"I'm not out to change anyone's mind about anything anymore. Now for me it's about outward motion--about getting out of yourself."

More Perihelion:

Issue 5: Phoenix

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Bei Dao

Frank X. Gaspar

Carol Frith

Muriel Zeller

Dee Cohen

George Wallace

Tom Daley

James Lee Jobe

Mary Zeppa

Daniel A. Olivas

Hannah Stein

Lynne Knight

Walter Pavlich

Derick Burleson

Walter Pavlich

Interview by
Susan Kelly--DeWitt

Walter Pavlich is the author of several books including Ongoing Portraits, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Selection, and Running Near the End of the World, which won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award of the San Francisco Foundation and the Edwin Ford Piper Award of the University of Iowa Press. Recently, he was Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawaii. He owns springtrees.com, a successful internet antiques and art business. A long-awaited collection of his new poems. The Spirit of Blue Ink is forthcoming in December 2000. We met in his living room, which was piled high with paintings, Mexican folk art and an eclectic assortment of American collectibles.

Perihelion Verbatim:  Let's begin with the question of audience. When you write, do you have a specific listener in mind?

I have no intended audience at all! I don't have an ideal listener--and that's very freeing. I could not care less who is listening--particularly editors. (Hearty laughter here...) I'm not out to please anyone anymore. This is tremendously freeing.

You have been collecting art for several years now. I know that you do a lot of buying and selling, especially over the internet. How has collecting changed your own perceptions about art in general and more specifically about your own art?

My world opened up. I mean, there are some tremendous artists out there--Looking at all that other work, all those people who made things--well, it opened up my appreciation way beyond the borders of the written word.

I used to be pretty narrowly focused on books and words. So, if the world opens up and there are enough hours in the day, that's pretty exciting! If I'm focused all day on the writing, then I'm up and down all day, and that's a pretty exhausting trip. Now I understand the idea of the person of letters--someone like Tony Bennett--he sings, he paints. I like that. I always used to think, you have one thing you can do well, and that's it. Now I like cooking, I like painting, I like shopping, I like gardening--and, oh yeah--I like writing too. Now there's more room in there for other things. More room for people too.

As you know, writing is isolating.

Now I just have room for lots more things.

So each day is a long and varied day. You know, if you're doing just one thing all day... it's all the same. I don't want to be defined by just one thing anymore. And that's a huge change for me. I was real, real hung up in writing. Or, if I wasn't writing...

To enjoy life--I really didn't know that. That doesn't mean I don't want to be good at writing. I hope to write better and better. I would hope that now that my life has opened up, that my writing will open up too.

Maybe I'll allow myself to be expansive sometime!

It could all be about middle age!

What about the poems? What do you see as your subjects--and have those changed over time--with the collecting?

There are subjects you like, or are drawn to forever, or are maybe meant to talk about. I've always tried to define--and celebrate--sort of hard things in life. To try to find beauty in them--or to be more patient and watch the beauty unfold.

Right away I think of your poem "In the Belly of the Ewe," from your last book, Running Near the End of the World:

In The Belly Of The Ewe

And so he told us how he had been sewn
into the belly of a ewe by his father
and a couple of uncles, because his legs
would not unfold after delivery,

as though in the womb the ligaments
had looped around bone and kinked,
heels clamped to thighs, a spiritual
cramp from God, an execration

for what they did not know.
His mother kept next to him in the barn,
pinching off sheep ticks, not sleeping
while the baby slept, helping the animal

to its side when its own legs hardened
from the standing, and kept the hooves
from kicking his exposed tottering head.
On the second Sunday of his life

they slit him free, limbs in a dangle
like severed rubberbands, and slaughtered
the beast with the same knife for that
day's blessed supper. He told us this

in the yard of the world's largest prison,
on the way back to his cell where
he continued to cough up little wet
moths of blood, where he was always

cold, always ashamed, as he gathered
the wool blanket up and around him.

Yes, that's right. And I've just been to a memorial service for a friend, and I'm thinking about how the family has handled that--handled itself with honor and grace. To watch people cry and laugh... To hear songs sung in Hebrew and listen to all the people who helped J. die, and who came to his house afterward. We ate outside and then people went home, and that's what you do. They resumed their life--and that's the kind of thing I feel connected to now. So if I can be a part of that and afterwards write something that captures a smidgen of what it was, what it was like, then I've done my part.

So, you're saying live first, then write? 

Yes. And it's okay to be silent and not write for a while. I don't force it anymore. I relax with it. It might be a way of saying less ego--or less rhapsodizing.

One of the things that impressed me early on was that, on our way once to Napa, there was a person out painting in a field. She was out there painting for the pleasure of it! Whereas, I think a lot of poems today are forced for career sake. So pleasure, enjoyment--"'cause you like to paint trees"--that's just gone out of it.

I thought, wouldn't it be nice to be that person out in the field, writing a poem about something for the enjoyment of it.

I'm not out to change anyone's mind about anything anymore. Now for me it's about outward motion--about getting out of yourself. And if you happen to talk about politics-- If that evolves or comes up--so be it.

To be part of the landscape instead of always doing self-portraits!  

So, getting beyond the purely self-referential?  

Well, I like self-portraits, but if a person is writing self-portraits all their life... There's a big, beautiful world out there. 

So when you say "outward motion," you mean moving more and more toward the world. It seems to me that your poems have always done that though!

They're expanding on letting go. I love that process--

It was fear that was holding me back. I'd say, "This poem is okay," but I didn't really get to those three or four stanzas I really wanted to get to--the ones that might have come if I had been less attached.

If you'd been able to let go and just see what comes--without worrying about what the audience might be thinking... 

Yes. I've always wanted to just let go.

The inverse of that is, maybe I just want to say a few simple things--and that's okay too. Simple strokes. To have someone say, "Walter, you're using the right color."