An Afternoon with Diane Wakoski

February 4, 2014 - Kelsey Block

The RCAH Center for Poetry is proud to announce that tomorrow night, Wednesday February 5, poet Diane Wakoski will be joining us to read from her new book, Bay of Angels, in the RCAH theater at 7 p.m.

“I’m bringing my career of poetry together with my fascination of movies and books. All of the sensuous material of my experience with the southern California landscape and the joy I’ve had in my lifetime of writing letters and the meaningful way I’ve been able to fold it into my poetry…”

Wakoski said she started writing poetry at the age of seven. She said she was sitting on her front porch step, looking out at the rosebush in the yard of her southern California home. One day, Wakoski said she noticed a rose on the rosebush, was struck by its beauty.

“I realized it was so beautiful and I didn’t know what to do,” Wakoski said, noting that her mother had recently given her a book of poetry. “I realized what I was feeling, in whatever little 7-year-old way you realize these things, that what I was feeling was the words in these poems. So I wrote a poem.”

Even though she began writing at a very young age, Wakoski said she didn’t write any “real poems” until she was in high school, and she did not have any work published until she went to college at Berkeley.

“I have had many, many, many best moments in my life,” Wakoski said, adding that while getting a new book published is no longer a “best moment” to her, she still feels a tingle of excitement when she gets the first copy. “Best moments should be an everyday experience… But often, a specific poetry reading is a best moment because there’s this wonderful reciprocity between me and the audience.”

Wakoski said writing has always been easy for her and that she connects her poetry to experience. Wakoski also shared that she will be a part of a new anthology featuring hybrid forms of poetry.

“I didn’t realize that I was such an innovator that I’ve been one of the first people using this hybrid form,” she said. Wakoski’s hybrid form combines her letters and correspondence with her poetry. “I could put things in the letter text that I wouldn’t be able to put into the poem. I’m not sure I took advantage of that, but that’s what the possibilities were.”

“Poetry is for those moments when something moves you because of its beauty, pure beauty, for anything that engages you to look at it and experience its transformative power,” the 76-year-old poet said. “Beauty transforms you.”

But not all find Wakoski’s poetry to be a thing of beauty. Peter Schjeldahl wrote in a 1970s review that Wakoski’s “pervasive unpleasantness makes her popularity surprising. One can only conclude that a number of people are angry enough at life to enjoy the sentimental and desolating resentment with which she writes about it.” Schjeldahl’s somewhat mixed review also notes that Wakoski’s poems are “professionally supple and clear.”

Wakoski said she is not surprised that some people consider her work difficult.

“I do write about difficult things, but I am looking for a little jewel, for the starkness of something and its passionate simplicity,” she said. “I want to talk about beauty, but I don’t want it to be prettified … I guess that person mean that somehow reading my poetry meant they had to wade through some muck or get their hands dirty.”

Wakoski also referred to another one of her works, “Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch,” in the discussion about “unpleasantness.”

“I’ve always been an angry poet, but that’s one of the things art has to contend with,” she said. “It wants to enter your life, but people are reluctant to let things in that are going to disrupt your life.”

Wakoski granted that she is not an “easy poet.”

“I guess what I want a Diane Wakoski poem to be is a room with all these treasures that you want to enter and just look at them for a while,” she said.

Indeed, Wakoski certainly has her supporters. Maryfrances Wagner, a poet and editor of The I-70 Review, wrote a glowing review of Bay of Angels that appeared last month. Wagner writes:

“The poems tell stories, even a story within a story, and yet the whole book is a big story of a full life she has lived. It’s hard sometimes to know which details are imaginary and which are real, which characters represent real people or are made up personae because they all blend together so well.”

Additionally, at her reading on Wednesday night, Wakoski was introduced by four former students.

The retired Michigan State University professor said that teaching others about poetry helped her to learn what a wonderful process revision is. Before she started teaching, Wakoski said she never revised her poems.

“It was something I didn’t know until I started teaching. I had to figure out how to talk about peoples’ poems,” Wakoski said, adding that she didn’t teach poetry – she professed it.

“I like students, don’t get me wrong, but to me it doesn’t matter what students get out of it. I am professing it and I’m doing it in every possible way I can think of that will get these great ideas of the past out, and if you’re struggling, I’ll think of even more ways to do it,” Wakoski said. “But the bottom line is, that it is what it is, and if you can’t get anything out of it, you shouldn’t study with me … It seems like if you coddle people, you don’t help them be strong. I know that there are students who say I’m unpleasant because I didn’t do whatever it is they wanted me to do. On the other hand, that’s never bothered me, because all I care about is the good students and being true to literature; if there’s one place you can find truth, it ought to be poetry.”

Despite her distinguished career, there is one thing the 76-year-old poet has not yet accomplished: to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

“As long as I keep publishing poetry there’s still a chance,” she said. “Now, I realize it doesn’t make everyone in the world suddenly love you. I think when I was young I thought it meant something, that the world recognized how good you were, and it’s always been my goal, growing up poor and having only one thing – my brain – to make the world recognize that I was worth something. I don’t believe it anymore, but I still want to win it.”