Denise Low: Yoga, dance, and poetry all fit organic forms into set order. In what way(s) do you see your poems like dance steps or poses?Wyatt Townley: Steps and poses.... Neither. I’m anti-pose. But dance and yoga come into play all the time in my poetry. The problems in composition are similar. What is inevitable and organic that flows from the last motion—or word—to the next one? That’s a very basic place to start. In poetry, just as in choreography, the next word must be born out of the word before it. There’s an inevitability there—which is not the same as predictability—that creates flow and motion. From another angle, dancers and yogis are always seeking to move beyond the edges of the body into space. The poem, too, has to get off the page. It can’t just lie there. Its instincts are kinetic.
Denise Low: How is verse different from art forms that use the body?
Wyatt Townley: Books last longer than bodies. When I was a kid, I thought that poetry and dance were at opposite ends of the spectrum—poetry arguably the most refined of the verbal arts, dance arguably the most refined of the nonverbal. Pursuing them both felt like straddling two worlds, doing the splits! I don’t think that anymore. The body is a poem, writing itself with every breath. And poems affect us physically, a la Dickinson’s crown chakra opening: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” These days I’m interested in big-picture connections, not small-picture distinctions.
Denise Low: Your poetry manipulates space in so many ways. In "Skeleton Key," for example, you write "Insert the tailbone/into the sky/turn slowly, unlocking." Are you thinking spatially as you compose?
Wyatt Townley: Partly. For me the poem itself comes out of a sense of spaciousness, something—somewhere—bigger. And as poets we’re trying to translate that expansion to the page—through compression! Another paradox. Part of what we are doing in yoga is expanding time and space. We’re exploring the space between things—between breaths, between heartbeats, between vertebrae, between the eyebrows, and so on. By retraining the breath and slowing it down, we find we can also cover more territory with it; so we get both more time (slower) and more space (deeper). The same thing happens in the poem, through the use of breath and white space—all the little choices one makes down the page in terms of placement, rhythm, sound, punctuation, enjambment, stanza break—either slowing down or speeding up time. So as poets we’re exploring the use of time in terms of space, just as dancers do. The book-length poem I’m working on now, called “Rewriting the Body,” runs with this idea.
Denise Low: How does the sky influence your sense of space?
Wyatt Townley: We think of the sky as above us, but of course we’re in the sky and the sky’s in us. We breathe it in and out, and rearrange it with every step. This is still revelatory to me. I’ve always been fascinated by space, as so many of us Kansans are, with our great view of the stars. My dad was an amateur astronomer and would spend hours setting up his telescope so he could help us understand where we are. I’m still working on that! But you’re right—and I’d never really thought of it in this way—space is a big theme for me, from personal space in and around the body all the way out to the cosmos, micro to macro.
Denise Low: Paul Muldoon has a lovely essay about the moment before a poem comes into being. What is that moment, that tipping point, for you?
Wyatt Townley: It’s an intriguing question, but I’m going to give a practical answer. For me the poem starts with a decision to sit down, the old “Apply the seat of the pants to the chair.” Maybe that’s the distinction between poetry and dance: the poet’s gotta sit down, the dancer’s gotta stand up. It’s a good mix.
Denise Low: Here is one of my favorite poems from The Afterlives of Trees (Woodley):
Tracks by Wyatt Townley
and they’re gone. How you’ve grown—too slow to keep up, too dogged
to turn back. Forget the list in your pocket.See what you’ve missed. Deep in the woods
the wind erases the way you came. All pathslead here. Beside you the tracks of a wild turkey,
and earlier, a raccoon retracing its steps.
There a deer paused, perfect disguise,
and here we all are, leaving ourselvesbehind. We fold into trees and are gone.
(copyright Wyatt Townley, reprinted with permission)
More information about Wyatt Townley and the poet laureate program: http://kansashumanities.org/programs/poet-laureate-of-kansas/