Poetry by Eleanor Wilner in this issue.
For books at bn.com by Eleanor Wilner
An E-view with Eleanor Wilner
By Rebecca Seiferle
For Eleanor Wilner has been described by Alicia Ostriker as a poet of visionary amplitude and revoluntionary intelligence. Wilner is the author of five books of poetry, including the most recent, Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 1998). She has won a MacArthur Award, the Juniper Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Wilner's work has remained somewhat unknown, despite the awards and the publications, perhaps, because her work originates in cultural memory rather than personal preoccupation. What is personal in Wilner's work is the attempt to rescue the human person, to revision the human figure obscured in the myth, the historical event, the inherited tradition.
This interview was conducted via email. Eleanor Wilner was just settling in as Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College while also teaching her long distance students in the Warren Wilson MFA Program. Our e-conversation centered around a new body of work, poems written since the publication of Reversing the Spell.
Seiferle: Have any of these new poems arisen out of a particular writing process?
Wilner: Yes. “Like Warmed, Vague Stars” is the last line of a poem by Amy Bottke and was written in a renshi, or poem chain, with three graduate students at Warren Wilson that I was working with. That’s why the title has such noticeable diction; it’s her simile, bereft of its referent. Lifted out of its original context, it called up a new one for me.
Seiferle: I know you’ve written earlier poems in this linked form. Could you describe how you practice the renshi form, whether you follow the traditional Japanese method, or a somewhat modified version?
Wilner: A whole lot more than somewhat. Renshi, the Americianization of the elaborately prescribed Japanese practice of linked poetry called renga, dumped all the rules, substituting just one: the last line of the poem that precedes yours must be the title of your poem. Using the line as title keeps the previous poem from determining your prosody, but inevitably pushes you in a direction that you would not have gone alone.
Seiferle: Are other attributions necessary to these poems to indicate their place of origin?
Wilner: Yes. Most of them have a companionable point of origin. “Daphne Planet as Urn” owes its origin to some wonderful graduate students at the University of Utah, on whom I had urged the Daphne myth, chaste nymph who was chased by Apollo and turned into a laurel tree to thwart his designs. My poem arose out of Maggie Golston’s challenge: “Can we really have another Daphne poem?” And my title borrowed the concept “Daphne Planet” from Julie Paegle, named for its mythic gravitational force; in any case, one chase led to another, and the poem ended up in a demolition raid on Keats’ Grecian Urn. “Last Self-Portrait, as Rembrandt, for Instance” grew out of a dare given me by Lisa Zoetewey in that same workshop: “write a poem with three birds and an inanimate object that comes to life.” “No High Ground”" was written for John Balaban, a fellow poet, who was teaching in Miami and facing another fall of boarding up against a hurricane. John was a CO during the Vietnam War, which he spent in Vietnam rescuing war-wounded children and getting them to medical care abroad, to which the poem obliquely refers. “Attic Light” and “Winter Conception” owe their origin to Enid Mark, a book artist, with whom I collaborated on Precessional, a limited edition artist’s book, for which I wrote seven new poems. Her request was for a Greek mythical figure in each poem, and what I did not expect in the poems was that these figures would be reabsorbed into the elements that had called them forth in the first place.
Seiferle: I find that reabsorption unexpected as well and wonder if you feel that, in these poems, your revision of the myths has come to a moment of unexpected truce, in the best sense of the term, a moment of peace-making not surrender?
Wilner: I'm a bit bemused by the notion of truce—whether peace-making or surrender. These are terms that indicate the cessation of hostilities, the end of some kind of war—but, for me, these myths, even when adversarial, have been enabling. An enduring myth or figure with a collective life has no stable or fixed form, insofar as it is a living figure of meaning. I called my recent collection Reversing the Spell because for many artists in our time, the ancient figures, indentured to an older order but still carriers of live meaning, have returned to change the meanings in which they had become embedded and which no longer serve life or fit nature as we now understand it, come to release us from old estranging contexts—to turn us back into ourselves. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that they, too, their work done, would be turned back into what they are. Which is to say, no longer the figures that we humans have imagined for our own meanings and to serve, in part, our own social arrangements, but those natural elements from which they arose in the first place. Or so it seems to me. Though this may as well simply be a latter day Prospero abjuring her sorcery, drowning her book and dissolving her magic globe.
Seiferle: I notice in many of the poems what seems to be a simpler and more direct revelation of the self. In “Last Self-Portrait as Rembrandt, For Instance,” though the poem is written as a persona poem, there is also the unusually strong presence of the “I” in the work, as if the gaze were rivetted by mortality. In “Musical Chairs,” the poem ends with “who wants to be the one left sitting on the silent hillside now?” and then in ’Like Warmed, Vague Stars” the poem ends with the “heart lets down its guard,/like an exhausted child and sleeps.” Do you feel that your work has turned toward individual mortality, the solitary self eye-to-eye with the end?
Wilner: Well, that’s a rhetorical question carrying a fascinating interpretation. A penetrating reader is often a better guide to the poems than their author. I have to agree that the persona is pretty thin in the Rembrandt poem— his last, leering self-portrait a kind of cover for my own. “A more direct revelation of the self,” I suppose; I have always written primarily out of cultural memory, not by choice but by whatever necessities drive our poetry, and I suppose that, though mortality is a collective truth, confronting it is, after all, the most solitary of encounters.
Seiferle: Could you explain a bit more about writing “primarily out of cultural memory?” What you mean by “cultural memory” and “collective truth?”
Wilner: Cultural memory. I think I first encountered this formulation from the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who is reported as saying: “I have no personal memory, only a cultural memory.” He meant as a poet, I assume. I remember reading this with an enormous sense of relief, as this was precisely my own experience. So much of the past cried out for utterance, especially all that had been silent, or silenced.( Perhaps a few examples from my own “cultural memory,” poems with old figures reawakening to change our vision, to be a way of knowing about ourselves. It was the Pharoah's daughter from Exodus who spoke to me about how women make their sons the instruments of their rage, their thwarted power. It was the Biblical Sarah who spoke out against the sacrifice of sons and the murderous hatred between brothers divided by jealous privilege and tribalism. It was a new bird in an old context, the winged part of our being, who pledged itself to stay with the earthbound part that suffers, this bird that set Daphne free from her long confinement and immobility.) In order to validate my experience of poetic vision, I studied comparative mythology and anthropology, looking at new visions to understand their source, and saw the ways in which collective vision always began with a communal crisis and an individual who, in essence, dreamed for the community. This is what I think a poet does, and I think our culture has made us shallow and dreamless by inculcating the myth that the individual is defined and set apart by his or her own personal experience. As if we did not share a language, an ancestral history, a planetary memory called DNA. As if even our most personal experiences were not variants within a matrix common to us all.
Seiferle: While putting these poems into markup, I was struck by how many of the poems are formally inventive, their shape mimetic of their meaning, particularly the poems that take on the larger subjects of the unstitching of the universe, the beginning of creation in attic light. How do you decide upon these forms? Do you experiment or do they just appear with the poem, inseparable from it?
Wilner: The latter: the forms tend to appear with the poem, as if the movement or flow of the subject called them forth. Some things will just not sit still for a justified left margin—the slide of light over a watery wood grain floor, or the “serpentine/and sleepless lengths of sinuous green” that pour out, dragging the lines in their wake. And the ease with which this happens now comes partly, I suspect, from the way the computer allows centering of lines, sliding left margins, and so on.
Seiferle: Are there other ways in which the technology has influenced your work?
Wilner: I have always thought of the page not as a surface on which to write but as a place to enter, an elsewhere which the imagination opens to us. The computer has made that space somehow palpable, which I hope may encourage others to think of their poems less as journal pages and more as another space where vision can occur.
Seiferle: Do you feel that these poems are characteristic of your work since the publication of Reversing the Spell? Have you consciously been working with certain themes and preoccupations or are they related only by happy accident?
Wilner: Quite honestly, I don’t know what is characteristic of my work, and I suspect it is just as well not to know. Since we all, after years of writing, have to fight becoming a mannerist in our own style. I can say that I have not consciously chosen to work with any themes, and that if there is relation among the poems, it is not so much by accident ( happy or otherwise), but by those urgencies whose force field we live in, and through which the poems, as and after they appear, are perhaps our truest guide.