Dara Wier's books include Remnants of Hannah, Reverse Rapture, Hat On a Pond, and Voyages in English. Among her works are the limited editions (X In Fix) in Rain Taxi's Brainstorm Series, Fly on the Wall (Oat City Press), and The Lost Epic, co-written with James Tate (Waiting for Godot Books in 1999). Her poetry has been supported by fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the American Poetry Review. Her work appears in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Conduit, Denver Quarterly, The Fairytale Review, Hollins Critic, and jubilat among others.
Poetry Editor Alisha Allston had the exciting opportunity to conduct an enlightening interview with contributor Dara Wier. She says of the interview, "Delving into Dara Wier's diverse body of work was a bit intimidating at first. Once I found my way into her poetic rhythms, I was delighted and enchanted by Ms. Wier's versatility of form and playfulness with language. She is a poet I respect and admire for her ability to approach issues of gravitas thoughtfully without sacrificing her gift of levity: the whimsical, joyful celebration of life that shines through in her work. I am honored to have the chance to pick this poet's brain and discover her perspective on craft, teaching, and the writer's life."
Alisha Allston: What is it like directing one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the country?
Dara Wier: It's bracing. Thankfully there are so many great writers here. Noy Holland, Sabina Murray, Chris Bachelder, Peter Gizzi, James Tate, Lisa Olstein. They take good care of the writers who join us to write here for a while. And over the years we've had lively, dedicated visitors, James Haug, Mary Ruefle, Carolyn Forche, Paul Muldoon, and Tomaz Salamun, William Corbett, Tony Giardina, Valerie Martin (who was once a regular faculty member and who generously and ably directed the program for us for a few years) and Sam Michel.
AA: How do you find these responsibilities affect your teaching and your writing?
DW: Most of the time these intersections are positively galvanizing. Most of the time one can only be glad to get to know the poets and writers who come to write, who sometimes teach, and who often imagine and invent good ways to send news of literary intentions and passions out into the world. It's important to keep one's writing primary. Never to the exclusion of responsibilities to one's job, never to the detriment of writing. Like anyone will find anywhere, there are times when one wishes things were otherwise, one wishes everything were all taken care of, that's just life. I used to think that teaching kept me honest and it probably did. If I'm going to ask you to think about this and that then I better be doing the same, but then I realized that perhaps that's a pretty rationalization. I do make my living this way and I want to feel that making a living is a reasonable and honest thing to do. Well, eventually I realized I was going to be honest anyway.
AA: Your author's page at Wave Books says you are completing three manuscripts: poems, stories, and a novel. How do you manage working in several genres at once? What do you enjoy most about each?
DW: I didn't mean for this to happen. I'd rather work on one book at a time. It might not be the best thing in the world to work in several genres at once. I have to take each one on its own, far apart from one another. They are really asking for different kinds of attention. I wish the novel were finished and out of my life. I wish the essays were done. I have a collection of poems, finished; I wish it were coming out sooner rather than later. Right now, I don't feel in conflict with the idea of writing stories because stories are something I've worked on since REVERSE RAPTURE, at first as a way to get away from that book, and now that it's been a while, because I like what prose proposes, I like the problems prose (and stories) present.
All that so reasonably said.
I don't think writing a story or a longer prose piece is any different from writing one poem at a time. After all, what anyone who is writing is wanting to be doing is writing. When any writer's attention is focused on what she's doing, what she's doing is that she's wanting to be writing, and well, the outcome of that will be determined by what one writes. You never know.
But I truly believe one should write one poem at a time. One story. One novel (that's a crazy thought). I remember reading about Emerson having a lazy-susan sort of desk built for himself onto which he kept his several on-going projects going, a desk he could swirl around before him as he wished to work on different pieces of writing. I thought that was funny. But I guess that's no different than any of us having several files available to us to open or close at will. I think I should settle down. To write anything takes an incredible amount of concentration.
We can distract ourselves, as everyone knows, we can be all too interested in the moment, say, of imagining what one could be writing, and then lose track of what we're doing. It's really sad when a writer finishes nothing, or has nothing going to get lost in. I think getting lost in what you're doing is to be desired.
AA: How do find yourself switching gears between projects?
DW: It's like switching between means of transportation. A story is a story no matter how many infinitely available ways a story might be made. A poem is a poem, no matter how may infinitely ways a poem can be made. A novel's a novel. No matter how clever we can be about re-defining these fine things.
I think of someone making a movie instead of making a soup, you know what you're doing, or at least one would hope so. And still, what I like about artists is that someone says, you know there is a difference between soup and a movie, and the artist out there says, oh, yeah, let me show you, a soup and a movie are one and the same thing. I like contrary attitudes. They keep us going.
I love to walk around and look at the world, but I know my walking around and looking at the world is not a poem. I love to sit with a friend and have a good conversation but I know that's not a story. Everything can inform every other thing, but it's not bad to know what one's trying to do. If I'm trying to write a poem, that's what I'm trying to do, and I don't particularly want my errands to buy groceries to get in the way.
I find myself failing miserably. I find it confusing. I find it complex.
AA: What element in your current work excites you most?
DW: The scary frightening possibility that I'll never be able to write anything again.
AA: Do you find, more than others, that there is one lesson or skill you most wish to teach your poetry students?
DW: To remain as open minded as one was when one originally found a poem or story or novel the most important thing in the world.
AA: How do you feel about the publishing industry's relationship with poetry?
DW: Fortunately, I don't feel much about this. I know there are things to think about it. But I don't want to feel much about it. I don't want publishing to interfere with imagining what one might write. I can't call it an industry when it comes to most poetry publishing, because most poetry is published out of love of poetry and a belief in the necessity of poetry. The numbers are sometimes so small one can barely see it register on anything anyone would call "industry." For fiction this is another story, although fiction writers are beginning to start presses and be more involved in so-called independent publishing, which really means small publishing, which is more like the way poetry has always been published.
AA: The Juniper Initiative for Literary Art and Action is responsible for more than a dozen different literary programs for writers and the local community. What impact do you see the Juniper Initiative having on the community as a whole?
DW: It's doing a good job of sending out means by which lots of people can get involved with writing, reading, thinking.
AA: In your book Remnants of Hannah your poem "Independence Day" seems to chronicle a group of characters experimenting with free will and power structures. What led you to explore these concepts poetically?
DW: Free will. Power Structures. Well, you said it. We've been living in a time in which free will was being crushed by the Bush Administration's call to say to everyone, Be Afraid. Well, that crushes free will. We've been living through a time in which power structures wish us to submit to their point of view. It makes me sick. They've wrecked so many words, perfectly good words that have been misused. But, hey, this has all changed now! We've been witness to an election in which people have said, enough is enough, let's change terms, change, change, change, we're able to look into a future not so tainted with old doctrines, old rehashed, repeated, endlessly accepted ways. It's amazing. Thank god.
AA: In your poem "Attitude of Rags" you write toward the end "It was the kind of day in which emotions roaming from / Town to town, free to be themselves, enjoyed their / Rich fantasy lives." How did you come about this lovely fanciful image?
DW: I was shocked by the thought that we were rags in the hands of a narcoleptic duster. I know that poem's end came directly into being from thinking and feeling about these past several years. It's pernicious to tell everyone to always be afraid, when telling us this was meant to control us. Fear is a powerful emotion. It causes you to panic, to freeze, you know the stories of being frozen in head lights. It stops thought, imagination and hope. It's awful. And now that this is over. We can breathe again. I probably wouldn't write, "we're rags in the hands of a narcoleptic duster," tonight. And I am so relieved about that.
AA: You mention cellars and what happens in them several times in Remnants of Hannah. What do cellars represent for you? Why do you think they recur in this work?
DW: Yikes. I didn't know this. Louisiana, where I'm from, didn't, couldn't have cellars. There would be no room down there in the dark, dank, swampy world there for cellars. Everybody is buried above ground, not even dead folks are down in the cellar there. So, I think maybe cellars scare me. They're underground, that's where the dead people don't even want to go. We have a really creepy dirt cellar here in Amherst, and I love it, but I don't go there very often, I try to avoid going down there into the cellar.
AA: Remnants of Hannah has a cohesive theme of things left behind, shut down into cellars, pieces of things trying to continue on while perhaps missing their essential parts. From where did this body of work stem, and how did it evolve into the final published work?
DW: I don't know. But you're scaring the hell out me!
AA: You have extensively explored form in your poems. How do you teach form to your students? How do you help them discover the right form for their current voice?
DW: Sometimes I get to teach a seminar called FORM AND THEORY. The title's meant to suggest to anyone taking the seminar that he or she is welcome to make up forms and theories of poetry. During any one semester I make up a booklist, make up some things for us to do, but, as any semester evolves, it's going to be dependent on the people in the seminar to guide us as we go. I can hope to offer an atmosphere in which anyone can think and imagine and make up something that makes sense to them as they explore and work to write something that matters to them.
That's my obligation. I can say read this, read that, consider this, look at this, look at everything all around us. I can say, have you looked at this, have you tried this. The world's huge, poetry's huge, individuals approach the world in their own ways. My job has always been to get out of the way. All that said, a word is a word. A sentence is a sentence. Syntax is amazing. I love the world out there that's inviting us to join it. Poetry is a powerful force that's going to go on, no matter what we do.
AA: You mentioned in a previous interview that you avoided all abstractions in your first book of poetry. As a seasoned poet, what role do you see abstractions playing in your work when they are allowed to appear?
DW: By the second book I was an abstraction maniac. I wanted to be as abstract as possible. By which I mean, these are really ridiculous categories, right? We meet up with everything all around us everyday. That is real, that is true. I met up with someone recently who was afraid to use the word "truth"———-well, come on, truth is okay. I was always listening, of course, why not, but I couldn't help having opinions. I like abstract concepts and hard core details, I like Latinate and Anglo Saxon English, I like being alive, it ultimately means you don't forbid anything. It may mean you have way too many opinions, even if they last only briefly. I was pretty happy when I met Keats.
AA: You mention boats often in your poems. "Remnants of Hannah" ends with an image of the blue moon rowing, and "drops of water falling from its oars." What do the ideas of boats and ships evoke for you poetically?
DW: I love boats, water, rivers, drops of water. Someone else might love other means of transportation, galaxies, drops of stars. All poetry does is say to us, hey, we're here, this is good. Do something while you're alive.
AA: In your journey as a poet, what has most surprised you in your career?
DW: I'm here, I'm alive. Oh, being alive, it's amazing.