From the Paris Review series of Poets on Couches.
I Am Your Little Ram:
An Interview with Mark Wunderlich
Caitlin Cowan, American Literary Review
Landscape and Time:
Q&A with poet Mark Wunderlich
Marcia Ratliff, Winona Daily News
Island of Books, from the Los Angeles Review of Books
LAST WINTER, I FLEW TO ICELAND. On the night of my departure from JFK, sitting outside on the dark tarmac, service vehicles busied themselves, blinking and rotating around our plane, while inside flight attendants helped people settle into their seats. A light, wet snow was falling, but inside the plane smelled of fresh coffee. I love international flights, but when I got to my row I saw I had the middle seat. For some time I situated myself, then flipped through the Icelandair magazine, sipped some water. I began to think I had the row to myself when I was startled by a light tap on my shoulder. Standing beside me were two enormous men. Both had light-colored, close-cropped hair, both wore thick sweaters and carried parkas. They brought to mind a pair of fairy tale brothers — large, oafish, difficult to tell apart, and for a while they loomed in the isle, one’s head barely visible over the other’s meaty shoulder. The anticipation of the luxurious privacy of an empty row was dashed as the first man squeezed into the window seat while his companion took the isle. I was lodged between them, and soon resigned myself to five hours of being unable to move my arms.
After settling in, both men folded their coats and placed them neatly on their laps. Each carried a small backpack — the size a child might carry — and almost simultaneously, they began to paw around in them before drawing out books. Each man found the switch for the in-flight entertainment screen and turned it off, then they both opened large novels and began to read. They did not bother to turn on the overhead light, but hunched a bit and brought the books closer to their faces. They drew in on themselves the way readers do when they become absorbed in what they are reading. No meal was served on this flight, and so they did not pause. For five hours they read, turning pages with a forefinger they dabbed lightly on their tongues, as Greenland’s glaciers passed, invisible, beneath us. As we approached Keflavik, they looked up to accept a cup of coffee passed to them on a tray. It was morning in Iceland, and time to put away the books.
Why Do I Write
My Book House
I learned to read when I was four and soon discovered the set of books on a small shelf in my room; I would spend much time reading and re-reading these books over the next dozen years. The set had once belonged to my father and had been published in the 1930’s. There were 14 in total—My Book House—edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. Beaupré. Beaupré! This name confounded me, irritated like a pebble in my shoe. That choking gobbet of vowels! That accent like a bee’s stinger! How was I to know how to say this name? No one I knew could tell me, and so it remained a mystery, foreign and untranslatable, as far away as France. Someone was able to tell me this name was probably French, and so I came to think of France as the place books came from.
At some point, I was given or I found a Canadian nickel. Here too was writing in French! I began sorting through my parents’ change purses, looking for Canadian money. The quarters and nickels were uncommonly beautiful; what kind of a genius puts a beaver or a caribou on one side, and the profile of a queen on the other? More importantly, this money, like the books, suggested a world to me that lay beyond the rural corner of Wisconsin hemmed by bluffs on either side; you could see up the river to the first bend, and down the river to the wooded slough, but no further. This money which was familiar and yet altogether different, had made its way to my small town; it was useless there, but it had arrived nonetheless. The fables, poems and stories in My Book House were equally out of place with their allusions to Greek mythology and Shakespeare, though both the books and the money were useful, somewhere, to someone.