful Solitude”: A Conversation with Mark Wunderlich – curated by Victoria Chang

Mark Wunderlich was born in Winona, Minnesota and grew up in rural Fountain City, Wisconsin. He attended Concordia College’s Institut für Deutsche Studien, and later the University of Wisconsin from which he received a BA in German Literature and English. Wunderlich earned a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University’s School of the Arts Writing Division where he studied poetry with J.D. McClatchy, William Matthews and Lucie Brock-Broido, among others, and translation with William Weaver and Frank MacShane.

Wunderlich’s first book, The Anchorage, was published in 1999 by the University of Massachusetts Press, and received the Lambda Literary Award. His second book, Voluntary Servitude, was published by Graywolf Press in 2004. A third volume of poems titled The Earth Avails, was published in 2014 and received the 2015 Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas and was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award. He has published individual poems in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Believer, The Paris Review, Slate, Yale Review, The New York Times Magazine and elsewhere. His work has been included in over forty anthologies and has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. His work has been translated into Italian, Bulgarian, Spanish, German, Turkish and Swedish.

Since 2003 he has been a member of the Literature Faculty at Bennington College in Vermont, and where he become the first director of Poetry at Bennington, which is the college’s endowed series of brief residencies by visiting poets. In 2017 he was appointed the Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars graduate writing program. Wunderlich has taught in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, Ohio University and San Francisco State University. He has taught undergraduate writing and literature courses at Stanford University, Barnard College and Stonehill College.

Wunderlich is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Amy Lowell Trust. He is also the recipient of Writers at Work Award, the Jack Kerouac Prize, and a fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the MacDowell Colony. In 2012 he received an Editor’s Prize from the Missouri Review and was also selected for a residency at the Arteles Creativity Center in Hämeenkyrö, Finland. In 2014 he was a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and in 2017 he was the spring Writer in Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut.

As an Arts Administrator, he has worked for the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, the University of Arizona Poetry Center where he was Acting Director, and the Napa Valley Writers Conference. He currently serves on the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

Victoria Chang: Your new book of poems, God of Nothingness (Graywolf, 2021) seems to look back, into and out of memory both literally (gutting old houses) and figuratively. I hate to say that you and I are aging, but we are. What’s the role of memory in these poems?

Mark Wunderlich: As I age, I have become more retrospective, and as a poet, I think much of what I do is to render my experiences, my autobiography and my subjectivity into poems. I also look back at the place of my origin–a rural county in a predominantly rural state–a place that art and culture have largely passed over–and I marvel at some of the experiences of my childhood and adolescence. I want to record those memories, that place and the people I knew there, and to make art about a place that has almost never been described in literature. A friend of mine (he’s a visual artist) and I have an ongoing argument about poets and the ways they self-mythologize, embellish, and even fictionalize their personal histories. He finds it distasteful, while I think that’s just what poets do. Poets create a character, and that character is the Self, writ large. The capital-P-Poet who speaks in poems is a construct–a fictional character. What else can they be? I don’t really believe an accurate self-portrait is even possible, given the limitations of language. I think my friend’s objection has more to do with the prevailing immodesty we poets seem to embrace as we put ourselves and our stories forward in ways that require an extraordinary amount of self-regard, and the poets he likes best are those who don’t seem to write about themselves. I think all poets are writing about themselves, even when they appear not to be. 

Victoria: On the one hand, I agree with your artist friend. On the other hand, I agree with you that this is just what poets do! 

This is your fourth book of poems. One thing I noticed about your publishing history (1999, 2004, 2014, and 2021) is that there are large gaps between books (“large” when compared to many poets). And this new book isn’t particularly long (80 pages or so). This makes me curious about your thoughts about this and also makes me curious about your writing process. Can you talk about both?

Mark: I think most poets publish too much–too often and there’s too much of it. When I see a big fat book of poems, I understand that there will be a lot of padding in there, and that as a reader, I’ll have to wade through a certain amount of dross in order to get to the good stuff, if there’s any to be found. I tend to read the same books of poems over and over–if they are good, and if they reward that kind of attention, and my goal has always been to write the kind of book I want to read. The Duino Elegies has ten poems in it. Geography III is 64 pages long. I’m not so worried about disappearing that I feel I need to publish a book every two years. I also write lots of things–just not poetry–and I write every day. Each of my books of poems has been written within a certain context, within a fairly tightly defined period of time, and they reflect a certain way of thinking and art-making. When I write poems, it has to be driven by some urgency–existential, spiritual, psychological–and not just out of some sense of wanting to see my name in print. 

Victoria: Your response made me laugh. The “padding” you refer to reminds me of extra clothing or extra pounds around the waistline. I also like what you say about fear. I think that with the human project, existential dread is just a part of it. But then for writers, you add onto that the artistic existential dread, and there can be a fear of “disappearing” as you say. In some cases, a fear of never appearing! I’m curious about how your writing and writing process has changed from book to book? 

Mark: From book to book? I think the process has been largely the same–I sit with a notebook in front of me, and I write in it. It’s not all that interesting, really. The goal is to get yourself out of the way of your poems, to lose yourself, to become absorbed and carried away in one’s work so that time stops mattering, so that you’re lost in an interior world of language and association. That’s always the goal, and the process is whatever you require to get you there. For me, it’s about living alone in a place where I remain largely undisturbed, and trying to stave off as many external demands as possible, as often as possible. I think my writing process has been the same, except that for the first two books I lived with two different men (consecutively, mind you), and so there was often their presence lurking somewhere in the background. I have now lived alone for many years, and this is my main necessity for getting anything done. 

Victoria: This idea that there are two men lurking between the words in those first two books made me smile. I think all books have people lurking in between the letters. 

You’ve mostly published with Graywolf Press, except for your first book. How did you end up at Graywolf and what is it like working with such a wonderful press?

Mark: I was recruited by Jeff Shotts. He had recently been promoted, and was acquiring poets for the press, having been giving the opportunity to build the list. He had read my first book, and asked to see the next book, whenever it was ready. Since then, I’ve been lucky to remain there. 

Victoria: Thanks for that–I know that’s not super interesting of a question, but I think sometimes people have publishing curiosities. 

I first read the gorgeous poem, “God of Nothingness” in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day and I immediately fell in love with the poem and now I use it as an example of narrative poems on a regular basis. I noticed in the book, the poem is now in couplets (before, there were no stanzas). What inspired you to change the form of the poem?

Mark: I honestly don’t remember, though I typically don’t like my own poems to look raggedy, and organizing poems into couplets allows me to further refine the poem in some way, while still letting it be a bit loose. 

Victoria: Fascinating, your use of “raggedy.” I call your original form, the “candy bar poem” and while the word raggedy didn’t come to mind, I think the candy bar poem can sometimes feel shut, like suffocating. It can also, for me at least, resemble prose reading.

I think you wrote in a description related to the “God of Nothingness” poem that you were trying to write a narrative poem, but what’s interesting, is that I think so many poems in this book are narrative or at least have narrative threads looping around in them. What is the role of narrative in your poems? What are the challenges to writing narrative poems or narratives within poems? And has the role of narrative in your poems changed over time?

Mark: You know when you meet someone and they begin telling some story, and you just become completely enthralled? That’s what I want to do, and I write poems, so... I think it’s taken me all these years to really learn how to do it. One needs to create a sense of narrative tension, and the story needs to have a point–not like a parable, or anything, but tension needs to accrue and lead somewhere. The main challenge in any narrative is to not be boring, and the question one asks when reading a narrative poem is always, “why are you telling me this?” That needs to become apparent. One doesn’t need drama, necessarily, but one does need tension. I’m not really sure how the narratives have changed over time, but I can say I think I have become more adept at handling narrative, and I have learned how to take a small detail or fragment or anecdote, and turn it into something bigger. 

Victoria: I think that’s good advice for any poem: “why are you telling me this?” When I was the editor for the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, I selected the beautiful poem, “Gone is Gone” which was a poem for Lucie Brock-Broido. I know you were very close to her and I also had the luxury of being her student too so I can sense how special she was. How important has mentorship been to your own writing life? And how do you view mentorship with your students and others?

Mark: I have been very fortunate in my life as a writer that several teachers took interest in my work and in me, and they really did mentor me. They gave me advice, and went out of their way to shepherd my work, and I hope now that I can do the same for more generations of poets. All of us are dependent on other people–teachers, readers, peers–it’s all a big interconnected world of readers and writers, and nothing we do in the world of literature is really independent of that network, nor is anyone’s individual talent so profound that they should be seen has having risen, de novo, from the sea. There are only two reasons to be a poet, and the first is simply the pleasure of making poems, the joy of writing. The other reason is for the company you get to keep, and so the job of a poet is also to forge enduring friendships through the common love of literature. I often despair when I see poets tearing at each other on Twitter, or bellyaching about all the “emotional labor” they expend, or trying to pull down a figure or an organization while doing nothing to build anything up, as if someone else is just going to do that work, clean up the mess, or rebuild what is in tatters. We are all there is. The real task is to be kind and helpful, to support your friends, to create opportunities for others, and to build our organizations without expecting anything in return. In other words, give yourself away. I want to perpetuate a poetry world based on generosity of spirit. 

Victoria: I, too, feel deeply committed to the idea of literary community, but not just the making and building of community, but community that is connected to social justice. But this is not at all to say that this process of community building is always smooth, as we’re seeing in today’s literary landscape. Things feel very difficult right now and I sense that we are in a period of transition. 

Mark:  You’re absolutely right–we are in a period of important transition–a necessary one which I hope is intent on being more just and equitable.  During periods of great change there are bound to be bumps.  It’s important to realize that no one is entitled to an audience; readers and audiences are built and created out of affinity, friendship, a desire for connection and community.  I hope that this is the spirit that can prevail, and that the next generations of poets will take up the hard work of keeping our organizations running, building the literary infrastructure that has the capacity to provide opportunities for everyone.  That’s not easy work, as it involves creating the solutions to thorny problems.  

Victoria: There are some beautiful elegies in your book (your father, Lucie Brock-Broido, cats, lambs, your nephew...). Were these difficult to write? In “First, Chill” at the ending of the poem, you will the dead, “…coldly, to go.” What do you think are some of the challenges of writing elegies?

Mark: I don’t think of writing in terms of “difficulty” much anymore, but in terms of formal approach, technical skills that need to be put into practice. I don’t think writing is painful, I don’t think it’s hard, writers’ block isn’t real, I don’t suffer for my art. Writing is one of the most pleasurable things I do, which is why I keep doing it. Writing about dead people does give me a way to come to terms with the loss of friends and family, and the elegiac mode comes quite naturally to me. The challenges? Not sounding mawkish or sentimental, but these are challenges of any poem. When writing about other people, I’d say don’t use those who don’t have a voice as a way of presenting yourself as a kind of hero. 

Victoria: As I get older and older, and older!, I am finding a lot of pleasure in writing too. This is not to say that writing is all fun and easy, but I love the process of writing. You’ve articulated a key challenge of writing the so-called “political poem”–I’ve seen plenty of poems where a situation is presented in a way that seems mostly to elevate the speaker as hero or savior. 

Violence seems to be something that circles around in your poems, alongside beauty and the natural environment. Maybe also the tension between vulnerability and agency? Can you talk more about these tensions?

Mark: America is a violent country, and we are part of an intensely violent culture. There exists too, a kind of casual violence in rural America, and I grew up trying to outsmart and dodge those who would, given the chance, be more than happy to kick my ass just for something to do. The patriarchal culture I’m from considered corporal punishment to be part of growing up, a necessary corrective when applied to children. As a gay person, I’ve been the victim of hate crimes and I’ve been threatened, harassed, and assaulted. I write about that in this book, but I want to be very clear about my rejection of any claim to some sort of victim status, which these days confers upon people a kind of authority among the academic and artistic Left. I prefer my authority to stem from my work in the world–from what I do and say, rather than from what others have done to me, and yet I carry these scars around with me.  

Victoria: I think writing about some of the things that other people have said or done to a writer, can be a form of agency and rejection of victimhood. In many ways, writing is a bold and brave action that someone can do in the face of these assaults. 

Mark: I think that’s true. The difficulty there lies in the ways in which these narratives follow a set pattern, become predetermined, and we end up with poems that tell readers what they already know and which become performances of moral arousal. The process you describe is a quasi therapeutic one, and while that may be personally fulfilling, I am hesitant to assign to literature the responsibility to help the writer achieve better mental hygiene. I don’t see that as the purpose of art making, but we may disagree there.

Victoria: I think we may agree more than not. I’ve been thinking hard about these questions as I’ve been reading a book that has a lot of trauma in it. I’ve had to think about the relationship between the speaker and the reader and the role of writing trauma. Ultimately, I think there can be more than one purpose of art making and different audiences/readers for different kinds of work. 

I really like the poem, “The Prodigal”–there’s so much pain between the speaker and the “old man” which I presume is the speaker’s father? This epigraph also does a lot of work: “A certain man had two sons...” from Luke 15:11. This poem either feels like it was easy to write or really hard to write. Can you talk about the writing process for this poem?

Mark: I’m glad you like that poem, and to be honest, I wrote it very quickly. It’s a poem full of many details–most of them taken from my life–and the poem thinks about the parable of the Prodigal Son, which has always struck me as being particularly stupid and cruel to the poor brother who stayed home and kept things running. The poem gives voice to that brother–within a contemporary context. 

Victoria: There are also animals everywhere (in your life and poems, it seems), and I love all the sounds of these creatures (woodchuck, bats, squirrels, coyotes, dogs, lambs, horses). There’s also the death of a lot of animals too like poor sweet Cuthbert, the lamb, and your mare and gelding. You also hunt. What’s the role of animals in your life and in your poems? 

Mark: I grew up with animals all around me–both wild and domestic–and my relationship with other creatures is a complex one. In our contemporary American context, most people only have experience with companion animals–mostly dogs and cats. My own life has been one in which I lived and worked around livestock, and my family hunted, trapped, and fished. My relationship with domesticated animals is one of respect, and one in which I try to avoid sentimentality and the soft thinking that leads us to project our feelings and sense of self onto creatures whose own animal-ness should be seen as having its own integrity. I think dogs are unique in the story of human evolution, in that they have been with us since the beginning; they are in our heads and we are in theirs. I also think the process of selective breeding which creates what we call domestication, is a process of making animals that will take us into account, will relate to humans. I love being around and looking at animals, but I think this too is something we have inherited–just think of the subjects of cave paintings. Animals are like us, but not us at all, and one of the places I have been happiest and freest in my life has been on horseback. I write about animals because I am fascinated by them and I want to understand them better. 

Victoria: That’s very beautiful. As I was reading “Death of a Cat” and “The Indifference of Horses,” I kept on thinking about solitude, the life of silence, and loneliness. I realize now that I don’t know much about how you live–it sounds like you live alone? I know you’ve touched on this a little already, but what’s the role of solitude/how important is solitude in your writing practice? In your life?

Mark: I live alone in a state of joyful solitude, in a 300-year-old house in the countryside with a small acreage–a kind of farmette. I have neighbors, but we have decided to speak only out of dire necessity, and we share a mutual dislike of one another. I have a partner, but we do not live together; he lives in a cottage in a bosky dell on the other side of the Hudson. We have different standards of housekeeping which would make cohabitation a struggle, but this way it doesn’t matter one bit. Living alone is the one luxury of any value to me. My house and yard and gardens are all mine to structure as I like, and the longer I live here the more they seem like an extension of my inner life as they change in response to my labors and my wishes. I write my poems in this house, and it means something to me to be in this place that was built decades before the American Revolution, and which will be here long after I’m dead. I am a sociable person and like company, but when I’m alone I almost never crave companionship, and I feel that my poems stem from my willed solitude, from a state I can occupy in which I am lost inside the books I love, and the work I write. 

Victoria: Wow, I’m so struck by your life and how opposite it is from mine! What you describe here sounds lovely and the part about your neighbor made me laugh. Sometimes just knowing there’s mutual dislike is oddly freeing. 

In your poem, “On the Autobiographical Impulse,” you pose questions that begin: “Does it matter...”, followed by autobiographical facts such as “Does it matter that I worked in a factory” or “Does it matter that I know how to hunt...” How did this poem come to fruition? And what is your view on autobiography in poems?

Mark: I wrote that poem while doing a residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, and I remember starting it with the lines you quote. We currently live in a moment in which identity is paramount, the center of countless efforts and conversations and arguments, but I found myself increasingly bewildered by what I saw as essentialist ideas of identity that are being codified in the culture. The poem questions some of those notions, though I don’t think I arrive at any clear answers. 

Autobiography is just what we have to write about. What else do we have but our own experience of the world? I also don’t really see autobiography as being about me in some pure and representative way. The first-person is a character we create, a fiction that is aligned (perhaps) with the self, but which isn’t the self at all. The autobiographical self I create in poems is a created thing, a simulacrum of selfhood. One of the magical powers poems have is their ability to make people believe they represent some objective truth. Given that near-universal assumption, why not just say what happened? 

Victoria: This is so true about the first-person character–we make the character. Tell me about your Rilke correspondence class! How did this idea come about, how are the students reacting, what are you including in your letters? 

Mark: A year ago, when the pandemic began, I was teaching in person. One of the last communal activities I did was to attend a group training on how to use Zoom, and later that week I was teaching remotely as part of this new virtual experience we all found ourselves in. How did we decide that video conferencing was the best substitute for in-person teaching? I think we just like faces so much that it seemed like the right thing, but what did people do before there was such a thing as Zoom? I direct a low-residency writing program, and for 27 years, students and teachers have been working with each through the exchange of letters. I wanted to see if that would work with undergraduates, and so I proposed a class in which I wrote to students, and they wrote back. 

The results of the class were both exciting and occasionally overwhelming. I loved writing to them about the work we read together, and I loved receiving their letters to me which affected a tone that was at times intimate, but which performed exactly as I had hoped, in that they related their reading to the lived life. Perhaps it was the form which the letters took, but I was delighted by the way they offered critical attention to the work while thinking about their own circumstances. There were some hitches along the way–a suddenly erratic and sabotaged US Postal Service being chief among them–but I would do it again–with modifications. 

Victoria: That process sounds so lovely. I also imagine that many of your students haven’t written letters before! There are a suite of prose poems or more prose-like pieces in your book called “Five Cold Stories.” I have this feeling you would write really beautiful and arresting prose. Are you writing any prose or thinking about writing any prose?

Mark: I have been writing a series of prose poems lately. Whether they will always be prose poems remains to be seen. I am also working on a book-length work of nonfiction that is a kind of memoir of reading the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s working title is Neighboring Solitudes. 

Victoria: Thank you for speaking with me! It’s been a pleasure.