Interview with Poet Mark Wagenaar

Mark Wagenaar is the 2013 winner of both the James Wright Poetry Prize and the Yellowwood Poetry Prize. His debut manuscript, Voodoo Inverso, won the 2012 Pollak Prize, from the University of Wisconsin Press. His poems appear widely, most recently in Tin House, the Southeast Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and 32 Poems. Mark lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, fellow poet Chelsea Wagenaar, where they are both doctoral fellows at the University of North Texas.

I have the fortunate opportunity of knowing Mark Wagenaar and was able to snag some time in his busy schedule to interview him.  I love his work and refer to it often for inspiration as I work on my own stories.  I highly recommend Voodoo Inverso.   

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 So, can you tell me how you got started in poetry?

College. I was really just there to play soccer & get a business degree, or at least that’s how things started out. Then I took a 20th cent lit class—I’d always been a reader & continued reading on my own in college—but we went through “The Wasteland,” and it just blew me away. I was like, this is poetry? There aren’t any roses or violets that are blue anywhere. I just didn’t know it existed. So I started scribbling—imitative stuff, just garbage really, but it was a start. I do remember my first reasonable attempt though—this poem about a scarecrow. I didn’t take a workshop until my fifth year in college (I was a real academic go-getter, definitely Little Lebowski Urban Achiever material), and even then I was just squatting in the class, auditing it because the prof, Jon Wallace, & I had struck up a bit of a friendship. I had returned to Graceland after my first season of professional soccer in Canada. So if there were too many poems to wokrshop, it was my poem that got bumped. We workshopped the poems blind, meaning the name was struck from the poem. Jon had praised the poem in class, but then criticized the poem because the assignment was to write a rhymed poem. And I raised my hand, with a great deal of trepidation, & pointed out that “the poet” had written this in slant rhymed tercets, with an ABC ABC pattern. The rhymes were pretty distant, to be fair, but as everyone walked out of the room, Jon turned to me in the hall and said, was that scarecrow poem yours? I said yeah, sorry, and he smiled and said, not bad.

That experience, and my upbringing as a poet—perhaps ‘first few years of a lifetime apprenticeship’ is a better way to put it—has certainly informed my pedagogy, and my own blue collar views towards ‘talent’ and ‘promise’. As I started from scratch, I’m a  believer in putting in the work. But beginning with Jon, & continuing with my UNT profs (& even more importantly, my wife Chelsea), I’ve also been extremely lucky in having a number of generous people, both in workshops and outside of them, offer their time, encouragement, instruction, praise, and criticism, and what success I’ve had is a result of their efforts. That’s why I believe in the workshop. I believe in the importance of praise—that exchange with Jon meant so much to me (and so did several years of correspondence after I left Graceland); but I’ve also experienced the revelations and breakthroughs that can spring from the criticism of a practiced eye. 

What challenges did you face compiling Voodoo Inverso?

Putting a book together is always daunting. I tend to look for themes, similarities, and correspondences that stretch across poems, or groups of poems. This involves a zillion revisions, printing out poems & strewing them all across the floor/bed/garage, sleeping on stacks of poems, reading them in various environments. I also read more than a few essays/blog posts etc on how to do this, and took a manuscript workshop with Charles Wright while at UVA. I don’t know that there’s an art or a science to it; I think I succeeded in finding some common grounds, some method to the madness, in the sections, though I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been as successful just throwing a bunch of pages in the air and picking them up randomly.

Voodoo Inverso was really a six year effort; two years of working through poems (an MA at the University of Northern Iowa), and a year or so at the University of Virginia, to get to the point where I was writing poems I liked, and that were getting accepted with some regularity, and two more years at UVA writing those poems. It’s essentially my MFA thesis, although even after it won the Pollak I spent months rewriting poems I wasn’t happy with, while at the University of Utah, which I’d count as the sixth year. 

Looking back, how do you feel about your first collection of poems?

I’m extremely proud ofVoodoo Inverso. And I’m also reticent about whether or not it succeeds as a collection. It should have been shorter—maybe shorter by a third or so. I think that’s true of some of the poems—reading the collection certainly exposes some of my weaknesses as a poet—the overlong litanies, the habit of using imagery as a crutch (that sometimes results in a cascade of images, what Wright called ‘dogpile imagery’ in our workshop)—sometimes I read through the poems & think he was right, that every poem wants to be a third shorter—he meant every poem, ever, but it seems more applicable to my poetry. There’s certainly some warts in the book—poems that either won a prize or were accepted by a magazine that I included just for that reason—but I should have excised. Maybe that was vanity to include them. I was a mule picking apples in an orchard, so of course there’s going to be a few rotten ones.

Rumor has it you are working on a novel, is that true?

I guess saying ‘yes’ commits me to the project. I’m hesitant to call it a novel, as in the academic world that tends to mean ‘literary fiction.’ This is crime fiction—yeah ok, it’s a novel—something I’m working on with my father.

How has the transition been from poem to novel? Was it an easy transition for you, or did you find it challenging to approach the long form?

Painful. Bewildering. It’s roughly equivalent to getting caught beneath a closing garage door, & having a dog lick your hand. Why won’t the dog go get help? Why’s it licking my hand? Why doesn’t this dialogue crackle? Why does this chapter accomplish nothing?

I’ve found that I’m needing to map everything out before I write it—every detail, each character—as opposed to writing a poem, which is often generative in itself—I know it sounds weird to say it, but sometimes the poem finds its way along while I write it. The chapters, however, need to follow a specific roadmap, or we get nowhere. I’ve also found that I’m rethinking the way I think about syntax—the composition and structure of sentences—that I don’t have enough variety or punch in my sentences. The fragment, too, has become very important to me. 

Writing essentials: when you sit down to write, what must you have with you?  

I’ve been trying to get to the point where I can just work on something wherever I am—if I have ten minutes in the classroom, or at the bus station, coffee shop, wherever, I can pull out what I’m working on and edge towards some contribution. This effort’s mostly a necessity of how busy my life is right now—though someday I hope to have kids, which means working like that will again be a necessity. Ideally, I’m listening to something moving and complex—I love Casals playing the Bach Suites—or some lonely jazz. Throw in a big table, some coffee or bourbon, and some evening lamplight, and I’m happy.

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 Can you tell me a bit about your process?  Do you work best at a computer or are you a pen and ink kind of guy?

I think this is something that hints at a bit of a generation gap between my wife & I (she’s 9 years younger than me). Although I work in Word, which does inform some of my aesthetic choices in terms of the line, and poem length (breaking the one page limit in Word is something I do with trepidation—though I have no idea why I feel that way), pen and paper seems most generative to me. My wife works pretty much exclusively on her laptop. I begin with an image, or a shadow, or just a line, and move outwards in concentric circles—or inwards, towards some kind of emotional resonance. I like to draft on paper, rewrite & rewrite, before I go to the computer. Then I work off of printouts, usually, when I’m revising.

The exception is the novel and short fiction—my scenes are much punchier, for some reason, when I’m staring at a screen. It’s a weird division/paradox. Probably the result of too many football/soccer concussions. 

I am allowed one selfish question, right? "The Butcher with Nothing But Bones" is one of my favorites in Voodoo Inverso.  I keep going back to it.  Can you break that poem down for me?

Gladly. Though I’m not sure I’ll be any help. I yoinked the title from a poem of the same name by James Tate—I’m such a huge fan of his early work—but I tried to take that strange, garish image, and think about how the unseen works upon us, and the objects that we live with. What remains, what disappears, what survives us, even what passes through us—it all seems almost miraculous, inexplicable. And yet who and what we long for also seems just as mysterious to me, and the histories we’re unaware of that make up part of us—so the presence of the unseen around us becomes a springboard towards not only our origins and our futures, but our present yearnings.

Where do you draw, or where do you find yourself drawing, the inspiration for your works?

Other poets, of course—I’d probably hardly write at all without the great poems of people I admire—but nonfiction as well, The Atlantic & similar magazines, random books and articles on architecture, technology, myth, flora & fauna, novels, the Bible. Just this past week I ran a class at Eastfield in the library, and I happened to pull a book on de Chirico off the shelf, and bam! There he is, sketching his father on his father’s last night on earth. How do you not want to write about that?

When you aren't working as a wordsmith, what are you up to these days?

This semester’s been insane. While I’m trying to read for my major doctoral exams which will take place at the end of the year, & writing some new stuff for my dissertation, I also teach two classes at UNT, and three more at Eastfield College, which is in Mequite, Texas an hour away, when the Dallas end-of-the-world Traffi-geddon isn’t happening, in which case it could be an hour & a half, or a day. I also tutor on the side, Flower Mound, which is a half hour drive, between eight and ten hours a week. I spend about ten hours a week commuting, which is difficult, as I drive an old car, and it’s just sort of time down the drain. I try to carry a poem or a chapter with me, so I’m at least thinking about things, turning them over in my subconscious. I also try to use this time to pray for the people in my life—I find that this habit tends to spill gratitude into my life, simply to have them in my life, and I think (I hope!) that it makes me a little more attentive as a person (I tend to be a pretty selfish guy). But after all of that, I take walks with my wife, Chelsea, and our dog Giddy, and we work out together as well, which keeps us almost sane. I also watch the odd film, and manage to have a beer or two with our friends once a week or so. 

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Thank you very much agreeing to this interview, I appreciate you taking the time.

Thanks for this opportunity Matthew! I’m a fan of  the blog, and of course of your own writing as well. I feel like you’re paving the way, as far as my attempts to succeed in the novel world are concerned. Next round’s on me.

 Thanks for reading.

And a big thanks to Mark!

Stay alive, 

-M.P. Callender

Posted on October 20, 2013 .