Connie Wanek said that she only started writing poetry seriously in her late thirties, but since then, she’s been published in Poetry and the Atlantic Monthly, has received a Witter Bynner Fellowship at the Library of Congress, and been named a George Morrison Artist of the Year, among her many other honors. Her fourth book, Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems, was released by the University of Nebraska Press this year, and makes the argument that she is one of contemporary America’s great poets.
In his introduction to the book, Ted Kooser writes that he likes Wanek’s poetry more than he likes his own work, and David Orr has written that Wanek’s sensibility often seems Eastern European, comparing to her Szymborska. The book comes with praise from Charles Baxter, Linda Pastan, Maxine Kumin, and Robert Bly. Wanek’s poems are lyrical and thoughtful, containing nuanced looks at people, complex dissections of family life, and a fascination with and examination of nature that manages to be detailed, sensitive, and spiritual. In her new poems, she examines gardening and uses the Garden of Eden as recurring theme, but that also means that she spends a great time of time considering aging, the passage of time, and reconsiderations of ideas and decisions she had one thought settled.
Wanek admitted that she is not an academic, nor a teacher, but in a series of e-mails we discussed her work and her life. She also wrote—in perhaps the greatest compliment this interviewer has ever been paid—that she felt inspired at one point while answering questions, to go write a poem.
The Rumpus: Have you always been writing poetry?
Connie Wanek: I have. When I was a small child, we lived on five acres outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and my siblings and I read and wrote and drew pictures (especially horses, in my case) during the long winters. It was a very old-fashioned childhood, and we went to a one-room school with seventeen children in eight grades, and a single frazzled teacher, something out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, one might say. It was crayon-friendly.
The Rumpus: What is it about poetry that attracted you?
Wanek: Intensity. And brevity.
Rumpus: I read that you studied art in college. Do you think that background influenced your writing and your use of imagery?
Wanek: I do feel that both visual artists and writers look out at the world in a similar way, and wonder at what they see. They want to record the visual world in their own, distinctive ways. We could call it “attention to detail,” which also makes a good carpenter, for instance. To be what Emerson called the “transparent eyeball” (which is a phrase that makes me a little queasy) is a noble quest, I feel. It’s a quest for honesty, and as Frost put it, a momentary stay against confusion. If I had more talent and courage, I would still love to be a painter.
Rumpus: What did you study in art school, and why did you decide to stop making art?
Wanek: I didn’t really go to art school per se. I went to the local university, New Mexico State, and began as an art major in the fall of 1970. I wasn’t thinking about making a living, obviously, when I switched two years later to English. Why did I switch? Well, certainly I lacked a visual imagination. I felt everything had been drawn, but not everything had been written, since no one had written in detail about my young, tragic love affairs. That’s a joke, by the way. I simply didn’t have enough talent to be an artist, and that was painful. What is talent? Can one overcome a lack of it? Is it ever precise in the arts, as it is in, say, a footrace where, if your best time is 6.8 seconds for the fifty-yard dash, you have to accept that your body cannot go any faster?
Rumpus: Who were the poets you were reading, especially when you were starting to write seriously and thinking about publishing?
Wanek: I was guided by poets I read in college, like Stevens and Eliot and Bishop and Whitman and Dickinson. Many others. William Carlos Williams. Rilke. Then I began reading Bly and his translations of Tranströmer and Neruda. Szymborska. Have you read the poems of Louis Jenkins? Ted Kooser, my friend Joyce Sutphen, so many wonderful contemporary poets! Once, when we lived in Albuquerque, and the kids were little, I took them to the bookstore and there I found Tranströmer’s Baltics, newly published, which I read the same way I drink coffee in the morning, with a kind of desperate love, sitting on the wooden floor in the store while the children played with the resident cat.
Rumpus: You have a number of new poems in the book. Were you thinking maybe this is just a “new” book—why a “new and selected” book instead?
Wanek: I had collected enough new work, I felt, to justify a new book. But then Ted Kooser began this wonderful project of publishing “new and selected” poetry books through the excellent University of Nebraska Press, and he very kindly invited me to send a manuscript for his consideration. Honestly, I didn’t think I was old enough (ha!) or had accomplished enough for a new and selected. But quickly I did recognize that at sixty-three I am plenty old enough. Moreover, I will never feel I have accomplished enough, a trait I inherited from my Norwegian mother who is ninety-one and can still outwork me, and yet be disappointed she didn’t do more each and every day.
Rumpus: How does one assemble a new and selected volume of poems?
Wanek: I don’t know, actually. I can tell you what I did, which was march through my first three books, despite the sense that, as Wallace Stevens said, “Some of one’s early things give one the creeps.” I picked out poems that still seemed to breathe, and that I found moving, and then did the simplest thing, which was to arrange the book chronologically. For me, it feels much easier to write a single poem than to assemble a table of contents. And it’s not that easy to write a poem.
Rumpus: Did you organize your previous books chronologically as well?
Wanek: No, my previous books were organized by pure intuition. Well, someone gave me some good advice after my first book, which was to “surprise the reader” as he or she turned the page. For example, I have written a lot of poems about children’s games, and this advice meant I did not group them together “by theme” (lest the reader think, “Oh, I see. Another of those). I hoped to create a little forest path through the book, that neither left the reader lost, nor without novelty.
Rumpus: This is your chance to define your work and career and who you are as a poet. Was there something you realized or came to understand about your work in assembling it?
Wanek: This question makes me look for a hiding place, because I’m not sure how to answer it. I’ve not lived an academic life, nor been a teacher, however idyllic that has sometimes seemed. (Good health insurance! Service to others!). I love and admire teachers. That feels to me like a truly meaningful career.
As to defining my work—well, my poems are certainly in the lyric tradition, but perhaps a reader can tell me more precisely who I am as a poet. How can I be so old and not know? I have always been deeply grateful for the urge to write, the desire to create, that’s certain. Writing has always been the way I make sense of life. Perhaps my poems define me, rather than the other way around. They do constantly surprise me.
Rumpus: Do you think that you’re a different poet than you were when you began writing? Could you see that journey in reading the poems?
Wanek: What did strike me very hard, as I set the poems down together, was how much they did reflect “the story of my life.” Much as it’s said that, when people are dying, their lives “flash before their eyes.” That, for some reason, shocked me. I could see that I was a happy young mother once, and then as people I loved got sick and died, and my kids moved far away, I became sadder. Or perhaps more thoughtful and realistic. It still gives me such joy to feel the tug of a poem, mine when I’m in the midst of writing, and those of many others, because there are so many marvelous poems in the world. The critic Sven Birkerts said that reading poetry buffs the windows of the senses back to transparency. He’s right. What could ever make a person feel as full of vitality as reading, say, Szymborska?
Rumpus: Why did you decide to call the book Rival Gardens?
Wanek: I have always been a dedicated, not to say insane, gardener. I have been known to run out into the June garden with a fly swatter to defend the broccoli against the cabbage moth, for instance. While reading Genesis, I was drawn to Eden as a subject for speculation. As well, currently I live across from one of the oldest community gardens in the country, and every day people are out there working their borrowed land, and more than a few are sneaking looks at others’ gardens, measuring success and failure in degrees of green. Rival gardens.
Rumpus: Your first book was published in 1997. In the years before that, did you take writing poetry seriously, or were you just trying to get published?
Wanek: In college, I wrote and published poems here and there. Then I had a child, and work and motherhood took over my life, as it will. There may have been a poem written while sitting on the kitchen floor in a patch of sunlight, like a cat, as my daughter napped, but there was no time to even type such a thing up. I worked, and then I had a son. Those were the years we lived in New Mexico, fruitful, good years. We moved to Duluth when I was in my late thirties, and that’s when I began to force regular space in my day to write, to try to publish. My kids were both in school then. Quickly, in almost eight years, my first book was published, when I was forty-five.
Rumpus: You open an old poem by quoting Robert Bly, “It’s good to have poems that begin with tea and end with God.” That feels like it could sum up a number of your poems.
Wanek: I think in recent years I have given more thought to spiritual matters, including Mrs. God and all her works.
Rumpus: Do you have a writing routine?
Wanek: The early morning hours, before the children woke, became the time I could dedicate to writing. One does not run the vacuum cleaner at 5 a.m., but rather, one tiptoes around, drinks coffee, looks out at the first light, and opens a notebook. I was no different from a million other parents, loving their families and their work, and trying to find time for artistic pursuits. People are so admirable, I find!
Rumpus: Has your routine changed in recent years?
Wanek: Oh yes. I’m retired now, and I can dedicate lots of time to writing. I was intending to be productive in retirement, and I am sorely disappointed in myself. But then, people do too much.
Rumpus: This book is part of the Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry series and Kooser writes you a very nice introduction. I wonder if you could talk a little about Kooser.
Wanek: Mr. Ted Kooser is an extraordinary man and a quiet hero, or so I think of him. Most of what he does, he does for others, and his mind and heart are wide open to the world. You can see this in his poetry, and you understand this when you meet him. This is not to say he lacks toughness. He believes that poetry needs readers, and he trusts poetry’s power to stir us all and help us live fully. If I had to give you one word to describe him, I think it would be “integrity.” But that leaves out so much. He and I love metaphor, and what does that mean? I think we love the play of the imagination, and we agree with Tomas Transtromer who called his poems “meeting places.” Yes, in so many ways poems are meeting places.
Rumpus: Marina Tsvetaeva said there are poets with history and poets without history. That some poets find their voice very early and others take time to do so. You were first writing and publishing seriously starting in your thirties—do you think you found your voice relatively early?
Wanek: I wonder if Marina Tsvetaeva was referring to world history, rather than personal history. If I think of Szymborska, I think of a poet acutely aware of twentieth century European events, who nevertheless wrote through a personal lens. I suppose I must have found my voice early, though one could argue that the fourth decade of life is not that early (although my husband claims that it was “all there,” though in immature form, in poems written when I was eighteen). I like what Maxine Kumin said, that she felt she was “always beginning.” I have much to learn.
Rumpus: I’m forced to admit I’ve never been to Duluth. What is the literary scene in Duluth like?
Wanek: Well, of course you must visit Duluth, preferably in August, or as Louis Jenkins would say, that one evening when it’s summer. When I first moved there, I thought, “Everywhere I look it’s like a Sierra Club poster.” So beautiful and soul-stirring. Lake Superior is God, according to Bart Sutter. Duluth is romantically intertwined with the great wild north woods, of which it is part, and yet it’s a tough old industrial town, too. Close to the Boundary Waters. The literary scene is filled with young people now, which is a great joy. They seem fully capable of saving the world, as we failed to do when young, though heaven knows we tried.
Author photograph © Philip Dentinger.