A Conversation with Robert Wrigley

by Anthony Borruso

When poet Robert Wrigley visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, he rode with a group of MFA students to Crown Hill Cemetery to visit the grave of Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight. On the ride over, he showed me Knight’s signature on the inside cover of one of his books: “To Brother Bob Wrigley.”

Knight’s low headstone was inscribed with an open book, the words “We free singers be” written inside. Bending his head toward the grave, Wrigley said hello to Knight and apologized for forgetting to bring a bottle of whiskey. He then recited “Feeling Fucked Up,” one of Knight’s most beloved poems, which he shared again later at his public reading. The great paradox of poetry is that it is both everlasting and ephemeral. One poet dies, and another poet picks up where they left off.

In a career that has spanned almost four decades, Wrigley has published ten books of poetry. His poems are often concerned with man’s place in nature, and they teem with images from the rural Western landscapes of his home in Moscow, Idaho. His work has been showcased in Poetry, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and countless other journals. He is also the winner of the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, six Pushcart Prizes, and many other awards. His newest book of poetry, Box, was published by Penguin in March.

Anthony Borruso: Often you seem to glorify nature as an almost otherworldly entity. I’m thinking of poems like “For One Who Prays for Me,” in which you write, “The afterlife is dirt, but sweet, and heaven’s coming back / in the lewd bewhiskered tongue of an iris.” And also that first part of “Earthly Meditations” where the persona declares, “I would enter the sky through the soil myself.” I wondered if you could speak a bit about nature in your poetry, and how you see it.

Robert Wrigley: I think of my poems as pretty much an accurate representation of my response to nature. The glory is inherent in nature, even in the dirt, and all I’m really trying to do is get at that kind of visceral connection between a human being and the natural world. I have this habit, and I think I’ve got a poem about it somewhere, in which I take a walk through the woods. Sometimes, I start moving the pine needles and duff aside looking to see what I can find, and there’s always something. The whole planet is a kind of grave. There’s always a snail shell, there’s always a bone, there’s always something that suggests that there has been life in that particular place, almost anywhere you go. Also, my relationship to nature is no doubt informed by the place where I live, which is a place abundant with nature. In that regard, the natural world is my image hoard. That’s where I get my imagery. I go out and find things, and there’s a way in which the world presents itself to me.

This is a bit of what galls me about being called a nature poet sometimes. The nature poem is this hackneyed thing, where the poet goes out in the world and sees some natural phenomenon and feels awe. I think it’s a much more significant emotion, or a much more significant intellectual response, than just awe. It’s something like a kind of vital connection for me, and I feel the confirmation of being alive. I feel the confirmation of a connection to the universe, to the cosmos, to everything.

AB: That’s true. Sometimes you depict the disgusting, or the brutal. It’s not just one note.

RW: Right. I mean, I find a lot of dead animals.

AB: Especially deer . . .

RW: Yes, of course. One of my students once said, “Why is this book called Lives of the Animals? Shouldn’t it be called Deaths of the Animals?” Wild animals can be a lot easier to examine closely when they’re dead; they’re not running away from you. They’re not on the move. You can get very close to them. But death is the engine that drives life, so that’s why I pay a lot of attention to it, as well.

AB: I was surprised to read an interview where you said that New York City is your second favorite place in the US besides where you’ve lived in Montana, and now in Idaho. Since that’s where I’m from, I wondered: Do you think your poems would be very different if you lived there?

RW: I think that the image hoard would change. I’d have taxis. I’d have subways and pigeons and a whole array of urban imagery that I would use. But I don’t think that my primary concerns, that have to do with the fragility of life and the absolute fact of mortality—I don’t think those would change. I think those are hardwired into the poet. But the image hoard, the store from which the connections are made, would be entirely different.

AB: You just talked about this visceral connection to nature, and I can definitely see that in a number of your poems that depict the convergence of man and animal. In much of your work, the man is trying to characterize the animal and his relationship to it. For example, in “After a Rainstorm,” the speaker of the poem meets two horses by a fencepost at night, where he begins to imagine the meeting from the horses’ perspective. He wonders how strange this experience must be for the horses. The poem ends with him realizing that he “doesn’t know a single word they (the horses) understand.” Perhaps he realizes that he has been imposing his own thoughts and feelings on the horses. Is that the poet’s job, in a way, to give language to what he doesn’t completely understand?

RW: I think that’s certainly one of the poet’s jobs. And I think that what that poem is getting at is that he is aware of his own notions and impositions on the horses. As far as he knows, the horses are thinking about this meeting on a level that is as deeply metaphysical as his. The assumption is that we are the only critters that are able to imagine our own mortality, or to have an awareness of our own death. I’m not sure that’s true. I think my poems battle against that notion.

AB: Another thing that strikes me about your poems is that they seem less disjunctive than those of some other contemporary poets. And yet, while they generally adhere to a narrative, they are still able to maintain great linguistic flexibility and sonic density. How do you think that you are able to so adeptly balance being lyrical with being narrative?

RW: The poem moves in two directions. The poem moves horizontally, which is to say that that is the narrative, the arc of the narrative. But if it’s gonna be a poem at all, and I think the same is true in prose, the poem also has to move vertically. The vertical movement is the lyrical movement. That’s where the musicality comes in. That’s something I’ve worked at for a long, long time, trying to make narrative sing.

AB: One poem that really walks that tightrope well, between narrative and lyric, is “Beautiful Country.” It presents us with these morally ambiguous characters in a morally ambiguous country, and it felt very true to the Vietnam War era in which it takes place. Could you talk about the forces at work in that poem?

RW: The forces at work in that poem probably have to do with a kind of rueful nostalgia—the idea that maybe, at some point in the nation’s history, or in individual people’s history, men’s histories, there were wars that were not quite so ambiguous. That is to say like World War II or, as my father called it, “the good war.” He didn’t really mean that entirely ironically. He should have, and I guess he did think of that as somewhat ironical. I mean, an astonishing, appalling number of people died in that war. But the strange thing about the predicament of those young men in that particular poem was that they felt, in some ways, a completely opposite kind of moral clarity. They understood the absurdity of the war. They understood the illegality of the war, and the way they’re dealing with it is they are just gonna stay stoned. They are gonna narcotize themselves to get through this particular war. That itself is more than morally ambiguous; it might be morally condemnatory. The poem ends with this line: “Beautiful country, one of them said. And it was.” The idea that that’s in the past tense is ironic, of course, in several ways: it was beautiful then, and it was beautiful before. The problem with beautiful things is that they are often compromised by their own beauty.

AB: Just last month, another virtuosic poet who has written some incredibly powerful pieces on Vietnam, Yusef Komunyakaa, also visited us here at Butler University. Some of his poems delve into acts of physical labor and use them as jumping-off points into different emotions and ideas. He said in an interview with the Washington Square Review: “For me, physical work has often formed a time and place of meditation. When one discovers the movement and rhythm of a job, one exacts an elongated moment where he or she can venture almost anywhere.” A number of your poems brought me back to Yusef’s statement. One in particular, “Triage,” displays the many steps a man takes to rehabilitate this bent aspen tree. Does physical labor carry a similar poetic impulse for you?

RW: There is this moment when writing is a lot like digging a ditch, or when writing is a lot like framing a new building. It requires a certain amount of muscularity; it requires a certain amount of intelligence and mathematical computation. Sometimes it feels, when you are writing a poem, as if you are climbing a mountain looking for a toehold. And that’s a moment where you realize you mostly climbed all the way up this thing. You’re not sure exactly how far you’ve come, or how you’ve climbed as far as you climbed, but there is this moment of reverie, this moment of intense personal space wherein the poem gets generated by the imagination, by the relationship of the poet to the language and the form. And it feels a lot like physical labor. During physical labor, as Yusef might have said or did say, there are times when things like poems come together. The idea that poetry comes from the intellect is only partially true. The intellect comes to bear at some point. It has to. But for me, poetry comes from the body. That’s where the words take on significance. The source of language is what the body takes in and then converts to language.

AB: When do you think the intellect is most present? Does the intellect bear a greater burden when you are revising a poem?

RW: I think revision is the place where you can say, “Well, my body was having a great time writing this poem, but wait a minute—there’s something else, there’s something missing, some connection that’s not being made.” So you have to go back and reassess the inventory. I think of poems as moving down the page in a kind of looped way. So they go down, they come back up, they pick up something from above and bring it farther down. They make this looping, almost DNA-like chain down the page so that when I get to the bottom of the page or the end of a draft, the first thing I have to do is go back and evaluate the inventory. What have I used that I haven’t picked up and used again? Is there something early in the poem that should connect to something farther down, or do I need to jettison it and not use it at all? And that can be tricky because you can fall in love with your own reactions to things. Killing your darlings is never easy, but sometimes you have to.

AB: Yes, and I see that sort of cycling not only with the ideas in your poems but also with the musicality of the language. I’m thinking of a poem like “Stardust,” where you hit certain musical notes. They are little recognizable riffs that occur in the first stanza, and as the poem continues we see them return in little flourishes.

RW: Moon, June, spoon, and croon all in the same line. I’ve always thought that was a tremendously foolhardy thing, but that’s why I did it.

AB: That’s what makes the poem fun.

RW: Those four words are, sort of, the archetypal template of really bad rhymes. That’s the thing about song lyrics; you can get away with those kinds of clunky rhymes in a song. The poem does have sort of an elaborate rhyme scheme, but it’s buried in the syntax. There are end rhymes, but they’re hard to hear; they’re camouflaged. That beginning with moon, June, spoon, and croon all in the same line, that’s a way of commenting on the actual subtlety of the rest of the rhymes in this piece.

AB: Do you feel like the musicality of your poems is all body and intuition? Or is that partly the intellect saying, “Maybe I should have more of this sound here” when you are writing or revising?

RW: I think the intellect is there. But I would have to say, more often than not it tends to be me pulling back a little bit. Because a lot of the time, when I hit that kind of musical gear in the poem, I will push it so far I’ll push it right over the edge. I become a kind of one-man band, slapping cymbals together with my knees and hammering a woodblock, and kazoo, and all kinds of stuff. But the main thing I’m pushing for is that the musicality and language will tell me where the poem should go rather than my intellect pushing it where it wants to go. That’s fundamentally Richard Hugo’s notion, that when you have to make a decision between music and meaning, pick music every time, and the meaning will take care of itself. That sounds like absolute bullshit when you say it aloud, especially to people who’ve never written. But the thing is, when I’m really pushing music, when I’m making sounds recur on frequent intervals, sometimes it will bring about a word that would seem to have no place in the poem, but as soon as that word appears it creates a place for itself. It creates an opportunity in the poem where it can go in a completely unforeseen direction.

AB: Before we were talking about Vietnam, and I feel like there is a connection between that time and now, at least in the amount of political turmoil. Considering that you’ve written some overtly political poems in previous books, I wondered if we might see some in your new collection, Box.

RW: You know, I don’t think so. I’ve always been inclined toward a kind of political statement from way back in my first book, The Sinking of Clay City, which is a very obscure title. And I don’t mind it being obscure, because it was basically my MFA thesis. But that title poem was one in which I asserted the horrors of American capitalism. My grandfathers were coal miners for as far back as I could find, non-union coal miners, who were exploited by corporate interests. And then the third book had to do with the relationship between my father and me, his war and my war, his war he went to and my war I didn’t go to. And then, in Beautiful Country, there were a couple of poems, including one called “American Fear,” which was a post-9/11 meditation on America, and another poem called “Exxon.” So I’ve always been inclined in that way, but political poems are very easily dated. I sort of resist that. And it may be that because this new book, Box, was written entirely after I’d begun my seventh decade of life, which is to say from the time I turned sixty, it’s much more concerned with mortality, individual mortality and collective mortality, but mostly individual mortality. Not just the awareness of it but the contemplations of it and meditations upon it—what it means to know your time is limited. And that’s easily imaginable for me. I have, according to actuarial charts, fourteen to fifteen more years to live.

AB: I get the idea that the title, Box, might almost be ironic. It’s such a terse name, and the ideas you just described were pretty vast ones. Is that an idea that’s present in the book? And what are some other concerns of this book?

RW: The most significant concern is about the idea of enclosure. The box is a useful thing; it’s something we can put stuff in. The poem itself is a box. It’s a box that contains much more than you think it possibly could. Personality, race, gender, sexual orientation—all of these things are boxes in which we find both a certain kind of comfort and a certain amount of stricture. And the book means to examine that enclosure and also try to break out of that enclosure. The best thing about a box is to open it up, like Pandora’s Box.

AB: That sounds almost Dickinsonian. Her work is fraught with that paradox of the poem being physically small but at the same time vast in its ideas and metaphysical implications.

RW: Well, I should be so lucky as to be able to write Dickinsonian poems. But yeah, I think that’s true. I am aiming for big ideas here. And the younger you are, the harder it is to deal with big ideas, or I should really say “I.” I was having trouble dealing with big ideas. I was finding ways to deal with them through a very tight lens—looking at something tiny, and not of vast scale. And I still have to do that. I have a poem in Box called “From the Perspective of the Meadow” in which the speaker is lying on his back in a meadow in some kind of long grass. He doesn’t know it’s buffalo grass, or tall blue grass, or something like that. And he can hear elk grazing around, but at the same time he’s looking up at the sun and the sky, and he sees an airplane. He can’t hear it—it’s way high—and then he sees on this stalk of grass an ant. And the ant is bigger than the airplane due to the perspective. So, by the end of the poem, the ant becomes a kind of dragon, and an elk cow looks in at him and runs off. It’s a playful poem, but it’s really after this sense that there is an awareness of peril for everything that is alive, whether it’s a tree or grass or a human being. And that peril does more than simply imperil us; it also charges our lives with energy. Which is why there’s that hackneyed term, “You need to take more risks in your poems.” Well, how the hell do you do that? In that poem, I do that by trying to be playful about something that’s not ordinarily a playful subject, the idea of peril and mortality.

AB: To finish, I thought I might ask you about the way in which you craft a collection. In your most recently published book, Anatomy of Melancholy, “Triage” is the first poem. The last, “Autumn,” speaks to the same subject, that aspen tree, a decade later. By cycling back to the same subject, you find a way to bookend this collection. Anatomy of Melancholy was also split into four distinctly titled sections. Why did you assemble your collection in this way, and what are some other concerns you have in organizing a book?

RW: I had a couple of books, like ten or eleven, that were not divided into sections. And I really like books of poems that aren’t divided into sections. The sections in poetry books sometimes seem arbitrary. But in Anatomy of Melancholy the poems are all divided into anatomically suggestive sections. You’ve got the “Whirl If the Ear” and “Blue Mouth.” That intrigued me a lot because, as the title poem suggests, when the speaker becomes aware that there is this big tome called Anatomy of Melancholy, he doesn’t really know what the word “melancholy” might mean or suggest, but he knows about “anatomy.” He thinks that it’s got something to do with the body, which of course it does. So while the sections are broken up anatomically, the whole of the book has to do with melancholy. It begins with this sort of bereft man trying to rescue this tree. I really wanted to call it “Tree-age,” but that might have been too obvious . . . You’re writing for the smartest person in the room, not the dumbest. But then the little sonnet that ends the book, that comes back to that tree, just seems to offer a kind of enclosure. And then, interestingly enough, the next book becomes a book about enclosure, about boxes. I have discovered that every time I deliver a book to the publisher, I keep on writing that book for the next four months. Part of that is just consistency of vision, consistency of one’s poetic and thematic concerns that don’t go away. You have to find new ways to address them. But really, what you’re most interested in or what your vision entails remains more or less consistent throughout a career.

Anthony Borruso is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Butler University, associate editor at Sibling Rivalry Press, and has been a reader for Booth. He is currently working on his thesis and splits time between Indianapolis and his hometown of Staten Island.