A Big House with Many Rooms: A Conversation with Connie Wanek

by James Crews

Connie Wanek is the author of three collections of poetry: Bonfire (1997), winner of the New Voices Award from New Rivers Press; Hartley Field (2002), and most recently, On Speaking Terms (2010), published by Copper Canyon Press. She is also co-editor, with Joyce Sutphen and Thom Tammaro, of To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present (2006). Wanek was named a Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, and in 2009, was named George Morrison Artist of the Year. She lives in the country outside Duluth, Minnesota. She and I conducted this interview via email March-May of 2013.

James Crews: In another interview, I read that you started your creative life as a painter. How did you make the switch to being a poet, and do you think there’s a connection between the visual arts and poetry?

Connie Wanek: I truly wish I had been a painter.  I could draw when I was young, but color frightened me.  It seemed like such a commitment!  I could erase my pencil marks before they embarrassed me.

But this is a question I love, because I see the urge to create in so many people.  Maybe it’s like fruit trees.  Do you want to make peaches, or would you rather make cherries?  Well, one thing will be more authentic for you than another.  Climate may work against you.  You might have to move to a north-facing slope.

Friends of mine paint, and I hope to, in my next life.  To be really good at something: it takes a long time.

There is enormous cross-pollination between the visual arts and poetry.  You can get a green card and work in both countries, maybe.

Have you spent time thinking about the merits of being a writer versus being a painter?  If you have something published, you don’t have to give it up.  But if you paint something you think is good, it’s likely you’ll have to sell it.  Of course, that means you’ll have earned money, a sign of legitimacy.

As far as the switch from “wanting to be an artist” to “wanting to be a poet,” that happened in college.  Freshman year.  I was scorned in the art department and praised in the English department, and I followed praise, as one does, though to be thorough, I will say that I had been writing poems since childhood. I had dual citizenship, one might say.

JC: So, now I’m curious: why were you “scorned in the art department”? As someone who also had aspirations of being an artist, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how it might be “better” to be a painter, rather than a poet (and I often think of Frank O’ Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter”).

In some ways, the acts are quite similar: both require precise attention and often take a long time to complete. And a finished painting hangs on a wall in the same way that a poem appears on the page in a book or a journal. Painting and poetry are both lonely acts, and neither requires the creator’s presence to be appreciated by an audience.

Do you feel that poetry has an audience these days? And how do you envision the audience for your own poems?

CW: I was scorned in the art department in college because what I was doing was not what was “happening.”  That is, I drew things just how they looked.  Boring!  But that was fine, really.  Here we may be approaching the whole “craft” versus “art” discussion, because I was (am?) at heart a craftsperson, but actually, we could be rushing ahead to what you mentioned:  the question of an audience.

In painting, of course, the “I know what I like” folks often appreciate something pretty, and something accurate, and maybe something that reminds them of a place or person they love.  They have a certain expectation.  I’m thinking of a living room I saw that had a number of paintings of bears.  These people liked bears.  Good enough.

Similarly, some folks have an idea of what poems are.  They are about certain subjects and they tug on certain strings.  Rhyme makes it easier to memorize poems, as my grandmother did.  There’s something really lovely about bonding to certain words, certain images, and closing your eyes and reciting–just like some people pray, to give them that feeling that they are disappearing into the vast, kind universe.

There are many audiences for poetry, not just one.  Some audiences are larger, especially if the poet keeps readers in mind when he or she writes.  I do think readers want to feel connected to the poem, intellectually and emotionally.  You might think this goes without saying.  Some poets connect better than others.  ”Only connect,” Forster said.  I feel like he said this in a sort of urgent tone of voice, don’t you?

But to be completely frank, I can’t think of an audience when I write, not even one single person.  It would do me good to try.  But in the middle of scratching away at the paper with my pencil, I think I am in the search for truth.  Ha!  And I don’t even believe that there is a single truth.  I just keep looking.  It’s my most earnest effort, impossible as it is.

JC: I love what you say about there being many audiences for poetry–not just one. And, knowing your poems like “Broom” and “Checkers,” (see p 322) it makes sense to me that you don’t envision just one reader, that what drives you is a search for truth (or truths) by closely examining everyday objects and domestic scenes.

It seems to me that this refusal to limit yourself, or the scope of your work, also makes it more universal and accessible. Why do you think so many poets nowadays ignore (or scorn) Forster’s imperative, “Only connect”? Does it say something about the literary culture? Are there poets to whom you turn for examples of how to connect intellectually and emotionally with a reader?

CW: I think what seems old-fashioned about my poems is sincerity.  I think poems like “Broom” and “Checkers” imply that poems are everywhere, and don’t necessarily require trips to Italy (though that can be fabulous, of course). People can write poetry sitting on the kitchen floor in the afternoon, guarding the silence so the toddler doesn’t wake up from her nap. People can write poetry at 5 am, before the rest of the house stirs. People can write down their ideas on break at their jobs, back in the Employees’ Lounge or out on the sidewalk with the smokers.

Really, I think young poets need always to “make it new” as Pound said.  It would be a stagnant, boring world if people weren’t continually experimenting and stretching and finding new forms.

Making sense, in itself, is not much of a recommendation.  But I do feel that poems have to offer a reader (or an audience) some pleasure, some satisfaction, or there’s really no point in writing.  Why?  Just for your own satisfaction?  Sure!  That’s fine!  But if you want an audience, you will have to earn one.  You’ll need to figure that out.

I don’t know why anyone would scorn Forster’s imperative.  You needn’t scorn it in order to abandon it, if that is your ambition.  Poetry is a big house with many rooms, some with a view, some intensely interior.  Find where you are comfortable.

I love so many poets, it’s hard to name just a few.  ”Bards of Old” like Donne, Marvell.  Whitman and Dickinson.  All these–obvious!  Tranströmer and Szymborska, Neruda, Rilke (especially his “thing” poems that were influenced by Rodin), Bly and Kooser and Kumin and Pastan, friends like Joyce Sutphen and Louis Jenkins and Patricia Kirkpatrick and ever-so-many more, and I’m longing here to do the impossible and honor all whose work I admire. We live in a rich time for great poetry.  I read the Bible for the stories (King James for the language), Shakespeare.  I love fiction and have so many loyalties.  What appeals to me?  Clarity and compression.  Lively language.  Accuracy.  Humor.  And the sudden piercing image.  Have you ever read Tranströmer’s long poem called “Baltics?”  It was first published as a slender green book.  It is, to me, magnificent.

There is no “best” in the arts.  But there is great art.

JC: Since you approach poetry as a craftsperson, (and since you have rebuilt and restored houses for a living), it makes sense that you’d envision poetry as a sprawling house, offering its residents whatever kind of room they’re looking for. It does seem to be our job to “make it new” both for ourselves and others.

That makes me think of a line from the poem, “St. Hans’ Night,” in your first book, Bonfire: “One knows the world, yet is/ continually astonished.” I see that astonishment in the other poets you mentioned and throughout your own work as well. There are many ways to astonish too, but as you say, if we’re looking for an audience, we have to find a way to astonish readers while also surprising ourselves.

How do you think one achieves clarity, accuracy and sincerity in the writing (if that’s what they’re looking for)? I know there’s no universal formula, but what would you recommend for poets who are also seeking some truth (or truths) in their work?

CW: People must find their own way as they write, or else we would all write like each other.  Maybe we do all write like each other, though, and just don’t realize it, because we all have such convictions about our “individuality.”

Here’s a funny story. Once I was in the vestibule of a church waiting with a bunch of other Duluthians, a rather rag-tag assembly, for a church rummage sale to begin.  It was raining or snowing or both, as usual in Duluth, and we were kind of crammed in, making room for newcomers to share the shelter, knowing that any minute the doors would open and we could pour in and start grabbing stuff.  Maybe you’ve been to something like that?

I was convinced that I was somehow “better” than these people, even though I’m not.  Why would I be better?  Education?  I read books?  I have most of my teeth (the ones that show anyway)?  I pick the best brands among all the used clothes?  All my buttons are buttoned?

Someone dropped a dollar and someone else picked it up and gave it back, and then began some stories about “found money.”  Change in the snow, a ten in the pocket of a pair of pants bought at a rummage sale, etc.  One lady said, “Once I was standing in line to get into the St. Michael’s sale, and I saw a five dollar bill setting on the ground.  Very slowly, so as not to attract attention, I put my foot over it.  Then when they opened the doors and everyone was going in, I picked it up!”

I think maybe you need the capacity to recognize honesty when you see it.  There might be a difference between being honest and being truthful.  The truth is, everything changes.  But you can be honest about those changes.  You can try not to fool yourself, especially about yourself.

Maybe we have to unlearn as much as we have to learn, to be an innocent and see things afresh.  Yet keep our powers of speech.