Rebecca Wolff’s most recent collection of poetry, The King, was published in hardback by W.W. Norton in 2009. Her previous collections are Figment, also published by W. W. Norton in 2004, as a winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Manderley, published in 2001 by the University of Illinois Press after having been selected for the National Poetry Series by Robert Pinsky.
Wolff also launched Fence in 1998, along with Caroline Crumpacker, Jonathan Lethem, Frances Richard, and Matthew Rohrer; Fence Books, a multi-genre literary book publisher, was launched in 2001.
The Rumpus caught up with Wolff in an interview in Cleveland this September, to ask questions about her latest collection, her work at Fence, and her life.
Editor’s note: because of the extraordinary length of this interview, the review of Rebecca Wolff’s The King is available here. You can also read a new poem by Rebecca Wolff, “Stockholder,” in Rumpus Original Poems.
Rumpus: What is autumn like in Athens?
RW: Today is the first day of it! It’s dawning here kind of balmy, foggy, with only a whiff of the asphalt distribution plant down by the riverside to interrupt our anticipation of the dropping of leaves.
Rumpus: You were all of 15 when your first poem was published, in Seventeen Magazine, nonetheless. What was the title? What kind of poem was it?
RW: God, I can’t remember the title but I bet my father can—he had it framed as a kind of collage, with sand glued to it, by an art-director friend of his. It may have been called “A Day at the Beach” as it was a perfectly epiphanic, revelatory poem about jumping in the waves with—you guessed it—my father. It was short, maybe fifteen lines, and ended with me wrapped in a warm towel.
Rumpus: In most reviews of The King published to date—and in Norton’s jacket copy to the book—one finds ample description of the “aboutness” of your latest collection, which is, ostensibly, the experience of motherhood. These reviews address—beautifully—how The King invigorates the body of contemporary literature written on the subject of motherhood or parenting. Do you find this focus on your book’s subject matter at all reductive, given the amazing range you show within its pages, from linguistic (re)invention to more theoretic and theological preoccupations?
RW: Oh, orgasm orgasm, I love this question. I just five minutes ago completed a little blog post for the Norton site in which I obliquely suggested that the Publisher might be yet another kind of King in this context, one whose demands must be met and who provides a useful, um, splashguard, if you will. The trope of The King is all about my willingness to be called out by these various kings, if you follow the thread of that, and to accept the limitations they provide.
To quote Led Zeppelin, it’s nobody’s fault but mine, as in the process of trying to politely insist that Norton publish the collection, I did decide to give it this “aboutness” spin, in the hopes that it would make it more palatable for them (and I also have to admit that I wrote my own jacket copy, pretty much, as many poets do). I don’t actually have any reason to believe that this is, in the end, what made them want to publish it, but I have my suspicions that if I hadn’t given this kind of subject-mattery, narrative structure to the book in the first place it might not have been taken seriously at all.
More legitimately, there is a way in which the final section of the book, called “Depth Essay,” is exactly about coming to terms with subject matter, in the form of knowledge. There’s a poem called “It” that ends with the lines “I never thought too much about baking cookies/ Well think about it.” Substitute anything you like for “baking cookies.”
But to answer your question: I wouldn’t say “reductive”—I think I would say that I set a trap, with the jacket copy, and I don’t blame anyone for falling into it, but I do hope that readers as they fall will pay attention to the other kinds of disguises (besides that of baby) the King can take, in this formulation: knowledge, deity, absolute reality.