Topeka native Israel Wasserstein started writing poetry in his early twenties, and has not stopped since. Wasserstein’s intelligent, lyrical work reveals a strong connection to our state’s history, language, and landscape. Like many Kansas authors, the immensity of the sky has had a powerful influence on his writing. Israel says, “I think open landscape, and wide spaces under a sky that seems to go on forever, are always there in my poetry, even poems that don’t have anything directly to do with landscape.” He hopes that readers “can hear the language of everyday speech” in his poetry, which covers topics as diverse as poverty, weather, and zombies.
Wasserstein received his BA in English from Washburn University, and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. He is currently a lecturer in the English department at Washburn, and serves on the Editorial Board for Woodley Press of Topeka. His work has been published in Flint Hills Review, Red Mesa Review, Border, seveneightfive, Senses, Fickle Muses, Inscape, and others. He has also contributed work to the anthologies Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, A Face to Meet the Faces, and Earthships.
His first collection of poetry, This Ecstasy They Call Damnation, was named a 2013 Kansas Notable Book.
Read on to learn more about Israel Wasserstein’s Kansas connections, writing, and future plans in the following original interview. After the interview, read the full text of Wasserstein’s poem “Highway 54: Controlled Burn,” originally published in the anthology Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems.
Miranda Ericsson interviewed Israel Wasserstein via email in October, 2013.
You are a Topeka native. How did growing up in Kansas shape you as an artist and writer?
I haven’t begun to untangle all the ways that Kansas shaped my writing. But I can identify a few of them. I sound like a Kansan, for one thing. I have a distrust for language that is flowery or excessive, for dissembling, for the ornate. I think, and hope, that anyone can hear the language of everyday speech in my poetry.
I also think that my writing is shaped by the Kansas landscape. “I was raised by sky,” I wrote once, thinking of the way I learned to read the signs of the weather as a young boy, of how I feel restrained in places where I can’t see much of the sky. I think open landscape, and wide spaces under a sky that seems to go on forever, are always there in my poetry, even poems that don’t have anything directly to do with landscape.
And I’m shaped by Kansas history. I’m proud of our Free State history, proud of the deep populist roots of the state. But those roots have at times led to violence: John Brown may be the most iconic Kansan, and he embodies a lot of what attracts and concerns me about my state. We also have this ugly history of science denialism and at times we have a deep distrust of differences. Henry James said it was a “complex fate” to be an American, and there isn’t any place more American than Kansas. It’s not a coincidence that Superman was raised here.
When did you start writing poetry? What authors and poets have influenced your work?
I’m sure I made some early, terrible stabs at poetry as a child, but I didn’t seriously start writing poetry until my early twenties. Once I did start, though, I couldn’t stop. Something about the compression, the economy of language, drew me in at once.
I’m terrible at naming influences, because there are so many of them and I have to leave anyone out. Like so many other Kansas poets, William Stafford had a huge influence on me, his language and his generosity of spirit and his politics. I have a love affair with Irish poetry as well: Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and W. B. Yeats in particular. Yeats sounds less like me than any other poet I’ll name, but he taught me a lot about how to shape the personal and political, and about the importance of having a point of view, of having something to say.
I love dramatic monologues, and learned a lot about them from the poet Ai. Jim Daniels and Philip Levine have shaped my aesthetics and my subject matter. I love the powerfully personal and knife-sharp works of Kim Addonizio, the complex simplicity of Billy Collins. Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton, and Pablo Neruda have influenced me a great deal as well.
I could go on. If there’s any one thread that emerges, I think, it’s that poets I love tend to be masters of the language that is (apparently, though often not actually) everyday, and who are capable of taking seriously everyday concerns without reducing poetry to being only the chronicle of daily experience.
Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you draft by hand or on the computer? Do your poems go through many revisions?
Usually I draft on the computer, because I can type faster than I can write, and early in the process I want to get the words down, follow them where they go. Revision will often change much of what I write in that first hurried draft, but I want to be open to what words and images arise early in the process.
Most of my poems go through many revisions, though occasionally one will come to me more or less intact. Poets lie about this, though, even though we don’t mean to: the poem I felt most finished in its first draft, “One Way to Play the Blues,” was still seeing some changes years later.
More than anything, I believe the poem will tell me what it wants to be. What I thought it was in the beginning isn’t important. What is important is creating and revising in a way that’s open to the interior logic of the poem.
How did the MFA program at the University of New Mexico strengthen your writing? What advice would you share with a writer who is considering an MFA?
I’ll put it this way: almost nothing that I wrote before attending UNM survived into my book, and those few poems that did were heavily revised. By contrast, much of the book is made up of poems drafted in graduate school. I cannot imagine my writing would be where it is without what I learned at UNM. (Particular thanks goes to Lisa D. Chávez for this.)
Out of an MFA program one gets, really, three things: time to write, time to read, and time to work closely with other writers. There are other benefits, but what one’s really getting is time to focus on one’s craft. Poetry won’t make one rich, of course. It’s a terrible use of time in a world that values only those things that can be monetized. And an MFA isn’t anywhere close to a guarantee of employment. In the first year after I received my MFA, it actually worked against me getting a job, and I’m in the minority of MFA graduates who gets to teach full-time. So it’s not a choice that makes any sense in economic terms. The only reason to do it is if one wants to write so badly they can’t imagine doing anything else. For those people, it is a space to think carefully about writing, and in that way it is immensely valuable.
You work on the editorial board for Topeka publisher Woodley Press. Has working as an editor changed the way that you write, or given you any insight on submitting your work for publication?
I’m not sure that working as an editor has changed the way that I write, except in that hard-to-define but very valuable way that all close reading does: there’s no better tool for a writer than reading widely.
But there’s definitely one element of being an editor that’s a useful reminder: so much of writing is rejection. I’ve received hundreds of rejections, and it’s useful to be reminded of how agonizing the choices are for editors, how much good writing is out there, and how brutal the process can be. It’s also a reminder that the most successful writers aren’t necessarily the most talented: they’re the most resilient.
This Ecstasy They Call Damnation features four “Highway 54” poems. Tell us a little about the journeys back and forth along Highway 54 that inspired your work.
I drove Highway 54 between Tucumcari, NM and Wichita, KS, many times while I was attending UNM, and have done so a few times since them. For hours and hours, there’s not much on the radio, there’s barely anything in the way of human contact. It was just me, the sky, the wind, and the horizon. That gave me a lot of time to observe, and to think. In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that poems would come from that experience.
Those poems seem to resonate with readers, and I’m thrilled by that. They come from a place of both constant motion and the feeling of being stuck. As my partner told me the first time we made the drive together: “I felt like I was driving in a loop. Every 45 minutes there’s be a silo on the right, and aside from that nothing seemed to change.” And then suddenly you’re in Wichita, or leaving behind the Great Plains for the High Desert.
You have been teaching English classes at Washburn University since 2007. What classes do you enjoy teaching the most? Does teaching fuel your creativity?
I love teaching just about anything, but I’m always happy to get the chance to teach Literature and Film: The Graphic Novel, where we discuss comics and movies based on them, through the lens of literary analysis. I also teach a class called Reading as Writers that focuses on close readings of literature from the perspective of creative writers. It’s a class that I love teaching, and one that sets Washburn’s Creative Writing program apart from those at other schools.
Teaching definitely fuels my creativity, but it requires careful balance to be both a teacher and a writer. There are always lots of demands on a teacher’s time, and while I think my writing benefits from the interactions with students and colleagues, I also need to make time to work on my own writing. When I can keep that balance, it’s very productive.
Tell us about your current writing projects. What are your writing plans for the next few years?
I’m currently generating material toward a second book of poetry. A lot of what I have is more explicitly autobiographical than much of what I’ve done previously. And there are a series of poems in the voices of villains, especially horror movie villains. I’ve long loved persona poems, and I’m engaged with pop culture and interested in marginalized voices, and I think these poems allow me to explore all of that at once. The more a voice is one we can’t, or won’t, or don’t want to hear, the more it interests me.
Over the next few years I’m hoping to finish this book, and also find some time to work again on writing fiction, which I love doing but haven’t had time for in several years.
How can readers find out more about you and follow your work?
I have a website. It’s still under development, but it has information about my book, upcoming readings, and contact information for me: www.israelwasserstein.com. Readers can also find more about me through http://www.washburn.edu/our-faculty/israel-wasserstein and by googling me: “Israel Wasserstein poetry” returns a number of results where readers can read more of my work. I’m always happy to answer questions, sign books, chat about poetry, or just hear from readers: reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
HIGHWAY 54: CONTROLLED BURN
Eastern Kansas, hills pungent
with controlled burn: my eyes
sting, black clouds rise
into angry evening. All about me,
ribbons of flame unspooled
by grim-faced men with rusty
conceal their eyes
as they watch the sky,
the night clear,
free of portentous clouds.
Rain will not come.
And if it did, they would still
burn, unwilling to risk
disaster, fires twisting
from these fallow
fields to those newly planted.
Sharp-lined faces know too well
mercy’s cost, destroy
what they must to save
the rest. One man turns
his head to watch me pass,
glasses black as his hair
outlined against red flame,
orange sky. He nods,
I nod, accelerate
toward home, toward
whatever still remains.
You can check out episode 51 of our library’s HUSH Podcast to hear a poem by Israel Wasserstein. You’ll also hear about the work of Kansas writers Thomas Fox Averill, Leah Sewell, Laura Moriarty, Kij Johnson, and Eric McHenry.
Visit your Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library to check out a copy of This Ecstasy They Call Damnation (2012). You can click the cover below to view the listing in our catalog or place a request.