Interviewing the Poet
by Gina Gareri-Watkins
Ralph Tejeda Wilson was born in Akron, Ohio, but grew up in Cleveland, a city he still considers his hometown. Wilson holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah, and is currently a tenured Associate Professor in English at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. Wilson’s first book of poetry, A Black Bridge: Poems, was published by The University of Nevada Press in April 2001. It was awarded the Georgia Author of the Year Award for Poetry in 2002. His poetry is featured in several anthologies, including the 2006 Georgia Author of the Year award-winning book of poems, Under the Rock Umbrella. Wilson’s writings have been featured in various poetry publications with his most recent poem, A Georgia Georgic, published in the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Atlanta Review. Wilson is currently working on his second book of poems, “Of Tides at Elsinore.” In addition, Wilson is Executive Director of the Georgia Writers Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging and strengthening the proficiencies of Georgia writers in both the creative and business aspects of
writing and publishing. The Write Room recently sat down with the poet to talk about his favorite subject: poetry.
Dr. Wilson is a hard guy to catch. Combine an academic workload with an administrative one, teach weekly undergraduate and graduate classes, pursue personal and professional writings, add an executive position with a non-profit, and then merge everything with raising a teenage son and you can easily see why Wilsons’ time is limited and his office is cramped. Upon entering you’ll immediately notice bookshelves that threaten to dislodge their occupants, even more books stacked on the floor, and hardly an uncovered surface on his desk. Books, magazines, and papers are everywhere, testament to a man who makes his living from both the written and spoken word. When interviewing Dr. Wilson, one also notices his tendency for circuitous, italicized conversations — his answers often digress and wander like a curious tourist exploring a side street — but students and colleagues rarely seem to mind. The trip is always worth the ride because Wilson’s answers are as revelatory in their storytelling methods and images as the words themselves, much as in his poetry.
When asked about the moment he knew he would be a writer, Wilson answered, “When I was in fourth grade, I wrote a poem and my teacher accused me of plagiarism,” Wilson paused as he recalled the event but continued, “which wasn’t true. My mother gathered up all the drafts from my wastebasket and brought them to the teacher. The teacher had to issue an apology in front of the whole class, and I was filled with such pride (Wilson drew out the word as he spoke, as if following the word back to his Cleveland elementary classroom) that I knew I wanted to be a poet. And a professional baseball player.” Seriously? Wilson nodded. “That was the plan. I was going to play professional baseball, then rest on my laurels and write poetry.” It is no surprise that Wilson thought it practical to combine the two, as his work often has a flair for dramatic combinations. “I’m becoming more and more lyric in some ways now,” stated Wilson, “but previously it was narrative poetry.”
Wilson remembered his early influences. “My first influence was in tone, of darkness. Edgar Allen Poe was an influence, and I studied with the poet Mark Strand. The second early influence was the narrative style of James Dickey. His idea of being able to tell stories in poetry — that was when the light suddenly went on for me. Suddenly that was the direction for me.” Wilson relocated to Kansas State in the 1980s to pursue his master’s in English. It was there that he discovered the Western poet Richard Hugh and the Eastern poet Sydney Lee of New England, adding two new compass points of influence to Dickey’s Southern one. As he remembered reading their work Wilson said, “Reading those three…Dickey, Hugh, and Lee…for me, that was really proof that people say you need to read to be a good writer.” Wilson’s own collection of works would eventually become his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Utah, A Black Bridge: Poems.
Wilson’s Kennesaw State students often think of poetry as short sentences that need to rhyme, but much of the poetry published today continues to emphasize the narrative element. “Any poem that tells a story is narrative — The Odyssey is an example — and it’s been around a long time.” So how do you teach poetry to the non-poet? Wilson leaned back and pondered the age-old question. “Can poetry writing, or any kind of writing, be taught?” Wilson considered the question as he framed his answer. “The student has to have some ability with language,” he admitted. “They have to be able to make ‘music,’ or images with words.” When pressed Wilson explained, “There are certain pitfalls in poetry writing, and thus you can avoid. When I teach poetry, I teach about the fact that every poem has to have ground.” Wilson described ground as “the place where the reader can understand where he or she is starting from, and then the poem can leap anywhere. There have to be cues to the reader that tells the reader what it’s all about.” Sometimes it’s just the title of a poem that provides clarity for the reader, he explained.
When asked about current enrollment in his poetry classes, Wilson answered, “It’s funny. It goes in cycles. The last couple of semesters I’ve had packed poetry classes at both levels, both undergraduate and graduate.” Undergraduates are generally more enthusiastic about poetry, Wilson observed, “because they view poetry as being about themselves and they are vastly interested in telling about themselves.” When one writes poetry, “A lot of times it has to begin with you,” Wilson explained, “but in the shaping of it after the drafts, there eventually comes the question of audience. One composes completely for yourself, but you then reach a place when you have to consider how to make it accessible to the reader.”
As to the current affairs in American poetry, Wilson noted, “You have a lot of people practicing it, but not enough reading it.” Current research of poetry publications shows three times as many submissions than subscriptions. “There are more people writing it than reading it,” Wilson said somewhat sadly. As for current writers, “The last 15 years have been dominated by women poets. There is a whole world of experiences not exclusive to women, but they are the ones to voice them,” Wilson said.
If more people are practicing poetry than reading it, then poetry pays very little. Wilson explained, “Most poets have their work published by submitting their manuscripts to poetry competitions.” The prize is typically a publishing contract, but rarely a cash award. “Payment is usually in copies,” Wilson admitted. “A lot of poets are either teachers, or have another job,” Wilson said. “There’s a long history of it. Very few poets have had the luxury of making a living from it. Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman, William Carlos Williams was a doctor, T.S. Elliott was a banker, and Ezra Pound was an editor and translator. Robert Frost started late in life. He had a small farm in New England with an inheritance that allowed him to write, but he had to go to England to get published. He couldn’t get published in America.”
So what does Dr. Wilson, the poet, read in his spare time? That would be more poetry. “Right now I’m reading Bow by a friend of mine, Penelope Austin, who died a few years ago. Her book just came out.” Pressed to name another book, Wilson paused. “The last time I read something for fun,” Wilson admitted somewhat sheepishly, “I read the short stories of Stephen King.”