An Interview with Frank Wilson

(click on title for full screen view)

 

g emil reutter

frank_wilson_bookpile.Poet Frank Wilson has been reviewing books for over fifty years. He began in college, worked for a weekly paper and as an editor for a book publisher. He served as Books Editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, publishes Books Inq., a popular blog and wrote a weekly column for When Falls the Coliseum.

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Frank Wilson reads at Poets on the Porch Festival

Where is Frank Wilson from and how has that shaped your life?

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FW: I’m Philly-born and -bred. Strictly working class. My older brother and I were raised by our mother and her mother. Both of them were factory workers. My father was a cop. I didn’t see much of him when I was growing up, but I liked him a lot and learned a lot from him.

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I started life in North Philly, in a rowhouse at Sixth and Sedgley. St. Veronica’s parish. Across the street was a scrapyard, and all about were rail yards and factories. (The trains that I could see rushing by just behind the scrapyard were running on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s main line — just not the part that ran through the Main Line.) Nature in that neighborhood was what you found in vacant lots — ailanthus, blackberry brambles, and goldenrod. I still think there is a strange beauty in the glow of factories at night, and there is very nice watercolor right above where I am writing of sa factory scene at night.

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When I was 8, we moved to Torresdale, in the far Northeast, which at the time was still semi-rural. Our house was at the end of a gravel road (only recently named Jackson Street), and was surrounded by woods. There was a stream in back and we had well water and a cess pool. I walked through the woods to go to grade school (St. Katherine of Siena), which was then located on the grounds of Eden Hall, an exclusive girls school (Basil Rathbone’s daughter went there), which had its own farm. Nuns from Eden Hall — the Religious of the Sacred Heart, known as the distaff Jesuits — taught at the school. My sixth-grade teacher, Mother Holmes, was a niece of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. We exchanged emails near the end of her life. She was a very important influence on me.

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I grew very fond of those woods around our house — they were part of a migratory route, so all kinds of birds passed through in spring and fall — but when I was in the eighth grade the city came along and bull-dozed them into oblivion and put in sewer lines to set things up for development, which is why the Northeast I knew as a child doesn’t exist anymore

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Your blog,  Books, Inq.: The Epilogue,  is widely read. How did the Blog come about?

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FW: I started the blog at the beginning of 2005. The idea was that it would offer a behind-the-scenes look at what a newspaper book review editor does. It proved more difficult than I had anticipated — I really didn’t have the time to write thoughtful posts. It also didn’t attract many readers. So I changed course and turned it into a blog mostly linking to and commenting on articles about books and literature. I was also lucky in my partners. Vikram Johri has been posting from India since just about the beginning. For a while, the late Canadian poet Judith Fitzgerald was a partner. My other two partners now are Jesse Freedman, an Oxford grad who works for Amazon, and Julie Chovannes, an intellectual property lawyer. Now that I think about it, it’s a good thing I started it, because otherwise I don’t think I’d have made the cut.

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John Timpane and Frank Wilson at Ryerss Museum and Library

You have been reviewing books for four decades, beginning in college, working for a press, a weekly paper and of course the Philadelphia Inquirer. Could you share what you consider the highlights of your career?

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FW: One of the books I edited for Lippincott — Stanley I. Kutler’s Privilege and Creative Destruction — has become a classic in its field. I would like to say that my superb editing had something to do with that, but it was the cleanest manuscript I ever worked on.

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Another book I edited, this one for Running Press, that I think is memorable was J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth by Daniel Grotta. It was an unauthorized biography. The Tolkien family had already chosen Humphey Carpenter to write the authorized version. Grotta advanced the notion that Tolkien’s imaginative world owed much to his experiences in World War I. Not everyone buys this, but I think the book makes a strong case for its plausibility.

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Then there was an article I wrote in the old Drummer about singer-songer Harry Nilsson that got me a funny thank-you note from Nilsson and the chance to talk to him over the phone a couple of times.

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Another review I wrote, of poet J. V. Cunningham’s Collected Poems and Collected Essays, got me a letter from Cunningham in which he told me that “it was nice to be praised for the things one would like to be praised for.” I wrote back and asked him if he would look at some of my poems, and he told me to send them along. At the time I was into writing things like villanelles and ballades. He wrote me back with some great advice. He told me that I had perfected a style. Now I just had to figure out what I wanted to do with it.

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Later on, when I was reviewing for The Inquirer, I got a letter from the novelist Oliver Lange. I had reviewed his novel Pas de Deux, which is about a novelist who writes under a pseudonym and teaches at a small college in Oregon and gets sucked into an affair with a student of his who turns out to be the daughter he more or less abandoned. I raised some questions in my review about how much of the story was autobiographical. Lange wrote to say he found the closeness of my reading impressive. He in fact did use a pseudonym — his real name was John Wadleigh — and he did teach in a small college, but he had not engaged in incest. That novel, by the way, ought to be better known, as should a couple of others of his: Next of Kin, which I also reviewed — it was nominated for a Pulitzer —  and Vandenburg, which Hollywood seems to have ripped off for the Patrick Swayze movie Red Dawn.

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Many newspapers are dropping book reviews from their publications. The Inquirer continues to publish many reviews. What is the decision process in selecting a book for review and what is your legacy at the Inquirer?

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FW: If a name writer has a new book out, it has to be reviewed. With non-fiction, you’ll want to review anything that is getting attention in the news. But the problem is space. The Inquirer probably reviews more poetry than most papers, and that is very good, because there are some pretty good poets in these parts, and a fairly lively poetry scene. I think The Inquirer would do itself and its readers a big favor by putting out an actual book section. The Inquirer’s competition on Sunday is the New York Times. Now, the Times’s book review section is a shadow of its former self (no sour grapes on my part in saying this — I wrote for the Times book review for years), but they do still have one. The Inquirer could easily and cheaply put out one that would be competitive. The Inquirer’s Sunday sales would likely go up, and I suspect the Times’s might well go down.

As for my legacy, probably a headline I wrote when I was a copy editor for a review of a book about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger: Dasein for living (which only makes sense to somebody who knows something about Heidegger). And a quip I made about Bill Clinton being a Snopes with table manners.

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Frank Wilson interviewed at Drexel Television

Your wrote a weekly column, That’s What He Said, for When Falls the Coliseum. How did this come about and are you considering bringing the column back and if not why?

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FW: It came about because Scott Stein, the editor of WFTC, asked me if I wanted to write a column. I had always thought about writing some essays like the first ones Montaigne wrote — descants on favorite quotations. I stopped writing it because I ran out of quotations that had been floating around in my head and had to start looking around for quotations, which struck me as phony. Recently, though, I realized that I look around for quotations every day for the “Something to think on…” feature on the blog, so I see ideas for it every day practically. So I am planning to take it up again fairly soon.

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As a poet, could you share what motivates you to write poetry and what type of poet do you consider yourself?

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FW:  I think I caught the poetry bug when I was very small and was reading nursery rhymes. “Hey Diddle Diddle” has been a lifelong favorite. Moving from sound and nonsense to sound and sense was easy. In the grade school I attended, poetry was taught every Friday afternoon. Sometimes you had to memorize it. That’s when I first encountered Poe’s “To Helen,” which happens to be a well-nigh perfect lyric, and “The Raven,” and Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.” I remember one Saturday night — I was in my early teens, I think —reading all of Poe’s poems in one sitting. The next morning, when my mother and I walked to Mass, one of them, “Romance,” kept running through my head the way a popular song might. So the connection between sound and sense was what got me started, I think.

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I remember writing a poem and showing it to my Junior English teacher at Father Judge. He handed it back to me the next day decorated with scanning marks, demonstrating that I knew nothing about metrics. Which I began to learn. Emerson got me studying etymologies and I started discovering poets on my own. I can still remember the day I came upon H.D.’s “Pear Tree” in an anthology I had picked up in the Holmesburg Library. I remember thinking that H.D., whoever she was, was the kind of girl I’d like to know. From the start I was fond of poets who were women. Those Friday afternoon poetry classes had already introduced me to Amy Lowell and Sara Teasdale, and I came to love Denise Levertov and Phylis McGinley. Levertov, in particular, along with H.D., I am sure exerted considerable influence on my poetic personality.
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I remember picking up a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1935 in Leary’s Book Store on a rainy November Saturday and reading “Preludes” on the el. I think that’s when I realized how poetic the city could be, that poems didn’t need daffodils. But, speaking of daffodils, it was having an experience a lot like what Wordsworth tells of in “Tintern Abbey” that was decisive in making me feel that poetry could be a kind of vocation. One Sunday in May I walked through Pennypack Park from Frankford Avenue to Pine Road and back. By myself. On the way back — I was on the high trail — I stopped and looked across to the other side of the creek. It was late afternoon, and I felt, like Wordsworth, a presence and
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                                           …a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
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I wrote some poetry in college and some of it appeared in the college literary magazine, and I know I continued writing it from time to time. But mostly I read, and discovered poets I felt simpatico with — Kenneth Patchen, another working-class kid, George Barker, John Hall Wheelock, Robert Bly (whom I got to meet). I made myself familiar with those thought standard as well: Cummings, Auden, William Carlos Williams, and especially Stevens. I guess I should mention Rilke, too. I studied German in high school and college and have made good use of it in reading Rilke, whose poems have meant a lot to me. I was also increasingly absorbed with words, their origins and connotations, how they fitted with one another, how the right arrangement could be a cluster of meanings in mysterious harmony. Meter is really good for scanning. It lets you gauge the melody and rhythm of words in consort. But meter alone is not poetry. Poetry happens when meter and inflection accommodate each other.
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Things started to coalesce in the ‘70s and I was invited to read at Haverford College, and some of my things got set to music (one for a piece in honor of the Bicentennial). I didn’t start getting into print until much later. The business of poetry didn’t interest me all that much, though I was neither ignorant of it nor indifferent to it. But poetry for me had become, as I think it was for Wallace Stevens, a private devotion. Like Stevens, I had a day job. The practice of poetry was a place of sanctuary for me, where the essential strands of my being — my faith, my fondness for long walks (in the woods or in the city or along the beach),  certain paintings and pieces of music, the philosophical and theological musings I had been trained in, all came together in an attempt to arrive at something like a language crystal. I hear some words, some lines, and try to discern their meaning and order and get them down as accurately and precisely as I can. 

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Frank Wilson reading at Poets on the Porch Festival

Poets on the Porch Festival

Will we see a collection of poetry from Frank Wilson?

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FW:  A year or so ago, my friend Daniel Grotta, who wrote the Tolkien biography I mentioned, asked me if I would let him publish my poems. What was interesting about that was Daniel only knew my poems from having heard me read them decades earlier in my Germantown sitting room. That’s the best compliment I have ever had. Daniel and his wife, Sally, ran a publishing house out of the Poconos. Unfortunately, Daniel passed away last year, and I don’t feel I should bother Sally about it. But I am going to put together a collection of them and show it to some friends and see what they think.  We’ll see what happens.

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As a younger man it is said that you enjoyed to party. How did this impact your writing and do you miss that life?

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FW: The partying had no effect on my writing beyond maybe sometimes giving me experiences and insights I might otherwise not have had. No one in his right mind undertakes to write while high. Some of the partying was also pretty high-toned. Among the people who came to visit my rather bohemian house in Germantown years ago were people like Roy Tobias, who was one of the original members of the American Ballet Theater, and a guy named Evans Winner, who was involved in the founding of Outward Bound, and painter Harry Bertoia. I’m an old-fashioned journalist. I like to experience things first-hand, not just hear about them. But you can keep that sort of thing up for only so long and the name of the game is not to be dead at the end. I did everything in the partying line that I could do and moved on. I do not miss it at all. I can’t remember the last party I attended. Been there, done that.

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If possible, could you share your favorite top ten books?

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FW: Off the top of my head, in no particular order, and without comment:

Le grand Meulnes (also known as The Wanderer), by Alain-Fournier.

Owen Glendower, by John Cowper Powys

Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess 

Possession, by A.S. Byatt

The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel

The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock

The Destiny of Man, by Nicolas Berdyaev

The Living God, by Romano Guardini

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Where do you see the publication of books heading and in particular, poetry books, which struggle to find a place in the market?

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FW: If newspapers were smart, they’d cover poetry the way they cover movies and the theater and concerts. The newspaper mantra these days is local, local, local. Well, in just about any locale you can find people interested in poetry, writing it and reading it. Poetry certainly isn’t going away anytime soon, especially given the way technology has made it possible for just about anybody to draw attention to what he writes. It is strange how the media doesn’t really seem to catch on to how things have changed, even though the media itself has been profoundly affected by the changes. But the media seems hellbent on continuing to look at things as if they still were as they used to be. There is a market for books in general and poetry in particular. Somebody is going to figure out how to exploit that market.

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How would you describe Frank Wilson?

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FW: God has been good to me. I ended up with the job I had dreamed of having when I was in high school. I’ve spent most of my life doing things I really liked doing. And I made a pretty good living doing it. Deeper than that, I find, now that I am an old man, that it was the early years, childhood and adolescence, that made me who I am. The years in between seem like variations on a theme I think I hit upon when I was 15. Oddly, it is the practice of poetry that has made me understand this. I studied existential phenomenology under Edward Gannon, S. J., and his counsel has guided me ever since. Along with the poetry, it has made me an engaged observer of life and the world. 

 

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To learn more about Frank Wilson these sites are recommended:

Chimeraobscura – http://chimeraobscura.com/vm/podcast-critical-mass

The Drexel Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GXcOfqRnKU

Frank Wilson interviews Donald Hall- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6knD_RrfdiU

Gypsy Art Show- http://poddirectory.com/episode/46723/gypsy-art-show-with-poet-and-reviewer-frank-wilson

Kenyon Review- http://www.kenyonreview.org/2006/12/an-interview-with-frank-wilson-part-ii/

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here: About g emil reutter

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Photographs courtesy of Books Inq, Chimeraobscura, The Philadelphia Inqurier , The Fox Chase Review, When Falls the Coliseum, The Drexel Interview

 

 

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