An Interview with Wendy Videlock
by The Rude Interviewer
Q: Where were you born? Raised? What’s your story? Explain yourself, woman.
A: Is it something about the way I’m dressed?
The other day I heard “small talk” referred to as “smalk.” I have never been very good at smalk. Nevertheless, I was born in Ohio, and raised (like a barn?) in various places, but mostly in Arizona. Now can we talk about ancient aliens and Wasabi Peas?
Q: You seem to have some kind of hippie spirituality thing going on. What’s up with that?
A: One day I shall write a book on why the word “spirituality” ought to be struck from the language. It’s come to mean nothing, with a nice hollow smile. And hippie…well, I am not really very hip. I eat meat, smoke tobacco, use a leaf-blower, and have been known to make off-color jokes.
I think there’s value in watching the grass grow, and I occasionally shop at Wal Mart. If I am a hippie, I’m a redneck one.
Q: Were you raised with a proper religion?
Not until the age of 12 with my initiation into the Catholic church, which I suppose was pretty proper. Before that, I was raised in the coven of gnomes, trolls, and faeries, which was also rooted in mystery and therefore proper. My mother became a devout Catholic mid-life, and took we kids along; my father remained an agnostic. I am eternally grateful to her for providing that initiation, for all that ritual and somber pageantry, the delirious confirmation that language, through hymn, prayer, song, text, and tradition, is sacred, is powerful. At its best, religion is a gateway drug, an invitation to the examined life. Nevertheless, I would best describe myself now as a student of theosophy.
Q: You’re some kind of tree-hugger, too, I gather.
A: I’m hardly of the pastoral tradition, though Nature herself is all over the poems. I tend a little toward Native thought when it comes to spirit, animal, and guidance, and I do love Gary Snyder’s advice to find your place on this earth, dig in and do your work. And I subscribe to the general notion that without the elements of fear, ambiguity, or mystery, you are experiencing a garden, not Nature. And so it is we like to fool ourselves. Of course I think the fog that rubs its back upon the windowpane, the subways and manufacturing plants, the tweets that sing through the ether, are also vibrating with …well, the ghost in the machine. I just tend to gravitate more naturally toward the more dusty places, so of course the poems would reflect that, would evoke coyote and quail and columbine. I often find myself saying that I believe spirit craves form, and form craves spirit. If I may, and since the theme for this issue is indeed god and gods, I’d like to quote a passage from Peter Anderson’s “Church of the Higher Elevations”:
For John Muir, the world was sacramental. Anything anywhere, especially anywhere wild, was capable of revealing or reflecting a Divine Presence. A mountain ramble was no less capable of becoming an act of worship than the rituals of baptism and communion. He was able to draw on religious language to describe his experience. Scripture offered Muir a context on which to place the holiness of his experience, though it was his experience of place and Spirit that came first.
John Muir learned the bible under the threat of his father’s whip, while his mother Anne taught him to read the scripture of place. She introduced him to the strawberries that grew beneath the meadow grasses, the robins that filled the oak groves, the fireflies …on summer evenings…
He was better than most at paying attention, and as fervent as anyone in spreading his mountain gospel. In a strident burst of mountain evangelism, he once approached a “grave old Mormon” in Salt Lake with whom he’d been having theological discussions, brandishing some newly collected specimens from the Oquirrhs: “I shook my big handful of lilies in his face, and shouted, ‘Here are your true saints, ancient and Latter Day …’”
Well, that serves as profound inspiration for me. If I ever manage to write another book, I hope I’ll be shaking my own little fistful of wilderness a little more fervently. That, or I’ll become a Krishna…
Q: You don’t have an MFA degree. Who do you think you are?
A: What’s an MFA?
No, I haven’t got one, but I actually think the MFA programs get a bad rap, and I don’t resent their proliferation. These programs don’t exist as flukes; our ancestors institutionalized art as a matter of course. And it’s not just in higher education that we find a focus on productivity, mental acumen, competition, portfolio. We live in an age of science and measurement, not metaphysics or the imagination, so naturally poetry would, on the surface, look processed, too. But the fact that poetry can be a vocation, or can be institutionalized has no real bearing on poetry itself. The real thing emerges from all kinds of soils. In other words, I don’t fear for poetry’s soul, which I imagine is indestructible.
We can all remember the first time language, in some spontaneous form, reared up and knocked us off our feet. Changed our lives. I see those sorts of things as private initiations. Nowadays we see flashmobs, where the power of song is suddenly introduced onto unsuspecting, secular crowds. I find these sorts of things heartening. Also, dipthongs. I find dipthongs heartening too.
Q: You don’t do a lot of narrative or first-person autobiography. Why is that? Do you have something to hide?
A: I knew I should’ve worn that other outfit…
Strangely enough, I find autobiography to be less revealing than the lyric. I have had my conflicts with the lyric, lamented its formulation, its wrinkled brow, its wide-eyed gaze; I have cursed its popularity, its reliance on brevity, its slender frame. But in the end, I have had to surrender to it. For its insistence on all of those things, and for its astonishing versatility. For many of us writing in this day and age, the lyric is the mother tongue.
Q: The title of your first full-length collection is Nevertheless. What’s that supposed to mean?
A: I was hoping you could tell me.
Q: Why do you use weird, unexpected phrases all the time, like “coyote glory” and “the fervent curve”?
A: Oh, I stole those.
I have decided to take “weird and unexpected” as a compliment…
I like to think the Hermetic doctrines are at constant work in the sounds of poetry. Those quicksilver, strangely elusive moments refuse reason or explanation; we only know they come and go. I have a poet friend who says one must put oneself in a position to receive. I call this watching the grass grow. Or rowing one’s boat. I am naturally inquisitive, and can be easily seduced by the purely cerebral (one of the sections in Nevertheless is devoted to the mind), so in my case, slowing down, being unsuspecting, shutting down the need for speed, the need to be right, is a prerequisite for getting…. assailed, or even tapped on the shoulder, by a poem.
Some years ago, when both kids were just babies, my husband and I decided to move from the big city to the small town. We were living in Vegas at the time, and were both feeling claustrophobic. We vowed to live the humble life, to get jobs which did not require much ambition or wardrobe, to raise our kids with good old fashioned dust underneath their feet. The challenges have been many, but the life has been small and good, and I also see, looking back, that this was when poetry became for me, not just something I did, but something that was also… doing me. In other words, this thing started feeling reciprocal. With this kind of… leniency, I am less interested in producing poems, and more interested in the coyote’s nose, or the fervent curve, or the nature of the question mark. Or to take from James Hillman, the snake is not a symbol, and the bear in your dream is real.
Q: You use rhyme a lot, I’ve noticed. Don’t you know that’s the mark of a poetaster?
A: Okay, now you’ve crossed the line…
off with her head!
Q: Who are some of your favorite poets? Whose poetry would you say has influenced you the most? And who are you reading these days? Be honest.
A: It’s a good thing you said to be honest, otherwise I would lie through my teeth. I’m currently reading the collected works of Shakespeare, Dante, Proust, Homer, Tolstoy, Balzac, Simone Weil, Dostoyevski, Faulkner, and Dumas, and that’s only in the bathroom.
Okay, I’m reading Blake and Wallace Stevens, again. I’ve just finished M. A. Griffiths’s book of poems, and have recently failed at yet another attempt to appreciate poor Jorie. And I read a good deal of non-fiction. Greatest influence? It’s difficult to single out just one. I think I’ve been greatly, greatly influenced by Kipling. I should apologize in advance for the political incorrectness of his person and any heart attacks or strokes this admission might cause. I was simply a goner the first time I approached the great, grey green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees. And he didn’t even call it poetry.