By Marco DiAddezio
"If you are not seriously disturbed, there is something seriously wrong with you." So there it is, your reprieve; all of you with the blues can breath a deep sigh of relief courtesy of Franz Wright. The 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry has a cautionary appreciation and insight into many of life’s more serious afflictions, partly because of his own early immersion and recent recovery from such ailments as clinical depression and alcoholism. However, while his poetry may have been inspired by the dark, he is quick to warn that one must live in the day.
CHP: How are you able to be productive through periods of depression?
Franz Wright: During periods of genuine clinical depression it is impossible to do much of anything at all, let alone compose poems. If I was able to bring some of that darker and wordless experience into my work, it is because I was blessed with periods of intense lucidity, happiness and health as well, during which it was possible to recall what I had been through and to shape it into writing.
I hope, incidentally, that the mere existence of my work, whatever anyone may think of it, might serve to remind anyone going through serious mental illness that it is not necessarily the end-that indeed, with persistence and hard work and hope and patience, it may come to be seen as the beginning of a new life.
CHP: You have described alcoholics as "searchers", who are looking in the wrong place. "Searchers" sounds complimentary, at least in comparison to the usual words associated with alcoholics.
FW: Alcoholism–and mental illness in general–is a terribly cruel and sometimes fatal illness that I would not wish on anyone.
CHP: In an interview with The New Yorker you mentioned that as a youth, you felt that "all adults were insane" and that all of the poets that were around you were "full-blown alcoholics." Did this "insanity" help to fuel your poetry in any way?
FW: In that New Yorker interview I should have stated that when I was a child I found myself surrounded by a number of writers who were extremely heavy drinkers and even alcoholics, starting with my father and including such figures as Theodore Roethke and John Berryman. There were certainly others who were not alcoholics-Robert Bly is a good example–and I have to say it was a great relief to have him around, because all the alcohol-fueled carrying on was very bewildering and frightening to me.
And since we’re on the subject, I should say there is no connection whatsoever between artistic genius and the maniacal consumption of alcohol or other drugs-alcoholism is, among other things, a terrifyingly serious and debilitating mental and physical illness, and when we find it in a writer, we can only conclude that he managed (heroically, perhaps) to get his work done in spite of it and not because of or in any way aided by it.
CHP: Has poetry been the hell your dad initially welcomed you to? Is it the reason you didn’t spend your "…whole life being happy, loving other human beings’ faces?"
FW: In response to this question, I can only say that I would have preferred a life of silent religious devotion, but that was not my fate.
CHP: You have said that, "There are human beings for whom the sun is never going to shine, is never going to rise again, ever, not really-not the real sun." Do you have any advice for students who feel as if you are describing them?
FW: I hope students will not feel I am referring to them. I was referring to those in the depths of extreme mental affliction. I have daily contact with addicts and people suffering from psychosis in one form or another, and can assure you there is nothing romantic or glamorous about it. What is the meaning of such terrible suffering, what use is it? This is a question which continues to absorb me.
CHP: You have compared a poet’s fame to a ship appearing through a blizzard in the early morning. Does your recent success (the Pulitzer) matter to you? Is it a bright light in your life?
FW: Winning the Pulitzer was and is extremely gratifying, and financially it may have saved my life, but it has certainly not made writing any easier. That remains-like suffering-as great a mystery as ever.