University of Texas at Austin

Monday, November 8, 2010

To Build My Shadow A Fire

David Wevill

David Wevill

On November 10, our community will get a rare chance to hear the work of one of our most beloved yet enigmatic poets.  David Wevill has spent the last 40 years in Austin as a teacher, translator and editor.  He retired in 2007 from the University, where he was the heart and soul of the poetry programs of the Department of English and, later, the Michener Center for Writers.

Over the decades, Wevill has mentored scores of students who have gone on win some of the country’s most visible awards for young poets: Lilly Fellowships, the National Poetry Series, Stegner Fellowships, and the like.  Famously soft-spoken and self-effacing, though, he has not been one to call attention to his own distinguished career, which includes seminal works of translation and more than a dozen volumes of poetry.

Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1935 to Canadian parents, Wevill graduated from Cambridge University in England in 1957 and over the next decade was part of a groundbreaking collective of young poets in London known as The Group.  His first two books established him as an important new voice, already weaving together his distinctive mix of dark introspection and image-rich attention to the natural world. Wevill moved to Texas in 1970 to pursue his interest in translation — and stayed to join the University of Texas faculty — but British and Canadian presses continued to bring out the lion’s share of his published work, and he has become known as one of the best-kept secrets of our national literary landscape.

Michael McGriff

Michael McGriff

One former student of his, Michael McGriff, decided to remedy that situation. Through McGriff’s efforts as editor and with Wevill’s collaboration, a new edition of

Wevill’s selected works came out from Truman State University Press last spring, “To Build My Shadow a Fire.” “This is a wonderful book — a rare harvest of a lifetime’s truth-telling,” poet Eavan Boland says of the book.

A 2006 MFA graduate of the Michener Center, editor McGriff has already chalked up one remarkable accolade after another — the Lilly, a Stegner, a prize-winning debut “Dismantling the Hills,” a second collection forthcoming from the esteemed Copper Canyon Press, a book of translations, and now his own small press — Tavern Books — made possible in part by a generous 2010 Lannan Foundation Fellowship.

The Michener Center for Writers and Department of English will host a reading by Wevill and McGriff on Wednesday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ransom Center’s Prothro Theatre.   They’ll also discuss the process of collaborating on the book, about which we recently spoke with both of them:

WevillCollHow did this project come into being and what was the process like?

MM: The roots of it are pretty simple:  I wanted — and wanted to share with others — a sort of “essential” Wevill anthology, and I asked David if he’d be willing to let me take it on. Once he agreed, I began selecting the representative work, including his books of translations and prose poems.  We agreed on a table of contents pretty quickly . . . after a few vetoes on David’s part.  Then I set out to transcribe the 300-odd page manuscript.  It became clear that this volume would be suggestive and not comprehensive, because so much had to be left out.

David, how did it feel to have your former student as your editor?

DW: I have a profound respect for Mike’s talent and intelligence.  I was grateful that he’d take the time to do this.  There was no resistance on my part, but a friendly caution that the effort might prove hard.

Mike, what was your chief motivation?

MM: Most poetry goes out of print as quickly as it’s published.  If you’re not an avid book collector, you’re going to miss out on some of the greatest books of poetry ever written.  I felt an ethical call to arms, and decided to make the book that I wanted to read.

The work collected in the volume wasn’t previously published — or therefore widely available — in the United States?

DW: The work came from British and Canadian collections, so there was no U.S. collection until this.  And now Mike has, with his fellow poet Carl Adamshick, started a new small press, Tavern Books.  They’re reissuing an earlier book of mine, “Casual Ties.”

MM: The spirit of Tavern Books and the spirit of editing “Shadow” are one in the same.  I feel a responsibility to the books that I love, to do my part to get them into the hands of other readers. When I was editing”Shadow,” I was yearning to include the entire text of “Casual Ties,” a book of linked prose poems. It’s utterly brilliant, experimental, and shape-shifting — I’ve never read another book like it.  So, “Casual Ties” became the obvious choice for Tavern’s first full-length book. Our forthcoming books include works by Charles Simic, Yannis Ritsos, Leonardo Sinisgalli and Gwyneth Lewis.

What did you each learn about the other in the process?  What surprised you?

DW: I learnt what I already recognized:  Mike’s extraordinary diligence, judgment, imagination and practical ability.  It’s the degree to which he took this that is surprising. I’ve dedicated to the book to Mike, and to Britta his wife, as a small gesture of astonishment.

MM: What surprised me most is just how incredible David’s career as a poet has been so far. I had read all of his books before taking on the project, but I’d never read them one after the other in chronological order. The more I read, then more I kept thinking to myself, “it’s a crime that there’s no selected edition of David’s poetry and translations here in the U.S.” We have such an artistic short-attention span.  It’s amazing what people don’t read, and what publishers let fall out of print.

David, do you miss teaching?  Has being away from the classroom altered your approach to your own writing or changed your routine since retirement?

DW: I do miss the imaginative interactions of teaching, and have been a slow writer these last couple of years, not because I’m not teaching but from self-questioning, weighing the value of what I write. That’s perhaps nothing new, but more so.

Mike, how can you best sum up your relationship with David, as his student and his editor, and now publisher?

MM: David’s treated me not as a student, but as a fellow traveler.  We had a sort of ongoing three-year chat about poetry in translation, films, books, you name it.  Despite our age difference, I consider David to be a kind of brother, another guy making his way along all the tortuous pathways poetry has to offer.

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