Francis Raven Interviews William Waltz

27 June 2005

William Waltz is editor in chief of Conduit, “the only magazine that risks annihilation.” His poetry manuscript, Zoo Music, was selected by Dean Young for Slope Editions 2003 Book Prize. His work can be found in Rake Magazine, 3AM, Slope 9, Slope 15, and others. His confrontational essay “Does Poetry Matter?” asks the questions, “Why does most poetry stink? And why are there more poets than readers of poetry?” and was published in Rake Magazine. He lives in Minneapolis.

William WaltzFrancis Raven: How did you become a poet?

William Waltz: Years of self-flagellation of course.

For me, a new parent, your question brings up the old nurture vs. nature debate. Are we born poets or do we become poets? I'll take the easy way out: both. I've always loved books. I was reading before kindergarten. That must have had an impact. I started writing a “novel” when I was in sixth grade. It's probably a mixed blessing that I never finished The Lost City of the Everglades, my schoolboy Mount Analogue. I remember writing a whole series of modern day fables full of misguided houseflies and disgruntled walruses. Then, to my mother's dismay, I discovered the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols who inspired me to write punk rock lyrics. Then off to college where I studied economics. Unfortunately or rather fortunately, my real passion remained music, which eventually brought me back to literature, the Beats specifically. By the time I had finished my economics degree I was determined to be a writer. I fancied myself a fiction writer, but every time I sat down to write poetry came out instead. Over the next few years, I held an assortment of jobs: cabby, security guard, bookstore zombie, highwayman, and finally propagandist for the DNR. All the while I was lustfully writing, reading, drinking, and immersing myself in the wonderful music scene that was Ohio. My formal poetry education consisted of two Continuing Ed workshops before I assembled the portfolio that got me into grad school.

FR: Who were your mentors or influences?

WW: I always wanted a mentor but, darn, I'm not sure I ever had one. My second workshop was with David Citino, and he was very generous with his advice and encouragement. It was David Citino and a few dear friends who convinced me that I wasn't a fraud and could in fact write poetry. I remain indebted to them all.

I'm not sure I could say who has influenced my work from a strictly literary standpoint. I've always been very catholic in my interests. I'm sure my passions for pomology, turtles, German Expressionism, and baseball have made an impact on my work, but I don't know how exactly. Artists who were important to me early on include Dostoevsky, Kerouac, James Wright, Harvey Pekar, Minutemen, Birthday Party, David Lynch, Patti Smith, Charlie Parker, and then later Alan Dugan, Colin Wilson, Mingus, Robinson Jeffers, Bishop, Russell Edson, Simic, Muriel Rukeyser, Jim Tate, Stevens, Fernando Pessoa?

FR: What category would you place your poetry in?

WW: John Gray, the author of Straw Dogs which I just finished, makes a provocative and rather convincing argument that there is no such thing as a human species. He suggests that “species” is a convenient category that generally leads to wrong-headed thinking. Well, that's my way of saying I don't think of my poetry as belonging to any particular category, but, to be honest, I haven't given it much thought. I'll leave that to others. As a music lover who likes to think he knows a little bit, I've been humbled by more than a few audiophiles whose knowledge of the minutia far exceeds mine. They take great pleasure in conjuring up lineages and schools. I get into that too, but the bottom line remains the music. Does it rock in the grandest sense or not? Hopefully my poetry and Zoo Music fall on the right side of that great divide.

FR: How has editing Conduit changed your poetry?

WW: Well, I know what not to include in a cover letter: ars poetica, resumes, bribes, photographs, hair samples, annoyingly long enumeration of publications. I only send to magazines that I read and admire. Rejection is so much easier that way. It still surprises me how many writers haven't bothered to read Conduit before submitting to it. Their poems often suffer from a similar myopia.

On the other hand, I'm amazed and inspired all the time by what writers send us. The imaginations and the intellects at work, the courage of those seeking their own way, their own voices, opening up and revealing themselves. I'd much rather read a fabulous failure than a competent bore. (I may regret saying that.) Makes me want to write all the more. I get great sustenance from what the mailcarrier delivers. I can't say my writing has changed because of what has crossed my desk, but I see moves that I consider to be mistakes, and I make mental notes.

I do think I've learned a great deal about arranging manuscripts by my biannual assemblages of Conduit, which I consider to be a great challenge and great fun.

FR: What do you think the role of humor in poetry should be?

WW: Like anything and everything in a poem, humor should serve the greater good. Or else, you resemble a comedian, which might be better for your pocketbook, but where, oh, where is the glory? Humor is just another tool at the poet's disposal. Humor succeeds when it maintains tension between dissimilar things or ideas. I don't really consider myself to be a comedic poet although some of my poems display what passes for wit. I've never set out to write a funny poem. But I must admit that one of my greatest breakthroughs came when I allowed humor to enter my poetry. Before that, like many middle-class writers, I suffered from over-earnestness. Two things lead me to change my approach: The first was a conversation I had with Paul Mariani about Charles Olson. Professor Mariani said flatly that Olson was doomed to the second tier of the poetic pantheon because of his middle-class earnestness, which unnecessarily limited his tool set. In other words, Olson needlessly shunned the playfulness that leads to greater range and further discovery. Whether that's true or not is immaterial, but it sure struck a nerve in me. Shortly thereafter, it dawned on me that despite having a good sense of humor, which was in fact integral to my personality, humor was generally absent from my work. That seemed like a problem that might eventually lead to shock therapy. I realized that in order for me to be a better poet I had to integrate my entire make-up, which included humor and anger and sexuality, etc., into my poetry.

FR: What's your working strategy? When do you write? How often? On a computer? Longhand?

WW: For years I cavorted with a typewriter and then we parted. Then a brief fling with the computer which ruined me for months. A computer makes editing so easy that I found it very difficult to resist the urge. The problem was that the revision came too soon in the process. I was revising while I was composing. Inevitably the premature revision would sidetrack me and I'd wander down various deadends before losing my way. Now, I generally write longhand, although I occasionally write on the computer without succumbing to the urge. I start with a line, a phrase, a title, an idea, or a concept and see where it takes me. I write when I can. My two year old daughter keeps me busy during the day, so I've gone from an a.m. writer to an after eight writer. I'm learning how to be more efficient with my time, or at least that's what I'm telling myself these days. I'll write five days a week for awhile then experience a month-long drought. Putting together an issue of Conduit requires a lot of time and energy, and when I'm the middle of the production cycle I pretty much quit writing poetry.

FR: Are there any current trends in poetry that you're especially excited about?

WW: A strand of fabular poetry has been coming across my desk that I've enjoyed quite a bit. The best of it is inventive, playful, and efficient as it dissects what we think we know. Of course, there seem to be more and more poems employing humor, which I endorse with the proviso that they not seem self-conscious or clever. The footing here is treacherous, easy to slip into the dreaded smartass territory. I appreciate trends toward candor and personal revelation, not in the confessional sense but in this-is-important-to-me sense.

FR: What are you working on right now?

WW: I'm working on a manuscript whose working title is Adventure in the Lost Interiors of America. I borrowed the title from a translation of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's La Relacion, which was written in 1542. Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to cross the North American continent — on foot. An amazing story. I'm also working on a couple issues of Conduit. One of which is concerned with music. If all goes right, it will include a CD filled with annihilation risking music. And, I'm attempting to resuscitate a screenplay that I began a few years ago. I think the best way to describe it is to say it's a cross between Blue Velvet and Grease.

FR: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

WW: Engage with the world at large. Follow your interests and your passions. Find your voice and stick with it. Cultivate many and varied interests and don't be afraid to let them work on your aesthetic or into your poetry. There's nothing more dreary than reading a poem about poetry. Brush your teeth more than you comb your hair. Keep a safe distance from the endless procession of fads churning through poetry's waters. Be yourself on the page and on the planet. Write.

FR: What do you think the relationship is between poetry and politics?

WW: Poets and their poetry ought to engage in the world its entirety, and by doing so poets become of their time which makes them political. But I think poems should always be populated with more plumbers than politicians. I prefer poetry that employs a macro view, using a broad focus that gets at the substructure. Like cocktail party politics, a narrow focus is usually shrill and makes intelligent folks sound like they're regurgitating editorials that flatter their own opinions. Poetry is bigger than that, yet not so big that it can afford to ignore how the world works.

FR: How much you think a poet should write?

WW: As much as one can — however much that is. It's a personal thing and people operate in all sorts of ways: an hour a day, a poem a day, Saturday mornings. Unless you're riding a trust fund, a recluse, or in grad school, your free time is very limited. As much as I've tried to reform, I write in starts and fits. I'll get on a roll and then try to ride it out. I can be very productive. Eventually my rhythm will be interrupted by circumstances and I'll slow down or even stop. That's all okay as long as the down time doesn't last too long. There's an invisible threshold of inactivity and once crossed the rhythm is lost and I seem to forget how to write a poem. I don't like that feeling or the accompanying bouts of self-loathing. The pump has to be primed yet once again. But, I'm starting to understand that's okay too.

Francis Raven is a graduate student in philosophy at Temple University. His first novel, Inverted Curvatures (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005), and book of poems, Taste: Gastronomic Poems (Blazevox 2005), were recently published.

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