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Diane Wakoski

Poet Details

b. 1937
Robert Turney

Poet and essayist Diane Wakoski was born in Whittier, California. She earned her BA from the University of California-Berkeley, where she studied with poets such as Thom Gunn and Josephine Miles. After finishing her BA Wakoski moved to New York City, where Hawk’s Well Press, the press founded by Jerome and Diane Rothenberg and David Antin, published her first poetry collection, Coins and Coffins (1962). Rothenberg described Wakoski in the early 1960s: “Newly arrived in New York Wakoski was the first poet from the outside to truly join us, bringing with her an extraordinarily developed sense & practice of a poetry of the everyday that, in Robert Duncan’s words, ‘might be fantastic life.’ It was in this way, as I later wrote of her, that her work, while striking a note of the autobiographical—even to some ears (but not hers) the ‘confessional’—asserts the truth of an imaginal life that moves (at several of its remarkable [cosmological] peaks) toward what Keats spoke of as soul-making or world-making & Wallace Stevens as a ‘supreme fiction.’”

Wakoski is the author of over 60 published collections of poetry and prose. Her poems focus on intensely personal experiences while at the same time inventing and incorporating personae from mythology and archetype; they often rely on digressions, on tangential wanderings through imagery and fantasy, to present ideas and themes. On her blog Wakoski has written of her “lifetime meander to find a new measure through word patterning, through repetition, including chant and incantation, and through creating personal mythologies that function using trope that leads to revelation.” And in her work “The Blue Swan: An Essay on Music in Poetry” Wakoski summed up the process of poetry writing: “first comes the story. Then comes the reaction to the story. Then comes the telling and retelling of the story. And finally . . . comes boredom with the story, so that finally we invent music, and the nature of music is that you must hear all the digressions.”

Wakoski’s poetry is sometimes described as “conversational” or “talky” but while the poems appear to be informal and casually built, they are in fact tightly structured. As Hayden Carruth suggested in the Hudson Review, "Wakoski has a way of beginning her poems with the most unpromising materials imaginable, then carrying them on, often on and on and on, talkily, until at the end they come into surprising focus, unified works. With her it is a question of thematic and imagistic control; I think her poems are deeply, rather than verbally, structured." In Contemporary Literature, Marjorie Perloff spoke of Wakoski’s purpose in writing nontraditionally structured poems, saying that Wakoski "strives for a voice that is wholly natural, spontaneous, and direct. Accordingly, she avoids all fixed forms, definite rhythms, or organized image patterns in the drive to tell us the Whole Truth about herself, to be sincere."

In early collections such as The George Washington Poems (1967), The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (1971), Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch (1973), and Waiting for the King of Spain (1976), Wakoski recreates a “mythic self” through archetypal figures including George Washington, the king of Spain, the motorcycle mechanic, the “man in Receiving at Sears,” Beethoven, the “man with the gold tooth,” and the “man who shook hands.” These characters, most of whom appear more than once in Wakoski’s canon, serve as symbols, emblematic of emotional states, past experiences, fantasies, and, sometimes, of real people in the poet’s life. In The George Washington Poems Wakoski speaks to George Washington with various voices—as Martha Washington, as a bitter child whose father has left home, as a lover left behind in the Revolutionary War. Norman Martien explained in Partisan Review that “the George Washington myths serve to express the failure of a woman’s relations to her men, but the myths also give her a means of talking about it. Partly because ‘George’ is so distant, he can be a safe listener. . . . [and] he can allow her a voice that can reaffirm human connection, impossible at closer ranges.” This theme of the failure of relationships, of betrayal by others (especially men), is a central concern of Wakoski’s, and many of her mythological figures embody one or more of the facets of human relations in which she sees the possibility of betrayal or loss.

Her many collections of poetry include series stretching across multiple books, such as “The Archeology of Books and Movies,” whose titles include Medea the Sorceress (1991), Jason the Sailor (1993), The Emerald City of Las Vegas (1995), and Argonaut Rose (1998). The series investigated the mythology of modern America through movies and popular culture, personal history, geography, and a series of textual allusions including to Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz

The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 (1984) and Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 (1988) bring together examples of Wakoski’s writing over a twenty-five-year period. The Collected Greed is an assemblage of poetry from previous installments of Greed published between 1968 and 1973, with the addition of two previously unpublished parts. Emerald Ice received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Wakoski’s collections of essays include Form Is an Extension of Content (1972), Creating a Personal Mythology (1975), Variations on a Theme (1976), and Toward a New Poetry (1979). For much of her career she published with famed underground press Black Sparrow Press; however, her most recent collections of poetry have been published by Anhinga Press. These include The Diamond Dog (2010) and Bay of Angels (2014). In 2017 the filmmaker Jesseca Ynez Simmons released a “docufantasy”, an imagistic and imaginative narrative using Wakoski’s poetry and voice.

Wakoski’s honors include a Fulbright fellowship, a Michigan Arts Foundation award, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Michigan Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts. She taught for many years at Michigan State University.

Discussing her poetry and American poetry for the Poetry Society of America, Wakoski asserted, “American poetry is always about defining oneself individually, claiming one's right to be different and often to break taboos. Distinctly American poetry is usually written in the context of one's geographic landscape, sometimes out of one's cultural myths, and often with reference to gender and race or ethnic origins. American poets celebrate their bodies, very specifically, as Whitman did. America may be a melting pot, but most American poets think of themselves as separate, different, and while very specially identified with some place in America or some set of cultural traditions, it is usually about the ways in which they discovered their differences from others and proudly celebrate them.”

 

Bibliography

POETRY

  • Coins and Coffins (also see below), Hawk’s Well Press (New York, NY), 1962.
  • (With Rochelle Owens, Barbara Moraff, and Carol Berge) Four Young Lady Poets, edited by LeRoi Jones, Totem-Corinth (New York, NY), 1962.
  • Dream Sheet, Software Press (New York, NY), 1965.
  • Discrepancies and Apparitions (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1966.
  • The George Washington Poems (also see below), Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1967.
  • The Diamond Merchant, Sans Souci Press (Cambridge, MA), 1968.
  • Inside the Blood Factory, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1968.
  • (With Robert Kelly and Ron Loewinsohn) The Well Wherein a Deer’s Head Bleeds: A Play for Winter Solstice, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1968.
  • Greed, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), Parts 1 and 2, 1968, Parts 3 and 4, 1969, Parts 5, 6, 7, 1971, Parts 8, 9, 11, 1973.
  • The Lament of the Lady Bank Dick, Sans Souci Press (Cambridge, MA), 1969.
  • The Moon Has a Complicated Geography, Odda Tala Press (Palo Alto, CA), 1969.
  • Poems, Key Printing Co., 1969.
  • Some Black Poems for the Buddha’s Birthday, Pierripont Press, 1969.
  • Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1969.
  • Love, You Big Fat Snail, Tenth Muse (San Francisco, CA), 1970.
  • Black Dream Ditty for Billy "the Kid" M Seen in Dr. Generosity’s Bar Recruiting for Hell’s Angels and Black Mafia, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1970.
  • The Wise Men Drawn to Kneel in Wonder at the Fact So of Itself, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1970.
  • The Magellanic Clouds, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1970.
  • On Barbara’s Shore, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1971.
  • (Contributor) The Nest, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1971.
  • The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1971.
  • This Water Baby: For Tony, Unicorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1971.
  • Exorcism, My Dukes (Boston, MA), 1971.
  • The Purple Finch Song, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1972.
  • Sometimes a Poet Will Hijack the Moon, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1972.
  • Smudging, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1972.
  • The Pumpkin Pie: or, Reassurances Are Always False, Tho We Love Them, Only Physics Counts, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1972.
  • Winter Sequences, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1973.
  • Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1973.
  • Stilllife: Michael, Silver Flute, and Violets, University of Connecticut Library (Storrs, CT), 1973.
  • The Owl and the Snake: A Fable, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1973.
  • (Contributor) Karl Malkoff, editor, Crowell’s Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry, Crowell (New York, NY), 1973.
  • The Wandering Tatler, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1974.
  • Trilogy (includes Coins and Coffins, Discrepancies and Apparitions, and The George Washington Poems), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1974.
  • Looking for the King of Spain (also see below), Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1974.
  • Abalone, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1974.
  • Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1975.
  • The Fable of the Lion and the Scorpion, Pentagram Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1975.
  • The Laguna Contract of Diane Wakoski, Crepuscular Press (Madison, WI), 1976.
  • George Washington’s Camp Cups, Red Ozier Press (Madison, WI), 1976.
  • Waiting for the King of Spain, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1976.
  • The Last Poem, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1976.
  • The Ring, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1977.
  • Spending Christmas with the Man from Receiving at Sears, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1977.
  • Overnight Projects with Wood, Red Ozier Press (Madison, WI), 1977.
  • Pachelbel’s Canon (also see below), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA) 1978.
  • The Man Who Shook Hands, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1978.
  • Trophies, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1979.
  • Cap of Darkness (includes Looking for the King of Spain and Pachelbel’s Canon), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1980.
  • (With Ellen Lanyon) Making a Sacher Torte: Nine Poems, Twelve Illustrations, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1981.
  • Saturn’s Rings, Targ Editions, (New York, NY), 1982.
  • Divers, Barbarian Press, 1982.
  • The Lady Who Drove Me to the Airport, Metacom Press (Worcester, MA), 1982.
  • The Magician’s Feastletters, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1982.
  • The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1984.
  • The Managed World, Red Ozier Press (New York, NY), 1985.
  • Why My Mother Likes Liberace: A Musical Selection, SUN/Gemini Press (Tucson, AZ), 1985.
  • Celebration of the Rose: For Norman on Christmas Day, Caliban Press (Montclair, NJ), 1987.
  • Roses, Caliban Press (Montclair, NJ), 1987.
  • Husks of Wheat, California State University, Northridge Library (Northridge, CA), 1987.
  • Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1988.
  • Medea the Sorceress ("Archaeology of Movies and Books" series), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1991.
  • Jason the Sailor ("Archaeology of Movies and Books" series), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1993.
  • The Emerald City of Las Vegas ( "Archaeology of Movies and Books" series), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1995.
  • Argonaut Rose ("Archaeology of Movies and Books" series), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1998.
  • The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems, Including "Greed: Part 14," Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 2000.
  • The Diamond Dog, Anhinga Press (Tallahassee, FL), 2010.
  • Bay of Angels, Anhinga Press, 2014.

OTHER

  • Form Is an Extension of Content (essay), Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1972.
  • Creating a Personal Mythology (essays), Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1975.
  • Variations on a Theme (essay), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1976.
  • (Author of introduction) Barbara Drake, Love at the Egyptian Theatre, Red Cedar Press (East Lansing, MI), 1978.
  • (Author of introduction) Lynne Savitt, Lust in Twenty-eight Flavors, Second Coming Press (San Francisco, CA), 1979.
  • Toward a New Poetry (essays), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1980.
  • Unveilings, photographs by Lynn Stern, Hudson Hill Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Contributor to "Burning Deck Post Cards: The Third Ten," Burning Deck Press, and to periodicals. American Poetry Review, columnist, 1972-74.

 

 

Further Readings

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 40, 1986.
  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets after World War II, Part 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Lauter, Estella, Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1984.
  • Roberts, Sheila, editor, Still the Frame Holds, Borgo Press (San Francisco, CA), 1993.

PERIODICALS

  • American Book Review, September-October, 1987, Paul Oppenheimer, review of Saturn's Rings.
  • Contemporary Literature, winter, 1975; winter, 1976, "An Interview with Diane Wakoski," pp. 1-19.
  • Far Point, spring/summer, 1970, Philip L. Gerber and Robert J. Gemmett, "A Terrible War: A Conversation with Diane Wakoski," pp. 44-54.
  • Gypsy Scholar, summer, 1979, "A Colloquy with Diane Wakoski," pp. 61-73.
  • Hudson Review, summer, 1974.
  • Kliatt, September, 1993, p. 26, review of Jason the Sailor.
  • Library Journal, June 1, 1982, p. 1100; November 15, 1986, p. 100; December, 1988; February 1, 1991; August, 1993, p. 109; August, 1995, p. 80; March 1, 1998, Graham Christian, review of Argonaut Rose, p. 92; February 15, 2001, Judy Clarence, review of The Butcher's Apron: New and Selected Poems, Including "Greed: Part 14," p. 172.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 18, 1982, p. 11; November 4, 1984, p. 4; October 26, 1986, p. 14.
  • Margins, January, 1976.
  • Mediterranean Review, spring, 1972.
  • Ms., March, 1976, Sheila Weller, reviews of Coins and Coffins and Discrepancies and Apparitions.
  • New York Times Book Review, December 12, 1971; August 13, 1978.
  • Parnassus, fall-winter, 1972; spring-summer, 1973.
  • Partisan Review, winter, 1971, Norman Martien, review of The George Washington Poems.
  • Poetry, June, 1974; August, 1976.
  • Prairie Schooner, spring, 1973.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 31, 1995, p. 74, review of The Emerald City of Las Vegas; February 23, 1998, review of Argonaut Rose, p. 71; December 4, 2000, review of The Butcher's Apron, p. 67.
  • Southwest Review, spring, 1975, Peter D. Zivkovic, review of Inside the Blood Factory.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1972.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1978.
  • Writer's Digest, November, 1991.

ONLINE

  • Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.onlinepoetryclassroom.org/poets/ (July 15, 2003).

Diane Wakoski

Poet Details

b. 1937

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