Q&A: David Wolf on Writing, Travel, and Rock and Roll.

David Wolf is the author of four collections of poetry, Open Season, The Moment Forever, Sablier, and Sablier II. His work has appeared in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, Poet and Critic, River Styx, and numerous other magazines and journals. A fifth collection, Visions (a collaboration with the artist David Richmond), will be published in the spring of 2017. He is a professor of English at Simpson College, where he teaches writing and literature and serves as the literary editor for Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology, and the Arts. He also writes songs, plays guitar, and sings for the bands Weather Beacon Blue and The Sonny Humbucker Band.

Wolf is serving as mentor to my senior project this semester; prescribing poets to explore and revising my original work week by week. I took his introductory level Poetry Writing course in the Spring of 2015, which helped me to begin taking my work as a writer more seriously.

When did you first become interested in poetry?

I would say in college. My interest likely began in high school when I was playing in a rock band and I started writing songs. I loved my American Literature and British Literature courses. I liked composition, too, because we did some creative writing along with the critical work. I went off to college and didn’t know what I would pursue, but I knew I liked English. I started reading more of the Beats, particularly Ginsberg and Kerouac, and Richard Brautigan as well. During my freshman year I grew more serious about the study of English, and by my sophomore year I’d started writing—mostly poetry. I decided to major in English because I felt needed to learn the tradition—where literature had been, where it was then, and where it might be headed.

So you encountered your interest for creative writing first and came about the English major as a means to guide your study of other writers?

I’d say so. Though the high school lit. courses and my interest in music certainly preceded any attempts at writing. I knew I had to make a living, however, so my first thought was secondary education, but I didn’t even take the first education class. It sounded awful: Educational Psychology and Measurement. I really wasn’t interested in the psychology of learning or measurement. I now appreciate the study of how people learn, having become a teacher. At the time I just thought, well, I’ll just write and be inspired by what I read, and take some creative writing classes for credit. I’ll worry about a career later. It helped to be at the University of Iowa. I saw some amazing writers, reading weekly it seemed: W.S. Merwin, Charles Wright, Louis Simpson. I also had some terrific professors. Ed Folsom, particularly, who taught some the Beats. The Writers’ Workshop folks were not interested in those poets, and there was a real tension present. The Beats as well as the Black Mountain poets and New York School were pretty much dismissed by the creative writing faculty at the time. It was a very conservative, mainstream academic literary environment. So I was always reading outside of class. I remember buying a volume of Brautigan’s poetry from a used book store on my way to my 18th Century Literature class and sitting there, before class started, thinking, I would rather be reading this, but it’s time for Dryden and Pope. I always felt this tension between my required reading and the reading that actually fueled my writing. I was told by certain teachers that my models, which even included such canonical Modernists as William Carlos Williams, weren’t appropriate influences. It was a very prescriptive environment. My instructors were recommending Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Philip Larkin, people I didn’t really connect with. Now, I actually admire their work a great deal, and I read less of my original influences, so my tastes have changed over the years. At least I learned how not to teach. I seek to determine what students’ work looks like at present and who might be a good fit, influence-wise. Again, the rejection of certain influences was a Workshop hang-up. The American literature people down the hall, like Ed Folsom and Sherman Paul, were teaching the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, and they saw them as important contributors to American literature and culture.

I think most would agree with them now.

Yes. Even the workshop has opened itself to more experimental literature, but at the time it hadn’t. Anyway, I found more camaraderie with the American literature scholars than my writing teachers. All of this caused me to believe that once I graduated I would move to Boulder, Colorado, and take courses at Naropa Institute. It was a Buddhist-centered college, where Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and Anne Waldman taught as regular faculty, and I had taken some courses there when I would visit my brother who worked for the newspaper. I thought I’d settle somewhere where the context was more welcoming. I ended up moving to New York City, which was even better, given the literary diversity.

The melting pot of literature too, then, in addition to culture.

Right. I moved there to pursue a career in publishing. Boulder wouldn’t have been the place for that. I was with my spouse Wini by then, and we both wanted to work in publishing. So we moved to New York. It was expensive and difficult to do but we managed. I didn’t really seek publication until I was well into my twenties. I started attending some open readings, and toward my latter time there we took in a roommate who was an old friend of ours from high school. He needed a place to stay one night, and we had an extra bedroom. He stayed for two years. But he was a student at Pace University and he’d started a reading series and a magazine and had acquired a used bookstore. He created a little scene in Brooklyn centered around the store, Frontier Books, and we developed a little writers community. We began rubbing elbows with some of the more famous folks. I started to publish a few pieces through some of the magazines connected to that scene.

How did surrounding yourself with that kind of presence affect your writing?

My writing matured. I discovered the Language poets who were essentially opposed to the oracular-prophetic mode of the Beat and post-Beat world, and that started to interest me. Many of my influences were rather conflicting. I was trying to work out what kind of writer I wanted to be. New York opened up a lot more possibilities and pushed me further down the road to figuring that out. Many exciting things were happening then in the writing realm and in the art world in general, as is always the case in New York. It kept me going, finding community there, and NYC, of course, was world-class community. I learned a great deal by just immersing myself in not only the literary scene but the music and visual art worlds. I wasn’t discouraged, that’s for sure. You might think it would have the opposite effect, that I’d realize it’s a big world chock-full of talented people, but I was more inspired than deterred.

What made you want to pursue an MFA?

I needed a break from the corporate publishing world. Grad school was Wini’s idea. She said, “Why don’t you just apply to an MFA program—get funded because we don’t really want to go into debt for it—and we can get out of here for a while.” Also at that time, she got transferred to Oxford University Press in England on a temporary consulting gig, and so we moved to England for a while and I applied to grad school from there. Fortunately for my writing it was illegal for me to work. I had some money saved up, so I hung out, wrote, and applied to programs. Basically the plan was to escape the corporate grind, take some time off to write and see what might happen next. I wrote a lot in Oxford—my days at Oxford, I call them—I didn’t have anything else to do. I also played in a band. We were “New York Dave and the Pumpers.” I started hanging around the Jericho Tavern—it was music-central in Oxford. I bought a guitar just to keep up my chops, but I had no intention of being in a band. A spot opened up in a rock group I’d been jamming with, and I ended up fronting it. We were like The Replacements; we were pretty sloppy but that was intentional. We didn’t rehearse much, but we played a lot at The Jericho, often opening for other acts. So that was fun and I started writing more songs. We were pretty alt-country, before that even existed.

Like Uncle Tupelo/Wilco?

Yeah, I guess so. We did some covers and some of my country/blues originals. My mates started calling me “New York Dave, the Legend from Iowa” and that’s how they’d bill me. But that was another nice community to fall into. Those days were a bit debaucherous. There really was a town-and-gown split. Our Oxford University Press friends said, “Oh, that’s a bad lot down there, Dave, you don’t want to hang out with them.” But they were good guys; they just had all the time in the world on their hands since they weren’t working. But anyway, I had a lot of time to write, however, only a few poems I wrote back then survived. I wrote a lot of drivel.

That sometimes happens when we have too much time.

Yeah. Yeah, it does. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to write. The MFA helped solidify that. I had a structure. I had to show up to class and generally behave as a grad student. So I went to grad school not thinking I would ever teach or become a professor. I knew the job market was tight, but I really wasn’t thinking about any of that until I got into grad school. At Michigan, as a TA, I realized I liked teaching and I didn’t want to give that up. Wini and I returned to central Iowa where she was pursuing graduate work in creative writing, and I landed a visiting professorship at Drake University. That allowed me to design more courses and further develop my teaching. I never really saw it as a career change; I knew that even if I returned to publishing I’d always write—I just needed a way to pay the bills.

How has teaching affected your writing?

There are positives and negatives. I do think—it sounds corny—but I do think that my students inspire me via their excitement about writing. My pedagogy remains very learner-centered. It keeps me fresh. I think the most draining aspect is the time I spend commenting on student work. Such work does take away from the creative energy—the writing and attention to revision—needed for one’s own writing, but that’s the job and I try also to think of it as editorial work.

So over the course of your publishing job, your move to England, moving back, grad school, beginning to teach…somewhere along the way was it ever tempting to not write? How did you always make sure writing had a part in your life, in your schedule?

I think I’ve been a person who is just moved to write. I’ll get it done because I want to. I didn’t really have to carve out time to write. It just happens. Either before or after work. The academic schedule does allow one significant time to devote to one’s own creative work. Also, I tend to write with my students in my creative writing classes.

When I feel like I’ve written myself out, my wife always jokes with me. I’ll say I’ve given up, you know. I quit. She says, “Again? You’ll be writing in a week.” An idea or an experience will just arise. Travel is good for me. I think I could be a better writer, maybe, if I carved out more time to do it. One of my teachers, Alice Fulton, maintained that poets can work in very short units and carry things around in their heads. In five minutes you can make some progress with a poem whereas narrative, in my experience, often demands longer stretches of time.

It kind of comes in bursts.

Right. I’ll be driving or walking around and thinking about something I wrote last night or last year and realize, oh, that line needs some work…that’s not quite right. In your head, you can work on it, or with a spare few minutes at the computer or on a bar napkin, it’s amazing how much revision can take place. For better or worse.

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