Un-American Activities

Robert Wrigley’s new book tries to understand where we find ourselves now.

Un-American Activities
Robert Wrigley: "Frankly, the only adjective I like to see applied to 'poet' when the word refers to me is 'living.'"

Maybe “poetry reading” isn’t topping your list of Wednesday night to-dos. But then, maybe you’ve never heard Robert Wrigley read a poem.

Wrigley — a University of Idaho poetry professor whose resume includes eight books, six Pushcarts, and Best American Poetry — writes from Moscow Mountain, where he lives with his wife, writer Kim Barnes. And if we did as the ancient Greeks did and gave power to the best orators, he would probably own that mountain, and many others, though he would probably never leave the West.

On Wednesday, Wrigley reads from his latest collection, Beautiful Country, at Auntie’s Bookstore. First, he took time to talk with The Inlander.

INLANDER: Some call Beautiful Country your best work to date. What’s changed for you over time that readers might see in this collection?
WRIGHT: The longer you write, the more you can take on subjects you might not have been able — or willing — to take on in the past.

While Kim and I were in Italy as guests of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2007, there were extraordinary people from every continent, and what they asked of us, as citizens of the USA, was, more or less, “What has happened to America? How has it gone so utterly insane?” You know — war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, lies, torture of enemy combatants. Appalling and entirely un-American behaviors, the way I think of it.

We had no answers for those folks, but there was a way in which I felt immediately challenged to find a way, in poems, to portray the nation I know and love. That was where my first notions of what Beautiful Country might be, and that’s what the book attempts to accomplish: to create a portrait of the country as I see it.

Talk about being a “Western poet,” if you subscribe to that designation.
Frankly, the only adjective I like to see applied to “poet” when the word refers to me is “living.” That said, the literary world is so wretchedly parochial. Can you imagine a year in which every one of the poets nominated for the National Book Award were from, say, the Pacific — or even more scandalously — the Mountain time zone? The howls would be deafening. On the other hand, Westerners are hilariously smug: We simply cannot imagine why everyone wouldn’t want to live out here among the mountains and wilderness.

Some Inlander readers may be new to poetry. Anything they should know before your reading?
I’ve always believed my poems were written to be read aloud. Poets maintain a kind of relationship to the rhythms and sounds of language that other writers do not usually want or need to. It’s part of the job description. A poet’s primary task is to keep language capable of truth in the midst of mendacity — these days, that seems particularly important.

Robert Wrigley reads from Beautiful Country • Wed, Dec. 8, 7 pm • Free • Auntie’s Bookstore • 402 West Main. • 838-0206