Poet Who Embroiders Life Into 'Personal Mythology'

March 26, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET

And from the little girl who read fairy tales, I have grown into the woman

in them, the one who steps magically out of those fragrant orange peels . . . .

--From "Smudging," 1974, by Diane Wakoski

Born in Whittier in 1937 and raised mostly in La Habra, nationally known poet Diane Wakoski spent her earliest years on the edge of a grove where "the oranges literally touched the house," she said during a recent visit to Chapman College in Orange as part of the school's "Distinguished Writers Series."

Indelibly imprinted with childhood images of "the landscape, the ocean, the desert" of California, Wakoski has turned those images into part of her own "personal mythology" in 16 large collections and 20 "slim volumes" of poetry published since 1962. Last week, while visiting the area from her present home in East Lansing, Mich., she talked about how a poet can turn the stuff of his or her life into mythic matter.

As a poet, "you have to begin to create a personal mythology, make yourself into as fictive a character as someone in a novel," she told a gathering of students, faculty and community members at Chapman. Such a mythology must "come out of all of the things that you are and have been," she said.

During an interview later, Wakoski said she draws poetic themes from her own history, but doesn't write the literal truth into her poems. She began constructing her own personal mythology as an undergraduate English student at UC Berkeley in the late '50s, she said. While writing poetry, "I realized that my life was totally uninteresting except for the parts I was ashamed of, that I wouldn't talk about," she explained. "I realized that I had to dramatize myself."

Made-up characters began to appear in poem after poem, book after book. Although Wakoski doesn't have a brother, she created a mythical sibling named David (with whom Wakoski's persona has an affair in one early poem, before David commits suicide). Other characters include: the "King of Spain," a swaggering figure with a gold tooth, full of mystery and adventure; a "George Washington," who's transplanted from the eastern United States to the West and thrown into many un-presidential circumstances; the "Blue Moon Cowboy," a lovesick country-Western music writer; "M," a vividly remembered lover (based on Wakoski's second husband) and a series of fictionalized "Dianes," who are based on the real Diane but change personalities from poem to poem.

Term She Dislikes

Ironically, given what she calls her inclination to "embroider" upon her life's material, Wakoski often has been called a "confessional poet"--a term she dislikes. The term was first applied to poet Robert Lowell, who was hospitalized frequently for manic-depression, and to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, two poets who committed suicide, Wakoski said. The "confessional" label has since been used by literary critics to denigrate "the poetry of people like myself, who basically are autobiographical poets, and who often speak about pain or emotional decisions or sorrow," Wakoski said in an interview for the literary magazine Pulp some years ago. Yet, Wakoski stressed, a writer's descriptions of personal pain do not necessarily indicate self-destructive tendencies.


I wont wont wont

go the way you did;

I wont die for love, poetry, truth or a man who betrays me;

my grandparents were potato farmers

and I have a bit of the simple potato

in me.

(From "Greed, Part 9" in "The Collected Greed," 1984, by Diane Wakoski.)

Wakoski's childhood was impoverished, she said. Her father, a Navy man, was usually away at sea and her mother, a bookkeeper, worked long hours for low wages. Wakoski said she and her sister, Marilyn, were "latchkey children before there was a term for latchkey children, but I liked it, I liked that sense of independence."

She began writing poems when she was 7 years old, she said. Later, as a Fullerton High School student, she belonged to a poetry club that met after school to read and discuss writing. After graduating in 1955, Wakoski went to UC Berkeley, studying with such poets as Thom) Gunn and Josephine Miles, before moving to New York City in 1960 to take part in the literary life there.

In Residence at Caltech

Wakoski, who won both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in the 1970s, for a time earned most of her living by giving 60 to 80 poetry readings a year and teaching many short poetry workshops. In 1972 she was writer-in-residence at Caltech, and in 1974-75 she filled the same post for UC Irvine. Then she accepted a full professorship in Michigan State University's English department, where she has taught two courses each quarter since 1976. She leaves Michigan to do 25 to 30 readings a year, Wakoski said. In 1984 she also took a six-week leave on a Fulbright fellowship, which allowed her to travel and give readings in Yugoslavia.

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