Yesterday I reviewed Mark Wunderlich’s new book, The Earth Avails. Mr. Wunderlich graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.
How did The Earth Avails come together as a collection? How did you go about putting the poems in order?
MW: I knew early on which poems I wanted as the first and last poems in the collection. I opened with a poem which I think of as perhaps one of the only unadulteratedly happy poems I’ve written as it describes walking out into the natural world and feeling fully alive. The book ends with a sort of extended argument with God, in which the speaker gives over control to a God whose attention is elsewhere, and who is ambivalent to the suffering happening on earth. This is not a new or original argument to have, but I felt to compelled to have it anyway. In between these two bookends, I chose and ordered the poems to create variation, modulation of tone and subject.
About half the poems in The Earth Avails take the form of prayers or “heaven letters”; who is the “you” addressed in these poems?
MW: The second person to whom many of the poems are addressed is God. Mind you, I’m not a believer. There is no deity. So the God I’m addressing is an emotional and intellectual construct–the center around which I wound a long skein of rhetoric and heightened speech which are poems. Though I don’t believe in a deity, I do believe in the mystery and glory of the natural world, and I am regularly in awe of it. The natural world is full of such intelligence, so many patterns and complex interactions, and in my mind these are sacred. The God in The Earth Avails is a conflation of a Christian God (whom I beg, praise, admonish, flatter and to whom I complain and sometimes eroticize), and my own notions of that which is sacred.
Readers may know that you teach writing and literature at Bennington College. How has teaching affected your writing?
MW: I am lucky in that teaching is my vocation–my calling. I love being in the classroom, and I love teaching my students at Bennington. Just this week, I was introducing Leaves of Grass to a class of undergraduates at Bennington, and I could see on their faces that the work was opening up to them, and that it was becoming their own–their inheritance. I teach a variety of writing and literature courses–literature to undergraduates, and writing courses to graduate students–and both sustain me in various ways, particularly because I have a great deal of freedom as to what I teach and how I teach it. Teaching has allowed me to continue my education and to read more deeply, and teaching also requires that you articulate you thoughts. As a teacher of writing, I think a great deal about the mechanics of writing, particularly syntax, and the ways in which that influences forms of poetic expression. I have learned to break down the different components of poems in order to explain them to other people. These activities have made me a better writer. That said, teaching takes a great deal of energy–energy not spent on one’s own poems. Sometimes I do feel as though I am burning my own work so someone else might write theirs, but that’s a false notion. One can always find twenty minutes.
“Sand Shark” brought to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” and The Earth Avails is a collection keenly attentive to the natural world. Were you influenced by any nature writers in particular as you were working on these poems? How do you envision poetry’s role in preserving the natural world?
MW: I spent a lot of time reading Virgil’s Georgics as I worked on this book. I love the sweetness and melancholia of those poems, and I love the ways in which he explains various agricultural tasks and husbandry in poetic form. He was one of my primary literary influences with this book. I am also completely entranced by Jorie Graham’s most recent book called Place, in which she contemplates, among other things, the degradation of the environment. As for the role poetry might play in preserving the natural world, I’m not sure it’s a significant one. If only it were! Poems can expand our sense of the importance of a subject by creating in readers a greater sense of mystery. Poems, by applying language to the world, can heighten our sense and also name those things we admire or are moved by, but that heretofore were unsaid or unspoken. I’m afraid, however, that the larger forces that hold sway in the material world–global capitalism and the petroleum economy–are much too powerful. I’m afraid we are past the point of no return, as far as the level of greenhouse gasses we have put into the atmosphere. The problem is so large and there are so many contrary demands and desires in play that I’m afraid we’ve passed the point of no return. The future–as far as climate change goes–does not look good for us. The title of my book, however, is a tiny reminder that the earth itself is indifferent. The earth will last, but the current patterns of the climate, the current forms of life may not. The earth will win out. We will be the ones to lose.
What kinds of projects are you working on now?
MW: It’s spring now, so I’m gardening. I’m looking after my beehives. I’m teaching and traveling to give readings. I’m grading countless student essays. As far as writing goes, I have a nonfiction project in the works which stems from my travels to places north of the Arctic Circle. I’m also trying to write new poems.
My thanks again to Mr. Wunderlich for his time and his thoughtful answers.
4 thoughts on “An Interview with Mark Wunderlich, Author of The Earth Avails”
Sounds like a pretty brilliant guy, and a great teacher. The book sounds fascinating (especially that last poem). Great questions! I’m always interested in the order of things, or, the process of ordering things. Like how bands choose the order of songs on their albums. Books of poetry are much the same, I imagine. Great post 🙂
Thanks, Rick! The book really is brilliant. I’m interested in how things are ordered too; Hailey Leithauser said in her interview (which I posted last month, or maybe in February) that her editor helped her put the poems in order. I wonder what it would be like if posthumous collected works were ordered by the poet instead of by collection.
I like what he says about the earth winning out. It makes me feel a bit better to think that after we’ve killed ourselves off, the earth could still heal and even start things up again. I wonder what or who would come next? The author sounds like someone I’d love to have a chat with. I also love how enthusiastic he sounds about teaching. Good teachers are hard to find.
Yes, isn’t it delightful how he loves to teach? It must be wonderful to be one of his students.