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Utopia, not realpolitick, is poet’s place

Wakoski’s work defies the rise of corporate culture, ‘propoganda.’

Diane Wakoski looks to art and not to politics.

The poet, who lectures at the Bainbridge library on March 9, is more concerned with honing her own vision than espousing an ideology.

Her views are not popular with many of her peers, she says.

“If I’d been willing to say I was a feminist, I’d be rich and famous. But I’m not a feminist, I’m not working for ‘the cause.’” she said.

“The kinds of limitations we felt as women were so slight and moderate. Sure, there were more men poets, but that may have been an advantage, because I got more attention.”

And Wakoski is forthright about her low regard for message-laden political art she calls “propaganda.”

“The thing about art,” she said, “is that your point of view is a vision.”

Wakoski’s own vision was honed in a hard school, a have-not childhood with a single mom in southern California, and her own early pregnancy, a baby relinquished to adoption.

But college was affordable for a working-class kid in 1956; Wakoski attended University of California at Berkeley, where a semester’s tuition was $55.

As a young writer, Wakoski was associated with “deep image” poets – a term coined by poet Jeremy Rothenberg to describe a small and ephemeral group of writers influenced by 19th century French Symbolists.

Wakoski also looked to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, with footnotes to Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, Gertrude Stein and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

A prolific writer, Waskoski has published 40 books of poems and four books of essays. She has earned honors that include a Fulbright fellowship, a Guggenheim, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, among others.

Wakoski’s voice is distinctly American, an independent, restless woman crisscrossing the West. There’s the lure of love just over the horizon and the twinges of love left on the road behind.

And there’s the shadow cast over the expansive landscape by the father who left early.

While Wakoski has written poems that draw on her own difficult life, she doesn’t support the notion that one must have endured hard knocks to make art.

“Young people today feel challenged to make poetry out of their bourgeois lives, but you can make literary work out of anything,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what I am as a human being because, as a poet, that will interest me. In some sense, I don’t think it’s important to focus on the life.”

Wakoski has taught at Michigan State University in East Lansing since 1976, living in what she dubs a “student ghetto” in the flatlands of central Michigan.

That setting – farmland converted to “a million little towns and malls” – is one that Wakoski, born to desert and coast, says she’s been slow to embrace.

Her long artistic life has seen the transformation of both the academic and the poetic landscapes.

She decries a shift from intellectual and scholar-led universities to the corporate model that features a CEO for head, and the corresponding shift in student motivation.

“The reason to go to school now is to get a profession and to be prosperous,” she said. “I’ve heard many students say that if they could pay for a college degree but not attend school, they would.”

But she also acknowledges that students leave college with a burden of debt for student loans that her generation didn’t have.

Wakoski doesn’t subscribe to the notion that all her students share equal talent – another heresy.

“I am an elitist, I definitely believe there are people who are talented,” she said. “And some are ordinary people who have imagination.

“And the others are just the others.”

She mourns what she perceives as a diminished interest in reading.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it,” she said, “when there are now 2,000 books of poetry published in any year.”

Wakoski now sees the notion of a poet writing for a broadly educated audience as a utopian vision. At the same time, she acknowledges that she’s not part of “the charmed circle” of poets whose works are esteemed by intellectuals.

“I think I’ve pissed off too many people,” she said.

And while she’s built a life filled with friends and enough money to do the things she wants, she feels the drive to reinvent herself, rather than subside into a complacent old age.

If she feels a twinge or two about the Pulitzer she didn’t get, writing the next poem is still compelling.

“I feel so connected, I feel OK,” she said.

“I think: You were almost famous once. So you have something. As long as you’re in print, who knows what can happen in the future? Look at Emily Dickinson.

“As long as your work in still in a trunk somewhere, who knows?”

* * * * *

Acclaimed Michigan poet Diane Wakoski speaks on “Secrets and Revelations: How Poems Use Trope To Store Secrets,” 7 p.m. March 9 at the Bainbridge Public Library, in a lecture sponsored by Field’s End writers community.

Tickets are $7 at the door, or in advance from Eagle Harbor Book Co. Information: 842-4162.

Field’s End is now registering students for its spring quarter writing classes. Information, registration forms: www.fieldsend.org.

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