The Fourth River

Where the Music Happens: An Interview with Judith Vollmer

Where the Music Happens: An Interview with Judith Vollmer

By on January 16, 2012

By Marcella Prokop


Judith Vollmer’s collection of poems The Water Books was published this month by Autumn House Press. Her previous books include Reactor, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; The Door Open to the Fire (1997 Cleveland State Poetry Prize and 1999 Paterson Prize finalist); Black Butterfly (limited edition; 1997 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize); and Level Green (The 1990 Brittingham Prize, Wisconsin). The recipient of literature fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Vollmer has been awarded residencies at the American Academy in Rome, Yaddo, Centrum, and Blue Mountain Center. She also was the recipient of the 1992 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award.  Vollmer lives in Pittsburgh and co-edits the national poetry journal 5 AM.


The Fourth River: Your earlier work in Level Green and The Door Open to the Fire includes several Dionysian images. As you progress through these poems, you eventually leave behind the image of the bacchanals and the Dionysian revelry for the more serious voice of Persephone—what influenced the shift?

Judith Vollmer: Well, I haven’t left the Dionysian voices behind.  In Reactor, the revelry changed form or tone and turned toward violence.  Figures in, say, the Yucca Mountain sequence—the poems specifically about nuclear waste, catastrophe, and my father’s work in the industry—vocalize work or experiment that’s gotten out of control.  Some of the figures, like General Linda, are perpetrators.  Even the Persephone figure or voice is clearly a part of the Dionysian scene.  She lives in Hell and is both traumatized and energized by the power of the uranium and the dregs of “wealth”—after-product of the nuclear waste.  In another figure, she’s the spring goddess, yes, in “Persephone Returning,” but even that poem is written as an elegy: I’d just lost my dear friend, the journalist Betsy Heltzel.  Elsewhere, Dionysus shows up in coffee, wine, insomnia, excess of influences, consumerism.

FR: Do you look back on any of your past work and find things you’d like to revise? How do you ever know something is complete?

JV: I don’t think revising older work is a great idea, though I know many poets putting together selected poem-volumes who do it.  I do know I’ve traveled far from some of the poems I’ve written and a few poems that I’ve included in my books fell short of what I was trying to do.  I’m never satisfied, really, and when I find myself in the gluey place of not knowing when something’s finished, I show it to my close readers and they tell me what to try, and I listen, or I try to hybridize their reactions when they disagree with each other.  I also have the luxury of showing them extremely rough work that they respond to and help to push along.  I like to work a very rough or chaotic or incomplete draft and not revise quickly.

FR: So how do you decide on the form for your work?

JV: I never map a poem, but I do think about how I’m entering the line when I start composing a poem, and honor the line as I go.  And I do set projects for myself: while I was writing Reactor, I visited Yucca Mountain and got out all my old books and notes about nuclear operating systems and post-WWII nuclear energy culture.  While I was revising the book, I made a number of ink and graphite sketches so I could visualize what the poems were trying to sing.  Watching the terrifying images from Japan this spring, I was catapulted back to childhood when my father, who designed tools and built hydraulic systems for similar reactors in the States, Italy, and Japan, brought home sketches and blueprints I still have.  I consider those to be “maps” or tools I can study.  Writing about reactors and wastewater and danger is simply a subject I have inherited: my father’s work on nuclear safety issues inside the cowboy days of the 1950s and 1960s—and all the dangers he endured—paid for the university educations my brothers and I enjoyed.  The additional complication is I’m the only person in my biological family, so far, who isn’t a scientist or engineer or computer analyst.  So I’ve spent big chunks of my life trying to understand and/or be companion to how my brothers, for example, see and think. I think the scientists are asking interesting questions and they have ways of “seeing” spaces and systems that I find unusual.  Plus, by avocations, my brother Robert is a gifted nature photographer and Rege is a knowledgeable astronomer. I’m a person who can take four hours to change a fuse or assemble an IKEA lamp….

While I was writing my new collection, The Water Books, I remembered that in the late 90s I had said to a colleague, when she asked what my next book would be about, “I want to write about water.”  I didn’t fully enter the project, though, till I was nearly finished writing Reactor.  Then it took me another seven years to write The Water Books.

FR: Earlier we discussed brevity and the impact of words.  In your poem “Trees at Night,” there is a line that reads “whose sound if properly recorded would be soft as dust.” How do you know when you’ve got the right words, when the words have fallen into the order in which they’re going to have the most impact?

JV: I think that’s probably my favorite part of that poem, and I think that’s where the music is, in that kind of phrasing, and that cadence. It’s a process of perceiving or apprehending something and putting it not consciously beside something else. So dust and a tape recorder, or dust and technology, beauty and technology, side by side, somehow came through in my thinking/phrasing, but also listening. So it’s about hearing something that might coincide with seeing, say, an object, and letting the two elements fuse or engage. And I think where music happens in a good poem, it’s really coming from a subterranean or subconscious place, or fusion of instantaneous perceptions because it’s coming in like dictation, you hear it and you write it. It can’t be premeditated or invented. It’s the most natural thought-music that happens in a poem.

I’ve met composers who talked about phrasing in a very technical way, and I think that’s fascinating, and I think they know a lot about that. It’s all consumed with tempo and measure and also the same quality of listening. They have more language for talking about what they do technically than we do. I think poets in particular, and maybe all writers, don’t have the same vocabulary for describing sound and sense as composers do.

FR: Do you think that’s because, aside from when writers give readings, we work with the written word more than the sounds?

JV: It could be that they’re working more directly with intensely minute frequency. And we’ve got suitcases of words and fields of words and universes of words. [Writer and literary critic] Julia Kristeva suggests that with certain writers, it’s not that they don’t make good art, but they might not achieve fine art because they’re so busy tripping over words. But she says it much more eloquently than that. So words are our tools and our sustenance and our drinking water, but they’re also minefields in a way. In your own work, you can tell when you’re in the middle of composing an essay and it’s just coming forward and your voice feels most natural and real.

FR: How did you first find poetry, and who taught you how to “get into it”—and by that I mean authors, instructors, relatives, friends?

JV: When I was eleven, my mother decided to go to college when she was in her thirties, and she became a lit major.  She was a so-called nontraditional student in a time when there weren’t many, and she was also full-time raising me and my brothers.  She brought home an anthology of the British Romantics and used to recite the poems while she was cooking dinner.  I loved hearing her talk about Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Then, in high school I had a wonderful teacher who showed us poems by Li Po—probably the [Ezra] Pound translations—and I was mesmerized.  I didn’t formally study poetry, though, until I took a few undergraduate lit classes and began reading poetry: I was focused on finding a newspaper job and I worked as a journalist for eight years after undergrad.  While I was working general assignment, and trying to write poems between deadlines, I went to a reading and heard Octavio Paz and I decided that night I wanted to go to graduate school and work on poems.  Pitt was starting its MFA Program and I could go to school at night and keep my newspaper job.  I had amazing teachers: first among them, Ed Ochester and Gerald Stern, and seminars with Louis Simpson and the very gifted literature professor and obsessive reader, Harry Mooney.  The only woman teacher I had during grad school was the essayist Diane Ackerman.  Fellow students Patricia Dobler and Kevin Rippin were my closest readers and we made huge reading lists for each other, and dared each other to try things; we were reading Ritsos, Milosz, Tsvetayeva, many other poets I still rely on all the time.

Next stroke of luck: poet Lynn Emanuel invited me to work with her, Maggie Anderson, and Patricia Dobler in a workshop they’d started a few years earlier.  They became my next teachers, mentors, and dear friends.  Plus a host of other poets: Peter Oresick, Craig Paulenich, and the Selvaggio brothers (Marc and Lenny) taught me by suggesting poets I’d never have investigated otherwise: Louis Zukofsky and, most important, Gary Snyder.  I’d already read Adrienne Rich, Anne Waldman, Judy Grahn, Audre Lorde, and Denise Levertov, whose work gave me a way to think and write about not only gender but voice itself.  My struggle then—and I’d say it continues—was to write a lyrical narrative poem that didn’t/doesn’t rely primarily on the essential infrastructure of witness, recall, plotting, or linear apprehension.  And a few of the poets I’ve mentioned—Ochester, Oresick, and Emanuel—are still my closest readers.  I met Jan Beatty sometime later.

FR: References to Li Po and others appear in your work, and you’ve noted some of your poems are imitations. How hard is it to duplicate another poet’s style?

JV: When I used the term “imitation,” I meant something more like a trans method.  Not translation, maybe something more like transcreation.  I wanted to invite certain poets or certain sections of their poems—like Valery Larbaud and [Stéphane] Mallarmé in Reactor—into the book I was writing.  In The Water Books, I’ve included versions I’ve made of a few poems by the Italian poets Giovanni Pascoli and Giacomo Leopardi.  I felt I was doing something in my own poems that spoke to their work.  [By] writing my versions of their poems and placing them in my book, I wanted to honor that sense of mentorship I felt.

FR: You earned your BA in 1973 and your MFA in ’81.  What were writing programs like twenty years ago, and how have they changed?

JV: It seems to me that people read more widely and happily and didn’t worry about “fashion” and “experiment” and, lucky for us, a “web presence.”  In terms of the study itself, we were just coming into having poetry in translation available to us and it was exciting for me.  I was trying hard to break my hearing that had been clogged up with newspaperese and with what I incorrectly judged to be the heaviness of my own Western Pennsylvania voice, even though I knew better.  I knew James Wright was right but it took me a while to listen to him.  At any rate, reading work in translation—the poets of Russia, Poland, South America, Italy—more than any single thing other than my teachers—shaped my ability to move forward.  Reading work in translation forced my ear to slow down, listen more closely, consider how a real, human voice talks.

FR: Why was it translated poetry, as opposed to poetry in English, that caught your ear?

JV: Two things were going on in my thinking there. [The] translations we had of the Russian poets, the Chinese poets, were all British translations. So we were hearing those voices through a very formal, British tone and cadence. Reading the then-new translations by Robert Bly and James Wright, it seemed, and my teachers thought the same thing, that for the first time we were really hearing a poet like Li Po or [Pablo] Neruda or [Gabriela] Mistral in an American idiom. They were writing about place and character and work and love and all the things we were trying to write about, but they were doing it in a seemingly relaxed, plain voice. So when James Wright said, “I speak in a plain voice, I talk in a flat voice,” I think I recognized that a lot of the poetry even after Second-Wave feminism and New Criticism and even the New Left still was excluding the experiences of people from the working class. So when you’d read a poem by Wright, talking about destroyed landscape and it sounded like your uncle talking, without artifice or ornament, it just made sense. For me, it gave me a way of thinking about poetry in a very different manner. I grew up in a family where Polish was spoken on the weekends [by] my mother and her sister and my grandmother. I was hearing a second language and the rest of the time speaking and hearing Western Pennsylvanian and I was coming out of a late adolescence, and I didn’t think any of it was poetic language. I couldn’t get it. And I couldn’t even really read James Wright when I was entering graduate school. That Ohioan voice, I couldn’t even read it, it was like reading a foreign language. So when I read plainspoken, elegantly direct poetry in translation, it gave me a kind of mirror, a way of thinking, “Yeah, that’s what poetry can sound like.”

FR: Why couldn’t you read it?

JV: It sounded like me and I felt suffocated. Why do people leave home? They leave home to have a take on where they’ve been and to hear new voices and sounds.  There was something about that. My second book, The Door Open to the Fire, is about that. It’s my first long love poem to Pittsburgh. It’s filled with affection and admiration and joy, but also with anger and it’s a dismissal of the local. It’s been part of the culture here for a long time that if it’s here, it can’t be good. If it’s made here, it must be absent from the real culture, the real land of artistic experiment. So, that’s what I grew up with and I had to fight that.

FR: Do you think people everywhere go through that, except they just don’t recognize it at the time?

JV: I think they might. When I’ve gone to writers’ colonies, people have said things like, “Oh, Pittsburgh, do people still hunt there?” or “Pittsburgh, oh yeah, I’ve heard it’s beautiful now.” So they’re curious, but it’s also very much the land that time forgot, even though Obama has certainly elevated Pittsburgh’s national profile and it is one of the five greenest cities in the United States. The area where I live, the Nine Mile Run watershed, is the largest urban park-water reclamation project in the country. So yeah, you have this reality lens on something very particular, and very valuable, but you might ignore it if you live here.

FR: That reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, who said he couldn’t write about Michigan until he left it.  Do we have to go out into the world and compare it to what we’ve got, then come back home?  Your poetry in (and after) Level Green feels like you’re very much in love with Pittsburgh.

JV: Oh yeah, it’s definitely my love story, complete with the challenge of how does my voice—our voice—sound to me?  I walked the bridge to this is where I live, is who I am. When I first read [Hemingway’s] Nick Adams stories, I really looked at the way he put that book together. The Michigan landscape itself was amazing and experimental in the best sense and a wonderful illustration of what you’re talking about. Work two lenses. Go away, and look at where you were, and if you live where you are, then you have to do something like write slant, or by evasion, without abandoning your intimacy.  Your writing takes you on the road, and you travel and you read, and you have to get out of town as much as possible when you can.  But I’m thinking, as we’re talking, about [Cesare] Pavese. I’m reading his political prisoner book right now, but he longed for that home place. He was a publisher and translator, an urban poet, and a novelist. He was, if you think about it now, something like an Italian Maxwell Perkins but with a more unusual personality. A great editor, friend to writers while writing himself, and he had a very erudite and cosmopolitan life. But he longed for the village of his boyhood and it’s really the stage for his political novels.  I think a lot of writers have that physical bond to home, to first place.

FR: Someone once called your writing “an exploration of the changing and unsettled identity of the city.”  Is it fair to say that Pittsburgh is the container and structure for the multitude of lives and passions you write about, and not the main character in your poems, or is it explicitly the protagonist, with all other individuals and themes working to illuminate something about the city?

JV: Pittsburgh is the living geology, the formal architecture, the staging body, and the organic shape that informs many of my poems.  It has infused the way I’ve written about Rome, a city I love like a second home.  If you walk a lot in Pittsburgh, you see architecture from every major nineteenth and twentieth-century style, so compressed and so dramatic and so beautiful and hideous that you can’t take it all in: and we’ve lost a portion of it forever.  The first time I visited Milan and walked through the great arcade, I thought: Jenkins Arcade, Stanwix Street, where I’d shopped with my mother and aunts.  And Pittsburgh, like so many other cities, is built of layers—from indigenous cultures through the still-excavated layers of nineteenth-century industry.  It is also dramatically cantilevered, so we have the gift and talent for walking and living with dizziness; fractured, cubistic vision; and both short and long-distance vistas.  Too many firsts and mosts to list here: atom splitting, coffee consumption, bridges, tributaries, conspiracy theories, ghosts, ancient rock and island shelters.  It’s a hyperreal and surreal place and contains scores of versions about The Past, about Destruction, about U.S. Economic Policies, RENEWAL and SURVIVAL, all of it.  To not write about or from or because of it has struck me as crazy.  Writers who fear being pegged as local or small are missing the reality of Pittsburgh.  Need I mention August Wilson?

FR: There’s a line from your poem “Extended Family Genealogy” that speaks to the “uselessness of fixed identity.” Do writers create for themselves a fixed identity over time? How is that dangerous or beneficial?

JV: I think fixed identity changes and deconstructs over time, as the idea of ego or self changes because of community.  Something like: negative capability allows a writer to not merely assume another voice, but to step inside another’s situation or perceptions, and start to let go of one and only one version of herself.

FR: You’ve said you like to listen to loud music while doing line edits—what do you listen to?

JV: I don’t listen to much past 1998 or so.  Seattle grunge bands, old metal, Neil Young, Chrissie Hynde.  You know, old stuff. There’s the radio station here, WYEP—I listen to Mike Sauter’s show and I listen to Rosemary Welsch. They play new rock as well as music for people who just weren’t through with Pearl Jam. [Laughs] Rosemary plays music by new British bands; Mike, I understand, is an accomplished archivist, and you will always hear something you wouldn’t otherwise hear.

FR: You mentioned that after college you were trying to write poems between deadlines for your newspaper job. How did those two styles work for you?

JV: [Laughs] Ohh…total clash. Even now, if I’m writing a narrative poem, I still fight over-narration or visually over-paragraphing something and over-scrutinizing what I think must be said. But the newspaper business…it taught me so much about discipline and time and that it is possible to do a lot of work in a short period of time.

FR: Journalism taught me that sort of discipline, too, but also showed me just how long I could procrastinate and still get it done.

JV: Right. That’s the magic. That’s the adrenaline of the deadline. I totally believe that. I remember editors hounding me for burying the lede in the fourth paragraph. “What are you really trying to say here? What is the lede? Why doesn’t the lede have more information?” It was very good concentration. And that’s how I got interested in cities and architecture and urban history. In the newspaper business. I worked nights and I got to go out and cover tough stories and talk to people up against enormous personal tragedy who knew sections of the old city and stories those places held.

FR: So it was newspapers that got you into architecture? You’d also mentioned your father’s blueprints earlier?

JV: It was both.  When I was a kid, my dad always had designs and mechanical drawings in the house and he was always building something in the garage, so he was doing these two kinds of “art.” He was drawing very elaborate designs for safety tools and hydraulic systems—that was his area of specialization—and he would build go-carts for kids, or he would build fancy tea carts for my mother. He was a welder and made very practical things as well as things he made for work. What happened in the newspaper business is I think I learned a physical and academic context for looking at cities and I began figuring out why and how I loved cities so much, through reading Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford. Especially Jane Jacobs. When I read what she had to say about Pittsburgh, [it] was interesting and compelling, and Mumford too, and I followed my interest in architecture. My parents would take us to New York once a year, and we would enter into that big body of density and drama.  Then, coming back to tiny Pittsburgh taught me a lot about working with scale and wanting to read more about it.

FR: Is Pittsburgh is a very literary city? As someone who completed a writing program in Pittsburgh, I sometimes wonder if my view is skewed.

JV: Oh yeah. It’s crawling with writers going on a fully-fledged second generation and beyond. The university and community scenes both thrive, across the genres. Lots of writers have spoken or written about it, but we’re very lucky, productive, vital, inside contemporary American letters. It’s also true that we’re still learning from—and about—the generations that came before, writers who left Pittsburgh, so there was a big gap between, say, the 40s and 50s, maybe later, and what the scene is now.

So you have writers like Gerald Stern, earlier, Willa Cather, earlier still Gertrude Stein, and then you have some of the poets and writers of Pittsburgh’s first black arts movement: Albert French,  Rob Penny, Ed Roberson, Maisha Baton, and of course, August Wilson.

FR: So how does place influence who we are and what we know?

JV: One of my grad school friends said that if you had either place or voice in a poem, you could do anything.  I think that’s pretty close to a truth I can believe in.  Pittsburgh as a highly compressed, densely layered model of place—it represents essential truths and heartbreaks most people in the United States are becoming more familiar with every day.  Water supply and safety.  War wounded.  Job hunting. Up-cycling. You name it.

FR: As an editor of 5 AM, you’ve made a point to make sure women poets get recognition. What do you think of the 2010 VIDA poll of women writers/publications?

JV: I’m happy about the VIDA poll.  It’s about time.  I told someone involved in the project that at AWP Philadelphia about eighteen years ago, I was on a panel with Alicia Ostriker and Maggie Anderson and we discussed counting and how absent women were from the journals and we were heckled by somebody who said something like, “Hey, aren’t we all writers here?”  Like, what’s with gender, anyway?  I count with disappointment all the time and I count reviews and reviewers and essayists who never mention women writers.  I count female poets and writers who never name a female influence or peer.  I’m acutely aware of how many women writers I know who work three jobs, so counting, for them, or speaking to this issue, for them, takes even more time away from what they should be doing: writing.  With 5 AM, yes, we’re proud of the fact that gender equality is and always has been a priority.  We stay vigilant, even while submissions from men outnumber submissions from women nearly two to one.

FR: What can help writers get into some kind of publication?  What do they need to be thinking about before they get published?

JV: I do this talk called “After the MFA,” and in it, I give people three categories of journals: journals that are friendly to new writers, journals that are a little tougher to crack, and then journals that are extremely difficult to crack.  I’ve fine-tuned the list many times, but what’s common to each list is you want to send your best work out to journals that you most admire. I think it’s relatively easy to publish, poetry especially, in places that are so-so. Especially online. But why would you want to do that? Writers should aim high, send out clusters of their best poems, or essays, and see what happens. If you’re writing well and you’re keeping your work out there, you will have a return. The editors among us who do this for love are excited, as excited as the writer probably, when new, good work comes in the mail. It’s very hard to make a good piece of writing. My friend and colleague Michael Waters said, “You’re only going to have so many poems in your lifetime, or so many essays in your lifetime, so you should send to the best places possible.” I want to read and write poems I can return to with pleasure, knowing and feeling the mystery, the atmosphere, and the voice(s) that inspire me to see the world a little more clearly.


Marcella Prokop graduated from Chatham University’s MFA Program in 2011.  She lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Photo from the New England College MFA Program in Poetry.  Vollmer’s bio was adapted from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg faculty page.

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