An interview with Sidney Wade
Interview by Arthur McMaster
Arthur McMaster: I have all five of your poetry volumes, Sidney, and frankly they are all different, thematically. That said, you seem to be given to write in received form as much as in free verse, or in hybrid "form." Is this something you do deliberately, and why?
Sidney Wade: I have always felt that form, rather than constraining the imagination, generates it and creates surprises. Frost said, "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." I don't always write in form, received or otherwise--a handful of my poems are written in free verse, but I'm a much happier and surprisier writer, it seems to me, when I have the challenges of working within a form. I love subverting form as well, and I adore the sonnet. It is the scrappiest, most flexible, most enduring form we have, in my opinion, and I love doing violence to it. Paul Muldoon has wreaked havoc on the sonnet as well, but it always manages to maintain its "sonnetude," its very essence. I enjoy hiding the forms I write in; for instance, I'll write a sonnet that rhymes, perfectly, like this: ABCDEFG/ ABCDEFG. But then I get extremely annoyed when reviewers don't notice the form.
Recently, I've been rather attached to writing poems in long and skinny couplets. Straits & Narrows is written entirely in this form. I've almost completed another book of poems about birds, also written in this form. One of the reasons I find it so intriguing is that the extremely short line seems to compel you to wring out as much good sound as is possible from the words. It requires you to pay closer attention to the sounds. And since I value the music of poetry so highly, naturally I'm drawn to such a challenge. At the moment, I'm wondering if I haven't completed the work I needed to do in that form. I am waiting for the next form to announce itself to me. It's been taking its time. In fact, one of the more painful experiences of my life involved the clash of music and poetic form: when I first started to publish my poetry, my mother, who had a beautiful soprano voice and was an accomplished musician, was delighted with and proud of my work, so she gave it to a friend of hers, a composer, to set to music. Family and friends were invited to the performance, and my mother sang beautifully and Jane, the composer, accompanied her equally well in her fine compositions. Although I never told either of them, it was a difficult experience for me, because the very subtle music of the poems was utterly overwhelmed by the greater power of the music. And it wasn't just this particular occasion--years later I heard some of Auden's poems set to music by a fine composer, Ned Rorem, and the effect on me was the same. I do try to do something different with each collection of poems--too many poets, in my opinion, glom onto a good thing and then write the same poem over and over again. Growing into a new form of expression is challenging and incredibly rewarding.
AM: From our time together in Gainesville I am aware of how very much non-English poetry appeals to you. I have in mind, specifically, your work in Turkish following your Fulbright year in Istanbul. For me, I love the unexpected detail, such as we glean in the poem, "Repast in the Shadows" (1998). What can poetry readers, who seldom see and read poetry translations, find and learn from such work?
SW: World literature is vast, and we in the U.S. read very little of it. The poetry of other cultures is often hard to come by--only three percent of all the books published in the US are works of translation. It is more and more imperative, in our increasingly globalized world, that we be able to access the intelligence of other cultures. That just makes sense.
As for your question, I don't think my reading the poetry of other cultures, say, specifically, modern Turkish poetry, has had much, if any effect on my own writing, but my own work of translation is a different story. Translation is an act of the closest reading you can possibly give a text. It is an endeavor of pure craft, as the emotional baggage associated with one's own work is absent. When you translate another's work, you experience that work in a deeply personal way, and you are privileged to render someone else's style, which can often teach you things about your own. This might be a stretch, but recently, I've been writing in extremely short lines, and I wonder if my experience translating the poetry of the Turkish writer Melih Cevdet Anday has had anything to do with it. You see, Turkish, being an agglutinative language (one adds suffixes to base words to build words and meaning) is much more economic than English, and word order isn't as important. When I'm translating, I can rarely pare down to the same number of syllables in my English lines as are in the original Turkish. So economy has been on my mind for quite some time. That may have played a part in my economizing in the lengths of my lines.
AM: Right. Whom do you think of when the notion of "poet of influence" comes up in conversation, was there a particularly strong influence in your training and writing?
SW: My Main Man, in terms of influence, has been from the first Wallace Stevens. I love the joy in language so evident in Harmonium, and even though I don't understand a great many of his poems, I love the sound, the texture, the heft, the color and paint of his words. I love Berryman for the same reasons. Power. Joy. Imagination. Humor. Breadth. Brilliance. High aesthetic spirits. Sylvia Plath, Les Murray, Anne Carson ―all supreme masters of metaphor― have had significant influences on my work as well. Metaphor is the queen of poetic tropes and I think a poem without metaphor is a waste of time.
AM: You have a busy schedule, Sidney, as educator/teacher, poet/writer, mentor, visiting summer faculty (Sewanee, Gettysburg), how do you assign any sense of priority to it all? Arguably you can only be in one place at one time. Please speak to the dynamics, positive and negative, of being a full time poet and teacher.
SW: I have been privileged, all these years, to be a half-time poet and teacher. I teach only one semester of the year. Years ago, when I had young children in the house, I was extremely disciplined about making the time for writing. I spent two or three mornings every week religiously avoiding the computer, not answering the phone, simply reading and writing poetry. Then the girls grew up and flew the coop, and I looked forward to writing even more with all the free time I now had on my hands. Well, it didn't work out quite as I thought it would. It appears I'm the sort of person who has to be incredibly pressed in order to get work done. When I go to Maine now, for the summer and fall, I write very little, if anything at all. When I return to Gainesville and teach in the extremely busy spring semester is when my poems get written. I invariably feel guilty when not writing, but I'm always busy with something--usually hiking or birding--something physically active, and it all makes me very happy, but the niggling voice in my head still whispers its little accusations . . .
AM: How do you find the next poem that will please you, the poem you write next, the one you will work hard at, revise, and keep?
SW: The next poem always sneaks up on me. It grows organically and, importantly, subliminally, out of an image, out of a snippet of conversation, out of a phrase that appears in the head as if by magic . . . it's all very mysterious to me. I stress the importance of the subconscious in writing poetry, because that's where the magic resides. If I know where a poem is going when I begin, if, say, I have a great title and a great final line and I work in a straight line from here to there, the resulting poem is always DOA. Because it hasn't allowed the subconscious to have a hand in making decisions, it lacks resonance and depth.
When you hear fiction writers talk about their process of writing, and they say "well, I wanted the story to go in this direction, but my characters insisted on taking it to this other place," that's a metaphor for the important work the subconscious plays in one's writing time.
AM: Sure, and what or who are you reading now? I have in mind poets, but the broader question may actually work better. Who, now on your night stand, fascinates you and why?
SW: I am currently reading: The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison. It was recommended by my good friend and author of the great Vietnam War memoir, Chickenhawk, Bob Mason. Also on the nightstand:
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks
Lucia Joyce, by Carol Loeb Shloss
Speak, Memory, Nabokov
The Game Changed, essays by Lawrence Joseph
The Master and Margarita, Michael Bulgakov
Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke (re-reading)
The Minds of Birds, Alexander Skutch
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
The Nature of Things, Lucretius, translated by A.E. Stallings
Physics for Poets, March
Finnegan's Wake, James Joyce
How to be a Better Birder, Derek Lovitch
The Book of Knut: A Novel by Knut Knudsen, Halvor Aakhus
Microscripts, Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky
What the Robin Knows, Jon Young
My Unwritten Books, George Steiner
Life's Good, Brother, Nazim Hikmet
Audubon, Writings and Drawings
Let me add: I think a poet should read as widely as possible. Popular lit, science fiction, philosophy, classical and contemporary literature, science, religion, to begin with. I don't read much poetry at bedtime--that's a daytime study. Here's what's on the "daystand:"
The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw
John Ash, Selected Poems
The Common Man, Maurice Manning
The New Century, Ewa Lipska, tr. Robin Davidson and Ewa Elzbieta Nowakowska
James Fenton, Selected Poems
Lightwall, Liliana Ursu, tr. Sean Cotter
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Holding on Upside Down, The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, Linda Leavell
Arthur McMaster is Adjunct Professor of English at Converse College. He is the author of four books, including two poetry chapbooks. He is a PQ Contributing Editor. Visit his author page at: http://arthurmcmaster.com/