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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




I first “met” Ingrid Wendt ten years ago, on the Wom-Po Listserve, a discussion group for contemporary women’s poetry.  We’ve been friends via email ever since.  Ingrid  is the author of five books of poems, two anthologies, a book-length teaching guide, numerous articles and reviews, and more than 200 individual poems in such magazines and anthologies as Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Antioch Review, Northwest Review, Ms., and No More Masks! An Anthology of 20th Century American Women Poets.  Among her honors are the Oregon Book Award, the 2004 Editions Prize from WordTech Editions, the 2003 Yellowglen Award from Word Press, the Carolyn Kizer Award, several Pushcart nominations, and the D.H. Lawrence Award. She has been a Senior Fulbright Professor at the University of Frankfurt/Main, Germany and a Fulbright Senior Specialist at the University of Freiburg.

Barbara Crooker:
Sylvia Plath said, "I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still."  Why do you write? What brought you to writing?
Ingrid Wendt:
What “brought me to writing” was my lifelong love of words, in whatever form. Stories, jingles, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, nursery rhymes, novels. . . even poems.
    Maybe I write (to use metaphors from my years as a pianist) from the need to create something tangible, out of the sense of wonder, power and beauty of the physical world:  something that does not dissolve into silence after the last chord is struck, something not dependent on finger dexterity and the absence of stage fright, in any given moment. 
    I write because, as a failed concert pianist, I cannot give my total concentration to a wordless beauty.  Try though I may, I cannot practice for the necessary hours; I cannot keep words out of my head.
    I write to get close to a spiritual center, to be “good enough” in the presence of it. 
    I write long poems, sometimes, which offer multiple ways of getting at the truth. 
    Life is too full of grief, too much awareness, too much joy; writing is my way of staying "present" and still sane.
    I really wanted, as a high school and college student, to be a fiction writer.  But at my small liberal arts college, Cornell of Iowa, the creative writing teacher was Robert Dana, a poet.  He gave us a wonderful assignment: to write a very formal, highly structured, poem of three stanzas, six lines per stanza, iambic tetrameter, with a set rhyme scheme.  Well, with that kind of structure, there was no way I’d be able to write something I already knew.  The poem as “the act of discovery” was exhilarating in a way I’d never guessed writing could be.  I was totally and completely hooked.

Hooked, indeed, with many poems published, and four full-length books.  How did you go about structuring your books?  Did you have a plan or an outline, with some of the poems written and then others written to fill in, or did you lay out your poems like a giant jigsaw puzzle and try to piece together how the poems grouped, what their relationships were?

All of the above. For the first book, Moving the House, I grouped the poems according to topic: house-moving (a real event!), the Oregon landscape (into which I'd moved, from my Midwest roots), and relationships. The first section was lacking in volume, so I did write a few new poems to fill in. With Singing the Mozart Requiem, I laid out the poems on the floor many different times, with a different result each time. I sent it out to many contests. Each year it didn't win, I re-structured.
    Then came a period of about fifteen years when I was writing what seemed to be three different books, each with its own focus/form. The poems I wrote during this time fell rather naturally into one of three main categories: the significance and complexities of my German heritage, travel poems (the American West, Italy, and Norway), and personal poems: mothering, daughtering, balancing relationships, balancing myself.
    So, during these fifteen or so years, I had three big file boxes collecting poems that would someday appear together in book form.  None of the books was long or complex enough for a full-length volume, although I did publish a chapbook (Blow the Candle Out) out of two of the poem sequences.  At that time, I didn’t foresee there would be another two sequences in the offing.
    Easiest to arrange was The Angle of Sharpest Ascending.  I never planned to write a book with four very long poem sequences, which I think of as essays in the form of connected poems. The first sequence I wrote ended up as part three of the book, written after a transformative Fulbright year teaching at the University of Frankfurt/Main. Parts one and two came next while working collaboratively with two German visual artists at the Villa Waldberta south of Munich, on the Starnberger Lake. Part four grew out of another collaboration, this time in Eugene, Oregon, where I live. By then, there was firm evidence that the four sequences could form a book; the only question was ordering them.
    Surgeonfish, which contains poems of travel, went through many re-structurings: chronological, topical, thematic. The poems were—many times—all over the floor.
    My recently-completed full-length book, Sanctuary, also has gone through countless re-orderings, again, all over the floor. There was the temptation to clump poems together topically (love poems in a group, etc.), but that felt too boring, too predictable. The current order—which I hope is the last—operates thematically: 1) misconceptions, 2) the many roles of language in shaping our lives, and 3) confrontations with mortality.

Let me ask you some questions about The Angle of  Sharpest Ascending.  On your web site,  you say that these poems “speak of what it is to be German American, born in this country, and of the still unresolved grief and shame inherited by an entire generation of Germans born during and shortly after the Second World War.  The poems are also an exploration of the presence and/or absence of guiding moral and ethical principles in our modern times.”  How do you feel about this currently, in light of what’s happened in the world since you wrote these poems?  Is this something you’ve explored further, in later work?  Also, in “Coda:  Rune,” you write, “What voices of the past have we not chosen?”  Are you finding other parts of your past you have yet to write?

If you’d asked me this first question before last November 4th,  I’d have had a much different answer.  The amazing and wonderful thing I’m seeing right now—and I know I’m not alone—is  that we suddenly do have some “guiding moral and ethical principles” that are starting to unite our country.  We are—many of us in America—articulating our belief that each of us has the responsibility to heal the planet,  to care for each other, to work for human rights on all kinds of fronts:  racial, ethnic, sexual preference, to name a few.  I hope I’m not using the pronoun “we” too loosely.  The election of Barack Obama to the presidency is the most exciting political event of my lifetime, more exciting than the election of JFK (which was pretty exciting) when I was a teenager.
    There is still work to be done, however, regarding the “voices of the past.”  I’m thinking specifically of the Native American genocide in this country in previous centuries, and how there seems to be no commonly-shared sense of culpability or inherited guilt  among my contemporaries.   Look at today’s Germans:  younger people are still suffering the guilt and shame of the actions of their grandparents and great-grandparents.  I have cousins in Germany my age (in their 50s and 60s) who are still struggling with ambivalence.  Is it possible for them to love the parents who were complicit in the Holocaust?
    When I first came to Oregon as a new college graduate, I drove with two friends from Iowa all the way across this vast country.  It was my first cross-country drive.  We stopped often at “historical markers,” many of which told of this or that battle, and I got—first-hand, and for the first time—a sense of the enormous scale of not only our land, but how much of it was taken away from the “first peoples.” 
    My husband, Ralph Salisbury, is of English, Irish, and Cherokee-Shawnee descent, and has published several books of poetry and fiction based on his mixed race family's experience in modern society.  As the editor of the historical section of the Oregon Poetry Anthology From Here We Speak (OSU Press, 1993), I learned that within the borders of this state there lived at one time more than forty-five distinct Indian tribal groups, who spoke over twenty distinct languages.  I mean, this genocide was enormous, huge.  And that’s just this one state.   I also found, in the pioneer magazines and journals of the 19th century poem after poem exalting the land so many of the authors seemed to think was made just for them.  My last months of working on that book led me into a depression of sorts, which I still have to work—that is write—my way through.
    In The Angle of Sharpest Ascending, I approach some of these issues in the poem-sequence titled “‘Memory/Memorial’:  Theme and Variations.”   The first part of the ninth section  refers to a piece of recent history, here in my current hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  For many years a Christian cross dominated the skyline on “Skinner’s Butte,” a large hill at the north edge of the downtown area, and the ACLU and other activist groups protested its presence on the basis that it did not speak to or for all of the residents of our town.  They finally succeeded in getting it removed.  But what took its place?  An enormous flagpole, with the American flag on it.  How does this represent the memory of the Kalapooya people whose village no longer stands at the base of the hill?

Excellent questions, all.  Do you think that “poetry makes nothing happen,” (Auden) or can it lead, do you think, to reconciliation?

Maybe I can answer this with an anecdote.  My long poem, “Learning the Mother Tongue,” the first poem-sequence  in The Angle of Sharpest Ascending, was published several years ago by a literary magazine.  The editor of another magazine wrote to thank me personally for that poem, saying that her son had recently married a young woman from Germany, and the editor—being Jewish—had been having a hard time with that.  My poem, she said, helped her break through her resistance to welcoming her new daughter-in-law into the family.  So yes, there are times when poetry can lead to reconciliation.   On the other hand, if I were to write poetry specifically for that purpose, it might not work.  My German sculptor-friend and one of the project collaborators, Susi Rosenberg, whose mother was an Auschwitz survivor,  is adamant that no reconciliation is ever possible when it comes to the Holocaust.  Maybe we just do what we must, and if our work moves someone towards a peaceful understanding, so much the better.  Until then, poetry “exists in the valley of its making”. . . .

In this ekphrastic section of the book (“Memory/Memorial”), did the shape of the sculpture determine the shape of your stanzas, or was it vice versa, as this was a collaborative work?  Put another way, did you write first in a different format and reconfigure later?  And can you talk further on how, exactly, did the collaboration evolve between you and Traude Linhardt, whose work “Time: Word: Space:” is also the subject of “Suite for the Spirit’s Geometry”?  How did you influence her work?

Yes, the shape of (part of) the sculpture influenced the shape of the “Memory/Memorial” stanzas.  The sculpture consisted partly of hand-poured concrete squares/blocks in a long row of stacks of ascending height: one block, two blocks, three blocks, up to ten. The top square of each stack was recessed on the top diagonally, and that recessed half contained standing water.  The sculptor’s concept referenced the nearly-universal understanding of rivers as places of memory and healing.  But Rosenberg asks, “What if you have a river that does not flow?”  
    This poem sequence has ten sections.  Seven of them echo the shape of the top cement blocks. Each of these seven sections is divided into two parts: the top part with flush-left margins, the bottom half with flush-right margins.   The lines of the top section end so that the last words  form a diagonal across and down the page, and the lines of the bottom section begin so that they form a diagonal across and up the page. These two halves of the poem are shaped almost as mirror images of each other.
    The remaining three sections incorporate other sculptural elements: the fifth and the tenth section of the sequence are vertical pillars, referencing the ascending heights of the blocks.  The sixth section is a diagonal slash across the page from bottom left to top right:  a mimesis of the “either/or” slash of the poem’s title, and, thus, thematically significant. 
    Word choices were determined by font style, size, and line length.  The font determined the number of characters and spaces in each line.  The lines also (in order to please my personal aesthetic) needed to read musically and conceptually as “lines.” 
    The collaboration with painter Traude Linhardt also included sculptor Rosenberg. The three of us received a grant from the Cultural Ministry of Munich (Kulturreferat) for a one-month residency at the Villa Waldberta in the spring of 1997.  I was given an apartment in an old hunting lodge on the banks of Lake Starnberg, south of Munich.  Susi and Traude shared an art studio on the grounds.  The three of us spent one or two hours each day talking about what the title/theme (Time: Word: Space:) meant to each of us.  One idea I explored was how time superimposes events and places on top of each other.  Traude demonstrated this visually by painting on large plastic sheets, which she hung on three long wires.  The images on one sheet could be seen through two others hung in front of it, so her form(s) evolved out of the ideas we were exploring.  Similarly, the images I used in the long poem sequence also grew out of these concepts.  Such a backward way of working (concept first, image second) was an entirely new way of working for me.  Challenging! 
    With the success of this venture, I was encouraged to take on yet one more collaboration, two years later:  with Susi Rosenberg (for whom I found funding to bring from Munich to the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where I live), and with Ingeborg Kolar, who lived part of her youth in Munich and now, as an adult, lives in Corvallis, Oregon (an hour from Eugene).  I found Inge through her work:  her MFA (photography) thesis exhibit was a tribute to her father, a German physician lost in an attack on the WWII submarine on which he was serving.  So there we had Susi, whose mother survived Auschwitz, and Inge, whose father was lost at sea in a Nazi submarine, and—in the middle—me, of German heritage, born in the States, not speaking German, and feeling that (to use the words of singer/songwriter Holly Near, “It could have been me, but instead it was you.”) my perspective could add a new dimension to the dialogue-in-art between Susi and Inge.  What a challenge!

Next, in terms of challenges, your fifth book, Surgeonfish, was quite a departure.  You write on your webpage that it tackles “our human ‘place’ in the natural world and our uniquely American ‘place’ in the global order of things.  Poems are set in Norway, Italy, the Middle East, and the American West.”  What drew you to these places, biography or serendipity?

A little of both, I’d say.   It all connects.   Biography places us in the line of serendipity, and vice versa.   Take Norway, for example.  My husband and I spent the summer of 1994 in Norway on his Fulbright Research Fellowship.  He’d applied for this fellowship knowing that I’d be teaching in Germany in the academic year 1994-95 on a Fulbright Senior Professorship, and we could (together) do back-to-back residencies in Northern Europe.
    Ralph’s 1994 project was to fine-tune his already-completed translation of books by Sami (Lapp) poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.  His finding those books was also serendipitous, and grew out of a meeting with Norwegian and Finnish poets at an international writers’ conference in Helsinki to which we were both invited in 1987. At that conference Ralph put out a call to the indigenous people of the far north asking to be put in touch with some of their poets.  What ensued is a story too long for this space, but—in essence—I  was able to travel with Ralph to Norway and take advantage of our travels, mostly above the Arctic Circle, with Norwegian/Sami friends, and on our own.  I also did some recreational scuba diving in a fjord 250 miles North of the Arctic Circle, near Tromsø, where we lived for 3 months; some images in “Epithalamion from Norway” came from that amazing (and chilly) experience.
    Also, because of my teaching year in Frankfurt/Main, I was able to use our spring break and  last-minute fares to do some diving in the Red Sea.  We stayed at Sharm-el-Sheikh, close to the tip of the Sinai peninsula and took a snorkeling tour around the very tip, the literal tip of the triangle, where I ventured too close to the breeding grounds of the extremely beautiful surgeonfish.  One of them attacked me, slashing my calf with its sharp dorsal fin.   Thus the title poem of the book, Surgeonfish, which has a Valkeapää painting on the cover (can be seen on my website: www.ingridwendt.com)

How do you keep your travel poems from becoming “tourist drive-bys”?  Instead, I think you use the world of travel as an organic part of your work, and I’m interested in how you achieve this.

Something not often said about getting older: we learn to trust that one thing inevitably leads to another, and that it will be something we can learn from.  No matter what it is, we will learn from it.  In traveling, I’ve tried to stay open to differences between what I’ve expected and what I’ve found, between stereotype and fact, between the values I grew up with and those of the culture I’m visiting.  Maybe part of my approach has its roots  in the values I was taught as a child: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  I took that seriously.  I still do.   One of the ways I try to understand the world is to see myself as “the other.” 
    When wondering how and why the vast majority of German citizens were silent on the transgressions of their leaders, I have only to look at the last eight years of the Bush regime, and how difficult it has been for ordinary Americans to speak out.  And we haven’t been nearly as threatened with loss of income or incarceration as were the German people in the 1930s.
    On another front, when I first traveled to Norway, in 1994, I was painfully aware of how little we, in the United States, even consider that Scandinavia has had splendid artists, musicians, and writers.  Why did we never study them in school?  Why did I not know that Norway was invaded by the Germans?  Not until I lived for several months above the Arctic Circle did I even suspect that being of German heritage left a visible black mark on my soul.
    There are so many other ways I could have grown up, so many assumptions I could have inherited.  Putting myself in the place of those who live wherever I visit (Utah, for example; I’ve had many poets-in-the-schools residencies there), has given me insights and a willingness to forgive whatever it is—ideologies,  politics, social and spiritual issues—I find distasteful or incomprehensible, and the ability to avoid “cultural exploitation,” which is a kind of “drive by,” isn’t it?  Not a shooting, but a kind of death, all the same.

I find these poems spiritual in the deepest sense.  Could you speak a bit about the intersection of poetry and faith, and poetry and the ecology?

Thank you for asking, Barbara.  Answering is a bit like coming out of the closet—in  a spiritual, rather than sexual, sense—which is good for me.  Never, ever—until quite recently—have I thought of myself as, or wanted to be known as,  a “spiritual” poet. Why this was, I’m not sure. Maybe because in my early contacts with poets in the academy, the path of spirituality was (and still is, in some places) highly suspect.  Poets I knew and admired might  have scoffed. Spiritual matters have often in “commercial” poetry not been explored so much as have been the victims of certainty.
    I’ve been something of an agnostic for many years. I use the word “God” often, but not—I’m quite sure—as others use it.  Raised in the Protestant (Congregational) church, I stopped attending weekly worship services when I was in my 20s, very long ago.  How could I be a spiritual poet and not go to church, or, worse yet, know what I believed?   Somehow it never occurred to me that a quest could be full of uncertainty and still be “spiritual.”
    In recent years, however, I’ve had poems published in anthologies of spiritual writing (The Sacred Place), and in magazines (Behold: Arts for the Church Year).  And I’ve discovered the prose writings of Kathleen Norris, Kathleen Dean Moore, Terry Tempest Williams, Thomas Montgomery-Fate.  These brave writers have not shied away from using the word “spiritual.”  Reading their work, I feel authentic. Emboldened.  Not so alone.  I find it possible now, and even desirable, to use words like “testament.”
    Looking way, way back, I think the first poetry I really heard, really internalized, was the poetry of the King James Bible, many passages of which I had to memorize for Sunday School, such as Psalm 23,  Psalm 100, I Corinthians 13.  I really didn’t know what the words were saying, but the music of the passages held me captive. 
    I’ve always had a highly-developed sense of conscience.  Is that my Protestant upbringing, or being raised by a mother who told me that God would see my every move?  When it comes to the environment, I seem to be part savior, part hedonist.  What I love so dearly must survive.   This comes out, I think, in all of my books.

Crooker: As you see your work evolving, what are your concerns and themes in your new manuscript?

They’re what they always have been, though more explicit, more autobiographically recent. I’m writing more about family issues, specifically the mother-daughter relationship,  things I couldn’t bring myself to write about while my mother was living.  Lots of writers have done this, I think.  My mother and I had a very troubled relationship, which grew worse as I grew up.   I’ve been making peace with that, with her, and with my own bumbling self, taking responsibility, maybe, for at least part of the troubles.   She was really quite a marvelous woman, ahead of her time, but without appreciation or appropriate intellectual outlets.
    Part of our troubles came from a lack of communication.   I once wrote down something Paula Gunn Allen, the Acoma Pueblo poet and essayist, said at one of her readings, “I can be responsible for what I say, but I can’t be responsible for what you hear.”   I’d say something, meaning one thing, and my mother would hear something else.  (And vice versa, I suppose.)
    I have always had this overblown sense of responsibility for clarity, for making things “right.”   That theme is in all of my books so far, and it will be in the next one, which is currently titled Sanctuary.  The middle (second) section of Sanctuary has quite a few poems with titles like “On One of the Lesser-Acclaimed Functions of Swearing,” and “Some Words to Toss Your Direction,” “Silence,” and “Repartee.”
    Some are family poems, some are love poems never before published from the years before my marriage, resurrected from dusty drawers and revised up to my own harsh standards.  There are poems about music (one of my paths to the spirit) and poems about the mother-daughter relationship from two angles: being a daughter; being a mother.  Many poems in the final section venture into the land of death: my father’s, my mother’s, the deaths of friends.   Anticipating death.  Exploring the possibilities of an afterlife.  In terms of style, I’d be pleased if my work could become a bit more explicit. 

Crooker: I always think poetry should have the last word. How about a poem that sums up this conversation:

Wendt:  Here’s the title poem from the next book:


As flocks of birds from the depths of the field rise
        in unison, arc and wheel and dip       
                with no one bird in the lead
        and settle again into land

As fish in their silent schools flash
        silver together:      
                pivot and pivot again on the same
        invisible axis

When the music begins and we, in our separate
        sections, stop    
                that inner, ever-
        present mental chatter and join

Together in song, again I forget
        that in the last election    
                the second
        soprano next to me almost certainly voted wrong

That in tomorrow’s headlines the next
        suicide bomber will take away more     
                lives than any one
        heart can mourn.  That in the next

Town a friend lies dying, that global
        warming tomorrow will give us     
                yet one more
        extinction.   Here,

Flood waters rising will threaten
        no one.   
                Tenderness rises
        and is not scorned or shunned.     

Anger on the horizon crashes and rolls, 
        breaks without mercy       
                over our heads and no
        harm is done.       

What is sacred space if not this shelter of song?                     
        What is prayer if not these measures
                in which the heart
        can pour itself out, out, out, and the notes

Will catch it, help bear it along?   Moments in which
        each wounded and fragmented self
                abides again in the wonder of wholeness.       
        Here.  In this place.  This home.

(Published in Dona Nobis Pacem, a limited-edition anthology of poems on peace, printed by the Lane (County) Literary Guild, Eugene, OR, April, 2006, for a choral concert featuring Vaughn Williams’ piece by that same name.  Republished in Runes, A Review of Poetry, Oct. 2006)



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