David Wevill

Canadian poet and translator, Wevill first made a name for himself as a poet when he was included in A. Alvarez's anthology The New Poetry (Penguin, 1962). In 1963 Wevill was showcased in A Group Anthology (Oxford University Press). Wevill's published works include, but not limited to: Penguin Modern Poets 4 (Penguin, 1963); Birth of a Shark (Macmillan, 1964); A Christ of the Ice-Floes (Macmillan, 1966); Firebreak (Macmillan, 1971); Where the Arrow Falls (St. Martin's, 1974); Casual Ties (Curbstone, 1983); Other Names for the Heart (Exile Editions Ltd., 1985); Figure of 8 (Shearsman, 1988); Child Eating Snow (Exile Editions Ltd., 1994); Solo With Grazing Deer (Exile Editions Ltd., 2001); Departures (Shearsman, 2003); Asterisks (Exile Editions Ltd., 2007); and To Build My Shadow a Fire (Truman State University Press, 2010).

Wevill is also the former editor of Delos, a literary journal centered on poetry in translation and the poetics of translation. He is a professor emeritus in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin where he taught for 37 years. He has four children and six grandchildren.

Tryst Interviews David Wevill

David, I’d like to thank you for your time and forbearance in indulging me my lifelong wish to feature your work, as well as, granting me this interview. Since we’ll be doing a series of features spread out over several issues, I’m anticipating there’ll be a few stumbles with the questions, all of which would fall upon my shoulders and would be no fault of yours.

However, if we can get an idea of the person behind a lifetime of writing, teaching, and translating poetry, I think I/we couldn’t ask for more—“we” being the proverbial audience. So would you mind if we start with a little background information on you?

You are a dual United States/Canadian citizen who was born in Japan. What part of Japan and how did you and your family end up in Japan? What were those experiences like for you? I’m thinking, at times, you must have felt out of place, lonely, exiled?

David: I was born in Yokohama. My family, on both sides, had been in Japan for two generations. My mother's father was a missionary and professor and went there in about 1900. My father's father was in business, shipping. He was killed in the 1923 earthquake. My mother and her siblings were born in Japan, as were my sister and myself. I don't recall being lonely, exiled: we had friends both Japanese and European, and I went to school there. We left for Canada about a year before the outbreak of war. I have clear memories of my childhood there, others more impressionistic.

Mia: I'm assuming you're still fluent in Japanese? How many languages do you speak, write or read?

David: I was never fluent in Japanese, though I spoke it as a child, and studied it for a year in London. I'm a poor linguist! I can manage in Spanish, somewhat in French, which I knew as a teenager but let go.

Mia: At some point you must have moved back to Canada, your poems allude to that time spent in Canada. And then as an adult, you went back for your mother’s funeral: The poem, “Winter Homecoming,” I couldn’t bear to include in your feature because it was so painful, these lines especially:

And I am coming to you this last time
Before the spreading sun has touched your eyes,
Passed, and left no dawn where your eyes were.

What province in Canada was home to you and your family?

David: We lived in Toronto, Ontario, then moved to Ottawa where I grew up. My father worked for the Government. That was wartime. I went, for a while, to a boarding school near Lake Ontario. After schooling I went to Cambridge University in England, and settled in London for a number of years (with two years spent in Burma teaching). In my adult life I've only been a visitor to Canada. As you note, I'm a dual Canadian -American citizen, and have now lived in Texas longer than anywhere else.

Mia: What were the early years like for you in Canada? I think you must have been influenced by the Canadian terrain; weather, pine cones, trees, colors, sights. ..shape much of your nature poems. There’s almost something feral about your earlier writing. And even in your more recent work, which we’ll discuss later.

David: We lived in the city, Ottawa, and spent summers at a cottage on the Ottawa River, just across the Quebec border. So there was both city and nature. I loved the outdoors, things to do with woods and water, and the Canadian seasons were very distinct -- winters full and deep, summers languid, autumns full of color, and bursting springs. I think the landscape has stayed with me quite deeply; many writers have noted that their childhood landscapes remain most deeply whatever changes their lives bring. Yes, the details are there. In Texas I do miss those full seasons, though the winters could be fierce.

Mia: Did your mother also write poetry? Was she the person who inspired you to take up poetry?

David: My mother didn't write, nor did anyone else in my family, though they were literate and encouraged our reading. I've always liked books, read a great deal, and my mother read us stories all the time, and my father invented animal stories for bedtime telling. I liked to draw and paint, and was good at it -- I wish I'd kept that up. I was a bookish child, when I was not outdoors. We had all the old nursery rhymes, and made up plays. In those days we entertained ourselves more, not having today's complicated equipment, TV, electronic games and the rest.

Mia: I believe you were 21 when you first met Assia on a trip back from Canada to Cambridge where you were studying English Literature. That meant that you had to have at some point moved to England, or were you on a Student Visa studying abroad? What made you decide to go to the UK to study? And what was Assia like?

David: Yes, Assia and I met on a transatlantic ship crossing from Montreal to Liverpool in September 1956. We fell in love. I was returning to Cambridge for my final year (studying literature, history and, informally, philosophy). I graduated in 1957 and went to work in London. A year later I went out to teach in Burma, and Assia followed the next year. We were married there, and were together for several years. It all ended tragically is well known. My life has been rich and fortunate otherwise, thanks to those close to me. I worked in advertising most of my years in London, and came to Texas in the late fall of 1968. I've lived here ever since.

As for Assia, no satisfactory account of her and those London years has been told, or I believe will ever be told, as no one is competent to do it, myself included. And there is too much contention, conflict of information, impression and emotion for a fair picture to emerge. I've tried, and failed. She remains as a shadow that moves through much of the poetry, inextricably part of the bloodstream.

Mia: Some time along the way, you joined the Group in London; if I don’t say so myself, that’s a pretty generic name for a group of seriously-talented writers. One of the writers you met was Zulfikar Ghose, who has become your lifelong friend. How did that friendship materialize? Who and what writers in that group did you admire the most? Did they influence your writing in any way and vice-versa?

David: The Group was, as a loose federation of young poets all very different, who met Friday nights in London. I'd first attended in 1958 (with Assia) then again after returning from Burma in 1960, by which time Zulf Ghose was part of it. We knew each other, though not that well, in London for several years. Fate brought us both to Texas and the English Department, and we became good friends over these Texas years. At some point I stopped attending the meetings, but kept up with some of the poets. I felt an affinity with Peter Redgrove's work, and respected the work of all the others. We had no program, only a wish to write good poems, remain individuals, and learn what we could from others' criticism. Most of us published our first books over those years.

Mia: A review in Olives of Oblivion, [ http://www.olivesofoblivion.com/2008/06/3-books-by-david-wevill.html ] your work was first showcased in A. Alvarez's anthology The New Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1962). I don’t have that book, but I’ll take their word for it that:

Alvarez's inflammatory, truculent, finger-pointing introduction to The New Poetry made the book both an instant controversy and an instant success; Alvarez railed against the gentility, decency, politeness, and bourgeois conservatism he found at play in the canon-accepted English poets of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

So here you are part of the New Poetry, it must have been heady times for you. Some poets live their whole lives waiting for a big break, and you get your first break in your twenties! Correct me if I am wrong, but I sense that you were more reluctant to be in the spotlight?

David: Alvarez' anthology had quite an effect! "Beyond the gentility principle" was the thought. Also, at the time, Penguin were starting their Modern British Poets series (3 poets per volume) and mine was #4. There was a lot of attention paid to poetry in London in those years, and a number of interested publishers. So if you were any good your chances of being published, and taken seriously, were good. Much of that's changed now. I was lucky too. And you're right -- I was a bit shy for the spotlight, and was not a star.

Mia: You moved or lived in Burma at some point. You were a teacher. How did that position come about? Was it exciting for you? I mean, traveling to foreign lands might not hold the same exotic intoxication as it does for many people, like me, since you were born in Japan, had already lived in so many places, still what was it like for you?

David: I'd wanted to go to the Far East for some time (cf Japan), and heard of a teaching position at a small college in Upper Burma, in Mandalay, the former capital. It was an interesting and rigorous place to be, with the military ever-present and more or less in charge. I taught English language and literature there for two years, Assia came out in the second year. I travelled, mostly north east in the Shan states, towards China. The students were interesting, and interested, though, Burma being what it was and is, their chances of further education and good lives were slim. It's tragic what has happened since.

Mia: You started teaching early on, was poetry one of the first classes that you taught?

David: Yes I taught poetry, and novels, and we did plays. They liked Eliot's Waste Land because they recognized the climatic and geographical aspects, and the spiritual overtones! I'd never intended to be a teacher, then or later, but fate brought that about.


Mia: Out of curiosity, was your poem, "Desperados," inspired by an actual photograph? If so which photograph might that be and by whom?

David: Desperados was based on a photo I found in an old (1913) copy of the Spanish magazine Mundo Grafico. It showed a father and daughter lyind dead on the road between Ceuta and Tetuan in Spanish Morocco, they'd been shot by bandits or Rif tribesmen.

Mia: David, we’re nearing the conclusion of this interview so I’d like to ask you something more pertinent to your writing. There are sensory perceptions that absorb my understanding of your poetry which I cannot explain in words; and sometimes, I don’t think at all for to do so would lose whatever grasp I have of the poem's movement, tone, mood, authority. Sometimes your poetry is like music without lyrics. Sometimes it’s more than imagery, it’s the way the words come together and build a myth. I feel inadequate at times to describe what your poetry does.

Do you feel that your writing has a metaphysical or mystical quality to it, or neither? How can you describe what makes your poetry yours?

David: I'm not sure what drives the poetry. It helps to have a good ear. And I've always been drawn to imagistic poetry, and have a strong affinity for art. I don't know where the images come from, some are near at hand, others from deep in the unconscious. Memories, often, carry clear pictures. (Surrealism I think is not so much a program or an approach as a simple fact of life).

Oddly, the poets who have most affected me, apart from the great classic poets, are from other cultures: Lorca, Machado, the Japanese haiku poets, classsical Chinese (Li Po, Tu Fu etc); Europeans such as Transtromer and Herbert; the Russians, especially Pasternak and Akhmatova...in other words outside the English language. Why, I don't know; but I believe there can be strong affinities with poems that lie outside one's linguistic range and are therefore read in translation, more so even than within one's own linguistic culture. Which means that, aside from those affinites and kinships, a barrier of mystery and even ignorance remains. I do , though, like and admire many English language poets, more than I've space to list here. Mysticism? Perhaps, though only as it engages the lines where physical and spiritual/mental cross. I'll leave it there, as I could go on all night!


(*To be continued in future issues. Links to features will be provided here as the issues become available.)


Copyright © 2010 David Wevill and Tryst3.com