Interview with Larry Woiwode, poet, novelist, essayist and professor
Alok Mishra: How do you see the position of a poet laureate, sir? I have been a student of literature, and have read about the role of many poet laureates. Is it the same today?
Larry Woiwode: I don’t believe so. The poet laureate position had its origins in England, and Chaucer, if not an official poet laureate, was a court poet during the reign of Richard 11, in the late 1300s. Ben Johnson, of Shakespeare’s era, was the first officially named poet laureate. The tradition in England has continued down to this day, with poems often written for civic celebrations or at the request of royalty. Some American poet laureates prepare and read a poem for the inauguration of a new governor or the opening session of a legislature. I have not so far been asked to do that. What I mostly do is appear at high schools and colleges and try to raise the level of student interest in the arts, especially the poetic art.
Alok Mishra: What role do you like the most – being a poet or being a novelist? What is the reason for your choice, if you make one?
Larry Woiwode: I consider myself a writer, not a poet or novelist or short-story writer or essayist, and every genre of writing that I’ve worked in has its pleasures and its rewards. I’ve probably made the best mark as a writer of fiction, but I began as a poet, and as age moved on I found I also enjoy essays.
Alok Mishra: What did you think when you selected the title Beyond the Bedroom Wall?
Larry Woiwode: Quite a number of novels of the late sixties and early seventies, which is when Beyond the Bedroom Wall came out, had to do with sex. And I wanted to suggest that a larger world of interest lay beyond the bedroom.
Alok Mishra: How does it feel when you receive an award for your first book? I ask you to share your experience about your book What I’m Going to Do, I Think.
Larry Woiwode: In one sense, I was surprised; in another, being young and arrogant, it seemed right to receive the Faulkner award for the best first novel of 1969, which is what the award was meant to acknowledge. But I would say the early award put additional pressure on me as I worked on my second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Pieces of it were composed over a ten-year period.
Alok Mishra: As a professor, do you think that being a creative writer as well, you have an ease in teaching your students about literature?
Larry Woiwode: Yes. I’m often able to see from the inside what a writeris doing and I can pass this on to students who usually hear only academic explication.
Alok Mishra: I have a question of origin, sir. Recently, in the International Poetry Festival at Guntur, I met a retired professor of English who told me that language comes first and ideas second. I am dubious about this view. What is your stand, as a professor and as a writer as well?
Larry Woiwode: Language comes first, ideas second; I second that. All thoughts, all ideas, all concepts that make their way onto a page must first be formed with words, first in the mind, then the page. So language comes first.
Alok Mishra: As many people from literary circles have noticed a change in the literary practice of the day, do you also notice a change, sir? Do you feel that the profession of writing has changed its course with the times?
Larry Woiwode: It seems to have become coarser and less informed. Certainly experimentation in the novel, for instance, goes as far back as Sterne, and then we have Joyce’s several memorable variations, and so forth. But a good deal of present-day fiction strikes me as flat-footed, without the sensuous allusions you can find in Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, as well as in Bellow, Cheever, Roth, and Updike. I’ll stop there.
Alok Mishra: There are so many aspiring novelists and poets who will come across this interview. What is your message to them?
Larry Woiwode: If you want to be a writer, you have to keep at it daily, and never give up, never give up, no matter what comes your way.
Alok Mishra: As a writer myself, I am curious to know if you are working on some project right now.
Larry Woiwode: I have nearly a hundred poems I’m trying to organize into a coherent collection; I recently finished a new novel; I have a half dozen stories idling, waiting for me to get back to them; and I’ve been working on a book of essays about my native home state, North Dakota.
Alok Mishra: Many thanks for your time and this discussion, sir. I wish you the best for your coming projects.