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Feature Interview #7: WILCOX
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Earl J. Wilcox

Eve Anthony Hanninen,
editor of
The Centrifugal Eye

asks Poet Earl J. Wilcox
about the importance of work after retirement,
ways to combat mental aging,
and how these stimulations apply to his writing.
Is a man's 'work' ever done?
Is a poet's?

Earl is the
Featured Poet
for Summer 2007.



Artwork by E. A. Hanninen, inspired by Photo taken by Elizabeth Wilcox - 2007

EAH: Earl, you came to poetry late in life— after retirement, in fact. How did you feel about retiring, then and now? Were you ready to break from the "world of work," or did you want to continue working in some capacity?

EJW: I officially retired from 40+ years of university teaching in 2000.

Initially, and until the time I discovered my joy of writing poetry, I had a void. I felt a deep need to keep on working with students, to be engaged in talk, especially analysis of literature and working with students on their writing. I wrote several short stories the first year of my retirement; then I wrote a 400-page autobiographical novel, which I thought was pretty good, and in the process of writing the fiction discovered my love of words like those used in poetry was stronger than the elements in fiction. My poetry was born from this discovery.

EAH: What's happened to the autobiographical novel? Retired for the poetry?

EJW: I did retire the novel; in fact, have kept it nearby, but not showing it to anyone. The short stories may surface again, as I keep remembering they have some nuggets of past experiences which I may also mine for poems.

EAH: There are plenty of studies that support your advocacy of exercising mental acuity after retirement. (See Earl's essay in this issue of The Centrifugal Eye). Frequent mental stimulation that is distinctive and challenging is typically encouraged by the experts (e.g., Fred Gage, Salk Institute; Elkhonon Goldberg, NYU Sch. of Med./Neurology), as is that of maintaining a social network.

What do you do to exercise and aid your cognitive skills?

EJW: For the most part, I lead a busy life with family activities, church, reading, movies, volunteering, baseball (avid St. Louis Cardinals zealot!), lots of daily news on TV, newspapers/journals, etc.. There are days when my full life gets in the middle of the writing that I really want to be doing. But I make good notes on my computer and come back soon to discover the ideas are still with me. Sometimes, the ideas were no good anyway. Did I mention I read fiction? But not as much now as when I regularly taught fiction courses. I also think games – cards, crossword puzzles – keep the mind active.

EAH: Good notes, whether on the computer or in a notebook, are a writer's friends!

When the ideas are strong, the words seem to come into being even after some time has passed from original conception. Your "love of words" as "used in poetry— " this love has its own driving force in the creative process. What do you do to "turn on" vibrancy in your use of language?

EJW: Well, yes, I do find that there's a "turn on" with words when a certain subject comes into view. In one of the poems highlighted in this issue of TCE – Garden Gerontology – I was amused when I looked at our old bench retiring in the shade, especially with how much it reminded me of an old man with teeth missing, creaky legs, etc.. The task was to turn that impulse into a poem, one which would resonate with readers if I could find the right metaphors (My writers' critique group kept me straight by egging me on to do more with ways to connect the bench to a person).

EAH: And what about those days when a good subject won't come, when you can't seem to turn on the words?

EJW: Now, that is a problem. I have often compared the act of finding a good subject for a poem and writing about it successfully to having good sex! It just seems that way to me, anyway. The more often I write good poems, the more often I want to keep repeating the process. When ideas don't come, I get a bit depressed, thinking it's all over and that I'll never find another poem. Not true, not true – in case anyone else reading this feels the same way.

To compensate, I'm fortunate to be able to write about current topics and send such poems (serious, but not as poetic as some other, maybe?) to places such as The New Verse News, which is a delightful blog focused on our current world situations.

EAH: As this issue of TCE focuses on men's roles, past and current, I'd like to ask: Did you have particular male role-models as either personal mentors, or as archetypes for work-related activities when you were growing up? Have these models changed over your lifetime?

EJW: All my role models/mentors were connected in some way to the academic world; probably an outstanding teacher here and there. I was deeply involved in the Formalist movement which focused on New Criticism and did my Ph.D at Vanderbilt as a direct result of my interest in the literary creativity generated by John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, et al. At a personal level, I had no work-related mentors, other than keen, energetic colleagues as I developed into a teacher/scholar over the 40 years of teaching.

Near the end of my teaching life, a close friend, who wrote poetry, saw some of my fiction and poetry and began strongly encouraging me to submit my writing to various places; he and I formed a writing club of two in which we'd read to each other what we'd written. At the time of his death, about 3 years ago, I was still writing fiction, although I had begun to compose a few early poems. He'd spent a lifetime fathering 5 daughters, publishing academic papers, and little time working on his own craft, but had he lived I am convinced he would have become a first-rate poet. He was about a decade younger than I am.

EAH: I can think of a similar scenario— Emerson encouraging Thoreau to write. It's important for writers to have other writers believe in them, support them. And who was your greatest poetic role model?

EJW: From a larger perspective, Robert Frost's poetry has shaped my work, in that I devoted so much of my academic life to Frost (planning seminars, programs, conferences, editing 3 books of essays, founding The Robert Frost Review – Winthrop University, SC, 1990-2000) that I would be remiss not to mention the impact he's had on my own poetry. In fact, finding my own voice took some time because I kept hearing R. F. in every word I wrote and finally had to get on with my own writing and not worry if there was an echo of Mending Wall or The Road Not Taken, or whatever.

It's a great mystery to me how one finds his/her own voice, and I am about there after writing through many bad poems and focusing on the best ones I can write, no matter what topic, nor how language evolves.

EAH: You've found your own voice. In retrospect, where should you have looked first to develop it sooner? Is there a technique for "finding it quicker?" We writers are like batters always hoping to peep the signal before the ball is pitched!

EJW: I think you have to write quite a bit and share what you write with others competent enough to assess what you do, before you'll know if you're finding your way quicker. My two online writer friends / coaches / tutors have aided me immensely by being frank with me when I am off, not just in technical issues such as line breaks and rhyme, but in sounding too much like prose or, as one of these friends says, when I "just hit the space bar" to make a line break rather than having a poetic reason for the break. Such advice is "priceless. For everything else," there are those people who don't have such good friends.

EAH: You've mentioned you're an avid baseball fan; I've read that you also like to write about baseball. What other activities do you enjoy (and wind up in your writing)?

EJW: Some of my activities besides writing are reading, bridge, sports— but especially baseball, a lifetime hobby, both as a follower of the game and, more recently, using my knowledge and interest as a writing tool.

Then there's volunteering at a middle school where my 13-year-old granddaughter is a student. Traveling (although that has been curtailed because of ageing). I'm an active officer at Presbyterian Church. TV, movies and acting – I've been in numerous amateur productions in the past 30 years, most recently as Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond. Food – I like to cook and my wife and I belong to a gourmet supper club. And enjoying retirement with my wife of 54 years.

EAH: So you have an interest in writing about popular culture: politics, sports, etc.. Are poetry readers interested in such subjects?

EJW: Here's why I find baseball a fascinating and useful subject for poetry – I use baseball for all of its obvious metaphorical trappings pointed out for decades by Americanists: the game is so much a part of our consciousness, we use it without thinking, i.e., "getting to first base" (dating/sex); "scoring" (same); "hitting a home run (same, but also, succeeding at any major accomplishment); ‘home', with all those connotations, makes for good metaphors. But more than this, I know the game inside and out, and since I do, why not put that knowledge (including all the jargon, the emotion, the reality) to good use?

I recently discovered I have at least a dozen poems in which some aspect of baseball is the central metaphor, and many other poems allude to something about the game. My advice is Hemingway's: write what you know about. For some of us, ‘life' is way too big and nebulous. Baseball is right in front of us all the time.

EAH: Poetry editors can be negative about receiving work with topics tending toward preachiness (often imbued by political, religious and moral issues), finding that the more opinionated the narration, the less universally attractive a poem may become. What crafting techniques do you use to avoid the effects of pronouncement, while attempting to reveal meaningful aspects about these subjects of personal interest?

EJW: I simply will not send a poem to an editor unless the poem's been seen at least once or more by my writing coaches. Perhaps in another decade I will get to that point of disregard and just send them off. Not infrequently, my writing partners will remind me I'm TELLING not SHOWING. Though writing clichés these are, when one is being too opinionated, the prejudice comes through. Of course, there are journals out there which want poems with their slant on the world. I rarely send any to those, but I once sent a poem about a NASCAR driver to a car museum! They published it!

EAH: What have you accomplished as of late; are you a prolific writer?

EJW: Some of my most recent writing accomplishments include finding appropriate journals (online or print) which want the kind of poetry I'm writing. I have not yet published a chapbook. In fact, I've only submitted two book-length manuscripts to publishers, primarily because I'm too lackadaisical to take the time to assemble 35-50 poems, attach the fee, send the ms. off and wait for six months for a verdict.

EAH: You're talking about manuscript competitions here, correct? Fees, etc.. Open readings for chapbook publication seem to be rare birds.

EJW: Yes, and since almost everyone wants a unique manuscript (i.e., no simultaneous submissions and all that), I find it takes an enormous amount of time from my writing life and other activities to put together the poems. I estimate I've written about 150 poems during the past 2-3 years; probably half of these have been sent nowhere, and most of those I have submitted have been to online journals because of the ease of submission, and because I find, in general, the level of craft expected is as good online as the old standards in print— the so-called "First Tier" publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Harper's, Sewanee Review, et al.

My favorite poems are (oddly enough) either whimsical or very dark. I am probably most competent in writing short, lyrical poems. Despite my fondness for New Criticism and formalist verse and my love of Robert Frost's work, I know free verse is my best effort. The part of the Carolinas where I live has a long history of creative endeavors, especially in poetry and fiction. There are many lively critique groups, theatre groups, and all kinds of support and I am just tapping into those to find inspiration and help for my own work.

Last year an NC/SC poetry anthology was founded. Kakalak publishes annually from more than 1,000 poems entered; the work of about 75 poets is chosen for inclusion. While I have not yet won the prize or an honorable mention, I have been included in both issues of the anthology. I have read carefully all the poems in both issues and am delighted to discover that my poetry stacks up very favorably with all the others, even with those receiving highest accolades.

EAH: Last question, Earl: Does a poet have a job to do, i.e., as you see it, just what is a poet's job?

EJW: I am going to be serious about this one, I hope. I don't think poets can legislate morality, or anything else for that matter. Nor will poets move the world to our Points-Of-View, which is to make our existence somehow more understandable. Still, the poet's job has to be what it has always been: to find and express those angles of vision which nobody else can or is willing to express.

The way I make sense of why birds fight (a metaphor for the whole world fighting) is to read Galway Kinnell's poem, Ode and Elegy. "Now jay and hawk stare / at each other beak to beak, / as close as Jesus and Judas at their kiss." ( Kinnell, Strong is Your Hold. Houghton Mifflin. Boston, 2006. pg. 17) I'm always on the lookout for a subject which I can treat in a poem in ways that will verify the reasons for my own existence. I think I'm closer now to verifying it than I was at any other time, and all that has nothing to do with my seventh decade of living in the world.

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