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Volume 3 | Issue 2 | January 2009 | 

All of us, I believe, have an obligation to reach out to others
Interview with Wendy Vardaman
By : Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi


Wendy Vardaman, Madison, WI, has a Ph.D. in English from University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in Engineering from Cornell University. Her poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals, including Riffing on Strings, Letters to the World, Poet Lore, qarrtsiluni, Nerve Cowboy, Free Verse, Wisconsin People & Ideas, Women’s Review of Books, Rain Taxi Review, Rattle and Portland Review. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and was runner up in 2004 for the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker Award. A former university English teacher, she works for a children’s theater company, The Young Shakespeare Players. Beginning in 2009 she will co-edit the Wisconsin poetry journal Free Verse. Her first collection of poetry, Obstructed View (Fireweed Press), will also appear in 2009. With her husband, she home schools two of their three children.

1-Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad believes : Only the lack of love enforces
us to write poetry. If we were not deprived of love, we could never feel any necessity to write.What enforced you to be a poet?

Yes—one of my writing professors in college used to say the same thing, and
as a young woman I believed him, probably because it spoke to some romantic
notions I had of myself and of poetry. I think that childhood probably comes
up short for most of us, and that was true for me: I did feel deprived of
love, whether or not that was justified, and looked to poetry and books as a
refuge. Did this feeling make me a poet, however? I would say no: if the
insufficiency of love were all it took to make people poets, than we would be a nation, a world of poets. I would instead cite different factors about my personality and my environment. First my parents read to me from the day I was born, stories and poems. My father especially liked to read poetry out loud—Frost and Yeats and Shakespeare were favorites of his; he has always been a very
withdrawn person, and this was one of the only ways we related to each other
when I was a child. Second, I loved words, loved to read from very early on,
and spent incredible amounts of time as a child doing that, to the detriment
of having social relations. The first poems I wrote were in elementary
school. An assignment required me to write one, and I just kept
writing—always poetry, never stories.
Although I continued to write as a teenager, I went to college with the
intention of studying science. Even while earning a degree in Civil
Engineering, however, I knew that the courses I really loved were ones about
literature. I took a few creative writing classes as an undergraduate, was
encouraged by my professors, and decided to go to graduate school in
English. Unfortunately, graduate school was more about passing one test
after another in order to get to the next level, and between the reading
load and teaching to support myself, I somehow stopped writing poetry, my
original motivation for going at all! After finishing my doctorate, I worked
as a writing instructor at the University of Washington-Seattle for a few
years, occasionally writing a poem or a short story, and feeling that
something huge was missing from my life. In the meantime, I married and had two small children to take care of. My husband was an assistant professor, very busy trying to get tenure at the University, and we decided that it would be better for the children if I quit the job I did not enjoy for awhile to stay home with them. months, I was writing poetry again seriously, and knew that I wanted to be a
poet more than anything else, could not, in fact, be anything but a poet,
although I had tried very hard for many years to be other things. It’s been
thirteen years, and I have continued to write steadily and never returned to
teaching, although I still periodically feel like I should do something more
“useful” with my life and education than write poems that no one reads—this
is a problem that all artists have to confront. Still, I like to think that,
on balance, we collectively add value to the universe’s spiritual economy;
most of us I hope, at least, do no harm.
Two more items that enforced my becoming a poet have occurred to me as I
explained these details to you: one, that writing and poetry is for me part
of a spiritual quest, a process of finding and exploring meaning, not
meaninglessness, in the universe; and two, that I really came into myself as
a poet and found the subject matter of my poetry as a result of being a
mother. Although I have often felt inadequate as a parent, certainly humbled
by parenthood, I have never been more needed: in loving my children and
being loved—and sometimes rejected—by them, I feel I have glimpsed, as I
never could before, something of the mind of God, and that has both
motivated my writing, and been a subject of my poetry. So, to return to your
original question, it is love, not its lack, that compels me to write.

2-What is behind this outpouring of polished vacuity? Why does a poet like
John Ashbery occupy such a central place in the contemporary pantheon of
American poetry(and who created such an anointing in the first place ?)
while better poets such as Louis Simpson and Philip Booth receive nowhere near the attention they merit? This is a question by professor Samuel Hazo my favorite poet in his essay on poetry .I like to know your answer please.

At some point in my writing life, I decided to stop regarding poetry as a contest—probably because I knew I wasn’t winning. Although I have never felt particularly attracted by Ashbery’s poetry, I reread some of his poems in order to think about your question. Not only did I find them funnier than I used to, I realized that I had perhaps
unknowingly come under his influence in ways that surprised me, probably through reading and working with other poets who have been influenced by him. His poetry, particularly the early to middle, appears to have had an enormous impact on contemporary American poets who write out of the same aesthetic, employing a similar sense of humor, a flat and often cynical tone, ironic references to American popular culture, surreal visual imagery, postmodern “playfulness” with language and syntax. If, however, Ashbery’s poems can be very satisfying sites for the critical and intellectual play that literary scholars and many poets enjoy, they are perhaps less
satisfying to a reader uninterested in American postmodernism, who may feel
that these poems are all about surface, that they keep their readers at a distance, that they call too much attention to the writer’s intellectual prowess, and that they reduce the relation of writer and reader to its cerebral dimension, at the expense, it sometimes seems, of emotion or spirit. Why this aesthetic is the dominant (though not only) one in American poetry, is a difficult question, perhaps connected at its foundation with issues about belief and meaning. And why Ashbery— a well-connected New Yorker with contacts in the art world—as opposed to the other poets you speak of? All three are male, masters of their craft, prolific writers, and of a similar age—all had
careers as college professors as well as poets. Maybe it is more revealing
to think about why a highly-gifted, female poet who remains in a small town,
is not part of the university system, and does not write within the dominant
aesthetic would not have an immediate influence on other poets. Put in
those terms, does it seem likely that she would? Perhaps with the right
advocates and sustained efforts, she might eventually become influential, as
did Emily Dickinson or, more recently, Lorrine Niedecker, but perhaps not.
In the end, I think, influence, as is demonstrated by the general
importance of celebrities in our society, is not necessarily a measure of
substance or quality and shouldn’t be taken as such, although it also does
not, in and of itself, indicate a lack of substance.
The fact is that there are an enormous number of people writing in this
country, and we are our own readers as well, meaning that the vast majority
of poets, even relatively well-known ones, have, ironically, very small
audiences, and very little influence on that audience. And given the small
number of people who write about poetry in reviews and articles, very few
poets will ever get a fraction of the attention they deserve, when you
consider the amount of work we devote to our poems.
Maybe you know a short poem of Simpson’s, “American Poetry,” which addresses
your question a lot more eloquently and economically than I just did:
“Whatever it is, it must have/A stomach that can digest/Rubber, coal,
uranium, moons, poems.//Like the shark, it contains a shoe./It must swim for
miles through the desert/Uttering cries that are almost human.”

3- Julia de Burgos in a poem for herself says:
The people are saying that I am your enemy,
That in poetry I give you to the world,
They lie ,Julia de Burgos, They lie ,Julia de Burgos.
The voice that rises in my verses is not your voice:
it is my voice; for you are clothing and I am
the essence; between us lies the deepest abyss.

What about you dear Wendy Vardaman?

First I should thank you for introducing me to a wonderful poet whose work I did not know—my first thought about the lines you quote here was that they reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges’ famous parable or prose poem “Borges and I,” which makes a kind of postmodernist philosophical game of the gap between the poet and the historical person called “Borges,” the author and the poem’s persona, the perceiving subject and the object, even when that object is himself, as de Burgos seems also to do. When I looked at the whole of this poem, however, it seemed to me that something more urgent was at stake for the poet, that is, the female voice and the circumstances and constraints that, traditionally, women have had to overcome in order to write: “You belong to your husband, your master; not me; /I belong to nobody, or all,” the poem says. And although I know that men also face social pressure, I’m not sure that it is to the same degree that women do, or that they feel it as deeply. Certainly most men move through ordinary life more freely than most women even now, and de Burgos writes evocatively in this poem of the sanctions that women often encounter, as well as the frustration arising from them:

You in yourself have no say; everyone governs you;
your husband, your parents, your family,
the priest, the dressmaker, the theatre, the dance hall,
the auto, the fine furnishings, the feast, champagne,
heaven and hell, and the social, “what will they say”.

And yet, I can’t help but notice that women themselves are implicated in this list, that we are at times complicit in our destruction, both through uncritically accepting the demands of others, and also by burdening other women with requirements that, for example, they dress in certain ways, keep house or cook to particular standards, have a specific kind of job or life, a big house, well-mannered children who participate in certain activities, and I wonder if that isn’t perhaps what de Burgos means in the poem’s final image, a terrible, but powerful scene in which the narrator becomes part of a virtuous mob who, in the end, will destroy this “Julia de Burgos,” this woman created and controlled by the forces noted above.

I too have felt these pressures with respect, for example, to the choice I made to stay home with my children, rather than hold a university position, and professional women, much more than men, disapprove. On the other hand, although mothers must always balance their own needs with those of their children, and that is never easy, I have found certain roles helpful to me in shaping my identity, like cups that hold a liquid that would otherwise be lost. Motherhood is like that, as is religion, which I came to as an adult. Still, there is a constant back and forth between me and my children, me and God, though I often find that when I struggle to win, or feel I have lost it’s because, somehow, I have framed the terms of the engagement incorrectly. And in that sense I have often fought myself, though less and less as I get older, trying as a favorite poet of mine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote in his sonnet, “My own heart let me more have pity on,” to “let/Me live to my sad self hereafter kind.”

4 :Adrienne Rich opens her notebooks on poetry and politics with an "image befitting the long, erotic, unending wrestling of poetry and politics. " May I know your interpretation? and If you have any poem regarding this interpretation please let us read it.

I know poets who believe that all poets have an obligation to take political action and to protest through their work; I know other poets equally committed to the opposite position—the belief that politics and poetry are antithetical, that good poetry is, by necessity, apolitical. And, although this position has certainly lost currency during the last decade, I know other poets who believe that a connection exists between politics and form—that, for example, traditional forms like the sonnet are inherently conservative, in a political sense. By nature I am suspicious of monolithic pronouncements about art, especially ones that limit its subject matter or the form it may take, ultimately attempting to dictate the poet’s aesthetics, which is a political act.
The relation of poetry or art to politics is complex, what I think Rich means when she speaks of “unending wrestling”: this is an ancient discussion, not just a contemporary one. Homer is, to my mind a political poet. So is Dante. So is Shakespeare. The texts of these authors are steeped in the politics and contemporary events of their respective cultures; each speaks to the political behaviors and decisions of his audience. At a certain point in 20th c American poetry, however, elite authors and New Critical theorists began to deny the long marriage of politics and poetry and to argue, despite the fact that their own heroes—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—would not have agreed, that “good” poetry and political poetry could not cohabitate.

Feminists and multi - culturalists have done much to teach American writers and readers otherwise. We can speak of poetry as a political site: whether or not an author has overt didactic intentions, texts have multiple meanings, and every author is a political/historical being, some of whom prefer to speak directly, others in code. We can also inquire about the poet’s political being: some, like Rich, are activists, others might make political statements in less visible ways, through their choices about how to live well, or virtuously. Ultimately, however, though we may wish for virtuous poetry and virtuous poets to exist seamlessly in the same historical person, we know that that is not always the case. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, for example, are significant 20th c authors whose political views most contemporary American poets resoundingly reject.

We must also, I think, be alert to the ways that politicians incorporate poetry, or rhetoric, into their speeches and texts. I can think of many famous examples in American history when rhetoric was used for positive ends: our Declaration of Independence; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “First Inaugural Address”; Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, poetic devices can also be used to inspire fear, misrepresent others, and manipulate voters, which is why Plato famously wanted to exile poets from his ideal community. I think, however, that the best defense against unprincipled rhetoric is a literate and educated citizenry skilled, especially, at reading poetry and recognizing rhetorical devices.
All of us, I believe, have an obligation to reach out to others; to work for peace; to increase the amount of understanding and tolerance in the world; to resist hatred and ignorance. Poetry, whether or not we write overtly political poems, can be a means to accomplish these ends, as can other arts. Here is another quotation from Rich, who said in her refusal of the 1997 National Medal of Arts: "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage." Art, in my opinion, has a mind of its own: it may decorate—and beauty is, I think, central to its purpose—but art effects audiences, even, perhaps, the most jaded, in unpredictable ways.

Mother Contemplates Limited Good

We stand in line,
my daughter and I, because we have failed
to secure tickets for this installment
of the free Middle-East lecture series,
this one on women’s lives. We arrive
an hour early and lean,
like everyone else, against a white wall
reading. The woman next to me pages
through J’Accuse, the man
next to her, Hegel. My thirteen-year-old
reads about US oil dependency, while I skim
an article that connects Leonardo, flight, weight
and the poetic

line. We are all so educated,
holding our books and newspapers in front
of our faces, peering outward on occasion
in order to check our progress:
are we moving? We learn that Iraqi women’s
literacy has fallen below 25% and continues

to decline. Remember when we thought
the world was getting better? Every
Eastern European country
a wrinkle ironed away forever?
The Soviet Union fell
and when the Oslo Accords followed,
it looked like peace
and prosperity were as inevitable
as a new white sheet,
so perfect underneath its plastic.

April 2002 (Spell-bound before the siege of Bethlehem)

Suffer the dandelion--
in dizzying supply at April’s end:
a child sees a field of enchantment, of thick wands
and wide charms.
Our next door necromancer, father of two, declares them
the enemy--subject to eradication.
One, one
too many, hundreds an abomination.

You never find a dandelion
where there’s one there’s a throng.
Sometimes whole lawns
give way to the repugnant weed,
its jagged leaves,
and later wispy hair--
the sort a forgetful old sorceress would wear.

They neither dance nor shine
like stars, though thousands line
the margin of the street; nor
make a magic mirror
to beguile me,
flashing on my inward eye,
my heart, its essence one with memory--
as if the body
vanishes and what is left
has no acquaintance with brevity or death;
nor do they soothe
the frantic brain longing for solitude.

Admire the long roots, efficient germination,
and their transformation:
the spherical seed head that will conjure
itself from every quarter.
What other flower
invokes their
mastery? We can’t all
be tropical
lilies or Netherlanders
new this year
withered in
a week. Then
let us be weeds, sinking
into and emerging
from darkness
with wide eyes.

Fall Invasion

When smooth-shelled ladies swarm our kitchen, my husband
finds them charming, cheerful, but the children
demand immediate dispersal, even
eradication, and refuse to sit
and eat, shoulder to shoulder, the table heaving
from their take-offs and landings, pinging
in aborted orbit about the light then
dropping like broken glass against a half-filled plate.

That they vacuum as easily as thin confetti
surprises. Even the cluster of fifty
huddled in a corner of the ceiling
disappears with a quiet whoosh: no paper pattern
but creatures who crack between bent
fingers and leave behind the barest stain.
Command Performance, After Die Fledermaus
for Ronald Watkins, soldier & singer

A call-up, not call back, the roll requires quick change: father, husband to empire-builder, aristocrat. It’s a part for which our hero auditioned, but didn’t imagine landing, at this age, despite the drills, the endless rehearsals, despite the growing demand for new choristers, solid baritones especially scarce in this now long-running, revival-revenge piece in which the supernumeraries waltz across the stage, tossing down champagne, then lie to their spouses about where they’ve gone and when they’ll return, smiling all the while as if this were a comedy, when they know that the only way anyone’s getting off-stage soon is on a stretcher. But they’re up there, in the middle of this interminable, intermission-free, international tour, pretending to have the time of their lives, pretending not to sweat in the scorching heat inside their heavy costumes, while guards—disguised as maids and butlers armed with elaborate time-pieces—prevent the actors from leaving or breaking character. Family watch from theater seats, like anyone else, waiting for prearranged signals: a head tilt, a finger lift, slight shift of weight between the feet, any of which alterations of choreography means something, although the actors, underneath blinding lights, can’t receive the messages ingenuously directed their way. Except for the backers, still stalking a profit despite enormous losses, interest in the production has evaporated. The audience watches its watches, creates its own intermissions, gets up to stretch and wander off, sometimes returning, sometimes not. The singers wonder how long it will take to wash the grit from their lungs when the curtain comes down and they take their bows, if anyone’s still there to applaud. They want to sit in their dressing rooms, take off the hot wigs and the make-up, ignore the merciless thunder of incoming reviews, and cry—because they’ve been acting longer then they’d have thought possible—while stage hands, quick and quiet as lightning, strike this tired, this worn-out set.


The bravely irrelevant
wake every morning and do not
get into cars, do
not go

to work. The bravely
irrelevant know:
resistance begins in the heart:
may start

with some small
act, as inconsequential
as paint, as letters,
as tolerating the dandelion, as

as waiting.

5- let me know please what do you know about Iran? Have you any information on our culture? Our poetry, our cinema, our people ?

I am afraid I know far less about your country and culture than you know about mine. A literary education in the U.S. tends to focus on the English language tradition—American and British, primarily—with a few European and perhaps South American works thrown in. My parents owned copies of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as well as One Thousand and One Nights, and I enjoyed both of these as a child. I have also read some poems by Rumi, a few by Forough Farrokhzad, and seen a handful of films; after you asked me this question, however, I checked to see what is available in the public library here in Madison, Wisconsin, and found 68 Iranian movies, some of which I will be sure to watch in the future.

Working at universities and living in university communities, I have had relatively good access to information about other cultures, through coursework and lectures. The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters sponsored a free and well-attended public lecture series last year on Middle Eastern topics—economics, culture, religion, women’s lives—designed to inform people about significant regional issues. My husband, a professor at University of Wisconsin, currently mentors freshman students who live in the same dormitory and are all reading about Iran, including the Iranian system of government, Iranian history, and Islamic culture, the goal of which is to expand the students’ knowledge of Iran beyond what they may see on television, which I avoid entirely, or read in mainstream newspapers. I have also found these articles informative.

My closest knowledge of Iranian culture came from a friendship with an Iranian/Finnish couple in Helsinki many years ago when my husband and I lived there during his graduate studies. Foreign students tend to meet other foreigners and take the time to tell each other about their countries, explaining especially those things that they believe are misunderstood or misrepresented in the media—this was during the Reagan years and the Iran-Iraq War, so we had much to talk about. Our friend, a dignified and considerate host, invited us to his home many times, where we enjoyed Iranian meals, as well as conversation about religion, history and literature.

To some extent, internet interactions can now provide us with unfiltered and direct knowledge of each other, although I do not think that any written exchange, no matter how special, can replace the act of entering someone’s home, as a means to learn about another person and to break down differences between people. Americans are often rightly accused of knowing too little about others—their geography, languages, history, literature. For me, being a foreigner in a non-English speaking country was such an eye-opening experience—I wish every American could go live somewhere else for a year.

6-"What have you ever done with your life And done with the great gift of consciousness? "This is a line by my favorite poet: Delmore Schwartz

Consciousness, to the extent that it implies observation, is essential to the job of being a poet. Billy Collins often writes about staring out windows—in a characteristically comic and insightful piece, “Monday,” he writes, “By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet.” Poets watch, and get lost in their watching. Ordinary things fascinate me. People fascinate me. My children fascinate me. God fascinates me. Poets get caught up in all the little details of life, as well as in the meaningfulness of those details. In the play Our Town, Thornton Wilder says that people don’t pay enough attention to what is passing them by, or maybe what they are passing through, except, “Saints and poets, maybe; they do some." That’s a romanticization of poets, obviously, but something to strive toward.

Besides watching others, I have also spent a lot of time watching myself—trying to “know myself,” as well as what it means to live a “good life,” in a philosophical sense, and to be more aware of the choices that I make. For example, my husband and I have never owned a car, despite having three children. Most Americans don’t think they do have a choice about that, but we walk and bicycle, we use the bus, and we often do not do things that our neighbors take for granted, like shopping at big stores on the edge of town. We prefer this life—
I think it keeps us more connected to the natural world, to each other, and to our own thoughts. A person can meditate while walking—that’s not so easy to do while driving in traffic. Consciousness ought to lead us to resist cultural oppression, as much as political tyranny, and the dependence of Americans on cars is, I believe, oppressive.
Consciousness also ought to lead us to an awareness of what we have and what others lack. Sometimes poets, myself included, have a tendency to be fascinated by themselves a little too much. I have always had to fight the tendency to be selfish, to look inward too much, to resist engaging with people, as opposed to just watching them. Parenting has helped me somewhat with this problem, but not, I’m afraid, as much as I would like, although it makes me aware, as nothing else ever did, of the needs of another person, and of the importance of gratitude for what I have while I have it. I like that Delmore Schwartz - call consciousness “a great gift.” It underscores this need to be grateful to the giver.









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