Symmetry Pebbles Featured Poet, 27th February 2013
Interview by Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas: When did you start writing poetry, and what got the ball rolling?
Bill Wolak: I started dabbling with writing poetry as a teenager looking for ways to explore my obsessions, desires, and anger. It was the sixties, and I bought a guitar and tried my hand at writing song lyrics. I literally came to poetry with the expectation that it could improve my songwriting abilities. Music, in those days, was my entire world, and I was under the spell of Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and The Incredible String Band. After taking a summer creative writing class, I discovered what poetry could do, and I never returned to lyrics. I quickly discovered poets who wrote more challenging works than the music to which I was listening. I discovered Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth.
RT: Who and what inspires you?
BW: So my path to poetry began, more or less, with the Beats. McClure’s Dark Brown and his Meat Science Essays along with Ginsberg’s poems like “Who To Be Kind To” astonished me with their daring possibilities of personal experience in poetry. Through the Beats, I discovered Philip Lamantia, Bob Kaufman, Lenore Kandel, and little by little, the French Surrealists became irresistible to me. Paul Eluard, André Breton, and Robert Desnos transformed my notion of what a poem could be. Later, I studied Comparative Literature at Rutgers University with Nathaniel Tarn, and he introduced me to the English Surrealist poet and collage artist John Digby. Digby, perhaps more than all the others, had a profound and lasting influence on my writing and my life. I traveled to England to meet him, and then we visited Paris together, where he introduced me to many of the Surrealists he knew such as Joyce Mansour, who I later translated, Ted Joans, Jimmy Gladiator and his wife Salomé, Abdul Kader El Janaby, and Haifa Zangana. Later, Digby moved to the States, and we’ve been friends and collaborators since the Seventies.
RT: You have a passion for history, religion and myth, which a lot of your poetry comments on – where does this stem from?
BW: In the summer of 1972, I received a scholarship to attend the Aegian Arts Center on the island of Aegian in Greece. I spent the summer writing poetry and reading Greek literature. There I met poets like Alan Bold, Sinclair Beilas, and Alan Ansen—my first real experience of what another friend has called “the international drift.” Also, I was introduced to three poets who have influenced me: Constantine Cavafy, Odysseus Elytis, and George Seferis. In those days, I was more impressed with Elytis and poems like his “The Mad Pomegranate Tree” than Seferis’ “The King of Asine” or any of Cavafy’s historical poems. However, the use of history and myth in both Cavafy and Seferis made a lasting impression. Later, I became interested in mysticism and studied Sufism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. But up until about five years ago, I wrote mainly love poems in the surrealist mode. Then I began work on a very different book, The Office of Unfamiliar Carnal Pleasures. This is a book of what I call erotohistorical poems that stem from my ongoing interest in erotology. It’s based on an actual governmental “department” or “office,” according to Suetonius, that was established by Tiberius to document his innovative erotic practices and investigations. Nothing, of course, remains of such an “office;” nevertheless, my own findings in the form of poetic anecdotes is offered in these poems as a similar undertaking. What I have attempted in this book is to challenge my own doxa (a very useful term which comes from anthropology and means “common knowledge” or “that which goes without saying”), specifically in the assumptions and presuppositions I have concerning sexuality.
RT: You have worked as a translator for other poets’ work, most notably that of Hafez. How did you get into translation and how does it compare to writing your own words?
BW: In high school I studied French. In college, I majored in English with a French minor. During my college years, I spent a lot of time scouring through translations of French poetry starting with Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valéry, and Apollinaire. Later, I discovered poets like Lorca, Neruda, Pessoa, Alexandre, Milosz, Ekelof, Akhmatova, and Popa. I sensed that these poets were more interesting than most contemporary American poets. I got hooked on translations. I still am. From French, I translated two American Symbolists, Stuart Merrill and Francis Vielé-Griffin, and later I translated some of Joyce Mansour. In 2003, I began translating from Persian with my friend Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. I had studied Persian for two years in graduate school, and I was very interested in Sufism. Mahmood and I have translated a book of Hafez, and we are now completing the first full-length translation of Iraj Mirza, an Iranian poet of the early twentieth century whose poetry is banned in Iran because of his progressive beliefs and his shocking use of sexuality. In addition, I have worked with my wife Maria Bennett to translate the first selected poetry of the Italian poet Annelisa Addolorato. Translation pushes you to the limits of language. It is the art of the approximate. You have to find language for ideas, idioms, and syntax that are simply alien to English. In that way, translating poetry is both frustrating and refreshing. Writing my own poetry is another matter. Poetry is the art of the specific. It demands the transformation and distillation of experiences and feelings into concrete images, symbols, and figurative language. At its best, poetry is a moan just beyond delirium.
RT: I understand you have travelled a lot through your work and scholarships you have received, taking in a lot of Asia, including being selected to read at the 2011 Kritya International Poetry Festival in Nagpur, India. Could you tell us a bit about your travels, how these trips have come about…do you have any favorite memories?
BW: I was very fortunate to be awarded two Fulbright-Hays fellowships to India. These were essentially travel grants which allowed me to see many of India’s major cities such as New Delhi, Agra, Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta, Bangalore, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Jaipur, and Aurangabad. At that time I was teaching Non-Western World Literature, so I read a great deal about India’s religious diversity. Later, in 2011, I was invited as a featured poet to the Kritya poetry festival in Nagpur, and recently I was invited to the 2013 Hyderabad Literary Festival. I had heard many delightful stories from Charles Henri Ford and Ira Cohen about Kathmandu, Nepal, so that was one of the first countries I visited after India. Then after studying Buddhism for about ten years with Robert Thurman at Columbia, I visited Tibet. I flew into Lhasa, and came out overland in a bus over the Himalayas into Nepal. I was also awarded a travel grant to China and Japan. To prepare for my Japanese visit, I decided to try writing some haiku. Out of these experiments came three chapbooks of haiku with collages by John Digby entitled The Strength of the Spider’s Web Decides, When Dreaming Birds Sing, and Perfume in a Sandstorm as well as Whatever Nakedness Allows, a book of erotic haiku with erotic drawings by Cheryl De Ciantis. In 2007, I was selected to participate in a Friendship Delegation to Iran sponsored by the Fellowship Of Reconciliation, America’s largest and oldest interfaith peace and justice organization. While in Iran, we visited Tehran, Qum, Esfehan, and Shiraz. Perhaps one of my most memorable moments of international travel happened when I visited the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz.
RT: Yes, you emailed me as I was writing these questions to say that you were off to the Hyderabad Literary Festival, how was that? I am interested to know how the reception of literature in India compares to that of the Western world?
BW: As with all international literary festivals, the greatest opportunity offered by the Hyderabad Literary Festival was to be immersed in a completely different literary milieu, and to open oneself to many new and original writers. I have been interested in Indian literature since the 1970s, especially poets like Kamala Das, Eunice de Souza, Nissim Ezekiel, Arum Kolatkar, Jerry Pinto, Anita Nair, and Jeet Thayil. Since that time, I have studied and written on many aspects of India’s past. However, on this trip, I had a chance to focus more on Indian modern and contemporary poetry both in my preparation for the trip and on the ground in Hyderabad. The fact that the festival was conducted in English helped me enormously. After attending as many panel readings as possible, participating in my own presentations, and meeting and discussing Indian literature with so many engaging authors, I feel I have come away with a much deeper appreciation of the complexity and originality of Indian poetry. I would say that literature in India is treated much the same as in the West. Poetry, short stories, novels, and epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana are taught at all levels in all the various languages in India. However, it seems to me that in India novelists get more respect than poets. Perhaps this is because a successful novel could help lead to some kind of international recognition and financial self sufficiency, whereas no matter how popular or successful a book of poetry might be, it will never guarantee a living to a poet. In addition, the Indian educational system is only beginning to offer MFAs or the equivalent which would support poets and and the general esteem of poetry in the country.
RT: As professor in the English Department at William Paterson University do you find literary opportunities are more frequent and your position gives you a gateway to other things in poetry you might not have been involved with otherwise?
BW: I’ve been an Adjunct Professor at William Paterson University working part time since 1986. During that time, I’ve taught a variety of courses. Three years ago, I retired from my position as a high school English teacher, and since that time, I’ve been teaching Creative Writing at WPU. It’s been my experience that a writer must make his or her own literary opportunities. In publishing poetry in magazines and ezines, one simply has to take risks and remain relentless. Perhaps because I am such a literary outsider, not a typical MFA type, most of my opportunities for reading come from my publisher Stan Barkan and other other editors who are attracted to the unexpected and the unconventional.
RT: Pale as an Explosion (Somniloquist’s Press), your first collection of poems, was published in 1977. Forgive me for asking a probably well-worn question but I was wondering whether you have plans for a second collection of your own poems and why there has been such a gap? I wonder if, understandably, your work abroad and as a professor has been a sharper focus in your life or if the opportunity for a second collection has just not arisen?
BW: Yes, the poems I wrote since 1977 were collected in my book Archeology of Light, published in 2011 by Cross-Cultural Communications. It simply took a long time to find a publisher for that book. I’ve amassed quite a collection of rejections. Now forthcoming in 2013, I have a much longer book The Office of Unfamiliar Carnal Pleasures, which I hope to finish during this summer. In addition, Feral Press has published a book of spells entitled Warming the Mirror and will soon publish The Art of Invisibility, a book of tanka with collages by John Digby.
RT: On that note, do you have any other plans for the future?
BW: Right now, I’m up finishing the manuscript of erotohistorical poems, writing a new series of surrealist love poems, completing the manuscript of My Voice Seeks You: The Selected Poems of Annelisa Addolorato, which I have translated with my wife, and completing the manuscript of the Selected Poems of Iraj Mirza with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak.
RT: And more generally now, where do you see the future of poetry heading? Some say it’s a dying art, other’s an art that is constantly expanding…
BW: No, I’m really not that pessimistic about poetry. Bookmaking, it seems, is a dying art and will be replaced by other electronic media, just as magazines now compete with ezines. Poetry, however, is different. It celebrates, praises, protests, complains, grieves, and describes real human emotions. I believe people who have been weaned on sound bites and computer games are beginning to search for meaning in something deeper, something more complex, more visionary, and I believe people will always be drawn to those forms of expression that are insightful, discerning, and perceptive in whatever media they are available. New writers will find their way to poetry just as I did, searching for ways to express their experiences, emotions, and adventures. Poetry is a gift that articulates subtle states of awareness for which no other language exists. Readers, I believe, are drawn to and are seeking something more profound than advertising slogans and throw-away rhymes.
Thanks Bill! You can purchase a copy of Bill’s Archaeology of Light over at Amazon. You can check out some of Bill’s poetry and an audio recording of one of his poems below:
Eros of the Gymnasium
Eros, patron deity
of the gymnasium,
where all athletes
exercised and competed naked,
did more than delight spectators
with games and competitions.
No, Eros moved them with desire
for the toned and tanned young men,
whose sweat was more sought after
than the tears of lovers
for philters and binding spells.
Geb, the earth god, loved
the sky goddess Nut.
When they embraced,
they pressed so desperately
against each other
that between them
nothing could exist.
So tightly did they writhe
together that even though
Nut was pregnant,
no space existed
where she could give birth
until her father Shu,
god of the air,
the lovers and held Nut
apart form Geb
creating the sky
into which all things
The Statue of Anacreon of Teos
Pericles ordered two statues
erected on the Acropolis:
one of Xanthippus, his father,
and one of the famous itinerant poet
Anacreon, whose songs celebrated
erotic love and wine drinking.
Although the statue of Anacreon was lost,
a shattered Roman copy was excavated
from a villa near Rieti
and painstakingly restored.
The poet is depicted as a naked,
Although his posture suggests inebriation,
his face seems calm, reserved,
as if he were about to remark,
“Youth that was graceful is gone.”