A Conversation with Erik
Wilbur, Poetry Chapbook
I’ve always found it both frustrating and amazing how I’ve never managed to successfully interview a writer about their work without it becoming a full-on discussion of poetry in general, and this case was no different. The conversation Erik and I fell into could have gone on for ages. It probably will; and for that, I am grateful to have found a new friend in poetry. I don’t consider the following to be an interview, but rather excerpts from a great conversation I’m having with a very talented writer; and I am choosing to share them with you because, well, it would just be plain selfish of me not to . . . .
M: Is this your first chapbook to be published? (If it is not, where else might our readers be able to find your work?)
E: This is my first legit chapbook. I self-published one back when I was an undergraduate at San Diego State, after my first semester taking a creative writing class, but I’ve tried my best to prevent anyone from reading it ever again. I had just discovered all that stuff you learn in a sophomore creative writing class about imagery—that show, don’t tell stuff. It made me feel like (regardless of what the fools at The New Yorker thought) I had poetry all figured out. I didn’t. It turns out there’s more to it than just “Petals on a wet, black
M: How long have you been writing? What brought you to poetry?
E: I think I’ve always believed in the incantatory power of language. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel like words were laden with magic. As a boy, I’d seen them make all kinds of things appear and vanish: laughter, violence, tears, loneliness, fear…
I think that’s really when I started writing, when I started to pay attention to the incantations, which words said in what order would make my sister stop crying, which would make the girl I liked like me back.
But, if you’re asking when I first wrote something that could be called a poem (not counting the love notes I wrote to my elementary and middle school girlfriends, which I can’t remember now but I’m sure are far from Keats), I’d say it was around fifteen or sixteen.
I started as a songwriter. I think I started there because it gave me a place to say a bunch of things I couldn’t say in my family. If I was anxious or angry about something going on, which was often, I couldn’t speak about it. It felt like doing so would immediately shatter everyone in the house. But my dad loved Tracy Chapman. On long drives, like on camping trips or something, he’d put on that record with “Fast Car” on it and sing damn-near every word.
From the back seat, I could tell he really heard her; I wanted him to hear me like that. Also, as he sang certain lines, I sensed him singing about his own experiences and attitudes toward the world—things he’d never tell us outright. In that way, he modeled how to speak through lyrics; he (along with Chapman) illustrated the effectiveness of a line that both sings and means—singing those songs would soften him, which made me feel safer and more connected. I studied that Tracy Chapman record—Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan records, too. Then, in high school, I found Elliot Smith, Conor Oberst, and Ben Gibbard, all of whom I tried to emulate. For years, I put everything uncomfortable I had to say to a melody. But, in songwriting, I’ve always been limited by my lack of musical ability. Something important always gets left out. Unlike the songwriters I just mentioned, I wouldn’t call the majority of the songs I wrote “art.”
Shortly after I started writing poetry as just poetry-on-the-page in college, I realized how much more potential I had as an artist in that modality. It’s taken me a long time to develop as a poet, but moving to poetry somewhat instantly liberated me from the constraints of my musical ineptitude. It seems ironic that poetry allows me to accomplish things I couldn’t accomplish with songwriting (because the music is an added dimension, and folk music seems like poetry-plus), but I’ve come to realize that they’re distinct art forms. In great songwriting, lyrics, melody, and sonic textures all work together to form one thing—it’s not just adding music to poetry. That’s like saying American Football is just wrestling plus keep-away with a prolate spheroid.
Songwriting taught me a lot about poetry, though, and I still use poetry the way I used songwriting while growing up: to say what I can’t say.
M: How long have you been in the publishing realm?
E: I’ve been submitting to journals since 2011 with long breaks in-between. I tend to step away from seeking publication whenever I feel my taste or aesthetic changing. If I start feeling disconnected from the stuff I’m submitting to journals, I’ll let six months or a year go by and then submit a batch of stuff that feels fresher and more reflective of my aesthetic at that time.
Growing out of my own work happened a lot more often ten years ago than it has in recent years. There are also poems that I wrote ten years ago that fit where I am now (and have fit every stage along the way). Maybe that’s what finding your voice means for a poet: discovering which poems make it through the filter of time. That makes sense to me, but who knows?
M: So what writers would you say have most influenced your own development as a writer?
E: So many poets have influenced me. I try to read it all—because every time I encounter a poem or a poet with an aesthetic I haven’t come across before, I learn a new way to make a poem work, and I never know when I might need that Komunyakaa approach to line break, that Bob Hicok associative slingshot, or that Natalie Diaz-esque combination of high-art allusion and gritty, visceral imagery.
But I’m sure you don’t want me to list every poet I’ve ever read, so I’ll pick out a few who’ve had a substantial influence on how I write and what I write about. Those poets are Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Larry Levis.
I think everyone who reads her work learns honesty from Olds. Before reading Strike Sparks, I had deemed so much potential content for my poems off-limits. And when I did write about sensitive subjects, I tried going around the ugly parts to get to the lyric instead of through them, which is the only way—I learned that from Olds. I think Matthew Dickman helped a little in this area too.
Dorianne Laux finds the poetry in everything. Folding clothes at a laundromat, that’s a poem; sitting on a back porch before dinner, that’s a poem; a taciturn student in your office, that’s a poem, too. Laux’s poetry makes mundane working- and middle-class life seem replete with lyricality, and it is. She taught me to look for poems always, everywhere. I’ve found a lot of them because of her.
Lastly, there’s Larry Levis, whose most significant contribution to developing poets has to be the way he models how to use poetry as a mode of discovery. When I first started writing poetry, I thought the worst thing I could do is write a poem that didn’t have a point, so I would start with a conclusion about whatever subject I decided to write about and then attempt to create an imagistic path to that conclusion. The problem with this approach is it only allows you to write about what you think you already understand. Another problem with this approach is that a poem isn’t a treatise or a dissertation. It’s not propaganda either. Reading the image-driven meditations in Winter Stars and The Widening Spell of the Leaves encouraged me to write in search of (instead of toward) a point. I don’t know how I would’ve made it through losing my dad without a model for using poetry this way. I wish Levis were alive so I could thank him for that. I’d also ask him, because I’m still trying to figure out, how he creates such vast webs of images that all tie back to one central existential curiosity without any slack.
To add one last thing about these poets, they all create an intimacy between the speaker and the reader. Their poems are like notes passed furtively across time and space. Whenever I hear someone else talk about a Levis poem, it feels a little like a violation, like they’ve intercepted a note meant for me, or like they’ve been eavesdropping on a quiet conversation I had with my close friend, Larry. I adopted that approach of speaking to one reader at a time from these poets and others; it’s helped me write about subjects I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in a crowd. So, they’ve all influenced me in that way.
M: It is very interesting to me, the three poets you mention as most influential to you. Before even knowing this, I felt I could channel all three when I’d first read this collection, and how all three influences fed off of each other to make this work.
The stark honesty with which you push through each poem in this collection is textbook Sharon Olds, and no more so I feel than in poems like “About Surviving” and “I Know This.” I’ve always felt that the personal nature and honesty of Olds’ poetry comes from a philosophy that I happen to share: that poems exist and are written out of necessity; that, sometimes, a story just needs to be told. Not to invoke a fallacy (or maybe I am, who knows?) . . . Was this collection of poems, for you, born out of necessity? Was this a story that you needed to tell?
E: I like how (by asking both questions) you’ve established a distinction between my personal need for the poems and my belief that these poems are necessary for readers.
To answer your first question, I definitely needed to write these poems, especially the ones I wrote after my father died—”After Reading Reports from a Wildfire…” and “The Mad Child-King Is Remembered” feel particularly necessary—but I needed the others, too.
You’ve got me thinking now about why I can sit here and say, with so much certainty, that I needed these poems. Of course, I didn’t want to feel the resentment, and guilt, and dread, and sorrow that I felt so strongly during the last few years of my father’s life and even more intensely during the year after he died. Writing was an attempt to transmute these feelings into something else; however, I don’t think that’s the function of poetry, really. I don’t think poems are mechanisms for turning uncomfortable feelings into comfortable ones.
I had another option. To escape the emotional discomfort, other than writing these poems, I could have done my best to avoid those feelings; I could’ve stopped feeling at all and just gone to sleep. Dissociation, intellectualization, repression, these things have always been my instinctive responses to psychological pain. Poetry is necessary for me because writing (and reading) it enables me to stay awake inside.
Your second question asks whether I believe this is a story that I needed to tell. That question is much more difficult for me to answer, maybe because it’s ultimately not for me to say. I think editors and readers answer that one. While I write a poem, I don’t really think about whether it’s something that other people need. That’s not because I don’t care about readers. More than anything, I want my published work to help people live more compassionate lives, both inter- and intra-personally. But, while composing, I’m mostly trying to create something I need that doesn’t (to my knowledge) already exist.
I figure I’m not that unique. A lot of people have had similar experiences and have a similar need for poetry. So, I trust that if I write something that feels useful and novel to me, then other people will feel the same way, and I really want that to be true about this collection.
M: The “eye for a poem,” and the ability to bind mundane and seemingly unrelated images together that is so reminiscent of Laux’s work can easily be felt in poems like “What I Can Do” “To Myself at Balboa Park” and “After Reading Reports on the California Wildfires, Six Weeks Before My Father’s Overdose.” There is a lot of repetitive imagery in this collection (your father’s hands, shop grease, chewing tobacco, sports talk, et al.) that Laux has been known to do in her collections to bind them together and bring almost a sense of surreal or magical realism to her work. Reading this collection of poems, the experience contained within the pages feels almost surreal. Again, not to invoke a fallacy . . . But was this intentional on your part, or just an incidental byproduct of your (explorative) writing process?
E: This is a fantastic question. I guess I can claim that the repetitive imagery is an intentional attempt to construct a clear and consistent aesthetic landscape. I’ve always admired the way poets like Philip Levine and Dorianne Laux ground their poems in such vivid places. They construct scenes that feel real, and of course, they do that by drawing the reader’s eye to small, concrete details. Then, once you magnify something like a hand or—I’m thinking, in Laux’s work, of the dead roses in a jam jar at the end of the poem “Bird” or the eyes at the end of “Two Pictures of My Sister”—once you magnify something like that, yeah, it takes on a symbolic quality, which means it becomes a doorway to a metaphysical space.
That might be the magical realism that you’re talking about. I’ve never thought about it exactly that way, but I do like that. I’ve just always tried to communicate with images because they’re more reliable and more substantial than words. I’m just trying to be honest and accurate. So, I guess you could say that any surrealism or magical realism that I produce by focusing on certain imagistic details is also the byproduct of my explorative writing process. I’m just using images (much like Levis does) to create mobility. I’m always in pursuit of an emotional awakening. If I have an emotional response to an image in my memory—like the buzzing of a cicada on a palo verde tree or my father digging grease from underneath his fingernails—I go in that direction, trusting that I’ll find something meaningful there—and I also trust that (with the help of metaphor and association) I can use that image to create a waking experience.
If you use concrete imagery and realism to get to that space, you get to bring that meaning and emotional wakefulness back with you, into the real world. That’s one thing I learned in the Fresno State MFA program. To any of your readers who want to grow as poets in this specific way, I recommend moving to Fresno. There’s some kind of poetry magic in the air there.
M: I was very pleased to see you count Larry Levis among your influences, as my mentor in poetry happened to be of the Fresno School and a student of his; and from my exposure to Larry’s work, it was easy to see how your collection sang his praises all throughout. Your collection does not ever feel like a treatise or a PSA, but rather an exploration of a suffering that isn’t mutual, but shared. What sold me on your chapbook was how the collection, as a whole, is a means of discovering how that suffering was shared.
To pick up on his mode of poetry as discovery, and the question you would ask Larry if he were still with us, I feel that his ability to tie all of his images back to one curiosity comes from his philosophy of the external eye (“I”), which is something I had explored at length during my tenure in the workshops. Sure, everyone knows the concept of “poet as witness,” but Larry had this keen ability to detach himself even further than that; as if he were a witness to the witnessing of the world. With this extra remove, he is better able to see the connection between all things, and thus able to weave a web of imagery out of the world, from a single point of curiosity on the plane from which he writes. Do you agree? What are your thoughts?
E: I like that, “a witness to the witnessing of the world.” I agree entirely. I’ve heard his poetry characterized as self-referential a lot. I’m not sure that’s as accurate as your description. Calling it self-referential or “meta-poetry” makes it sound like he uses that second-level observation point as a gimmick; it makes his poetry sound like esoteric onanism. But his poetry isn’t poetry-about-poetry or even poetry-about-the-making-of-poetry. It’s poetry about the making of meaning. It’s poetry about meditation and, yes, the witnessing of witnessing.
His central subject is the mind or the self, not poetry. I’ve appropriated a lot of his strategies for using poetry as a tool for introspection. I guess I should make the joke before anyone else does: maybe I should have titled the collection something like Not Quite What Larry Levis Can Do.
M: Larry’s External Eye (“I”) also gave him, as a poet, the ability to both exist in his poems, while simultaneously not existing within his poems. Larry could make the poet become (a powerless) deus ex machina, who could produce works that were impersonal in nature, but personal in spirit. Through this lens of disconnect, Larry’s poet was not the creator or the voice of the work, but rather the spirit within the work. It takes a lot to forge this disconnect and attain this transcendence, but it is something that I felt taking place in your collection.
Given the personal nature of your collection, in your own words, how were you able to detach yourself from the subject matter enough to produce work through such a poetic lens? How successful do you feel you were, personally, in detaching yourself from the situation enough to write successfully about it? I’d honestly love your thoughts on this, even if you disagree with or have more to add to the concept . . .
E: Detachment isn’t difficult for me. I kind of hinted at this before, when you asked about the necessity of these poems. I don’t work in that direction, from emotional immersion to a place of distanced poetic reflection. My real-time experience was that of an observer for most of the events I’ve written about in this collection. So, what you say about Levis’ ability to both exist in his poems while simultaneously not existing in his poems, I live that.
I don’t need to create distance to write about personal subject matter. I need to create poetry to get close to personal subject matter.
M: So to bring it around, and only because P&W Magazine recently wasted an amount of pages on the topic; between open submissions and contests, which would you recommend?
E: I don’t have a preference, necessarily. “Poetry contest” is a weird phrase, though. I do believe there’s an objective threshold to art, but poetry isn’t long jumping; it isn’t about seeing who can hold their breath or keep their eyes open the longest, even if sometimes it feels like all of the above.
For me, I think the big difference is between submission fees and free subs. Every poet I know has mixed feelings about this. For a lot of poets I know, $25-30 is a lot of money. And that’s how much submission fees are for most full-length contests. It can deter some really talented poets from submitting their work. However, I see the necessity of contests. We need small presses, and (unfortunately) they need submission fees to operate. We can’t have just a few wealthy publishers making decisions about what poetry makes it to readers. So, one way I look at it is this: every time I’ve submitted to a contest I didn’t win, I helped bring a book of poetry into the world. There are way worse ways to spend $25.
Another thing about submitting to contests is that it makes you look at your work differently. This can be good and bad. It makes you consider what editors and editorial assistants think is good poetry, but on the other hand, it makes you consider what editors and editorial assistants think is good poetry.
Considering editors’ tastes continues to make me a better writer by forcing me to refine my definition of effective, well-crafted poetry; however, three or four years ago, I’m sort of embarrassed to say, I went through a phase of avoiding anything risky, editing out all the raw idiosyncrasies in my work, and pandering to others’ tastes. Perhaps not coincidentally, this phase coincided with my first year in an MFA workshop—when, every Wednesday night, my classmates would graciously disabuse me of my belief that the document I’d handed them the week before was a poem. Ultimately, I needed it, so I’m glad they cared enough to knock me down—and to help me get back up. But it put me in a weird place for a while. I started to look to others (editors, classmates, mentors) for validation on whether my poems worked. It’s tempting to say I don’t struggle with that stuff anymore, to say it was just a phrase and that I’m a completely self-assured poet now, but that would be bullshit. However, my appraisal of my work carries more weight than anyone else’s appraisal these days. I think that’s how it should be, but entering your work into any kind of contest—whether a formal book prize or a competitive writing community—can take that authority from you. Well, actually, entering the contest isn’t the dangerous part; it’s how you go about trying to win and how you perceive losing that matters. After losing many contests and receiving many form-letter rejections, I’ve learned to treat poetry contests less like beauty pageants—because I haven’t gotten anywhere trying to charm the judges. It works better for me to think of contests (and general submissions) like raffles; the better crafted your work, the more tickets you have in the drum.
M: And lastly, is there anything so far as advice or sage words of wisdom you would like to add or contribute for our readers and writers who are just getting started on their path?
E: I have a lot to learn about poetry, myself, so I don’t feel comfortable giving advice to anyone other than true beginners in creative writing, which is exactly whom I teach when I do teach poetry. I guess I’ll just say now what I say to them:
I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to write poems. Don’t try to write poems. Instead, try to create the reading experience you need to feel more comfortable in the world.
Advance Praise for What I Can Do
It goes like this: you will desire to bring back to life every single person you will ever lose. After all, “Father,” as Erik Wilbur writes, “is just a name for desire.” And in these rugged-necked poems, which Levis might call, ever “widening spells,” Wilbur sifts through the dark wrecking yard of elegy, through junked refrigerators and mounting bolts and diesel exhaust. It is from those discarded materials that the poet must re-fashion a monument and call it a father. But the greatest test of What I Can Do is found in the nuance with which its author must employ in order to navigate the gargantuan and soul-crushing complexity of the relationship between an addict father and his children. Erik Wilbur writes through these challenges with bluntness, with desperation, with honesty, and finally, with kindness. This is a hard-won debut!
Ephraim Scott Sommers, author of Someone You Love Is Still Alive
“Father is just a name for desire,” in the poet’s own words, says more about this body of work than anyone else could. Erik Wilbur has the ability, which so many writers covet, to dissect memories (of father, of family, of the self) with a candid blade. This chapbook relentlessly uncovers. Nostalgia is reworked and reanimated; memories, places, actions, are taken apart and reassembled. Poets are gifted the opportunity to derive resonance from recall. This poet does so with remarkable skill. You, reader, will hold each of these poems “the way a riverbed wants to hold a river.”
Ronald Dzerigian, author of Rough Fire