This interview with Tom Wayman took place at Selkirk College, Castlegar, BC in April 2011. I post it here as part of my article The Farce of Awards. Just as an individual often passes through a period of re-examination during middle age, it seems the same is happening these days at a societal level. It’s both a time of great peril and great opportunity, depending on what we do with it. Dickens nailed it 150 years ago: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Joyce: As I’ve entered middle age I’ve been doing an awful lot of reassessment of decisions made. Maybe to some extent that’s what’s happened with the whole Woodstock generation, is a certain amount of self-doubt. That, if the world’s going like this, did I really make the right choices? We either need to make changes or we need to deal with the whole issue of acceptance. That seems to be a big theme for this period of life. And also, continuing to question societal notions of success.
Wayman: Yes, yes exactly. I do think middle age is a time when we certainly get to re-think everything. And that’s not bad. I think some people think life will begin in the future when X or Y happens. In middle age we realize that no, this is it. So if I’m not happy, I need to make some changes. Because otherwise this feeling is going to go on to the grave. (Speaks of writers having to move to Toronto to succeed.) They’ll succeed – in quotes – but will that success take them through middle age or will they regret not having lived a more grounded emotional life, a life that was more rewarding?
Joyce: Because there’s so much propaganda produced about what success means in all circles. So there’s a standard societal notion that hasn’t really changed since the ’50s – the two-car garage, the nice villa—and on and on.
Wayman: And getting back to poetry, one thing I noticed at a certain point, was when someone introduced a poet, they wouldn’t say, ‘This poet wrote these books that I found moving, or these poems that I found moving,’ they started to list the prizes the person had won. And that’s a real change—that was a real shift.
I think a writer is successful when what they write talks to a community and engages a community. If you feel you’ve taken part in that at any level, it doesn’t need recognition from outside. Then that’s the real success, it’s not winning these prizes, which is strictly a matter of who’s on the jury and what favours they owe and who their friends are. Because I speak as someone who’s been on juries; it’s not much about literary merit beyond a certain point. So if one’s real and is really reaching people with any kind of writing, you begin to see that vision of success. Instead of having been shortlisted for the following prizes—who did the writing speak to?
Joyce: Well thank you for addressing that point because that was another issue I wanted to address in my blog, was this whole issue of literary awards. I’ve never won anything. So if you’re not careful, what that can do to your head is make you think, ‘Oh, I must really be a shitty writer,’ or you have to conclude something else. You have to conclude that maybe those awards have to do with something besides just basic, innate, raw literary ability or talent, or whatever you want to call it, right?
Wayman: I gave out a thing to Alameda’s class (Selkirk College creative writing instructor Alameda Glenn Miller) before the reading that Susan Swan had written in the Globe where she talks about that. She says, not only do awards often have to do with who’s on the juries and whose friends they are. But it’s true that quite often, the winners of those prizes, no one likes their writing a lot, but everyone likes their writing a little, so they’re the compromise candidate. Again, my experience of juries, that’s been true over and over again. The person is put forward as if they’re the winner, they’re the best, but it’s not true. They’re the one that everyone liked a little; they were no one’s first choice but maybe everybody’s third choice or fourth choice. Because if you and I were judges, your first choice and my first choice would be different, so we can’t settle that. But we all like this book way down our list so we say, ‘Well wait a minute why don’t we just give it to this person, because otherwise we’re going to be here all night.’ Because you’re not going to change your mind and I’m not going to change my mind but we’ve got to come up with what’s best, we’ve got to give it to somebody. So that’s what happens; you’re absolutely right, it’s not necessarily a measure of anything to do with literary merit. You happened to be on a list that everybody liked a bit but nobody liked it enormously.
Joyce: (Laughs) Well that’s a relief!
Wayman: As I get older that stuff seems so irrelevant compared to doing the best we can. It’s just luck, who’s on the jury that year, who your friends are, who your enemies are. And you have no control over that. But you do have control over what you write.
Joyce: And ultimately having someone come up to you after a reading and say, ‘My God, that poem you read, just touched me right here.’ I’ve had moments like that and even if it’s only one person in the audience, you realize you’ve really accomplished something.
Wayman: That’s as good as it gets, it really is. That’s it—there’s nothing better, to make that kind of connection. Everything else is nonsense. I mean, there’s authors that are in favour and out of favour at different times, they’re heroes one year and zeroes the next. But if you can write and reach people—touch people—that’s what matters. That’s why I respect people like Neruda despite his weird beliefs—he seems to really, really touch people and inspire people to want to write. Over and over again my students when they discover him find him inspirational. He had a way of mixing lyricism with didacticism that seemed to open things up rather than shut them down, and people respond to that. The other way to look at it is, how many literary awards did Shakespeare get?
Joyce: Or Blake, or Wordsworth, or Milton, or—?
Wayman: Right. The answer is zero. Shakespeare wasn’t made the poet laureate—nothing, he didn’t win a single thing. So he’s not a good writer?
Joyce: Well thank you very much, Tom.