A Poet's Life: On Making, On Being, On Surviving with Mark Wunderlich '94
BY Rebecca Pinwei Tseng, April 29, 2022
A Poet's Life is a series where we talk with Columbia poets about everything from living as a poet to making a living as a poet.
Here, we speak with alumnus Mark Wunderlich '94 about how poems collapse time, what Columbia's Writing Program looked like in the nineties, and the only two reasons to write poetry.
Mark Wunderlich is the author of four poetry collections: God of Nothingness (Graywolf Press, 2021), The Earth Avails (Graywolf Press, 2014), which received the 2015 Rilke Prize and was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, Voluntary Servitude (Graywolf Press, 2004), and The Anchorage (University of Massachuttes Press, 1999), winner of the Lambda Literary Award. Wunderlich is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Amy Lowell Trust. His work has been included in over forty anthologies, featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, and translated into Italian, Bulgarian, Spanish, German, Polish, Turkish, and Swedish. Wunderlich is the Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars graduate writing program and currently serves on the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
How did you first arrive at poetry?
Mark Wunderlich (MW): It's wonderful to ask about the origins of this strange notion of being a poet. As a child, I read a lot. My mother read to me and my brother over breakfast in the morning. Books, stories, and literature were part of my life growing up, but I also grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin where art had largely passed over. The idea that one could be a writer hadn't really crossed my mind. I didn't know any writers and all the poets I knew were dead. I started my academic trajectory by studying language as a German major. I thought I was going to have a job involving translation but ended up considering recruiting programs for both military intelligence and the CIA. In the 1980s, both of these entities recruited in foreign language programs, particularly among speakers of German and Russian. After my undergraduate work, they would have me continue in German and start me in Russian in their language schools in San Diego. I would then essentially work as a spy. I didn't really want to work for the military-industrial complex, but they were talking about paying for the rest of my education, and I was intrigued.
Around the same time, I enrolled in a creative writing class. On the first day, the teacher brought in a poem by Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man." The conversation we had about that poem was one I hadn't had about literature before. The poem seemed to speak to some hidden eternal structure out there in the world. It thrilled me. I thought then, and over the course of that semester, this was the conversation I wanted to be having. From that moment on, I devoted myself to the study of poetry.
Since then, poetry has been the center of my life, as a teacher, a writer, and as someone who worked in arts administration. My life has really revolved around the idea of creating more opportunities for people to know poetry, write poetry, and engage with poetry. I truly believe in the ability of art to be the center of a life—that art is worth creating a life around.
What does crafting a poem look like for you?
MW: The poems I write are reflections of the lived life, but they're also an engagement with language for the delight of engaging with language. Poems for me often begin with a single phrase I hear, a phrase that comes into my head, or a particular observation that seems to open into possibility. Or sometimes, it's something that irritates me. One phrase I recently wrote a poem about has to do with legislation coming out of Florida called the “Don't Say Gay” bill. The phrase and legislation are meant to block people from thinking and talking, and my whole life is devoted to people thinking and talking about things. I'm repelled [by the phrase], so I started writing about it. For me, poems are often like that—they begin in the way a grain of sand irritates an oyster and you begin coating it with the material to make a pearl.
What is most surprising to you when you write a poem?
MW: There's a wonderful Louise Glück poem in which she's blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, and someone says, "What did you wish for?" She says, "I wish for what I always wish for. I wished for another poem." I think about that often—the surprise is there's always another poem. I don't think writing is difficult or painful. I think writing something you're satisfied with is difficult, but writing itself is the opposite of painful—it’s pleasurable. I feel most alive when I'm working on a poem, when all of my subjectivity, all of my faculties, everything I've read, my engagement with the language, the other languages I know, and the world around me are leaning toward me and wanting to be described—all of this goes into the making of a poem. When I am in the midst of that, writing is the state I want to be in most. So I try to put together a life that creates as many circumstances for writing to happen, while also keeping the body and soul together with a job.
Are there any poems or particular poets you read when you need a pick-me-up?
MW: In recent years, I have been in deep engagement with the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I've been writing about him, his life, the places he lived, and his work, particularly the Duino Elegies, which are ten long poems of deep spiritual and philosophical engagement. I have been reading those poems and thinking about them in relation to a series of losses that I've experienced. In 2018, eight people I was close to died within that year. I found myself turning to the Duino Elegies. Those poems are not specifically about mourning but are mourning and lamenting the condition of loss.
There is a lot that poetry isn't good at, but making loss comprehensible is something poetry is very good at. Poetry assigns language to certain feelings and allows us to stand back, observe, and gain a bit of distance. I found that work very important at that particular time in my life.
What else can poetry reveal that other forms of art or literature can't?
MW: Poetry exists in the lowest necessary degree of materiality, in the form of language, and as sound in the air. Slim volumes of poetry represent years of work. In this way, poetry is the ultimate compression and requires very little of the material world.
The other thing about poetry I find astonishing is the great magic trick it does: poetry collapses time. The dead come back to speak. We can experience a poem from centuries ago that describes someone's human experience of love or loss, and we can enter into their world. When we read a poem into the world, it's like the poet makes an instrument out of our bodies. There's a marvelous passage from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman where he is standing at the ferry terminal. He's looking at this crowd of people coming off the ferry and walking toward him, but we learn as we read that he's dead. He's sort of present, but he's also addressing the future. At some point, Whitman says something along the lines of, You there, you holding me in your hands right now, I see you. At that moment, as you're reading the book, you almost drop the book because he’s imagining the future reader. Whitman is so aware of this movement backward and forward in time. All of time begins to collapse at that moment.
What books, media, and art do you consume outside of poetry?
MW: I spend a lot of time going to museums and looking at art. I'm also an old-fashioned opera queen [laughs]. I love opera. I subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera. There's nothing I love more than being consumed by the largess of the human voice in its largest form. The combination of drama, stagecraft, and the human voice kept these works of art alive for centuries. I'm interested in contemporary opera and in the power of the human voice when sung in those forms. I am also a consumer of television, certainly, and pop music.
I find myself self-soothing by watching a certain amount of crime drama. I think I've watched every single kind of British crime drama that's available. I understand the formulas and the many tropes, and I'm completely absorbed. I do that to kind of check out…it's something I look at when I don't want to be thinking about anything else. There are also lots of contemporary pop musicians that I'm interested in, but I think I consume less than I once did. I would say my guilty pleasure is the British crime drama.
I would love to ask about your time in the MFA program. How did you grow as a poet during your time at Columbia?
MW: Columbia was incredibly transformative, and in many ways, a central point in my life. It's very moving to me to find myself back here this semester and engaging with students in the same spaces I was once in. The people I met then are still with me. The teachers I've had—many of them have died. William Matthews, Lucie Brock-Broido, William Weaver, J.D. McClatchy, and other people I worked with…when each of them died, I felt a tremendous blow. It's been hard to recognize they're gone. But this is, of course, what happens when you age.
Many of the friends I made in the program are still my friends and I still love their work. The thesis I wrote while at Columbia became my first book, which launched me into the world of poetry, and made it possible for me to teach. I'm always going to be grateful for the people I met there and the education I received.
I remember being clueless in my first semester, not writing very well, trying a lot of things, and throwing them out. The first semester was a real blur, but everything changed in my second semester with the arrival of Lucie Brock-Broido—that was her first term. I was completely entranced by her, her transformative teaching, and the power of her personality. I loved her work. From that point on, she became my guide in the program. Everything she knew that she was willing to pass on to me, I wanted to know. Both the place and the people I met at Columbia changed my life.
What about Lucie Brock-Broido's teaching style resonated so much with you?
MW: I had never met anyone like her in my life. She was a devoted teacher. She loved being in the classroom. She was able to transfer her particular vision of how to think about poems and how to approach writing to her students. People talk about this incredible anthology of poems she put together which she shared with her students as an amazing teaching tool. This was of her own devising, her own particular, idiosyncratic ways of categorizing poems and talking about them in different ways.
Lucie saw things in ways no one else saw them. Her whole life was structured around the idea of making poems. It was as if poetry was the center of her life, and everything from her physical presentation and the clothes she wore, to how she was present in the world, to her apartment's interior décor, to the way in which she couldn't stand overhead lighting and brought lamps into the classroom—everything was about her creating this atmosphere in which poetry could exist and thrive. She wanted to make the exterior and the material world reflect the interior life.
It was incredible to see this happen, but one also understood the great sacrifice. If you create a life around the making of poetry, you are also making yourself vulnerable to the reception of your poetry. I saw what she did as being very moving and beautiful, but also tremendously risky. Sometimes the risk paid off and I think sometimes it was a source of pain for her. What she showed me was one person having this incredibly committed life to the making of poetry.
Her sometimes Gothic sensibility and outward trappings might give one the sense of a particular brand of seriousness, but what people might not understand about Lucie is that she was really funny. She was very serious about poetry, but she was also hilarious company. She had tremendous warmth and was incredibly irreverent and really funny.
Could you share some of your memories from Dodge Hall and attending the program?
MW: Dodge Hall is so ingrained in my memory. I spent so much time in those overheated classrooms with the terrible little bathrooms and the gatherings in the hall, but also time out on the patio and the steps, particularly in the fall, under those trees, looking across the campus. I think about that a lot.
I remember distinctly the many visitors who were brought to the classes I was in. Everyone from Joseph Brodsky to Linda Gregg came to our class. Lucie taught a class called The Architecture of First Books and she brought in all the poets we were reading. Louise Glück and Li-Young Lee and all of these people whose work we were looking at came to our class. This was what it meant to be pursuing this education in New York City and at Columbia University—it meant the people you were studying were around you. You could sit there with them while they told you about their work. There was so much I wanted to learn and know and achieve.
Sometimes I have this strange sense of time collapsing when I'm in those classrooms in Dodge Hall. It seems very much the same as it did 30 years ago, only now, I'm sitting at the head of the table trying to lead the conversation, as opposed to having a place one spot to the right of one of the students. It's all part of this shared experience and conversation we're having.
How have you seen the conversations about poetry and the MFA program changing over the last decades?
MW: The year 2022 marks 30 years since I first started at Columbia University. I think the zeitgeist is always shifting—the current mood of what people are reading and thinking about is always changing, and there's been a radical opening of what we think of as the cannon. When I started out as a young poet, there was the sense of an elite establishment that both made the decisions and gatekept this great tradition. It was very apparent who was part of that and who was excluded. What we've seen in the last 30 years is an opening of who has access to poetry and who is able to pursue poetry. I think that has been enormously liberating, and there's a lot more work to do. Being at a powerful institution like Columbia University, we need to be aware of who is part of an institution, who is able to participate, who is excluded, and what are the circumstances of that exclusion. Poetry meant for a kind of elite is not interesting to me and it's bad for art. We need to continue to broaden our sense of aesthetic possibilities and make the transformative powers of literature available to everyone if they want it.
I've noted how similar the MFA is—how the work people are doing around a table, and how people are continuing to write these poems and talk to each other about them, is similar. What I see with the group I'm teaching now is the kinds of friendships people have, the regard people have for each other, and the way they are creating relationships that I hope will last a lifetime.
There are really only two reasons to write poetry. One is the pleasure of moving language around on a page and the actual making of poems. The other is the company that you get to keep. All the interactions we get to have, this conversation we're having, the conversations we have in class, the conversations you have with other poets, those that you have with the dead when you are reading books from the past, and those that you have with contemporaries who you haven't met yet…poetry is able to bring all of us together. We are connecting to each other through these cultural artifacts we call poems and that is tremendously powerful.
I love these two reasons—they’re such a succinct and wonderful way of stating why poetry is so important to many people.
MW: We are responsible for making a world of poets and the poetry we want to inhabit. It truly is about our own generosity, friendship, and the power of a friendship that can be sustained over years. The world is lonely and the world doesn't care if you write another poem. What you need are friends who do. It behooves all of us to be generous, to give freely, and to put ourselves into the making of the structures, the conversations, and the institutions we want to see in the world that will sustain this art form. One of the things I feel so lucky to be doing in Dodge Hall this semester is getting to take what I gained from this world and offer it to the students sitting in that classroom. To me, this is what it's all about—it’s the whole reason we engage in poetry.