January 2009

Andrew Wessels


An Interview with Mark Irwin

“Such a long way towards darkness then a chance to sing.”

Thankfully for readers, Irwin has had opportunities to sing to us, with now the publication of his sixth collection of poems, Tall If. The above line, from “Poem,” reflects a sense of urgency that quakes beneath the surface of these poems. There is something that Irwin needs to tell us, and that is what perhaps sets this latest book apart from his earlier works.

Irwin’s poetry at various times has been compared to Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Valery, among others. A reader sees the great authors of the past and the great authors of the present in his works, and knows that he has read them all, but there is this other that keeps rearing its head. Whether it is his contemplation of the events of September 11th, a legless street vendor in Venice, or the enrapturing beauty of irises, Irwin creates a poetic world that is new, compelling, and necessary. As Irwin writes:

         And each of us had a little book, and we began
         to gnaw on it till the words came
         or we remained

         dumb and silent.

Irwin was born in Farribault, Minnesota and has lived throughout the United States, as well as France, Italy, and Romania. He graduated from the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa University. His awards include a Nation/Discovery Award, four Pushcart Prizes, the James Wright Poetry Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, and a Fulbright Fellowship. Currently he splits his time between Colorado and Los Angeles, where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

We conducted our conversation through a lengthy e-mail discussion over the span of a couple of weeks, of which the following was the ultimate result.

So tell me more about the word "if." It appears in the title but a scant five times within the book (yes, I counted by hand). But the power of the possible contained within that word seems to pervade and connect all of your poems in this collection. There are a number of places where I almost want to say that the word "if" is purposefully left out, implied, pushing itself into the poem but remaining hidden behind the curtain, so to speak. How did you consider "if" while putting this book together?

I'm somewhat amazed that the word only appears five times, but then again, perhaps I'm not, for I believe the subconscious accomplishes all the true additions and subtractions. Perhaps the withholding of "if" makes it taller, all the more subjunctive and pregnant with possibility, and ideally what Stevens called "ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds."

I'm very interested in where the visible world meets the invisible. I love the physicality of language in expressing the real, but I equally love the abstract, where so many of the critical aspects of our lives converge; for example, love, death, and time have all seemed brutally abstract to me. I think the the first poem in the collection, "Theory," addresses this, and so does the poem "Doors," which serves as a prelude. We actually live most of our lives in a world of maybe and if, and then what happens when the body dies? I'm intrigued by a phrase from Matthew 5:37. "Let what you say be yes or no, as everything else comes from evil." How wonderfully ideal! But who can do that!

What a great quote. But, would that make the title of your book evil then, with its insistence on the maybe? Let me quickly bring up two of your poems here: the naturalistic "Yes," which seems to be attempting to embody the Matthew quote, and "Elegy (With Advertisement) Struggling to Find its Hero," which immerses itself within our civilization and culture. Would you say that in your poetry nature is able to exist in that yes/no binary, and civilization is that "everything else," those fissures in our lives that allow evil to invade?

I think it would make my book human, hopefully, for I think it is ultimately human to occupy that space between yes & no. "Yes" is my favorite word in the English language. It seems to have no end, both phonically and ideally. Schiller says, "The poet either is nature, or he will become it. The former is the naive, the latter the sentimental." No matter how horrendous the acts within nature, they are innocent? But when we enter into civilization, the world of "willful intention" seems to always evolve between the yes & no more dramatically and always with casualties. I'm agreeing with you

I want to know a bit more about your prelude, "Doors," particularly with relation to the cover. Looking at the cover, I want to shout "Kafka" and "Josef K." But first tell us a bit more about Danielle Webb's design. How involved were you in its creation? Are the doorways leading in, out, or are they infinite? What strikes me about your poem is its ability to make the journey itself the tangible object, rather than the beginning or the end point. The past and the future literally become toys, in a sense merely a juvenile possession. Are you announcing that this collection exists explicitly between the two rooms of past and the future, that fleeting yet persistent present?

I had nothing to do with the design, or the choice of doors, though I did ask them to reverse the doors so that they opened outward toward the spine, and I did keep asking them to lighten the yellows and grays till they achieved a floating, ghostly quality.

I like your take on that poem. I think as one grows older the past and future begin to tumble into a long present. As we age, more of the world lies behind us, and there's somewhat less streaming toward us. Thresholds become curtains of the past and future.

In the last few years you have been splitting your time between Southern California and Colorado. Has this dichotomy affected your writing? Is this a source or even inspiration for the civilization/nature division in your poetry?

If civilization and all its entertainments is the question, then wilderness with all of its vast space is the answer. In the wilderness I like how space and time bleed into one another until the boundaries become unidentifiable. It can be really refreshing to an artist to not know what day it is.

Let's discuss some specific poems. "American Urn" alludes to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." What is the relationship between the two poems? How does being a 20th and 21st century American cause you to write a connected but different poem from the early 19th century Englishman?

Yes, "American Urn" bares a nod to Keats. I've always marveled at his poem, especially in the sense that he engenders so much action and lyric song from the "unravish'd bride of quietness" and "foster-child of silence."

I'm also equally amazed at his transition from stanza 3 to stanza 4, one from complete opening in spring to sacrifice and annihilation. My poem is a "foster-child" at best, but in it I try to scroll through American history until it's reduced to "an ad for soap that will make you younger" and "a tiny action figure staring into the distance" -- our vanities and simulated distractions of war that tarnish "the shine," the luster of an innocence we once had -- if that makes any sense.

Do you think that poets have a social contract with their culture? If so, what does that entail? If not, what is the poet's purpose then? You take on two important cultural moments -- September 11th and the JFK Assassination --within this book. How does your verse fit in with the social consciousnes? Are you reflecting it or attempting to guide it?

No, not necessarily, and many of the poets that I love often ignore culture. Look at Dickinson for instance compared to the more culturally minded Whitman. I think I prefer the culture-conscious poems when they assume the status of myth. The great example of that might be Lowell's brilliant "For the Union Dead," though I think poems like this are the most difficult to write. There seem to be thousands of failures for each success.

JFK's assassination and 9/11 are certainly become mythical events, but the poet must cast them in an even more unusual light of language in order to elevate the subject matter. In Lowell's poem a primordial world of "dinosaur steamshovels" and "giant finned cars" horrifically surfaces through the contemporary, cultural world. Much of the mythologizing is accomplished through phrasing. I attempt to do something similar through the etymology of the word "stadium" in the 9/11 poem "Stadium."

Which single poem from this collection do you think best represents the collection as a whole? Why?

It's hard for me to select a single poem, for a think there's an amalgam of ifs building toward a larger one. I'm somewhat of a mystic in that I prefer subject matter that is pure gray area, the hopeless gulf between yes & no where I swim around on the white page. I like to smear things toward clarity, so if you really pushed me hard, I might say "Voice, Distant, Still Assembling" and "The Field" but only because their ifs allow me for a moment to glimpse the intangible.

When I was in Timişoara, Romania, I discovered these beautiful, tall churches made of mud and straw with exaggeratedly steep roofs. The churches, however, were so small inside they were almost of no use. I asked a peasant why they were made this way. He told me that "One grows slender when approaching God."

That seemed a great moment of clarity.