David Wojahn shares insights into his latest collection, ‘For the Scribe’

By Megan Schiffres

David Wojahn, an award-winning poet who teaches poetry and writing as a professor in the Department of English, is the author of nine poetry collections, including his most recent work, “For the Scribe” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017), which continues Wojahn’s explorations of the interstices between the public and the private, the historical and the personal.

“In his formidable ninth collection, Wojahn (‘World Tree’) catalogues extinctions personal, cultural, and ecological,” Publishers Weekly wrote in its review. “‘Assume, dear vagabond, you are permitted/ One last survey,’ he writes in the opening poem, an elegy for his father. As longtime readers might expect, Wojahn’s own ‘last survey’ impresses with both its diversity and detail. Bristling with quotations and historical artifacts, his rhythmic lines capture bluesmen as well as they do woodpeckers. In the title poem, he writes ‘inscription/Is a form of weaving,’ and indeed, his brocaded compositions often have the richness of tapestry. Whether examining Glenn Beck or laundry robots, his ‘burnished effusions’ relentlessly hone in on the specific.”

Why did you choose the title ‘For the Scribe?’ 

Because there is a cuneiform tablet that was put together about 3,000 B.C. and it’s the very first example of a particular scribe putting his own signature on it. His name was Gar Una and he was the very first person to sign his name and in a lot of ways the book is about, like a lot of lyric poems are about in a certain sense, signing your name. Saying, “Here I am.” And so I thought that would be a good title for the book.

If Gar Una was the first person to sign their name but this is your ninth book, does that signify that this book is a rebirth for you? A whole new David Wojahn? 

No, I think in the case with a lot of poets, most of us have, are prompted to write by particular obsessions, particular holes in our lives that have to be filled. A lot of writers do change and change considerably over the course of their careers but I think in the case of most writers, especially most poets, I think you have a small number of obsessive subjects you keep returning to and the trick of writing is to find new ways to address them over a career.

What subjects are you obsessed with? 

I’m interested a lot in the connections between history and the present moment, between politics and the personal life, and the integrity of the personal life, or the inner life, during a time where basically everyone wants to turn all of us into demographics rather than individuals. So any kind of way of addressing and insisting on the importance of the individual life, the private life, the rich inner life, seems to be a very important gesture within this time and this day and age.

How would you describe your writing style?

I had a teacher once, his name was John Anderson, he’s a lovely poet and he said that basically the task of poetry is to say the hardest thing. I guess if I were to describe not my writing style but how I want my writing style to be, it would be a style that says the hardest things but says it musically and with elegance.

Why did you focus on extinction events for this book? 

I think that this has been a time, these last few years, of such disruption and craziness in our culture and so much cultural hope that is also seeming to be dashed, especially lately – especially since last November, that there’s always a terrible fear that you have that death is not going to be an individual thing but a collective thing. Not just a cultural thing but a global thing. It’s a subject that fascinates me because it terrifies me.

Do you think these extinction events can teach the living anything? 

Absolutely and I think it’s just a simple lesson – that human life, animal life, the life of the planet is precious and it’s precious in part because it’s very fragile.

Your poetry has a distinct, almost musical sound. How important is the rhythm of your poems to your writing process? 

It’s very important and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I write a lot of poems in traditional forms like the sonnet, though I write free-verse too. I’m very interested in sonnets and I’m very interested in getting poems that have a strong metrical cadence or have a strong formal quality. The thing I don’t want to do is necessarily let the reader know right away that I’m doing that, that I’m writing in strict form. Take the sort of haircut that doesn’t look like a haircut approach, so that the formal elements of the poem sneak up on the reader, rather than are immediately in the reader’s face.

Do you consider your poetry nostalgic? 

Sometimes, but I don’t want to live in the past and I’m not interested in living in the past. But it’s interesting that poetry in a lot of ways is a kind of time travel. In one line of the poem the reality can be in the 1950s or the 60s when I was growing up, and the next line can be today, tomorrow, or a few years hence. I just love the notion of time being so porous when you’re writing poetry.

Why did you first start writing poetry and is your reason for continuing any different today? 

I guess when I first started writing poetry it was because I was a teenager, I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know how I felt, and poetry had a real capacity for me to help me to discover who I was – how I related to the world, how I wanted to relate to the world. I still find that is the project of poetry, it’s not so much self-discovery anymore, it’s more self-acceptance now. It’s also a project that I adamantly want to involve the world in beyond the self, as well as the self.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve taught in nine other universities and VCU I’ve always felt is the most congenial of all those places. One of the things that I think has been very important for me as a poet in the last 14 years I’ve been here is this is a place that is very good to people who are involved in the creative process, so I’m really glad to be here.