The Obscenery of the Frosty: an Interview With Joe Wenderoth

by Graham Foust

Joe Wenderoth is the author of two highly acclaimed collections of poetry, Disfortune and It Is If I Speak, but it's his latest book, Letters to Wendy's, that's in the news. Wenderoth wrote this book on comment cards from Wendy's restaurant, and in that seemingly unimaginative space, where most people write complaints about the freshness of the items in the salad bar, he has composed an extended complaint about the freshness of our collective psyche and soul. Whether this genre-bender is an epistolary novel or a sequence of prose poems or yet something else entirely is up for debate, but there is no doubt that beneath its sometimes shocking veneer it is a very humane book—one that surely exemplifies critic Calvin Bedient's statement that Wenderoth's poetry "makes quick cuts in the meat of the ordinary, which is the meat of the impossible."


Graham Foust: How would you categorize Letters to Wendy's?

Joe Wenderoth: For business purposes, best to call it a novel. People like to read novels. If I call it a novel, people can read it and dwell in the happy expectation of character and plot and all of that. Honestly, though, I'd like to make up a genre: tragic-comic impressions. And I mean "impression" in all its senses, particularly the one, you know, meaning "imitation of someone else—imitation of a someone."

GF: The book seems more like an "impopulation" than an "impersonation." If one "makes up" a person, one isn't really doing an "impression." In that case, there is no "original" for the audience to base the quality of your impression on. But perhaps that's your point. Who might you be impersonating in Letters to Wendy's? Are you impersonating (or perhaps impregnating) yourself?

JW: I am impersonating selves of mine, yes—long-gone ones, mostly, but some that are destined to return again and again. I am also impersonating selves (i.e. "voices") that I intuited the presence of when I was reading. Specifically, I am thinking of the oddly impassioned selves of 19th-century artist-philosophers—especially as gathered from their epistles. Dickinson, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc. There is something about that period that created an unheard-of, quite appropriate to my mind, grandiosity. I love the idea of re-instituting that grandiosity in today's scene, where it is most conspicuous, and re-asserts . . . what? . . . the scene's real potential. Much of which has been forgotten.

GF: Your early statements on poetics (and I'm thinking here of "Obscenery" and a letter you wrote to APR a long while back) seemed very against the idea of the "self," or, more accurately perhaps, you seemed to say that the "self" was primarily what poetry sets itself against. This is not new, of course. Stevens: "Poetry is not personal." Do you see Letters to Wendy's as being related to poetry in any way? It seems to have a multiplicity of voices which your poetry lacks, which is to say that it strays from, or ditches, a lot of the tropes that persist in your poetry (singing, speaking, hands, cold, animals, etc.) in favor of a more varied array of images and ideas.

JW: I guess I was being sort of obsessively technical, in some sense, when I defined poetic speech that way. I do still believe that what is poetic about poetic speech—the absolutely necessary element, let's say—is a kind of lucid obliteration of the self's control of the scene it imagines. There is most definitely a kind of moment that allows for poetic speech, and my point in that essay was to insist on this fact, and to insist, too, that American poetry of the past 30 or so years has taken a certain stance outside of and against that moment—particularly its obliteration of self. Instead of language—or whatever it is that is prior to self—speaking through an obliterated self, we see poems wherein a self speaks, having weathered its obliteration and looking back at it. It looks back and feels a kind of humble pity for what it has endured or it celebrates its power to reform itself. Either way, the speaker, for me, is a sort of anti-poet, a living denial of the real power of the poetic moment it was born from. When I began writing Letters To Wendy's, I often found myself in this anti-poet position, in some sense, and yet, the letters are not really comparable to those kind of poems. They aren't really comparable for several reasons. First, the persona is comical, and the humble pity evoked can never be taken as exactly sincere. Second, the persona is himself obsessed with finding actual—I mean more than literary—ways in which to obliterate the self he speaks from; that is, he problematizes himself, his process, and his celebrations are never celebrations of weathering obliteration—they are more likely celebrations of his being bound, pleasurably, into further obliteration.

GF: Okay, so if they're not comparable, are they in some way related? Do the different modes feed off of each other in some ways? Obliteration, yeah, yeah. Either way, you're writing an "actual" thing, a book to be read, and both modes have your name attached to them. I guess maybe my question is: "Why?" One can see clearly the need for both poetry and, say, criticism, but what's this book for? And this question isn't really so much about authorial intention, I guess, but maybe more about inspiration. You mention Kierkegaard, whom I think is apt, what with his different personae. Andy Kaufman comes to mind. It seems like we're missing these "types" these days. But what potential are you adding to the scene?

JW: Yes, they do feed off each other. One type of writing manifests the persona so that it may begin to absorb its obliterations. But conversely—and this gets to your second question—one is always absorbing the obliterations so that the full depth of persona-possibility can be felt, the full range of personae maybe, and with a keener sense of what persona-establishment is really out to produce for the body. It's like after a really good poetry reading, one feels especially ready to go out and get fucked up . . . which means, really, manifest. One might attempt, for instance, to say something to someone, or to touch someone, in malice or in love. So I guess Letter to Wendy's are a bit of both. They're often poetic, but probably more often—or even at the same time—they're post-poetic, which is to say, they're situated in the absurdity of an everydayness that the poetic has always failed to obliterate. And the post-poetic, while it might be a celebration of the poetic moment's power, is also always a recognition of that moment's distinctive impotence. The poetic moment always fails to complete its project, and the personae one lives through can be a withstanding of this failure. For me, withstanding is different from weathering. For a persona to have weathered obliteration is to imply that he is now beyond it, but a persona who withstands obliteration is still there in it, and his sovereignty is a joke. A joke he is playing on himself. Yes, Andy Kaufman, that's right. And Beckett's that way, too, though I would hardly compare Kaufman or myself to Beckett's work.

GF: You claim that Letters to Wendy's is a novel, which would signal a move away from poetry, and, one might suppose, a move toward a more "popular" form of literary consumption. It wouldn't be hard to see certain facets of the literary community dismissing Letters to Wendy's (or at least specific parts of the book) as "immature" or perhaps too "pop," not serious enough. The letters are pornographic in places, and they also deal with popular culture (and popular attitudes toward culture) in a very inclusive way, which is to say that the speaker feels very much a part of the artifice around him, perhaps even responsible for it in some way. The spaces, times, and practices of the everyday are taken as necessary givens rather than as instances of exotic exception or a kind of "slumming." There is no higher brow here which feels itself superior to the lower life forms who gather daily in the homogeneous spaces of corporate America. In fact, one might say that intellectual activity tends to thrive in those usually "dumbfounded" spaces in Letters to Wendy's. Given this turn away from the exalted, "special" place of poetry (a realm so special that it rarely manages to even get itself discussed in such sacred texts as The New York Times Book Review), do you feel you've "matured" or "progressed" as a writer? A novel is bound to sell more volumes than a book of poems, which might in turn make you famous, secure a "position" for you (academy or celebrity, depending on who buys and how many). Or is this not something you think about in terms of your writing because it's either inevitable or doesn't matter or both? I suppose to ask that question assumes you feel there's some sort of progress to be made, which there may not be . . .

JW: There is progress to be made and there isn't. There can be progress in the sense that one can write something less stupid (more truthful, or more beautiful, or more humorous) than what one wrote before. There is no progress, though, on the level of WHAT one writes in terms of genre—I mean, shifting from this genre to that, or from accessible to inaccessible, or vice-versa. One just finds what's sufficient for whatever place and time and mood one's in, and then one tries to make it good, which is to say, unusual. I do think that I have matured as a writer, gradually of course, but also as a result of this new project, these "letters." They allowed me to experiment with the degree to which the poetic might be manifest in a character, a character's voice. I had always assumed that character and voice were impediments to poetic speech, or worse, were indications of an implicit decision to disallow poetic speech from taking place. So there was this chasm between my own character, my own everyday self, with its habits and its manners, and those moments which were poetic, which is to say, which spoke neither to nor from my character. This chasm never bothered me—I never understood it as necessary or beneficial for me to use poetry to convey the sorrows or joys of my everyday self, and in fact, I disliked poetry being used in this way. To me, it seemed like a shameful and pathetic abuse of a great power. And yet, there WAS this chasm in my existence, and the urge to somehow link the two sides persisted as at least a curiosity. Letters to Wendy's was how I finally found a way to link the two parts of my own existence—the letters were the result of a pent-up curiosity for how the two might be linked, and they sort of gushed out. I think it is the humor of the letters, above all, that allows for this link—the humor exempts the character from being understood as the sort of shameful abuser of "special" moments—exempts the character from being understood as a typical contemporary American poet.

GF: You recently returned from a small "book tour" (I think this is what they call them) for Letters to Wendy's. Can you characterize the audiences' reactions? As soon as it was released, Letters to Wendy's was mentioned on a lot of Internet sites, so I imagine that even though it hadn't been out for too long, there were people in attendance who didn't know your books of poetry and came to see you read from the letters, and, of course, people who liked your books of poetry who had no idea about the other material. I remember a couple of years ago you read some of the "letters" on NPR and it didn't go over so well with the show's host.

JW: That wasn't NPR—it was Iowa Public Radio, a local program run through the Prairie Lights bookstore. It nevertheless had the NPR tone: that ludicrous degree of self-possession. The host of the show, I am told, experienced a gradual tightening of the buttocks as the letters descended into explicit sexual language—she rose up off of her chair, I am told. I think much of the Iowa countryside experienced a tightening of the buttocks that night. Such is life. Audiences have a strange reaction, generally—it's almost always a tense situation. People seem to be unsure of whether to laugh—whether it is permissible. Then, too, I think some of the crowd seems worried that it may be politically incorrect to laugh. These problems are only made deeper by the inconsistency of the letters' tones and subject matters. And the inconsistency is not explained—one just leaps from one state, one degree of seriousness, to another. I think it's just unusual—most readings aren't like that. Anyway, the tension is nice, and it fosters a curiosity—I notice a lot of people buy the book afterwards as if they were puzzled: what the hell was that—what is this? I have noticed that some American poetry lovers have felt the need to tell me that Letters to Wendy's are not as good as the poems in my first two books, as if I am Dylan, abandoning the acoustic guitar. What I have abandoned, or seem to have abandoned, in Letters is the degree of seriousness and self-possession that allows for the "specialness" of poetry that you spoke of before. People always like to assume that an art will evolve reasonably, which is to say, within the familiar tones and techniques that have housed it in the past. When you assume, though, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me."

GF: I wonder: do you feel like this project might appeal to fans of, say, authors/performers like Henry Rollins, Sandra Bernhardt or Eric Bogosian? Not that I really feel as if you're doing what they do, but I do feel like people who read those sorts of authors (and not, let's say, poetry "proper") might be attracted to this book. Letters to Wendy's is "pop" in a way that books of poetry (even tremendously popular books of poetry by, say, Jewel or Rod McKuen or Maya Angelou) are not. It's also very funny. So if it does have an appeal on this level, you might be expected to do more of the same, to repeat yourself in a larger framework than, say, the world of academic or professional poetry (a world which of course expects and respects repetition). Does this worry you, this potential keeper-of-the-cult status?

JW: No, not worried. I don't think the book will generate the sort of fame that might lead to such a worry. Also, despite the mountains of cases wherein people surprise themselves with their own craving for praise, I truly doubt that fame, as a writer at least, could interest me much or be something I'd have any desire to preserve. I must admit that I very much expect or desire some praise, on some level, as it feels sad to think that one's audience is as pathetic a thing as oneself—only oneself. It felt sort of bad, for instance, when I published (via Wesleyan) my first two books of poems; one gets so little response—so little sense of who, if anyone, is reading the work. Of course here and there you meet someone who has, or you read a review that seems genuine, but mostly there is just silence and polite conversation. I remember, for instance, being at a party after I did a reading at Bucknell. There was a woman who was somehow associated with Bucknell (a student who had found a "big" publisher or something like that) and she had read before me, and at the party she was saying how much she loved my poems and how she absolutely needed to get my book. Thirteen dollars, I said. Well, she said, how about we trade—I'll give you my book and we'll call it even. No offense, I said, but I just use the library. Then, naturally, she didn't have 13 dollars with her and she, more poignantly, was not speaking to me anymore. I didn't want her poems; I didn't want to make a connection either.

GF: Since you've mentioned Bucknell, I'd like to ask you how would you characterize the relationship between the university (not Bucknell specifically, but the university system) and poetry. You teach at a university, and you're often asked to visit schools in order to present your work to people. These institutions are "connection-making machines" and they allow the majority of contemporary American poets to go on living the way they do. How does one participate in the maintenance of these machines when one is, in fact, not interested in them? I suppose these are questions about teaching as much as they are about poetry or paychecks or parking spots.

JW: I should have gone to law school, but I got an MFA in Poetry Writing instead. I participate in the university system because there is no alternative for me now, or none that I am aware of. I have said in the past that a poet should dwell in the university in a dignified way and thereby return it (in general, and with regard to its being a conserver of poetry) to dignity—but I'm not too confident anymore that this is possible. I've seen more now—how mired universities are in their subservience to capitalism, and how their English departments work to remain isolated from one another, and from any serious commitment to the development of an American poetry. In place of this seriousness and this commitment, loosely defined political and/or aesthetic agendas have arisen, locked in place by pretended animosity for one another. This animosity is only superficially political and/or aesthetic; it emanates, in truth, from the simple insecurity of individuals who know, deep down, that their poetic talent is questionable. This insecurity/animosity is the bedrock of the American poetry world. To exacerbate the pretended political/aesthetic conflicts that have been, quite cynically I think, set in place is to miss the point. If there is any hope for bettering the situation, it lies in the power of younger poets to refuse to participate in these conflicts. It lies in our power—which may be too small, I admit—to indict the dominant poetry and the suspicious pacts its admirers are mired in. These pacts, which breed admirations and animosities at the same time (which breed, that is, prizes and prize winners, and those that envy and detest them), are the behavior that one needs to extract oneself from, yes, and that one needs to indict, but will this change anything? I suspect that the roots of the problem are in the roots of the society itself, and I suspect that significant changes in the poetry world will only be achieved in the context of much larger cultural change.

GF: It would be interesting, I think, for younger poets to hear how you came to this realization. To chart your course, I suppose. I would imagine that you were interested in poetry as an undergraduate. Perhaps you even sent manuscripts to book contests. It's evident from your first book's acknowledgements that you enjoyed your MFA community. What led you to where you are now in terms of your attitude toward American poetry, and is Letters to Wendy's in some way a reaction to this world?

JW: I became interested in poetry as an undergrad, yes, and I published eight very early poems in the American Poetry Review. This was viewed as a wild success by those around me—faculty and students—but I quickly saw that the poems were not really very good, and the whole poetry scene was dominated by people whose poems were not really very good, but who nevertheless schemed to publish them as though they were. I resolved at that very early point not to send my poems out, and I have only fallen off that wagon a couple of times since. I decided to focus on writing rather than publishing; I never sent out a manuscript to anyone except my teachers. One of my teachers showed my first manuscript to Wesleyan and from that point on I have not had to deal with competitions or prizes or trying to find connections—the work itself has drawn its supporters to it. That is lucky—I know a lot of good writers who have not gotten support. At the same time, I don't think whether or not one publishes is even a big deal—it certainly doesn't mean the work is any good. If you are seeking to find self-respect or a sense of your work's having dignity by turning to the American poetry scene, you are decidedly lost. As for my MFA community, I think the dedication you refer to is misleading, and if I had it to do over again, I'd state it differently. I was really referring to the system in place there—the correspondence aspect especially—and to the good fortune I had in meeting a few people. I realize now that the dedication sounds more like I was praising the whole scene there, as though there was some great break from the dominant poetry or from the atmosphere by which the dominant poetry world furthers itself. No, that system works, when it works, despite the luminaries which so often stud it, and despite the American poetry world atmosphere, which it definitely furthers. I actually started writing Letters to Wendy's while I was on a trip to see a friend who attended Warren Wilson with me. I mean, I actually wrote the first cards while I was there and in the midst of our shared disgusts—people trying to sell books, trying to make connections, etc. But in a larger sense, the Letters are definitely a reaction to the pretensions of the current American poetries, or to the ludicrous sort of self-possession it hushes itself with.

GF: Your recent "Poetics for the New Millennium" in the recent issue of the Chicago Review seems to also be a reaction to the American poetry scene, though it seems to me to be a one-shot piece. Could you say a bit about that? Also, what other writing projects are you currently working on? Though you've said that you see yourself moving away from poetry "proper," do you see yourself publishing another book of poems? John Berryman, a poet I know we both admire, once said that he couldn't stop writing Dream Songs, and so he kept writing them even after the collected songs were published. Do you find yourself still drawn to writing poems—in spite of, or perhaps because of, the various dissatisfactions with the practice and its various worlds—or have you burned out completely?

JW: I think I am a bit burned out—as is evidenced by that piece in the Chicago Review, which was not properly revised. I will publish another book of poems, I expect, though I don't know when. They are accumulating slowly. The book I've been working on of late, a sort of surreal rulebook entitled The Game, would be defined, like the Letters To Wendy's, as poetic prose, and it's also similar in that it is an accumulation of fragments. It's different from the Letters, though, in that it's a rulebook, so it's more orderly, and it builds, instead of a vague personal trajectory, a set of conditions in which a society might play, and might watch itself play. I am enjoying writing this book; I love the concreteness of the subject matter, and the way its concreteness keeps me rooted in practical abstractions, even as this practicality is constantly undermined by the extravagance of ordering the whole of life. "Poetics for the New Millennium" is not from that book, but it arose, I think, because in that book I've been enjoying very much the naming of things—playing gear, stages of the game, etc. And I have had, of late, a sense of how tremendously rare it is for a writer to write something that really resonates—you know, something that really might stand out into time as a unique utterance, its tone and its concept mysteriously entwined with the authentic anonymity that endures the myriad personae. That piece is meant to be funny, but it seizes on a widely unrecognized truth: for a writer, particularly a poet, it is not unreasonable to hope to achieve, in a life's work, just a few compelling fragments. Even just one, if it rings powerfully true, would mean one's life-work was a great success. Reading, even reading poetry, is judged by most in our society to be simply an activity among activities, and as such, its quality is determined by how well it passes the time. But that's not poetry; poetry does not pass the time—it does exactly the opposite.

GF: What do you mean by poetry doing the opposite? Do you mean that poetry holds time still? Or that it times the passing?

JW: The latter sounds right. There is a desire to sketch, with just one line, that slight-yet-massive shift which is the foundation of the world's worlding—we could call it time, but it is not time in a general sense; it is one time; it is the one time unit that repeats endlessly until we are oblivious to it or until we accept that it cannot be sketched, cannot be wrested from the throng of its own echo. I'm not speaking of real time, of course, whatever real time might be. It is imaginary time, the atom of time the imagination in all cases must presume. Aristotle implied this unit of imaginary time in his concept of the reversal-of-fortune, which is naturally linked to the discovery. It is possible, via poetic speech, to sketch this atom directly, or almost directly—that is, to proceed as though one can communicate, without detour, the fact of this atom. Such a communication ceases to be communication when the fact of time arises; the implications of time's nature, when they are allowed to penetrate those in time, bankrupt the dominant assumptions of communication and self/other. This bankruptcy has been deemed less and less valuable by American society as it has modernized, and this judgment has gradually infected the American poetry world, too. Poetry has been encouraged to remain a communication—even the most respected poets, the poets still inclined to sketch the fact of time, are more likely inclined to avoid approaching their sketch too directly—they move, instead, to sketch the shadows first, then circle back, sketch the other side, more shadows, until the whole point of the poem is to avoid sketching what it's about. Can I convey to you how happy I am to find a poem that is not too long? Most poems I see have zero, one, or two strong lines or phrases in them. Most good poems, that is.

GF: I'd like to look at two poems with you: your poem, "Writer," and the introductory poem to Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction."

A person, for you, is a book.
Impossible to categorize,
it veers from non-sense verse
to the most tedious of novels
and back
in just a breath.
And the book ends, the book ends.
And what makes the person more real,
than a book,
is just that you cannot reread
one chapter, one sentence, one word.
You must rewrite him,
and you cannot.
You cannot.
This inability is the source
of everything you have to say.


from Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction
And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.

You present the reader with a conflict: the writer's ability to write takes its power from the writer's very inability to do something that is both impossible and necessary ("you cannot reread," "You must rewrite him, / her, / and you cannot"). Though the "yous" in both poems are flanked by caesuras, the "you" in your poem is not an exception. Stevens's specific "except for you" gives way to the general rule of the "Writer," and this of course includes both you and Stevens. Your speaker does not formulate his or her remark as a question, but rather makes a declarative statement that puts words in the mind of the metaphor-maker. The "moment" which comes at the end of Stevens's poem appears in the sixth line of your poem as "just a breath," though Stevens's "moment," as we remember, is one of "vivid transparence," while your "breath," is a confusion, a "veer[ing]." The "just" from "just a breath" is repeated five lines later, adding an increased sense of mereness to the difference between the person and the book, while at the same time widening, or rather producing, a gap between the two which was closed in the metaphor of the poem's first line. The speakers of both poems are in a kind of opposite but equal light, and the fluctuating identity of the person-as-book in "Writer" contradicts Stevens's ever-so-briefly balanced me-within-the-me. And yet the same processes—comparison and/as contrast, production and/as obscuration—are at work. In Stevens's poem, the mirror of identity, brought to light by the presence of another person, keeps time in a book-like manner, while in your poem, the backward image of the finite book, made possible by the inability of the writer to gain a temporal hold on another person, is the very material of writing. Your poem seems almost like it could be a response from Stevens's beloved, no?

JW: Not an intentional response, as I had made no connection between the two poems, but the idea of reading my poem as a response from the beloved is interesting. I don't think I ever really dwelled on that Stevens poem. I suppose the reason I never have—the reason I have been inclined to focus on other poems of his more intensely—has something to do with the observations you're making about the differences in the two poems. I notice, reading them now, that my poem implies that "my" primary concern is writing, saying, whereas his poem recognizes that writing, saying, are more limited than the (unspeakable) encounter with the actual other, who might actually bring "peace." It is, as I think you imply, a matter of which impossible thing one wants to assert as most impossible, and so, of where one wants to situate his own-most—and definitive—failing. I see Stevens's poem as simply more mature, I think. The younger more naïve poet, I'd say, has not yet learned that "his" project, "his" failure, cannot really ever be his, which is to say, cannot ever really abolish the common and ordinary "peace" that he has forever growing at the "central" of his being.

GF: I suppose you're trying to learn this as you go. In closing, perhaps you'd like to speak about what else you're trying to learn, what else you see your project(s) as attempting to "accomplish," if anything.

JW: Yes, you're right to be suspicious of that "attempting" insofar as it can be connected with "to learn." One simply learns, if one is indeed trapped in the need to write; learning is only ever a by-product of the attempt to submit to the fact of time. Where a poet resists learning about his being, he is really only resisting, indirectly, his more definitive potential: submission to that moment from which his whole self has gained its fictive essence.

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