The Colorado Poet, #18, Spring 2012

An Interview with Phil Wood

Bob King: Phil, your ninth book Lucid Dreaming, is divided into three sections, Struggle, Experience, and Dreams. What was the process in dividing the book that way?

Phil Woods: I write a lot of political poems, but I didn't want the whole book to just be that. I tried to figure out some other sections and since I'm 65 and have been writing poems since 1967 I thought Experience was a natural one. A lot of my poems overlap categories so there was some indecision about what should go where. I thought I had some that could be called spiritual; but I decided I liked Dreams better. Struggle was a natural choice for the political poems.

hil Woods

BK: You have a knack for plain and direct speaking. I could pick almost any passage, but here’s the opening from “Field Report #1”: “Same old story: The so-called left / Busts its butt, turns out voters, / Gets a sweet-talking Deem elected. / Then, we get hurt feelings / When the Dem blows us off.” Is this a characteristic tone in all of your work? I mean you got an MFA from the Univ. of Oregon, but this doesn’t sound like an “MFA poem,” if you know what I mean.

PW: While I was at the University of Oregon I read almost all of Kenneth Rexroth's work and that's where I developed my aesthetic. In a country where community is so rare Rexroth believed poetry should have what he called “presentational immediacy.” Coming to someone deeply impacted by folk music and rock and roll that spoke to me. My friend Morgan Gibson is quite eloquent about this in his book Revolutionary Rexroth. “According to Rexroth, poetry originates in personal vision (communion with others), takes form in the direct communication of living speech, person to person, and functions sacramentally in community” (p. 46)

Whatever else one could say about my poetry, I try to tell the truth as I see it and have lived it.

I would never say this is only way to write poetry or the best way. It's my way and I think of what I do as witnessing in the classic sense of a dissenter. Whatever else one could say about my poetry, I try to tell the truth as I see it and have lived it. I very much respect what is called “the deep image” school of Bly and James Wright and others. I like some surrealism, but I have no facility in that mode. I work with the tools that I have. Many poets, like painters, have a much richer palette than I do. I kind of think of my poetry as being like “Two Hills” blankets made out of black, gray, shades of brown and white. Plain but expressive within its limitations. But I understand how important metaphor is to what lasts. As Marion Woodman says, metaphor signifies transformation and that's why poets are always getting into hot water with the powers that be. Transformation means things can change. The status-quo doesn't like that.

BK: There’s another factor, besides ‘direct and plain’ which I’d call ‘blunt.’ I’m thinking of the poem where you’re viewing students, all with cell phones, “obsessed / With messaging.” You compare that to Lincoln reading by firelight and Thoreau in the Walden woods, then end with “Those virtues / Were before / Mass consumption / Made us stupid.” Pretty blunt? Not much nuance there, you know.

PW: Many have told me this bluntness sounds too harsh. In that poem I was thinking of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business and how much we seem to be losing that is absolutely essential to democratic citizenship. The bluntness is a wakeup call.

BK: In your opening poem, “The Desk of John Foster Dulles,” which they’ve preserved at the Univ. of Texas, you say “In the side drawers are the shrunken heads / & the miniature campasinos in Mayan tunics” and that if the desk were moved an inch “nuclear alarms go off / All over Siberia.” Besides your plain direct speaking, is this a touch of surrealism? Maybe that’s not the correct term here—maybe it’s ‘poetry’. What kind of rhetorical move does this kind of image involve in your writing?

PW: One of the Catonsville Nine priests, Thomas Melville, has a book about a priest in Guatemala and what happened to him and his flock during the American-sponsored repression in Guatemala during the 70s and 80s. Melville's book is called Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America. To take guys involved in the assassination program known as Operation Phoenix in Vietnam and transfer them to Central America to teach the finer points of their dirty business in a conflict that goes back to land distribution and the exploitation of the indigenous going back to the Spanish in the name of protecting the Panama Canal I found horrifying.

When I finished that book not only was I ashamed to be an American, I was ashamed to be a human being.

When I finished that book not only was I ashamed to be an American, I was ashamed to be a human being. I wish I could write more poems like this that are slightly surreal and remind me of some of Bly's in The Light Around the Body. “Underneath the Pentagon/ There is a trail of Indian blood preserved in snow: / Preserved from a trail of blood that once led away/ From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.”

When I read this thing about Dulles's desk it called out for ridicule. This sanctimonious, holier than thou attitude, that is a mask for a very vicious and very naked imperialism richly described in Neruda's poem “United Fruit.”
“. . . damp flies,/ of modest blood and marmalade, / drunken flies who zoom / over the ordinary graves, / circus flies, wise flies / well trained in tyranny.” (trans. R. Bly) That's what I was after. Dulles and his brother Allen are two of the people Dylan was addressing in his astounding song “Masters of War,” which he wrote at such a young age before the big Vietnam escalation even began.

BK: You’ve had a lot of experience in political and social struggles. You start one poem “I remember eating cornbread & soul food, / In Fannie Lou Hamer’s kitchen.” She was, of course, an important figure in the civil rights movement, but not many poets can start a poem with that line, right?

You have people saying open form or projective verse is exhausted and we have to go back to formal poetry. I don't think it's exhausted. I think a lot of people who want to write don't have very much to say..

PW: And isn't it sad that they can't. You have people saying open form or projective verse is exhausted and we have to go back to formal poetry. I don't think it's exhausted. I think a lot of people who want to write don't have very much to say. Louis Simpson says it takes you a long time to know how you really feel about things. If you've spent you're whole life in classrooms and no where else, what do you know about life? A whole book about petty faculty jealousies and department politics, who gives a damn? I had a lot of life experience before I went back and got my MFA. I couldn't be swayed by fashion or get caught up in who is in and who is out and all this follow the leader stuff that can happen in the writing programs. Before you can write you have to develop an authentic self and you have to have developed enough integrity to try to live an authentic life. American culture is such a consumer society people think they can buy that somewhere and go to countless conferences and retreats. You know when Gorbachev was doing his petrostrokia he asked Voznesensky what did the poets want. Andrei said we want all the Anna Akhmatova published and we want it in a large enough printing that the country can really have it. Do you know the riff Philip Roth noted in a afterward to one of Kundera's novels? This was before the Berlin Wall came down. Roth said: “In the East nothing is permitted and everything matters; in the West everything is permitted and nothing matters.”

BK: This is a minor matter but I notice you use “&” instead of “and” and yet you capitalize the first letter of each line. Is this a combination of older and more contemporary verse? What’s your take on “style” in poetry?

PW: I think here is an area where I'm probably not consistent. I like some of what Cummings did without capitals and some of Creeley's compression. But except for habitually using the ampersand I'm not consistent. I fancy I communicate just fine and you don't need a PhD in French poetry to understand what I'm saying. I'm not much interested in hermetic poetry and poetry that is primarily a linguistic puzzle palace. But to each his own.
BK: What really comes through about halfway through the book and then on is your relation, I should say ‘our’ relation, with nature along with a Buddhist kind of perspective. One example is a section of “Mountain Tent”: “I look at the squat peak / Still blotched with snow / Against the cerulean sky. / It is a taste of immortal peace. / Coffee, Chinese poetry & that image. / What do I need besides this.” Is this something that was part of you at the beginning or have you arrived at this?

PW: My grandparents rented a funky mountain cabin outside the little town of Beulah, Colorado, 30 miles west of Pueblo. One summer we lived there for the whole summer and my uncle showed me around and where to hike. My mother trusted me, as a 7 year old, to go off by myself and not get lost and to make it back on my own. That was very empowering and very centering. Of course Colorado's mountains compared to say the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska are very user friendly. The foliage is not that dense; there are no Grizzlies to worry about. Consequently, when I was exposed to Chinese and Japanese poetry that is so suffused with Taoist and Buddhist sensibility it spoke to me almost as something I already knew. The first book of poetry I ever bought was Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Gary Snyder's The Back Country was next. It's a case of deep kinship.

BK: When you give the First Secret of poetry, toward the end of the book, you begin “Poems come from the same place / That dreams begin.” You then go on to give a quick lesson-in-creative-writing by saying “You have to build a poetry compost. / Rake in mythology, history, personal mementoes, / Odd facts, strange stories….”
And I notice all these in your poems. How is that part of your process?

PW: I inherited a poetry workshop from a friend when he got a job in another state. It was mostly, frankly, older women and they kind of reminded me of weekend painters. They constantly wanted writing prompts. I kept wondering why they couldn't generate their own juice. You know since poetry is a synthesizing art I've learned an awful lot from interviews with the poets that proceeded my generation. There's that great U. of Michigan series. Poets are like magpies. We collect all sorts of stuff for our nests. I'll give you an example. I have this poem about Wang Wei called FACING THE PASSAGES: Effortlessly/ The Earth renews itself/ With this endless cycle/ Of birth, death, & rebirth./ We journey too,/ But to where?/ Renewal for us/ Must come inside/ For aging is relentless/ & we know it. / To navigate this passage/ Gracefully, / For that we turn to / The masters. / Wang Wei, for one, / Writes of acceptance/ & joy.”

Poets are like magpies. We collect all sorts of stuff for our nests.

After I wrote it I realized that behind that poem was something I'd read in an interview with James Wright. Wright noted something Tolstoy said. Tolstoy said a person's real religion was how they felt about spring because we see how the earth renews itself, but we can't do that except in some internal way. That's what I mean about raking the garden and building that compost that allows you to associate very fast and in a not entirely rational or conscious way. It is a special kind of thinking that takes place in writing poetry that is very mysterious and completely unlike the mental faculties you might use to write a term paper. That's why we often feel we are getting help, but don't know exactly from whom or even it is a whom.

BK: “Lucid dreaming” is a term for a dream in which one know one’s dreaming and I think it also means one can learn to ‘direct’ the dream. How does that relate to your work?

PW: In the note [in the book] I talk about how I heard a first nation man call into a radio program with Louise Erdrich and he said that's what her novels meant to him. There was some quality to his voice and her voice that just said that is the interface where art comes from. It's like some of those thoughts you have just before you get up. Your eyes are still closed. You're not quite dreaming, but you're not awake either. Often you can't remember what this reflecting was about but you awake some how very certain that it was good and that it was important.

They talk about how thin rice paper is and how easy it would be to poke a hole through it, yet a good calligrapher can very quickly compose something with an ink brush that enhances the paper. It is said it takes him fifteen minutes max, but it has required fifteen years of preparation. Let us leave it with the mystery.