An Interview with Mark Wunderlich, Author of The Earth Avails

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?

Mark Wunderlich Photo (c) Nicholas Kahn

Mark Wunderlich
Photo (c) Nicholas Kahn

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?

photo (70)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.

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“Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side”: Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails

photo (70)Brimming with life and color, Mark Wunderlich’s collection The Earth Avails* is the perfect book to read on Earth Day. In these poems, the natural world is both celebrated and mourned in a speaker’s voice that is sometimes measured, sometimes impassioned, and always thoughtful.

In his Notes on the poems, Mr. Wunderlich explains that upon reading a nineteenth-century small book of German prayers found in his family’s home, as well as Heaven-letters, “folk-religious documents” from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he adapted these documents into poems (69). Roughly half the poems in The Earth Avails take the form of prayers or Heaven Letters; in their posture of supplication, in their evocations of simple desires (“spare the orchards from hail”), they nonetheless suggest that the power addressed is the power of language itself, building in rumbling, crescendoing couplets.

In adapting these older forms, Mr. Wunderlich has written poems with an utterly fluid sense of time. A poem might include charms against flooding or pests or disease — common enough nineteenth-century agrarian concerns — but then mention at its end a detail that places the poem in a contemporary world. The juxtaposition is pleasantly jolting, showing us just how rooted we are in the past — and how far we are from it — while offering the promise that the sense of connection to the land we think we’ve lost could be recovered.

Many of the poems reflect the landscape, both interior and exterior, of Mr. Wunderlich’s home in the Hudson Valley. The word that kept coming to mind as a I read was “renovation,” not only in the sense of rebuilding a structure, like the house here with its “crumbling cow-hair plaster mending the wall,” but also in its etymological sense of “to make new again.” The poems in The Earth Avails make the natural world new again, giving us fresh eyes to see the coyote with mange, or “the green worms / ciphering the cabbages’ leaves” or the wild boar’s “rusty wool along the belly.”  These poems reflect engagement with other nature poets (Robert Frost came to mind more than once, and “Sand Shark” would be a perfect companion piece for anyone teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”), and since I’ve just read The Poetic Species, I couldn’t help thinking about the ways in which this volume works at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences.

I think you can probably tell that I loved these poems. I highly recommend The Earth Avails.

The featured poem of the week is “Prayer for a Birthday,” by Mark Wunderlich, which appears in The Earth Avails. You can read the poem, and a short comment from the poet, on Poets.org.

*My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.