An Interview with Ann Fisher-Wirth

Posted: November 13, 2007 in Author Interview

“What is There to Do in Mississippi?”

It’s not about desire,

this land that pulls us in

and gets us lost on back roads

til we come to an impassable bridge

at midnight by some bayou.

Our headlights useless, we just

sit silent

where kudzu looms like velvet

to swath and choke the pines.

Crickets chirr. Spring peepers

clamber to crescendo in the waters.

Later we touch. I hold your face in my hands

and my body comes alive

like those crickets in the kudzy.

But now we sit not touching in the car.

The singing night pours down around us.

Great splayed towering leaves

begin to teach us our oblivion.

– Used with permission, from Blue Window: Poems by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Los Angeles: Archer Books, c. 2003

An Interview with Poet Ann Fisher-Wirth

LG: What is it about Mississippi that is conducive to staggering talent?

AFW: Violence, beauty, suffering, ongoing conflict, a sense of loss, a sense of community, a sense of God, a sense of history. The Blues, liquor, a natural world so fertile and rich and semi-tropically tangled that it constantly reminds human beings they are not the measure of things – until, that is, they clearcut the woods, drain the marshes, poison the lakes and rivers. Damage. More damage. Repression and its underlying wildness. Orality: the voice, singing, telling stories, or just passing the time of day. A sense, far more than in many places, that literature matters.

LG: How would you describe your poetry, and the themes running through it?

AFW: I write most often in free verse, though I also write prose poems and have started experimenting from time to time with sonnets. My poems vary quite a bit: some are fragmentary and experimental, and take the form of sequences or daybooks; others are much shorter and more linear. I write about all sorts of things. Some of my work may be described as ecopoetry, including a recent poem/prose poem sequence “Dream Cabinet,” which I wrote in the summer of 2006 while visiting a tiny island called Fogdö in the Stockholm archipelago. I also write about family, motherhood, marriage, sexuality, art, literature, travel. Recently I’ve been writing about my Army childhood, including a chapbook-length sequence of poems set in Japan, called “Slide Shows.” Since I have lived all over the world, especially in Mississippi and California, my poems are located all over the world, especially in Mississippi and California. All my poems are influenced – though sometimes imperceptibly – by my thirty years’ practice (and now teaching) of yoga.

LG: What authors have most influenced you?

AFW: In high school, in 1960’s Berkeley, I was in love with T. S. Eliot, whom I thought I could make happy. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dylan Thomas were my first favorite poets. I received an excellent liberal arts education at Berkeley High, Pomona College, and Claremont Graduate School, and I will always be grateful for it; canonical literature in English from the medieval Anons through the high Modernists was my bailiwick. I also studied history, religion, and theater, all of which gave me a wonderful foundation for teaching and for life. However, my education left out a lot: most women writers, contemporary writers, and non-white writers. On my own, I began to discover many new voices in the 1970’s, and a lot of gaps in my own life –between diapering babies and reading poetry, for instance – began to close. But probably the single writer who has influenced me most over the years has been William Carlos Williams, whose work I discovered while studying for comps in graduate school. Reading him, and then writing a dissertation which became a book on him, revolutionized my idea of writing and its relationship to life.

LG: What books are you reading currently? Which would you recommend?

AFW: I’m always reading a lot of different books at the same time. For one thing, I reread the books I teach, every time I teach them. So last week I read Kafka’s The Trial and some of Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, and this week I am reading Camus’s The Stranger and some of Eliot’s poems. Next up are Toni Morrison’s Sula and Carolyn Forché’s The Country between Us. Also I’m reading Forché’s Blue Hour and The Angel of History, Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and Sheri Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank. I’d recommend all these books; it is a pleasure to be in their presence. Two powerful books I finished recently, and strongly recommend, are Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. I’ve just begun to explore the poetry of John Kinsella, and I’m informally collecting ecopoetry from around the world. I have to admit I’m also a magazine and mystery novel junkie, and hope to begin a Ruth Rendell mystery soon. I’m married to a man who is as big a bookworm as I am; as a long-term project he is reading me the Icelandic sagas and a book of Celtic myths and folktales.

LG: Do you have a set writing schedule?

AFW: I should have a set writing schedule, but I don’t. Nor do I have rituals, really: no rows of sharpened pencils, no absinthe, no rotting apples in a desk drawer. I like to sit with my feet on my desk and listen to music, or scribble down bits of imagery and stray language as I walk through town or in the woods. Often I write at a computer, though I do also keep scraps of paper or journals. When I am teaching, my time for writing becomes very broken up. On the other hand, I’m rarely not thinking about writing or dealing with writing—my own or someone else’s.

LG: Why is poetry intimidating to so many? What is it about the genre that can be so off-putting?

AFW: Poetry is intimidating first because it’s often badly taught, and second because our culture does not value it. All little children love poetry: nursery rhymes, jump rope rhymes, nonsense rhymes. However, as children go through the many versions of the American school system, they become alienated from poetry. They give away their own power to love it, and begin to think of it as something to fear, something that someone else (the teacher) knows about, something that communicates in needlessly difficult ways, something that has little to do with “real” life. Furthermore, the ways of knowing and being that poetry offers are not valued in our society; poetry is not about beating out the competition, getting the right answer, maximizing profit, or dominating the world. I grew up in the 1960’s. I believed then, and have always believed, that many aspects of our society systematically starve people’s abilities to experience and treasure emotion, wildness, beauty, playfulness, and imagination. And yet, as we saw in the outpouring of poetry that covered the walls of New York after 9/11, poetry never fails us. We turn to it in our deepest, most joyful or desperate moments: birth, marriage, catastrophe, death.

LG: What are you working on currently?

AFW: I have recently finished a book manuscript of poems, called Gift, and I’m sending it around. I’ve begun to gather poems for what I think will be two manuscripts: one called “Sweetgum / Liquidambar” and the other called “Dream Cabinet.” But these are in the very early stages. LG: Have you written, or considered writing, in any other genres? AFW: For many years I wrote academic literary criticism. I have published a book titled William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature (Penn State University Press), and many articles on various American writers, especially Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy. I’ve also written several articles of ecocriticism – on Faulkner, Linda Hogan, Rick Bass – and a long essay titled “The Authority of Poetry,” which will be published soon in Europe and Canada. I write prose poetry as well as poetry, and occasionally I write familiar essays. With one of my daughters, the poet Jessica Fisher, I’m working on a collaborative piece for a forthcoming anthology; our piece is called “Mother Daughter Mother Daughter,” and I think it will be beautiful.

LG: Finally, what’s your favorite poem of all time? Why does this work speak to you?

AFW: There’s no way I could choose one favorite poem. Here are a few: John Keats, “To Autumn”; George Herbert, “The Flower”; William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art.”

annfisher-wirth.jpg

Ann Fisher-Wirth teaches poetry and environmental literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. She is the author of two volumes of poetry, Blue Window: Poems (2003) and Five Terraces (2005), as well as William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature (1989). She and her husband, Peter Wirth, have five children.

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