National Portrait Gallery’s David C. Ward: Historian Turns to Poetry

In a new book of poetry, a Smithsonian scholar renders his thoughts on family, nature, celebrity and anonymity

Historian David Ward discusses his new book of poetry
Historian David Ward discusses his new book of poetry Photo courtesy of Ward

The National Portrait Gallery’s historian David C. Ward is a biographer of Charles Willson Peale and has written extensively about such figures as Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. He has curated exhibitions on Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, as well as last year’s controversial “Hide/Seek. Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Over the past two decades, however, he has occasionally turned from history to verse and has recently published a small volume of poetry entitled, Internal Difference, from Carcanet Press. “Ward’s carefully plotted chapbook describes American social spaces, past and present, and the links between them,” writes critic David Kinloch in the June/July issue of PN Review.  In one poem, the historian amusingly offers a poet’s take on the imagined inner world of Andy Warhol, an artist attempting to escape the confines of his own accelerating celebrity.

“Camouflage Self-Portrait”

In 1987, aged fifty-nine Andy Warhol bored
and played out in the modern life he made
(after the first lunch with Jackie O/there is no other)
faked his own death—routine gallbladder procedure:
gone awry—slipped quietly from the hospital
back into his mother’s house, his Pittsburgh boyhood
home. Wig gone, black suit and fancy glasses trashed,
he donned the clothes and life of a nondescript ordinary
working man, took a bakery assistant’s job making crullers
and cakes, introduced himself as Stosh from somewhere
vaguely somewhere else, and joined the local bowling
league. He learned to polka at the Legion Hall, amiably
fending off the local widows, and grew quietly old alone.
He cooked for one and after dinner would sit and watch
as the neighborhood wound down from dusk to night.
He developed a real fondness for baseball:
it was so slow.

Ward is currently at work on an upcoming exhibition entitled “Poetic Likeness,” scheduled to open at the Portrait Gallery in November of 2012. We asked Ward to discuss his multiple muses—poetry and history.

Internal Differences

Ward's new book is now available through tkpublisher. Photo courtesy of tk.

Why poetry?

I started writing poetry in my late 30s, just over 20 years ago. I think at that time I needed a creative outlet that was different from my professional work as an historian who works in a large institution. Also, around that time I was starting to do more as an historian so feeling more creative in that may have made me open to the odd idea of taking up poetry. The immediate trigger was the death of Robert Penn Warren. I had never read his poetry so to pay tribute, I bought his Collected Poems and went through it and something in the way he wrote about America and American subjects clicked with me. I can remember thinking, “hmm. . .I should try this.” I batted out a poem called “On A Recently Discovered Casualty of the Battle of Antietam”—it’s very “Warren-ish”!—and it was published and since it would look lame if I only ever had one published poem, I had to keep writing. I also was lucky enough early on to develop a connection with a very good poet, editor, publisher, Michael Schmidt in England who has been very supportive of my work. I am self-taught as a poet but Michael has been an excellent tutor. And friend.
Where do you find inspiration?

Let me turn this question around: now that I’ve demonstrated to myself that I can get individual poems on random topics published, I’m trying to write poems around themes or subjects so that I can have a group of at least loosely linked work that will add up to something. I do find it helpful to set myself a topic and just make myself write on it. For instance, this year I’ve started writing about my family history, re-imagining it in a way that derives somewhat from Robert Lowell. I have some political poems going as well as some on art and artists—I had been resisting writing about art because it’s too close to my work at the Portrait Gallery, but that seems kind of foolishly self-denying. In general, I think my poems have tried to explore the disjunction between ideals or dreams and the reality of life: how choices or accidents ramify in unintentional or unseen ways and you end up somewhere that you didn’t expect to be. The challenge is to do that in a clear- eyed way and not to devolve into self-pity.

How and when and where do you write?

It’s kind of hit or miss, which I suppose is a sign of the non-professional poet. I’d like to be more disciplined and set aside a fixed time, especially on the weekends, to write poetry. But I don’t keep to that resolution, maybe because I need poetry to be creative play instead of the routine of work. Either that or I’m lazy. So topics and poems tend to show up rather randomly at rather random times. For instance, I wrote two political poems when I woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly thinking of opening lines, and how I could make a poem work from those starting points. Obviously something was working in my subconscious and jelled into realization. That tends to be how things go, although not usually at 2:30 a.m.  The problem is that relying on your subconscious suddenly popping out a starting point, let alone a whole poem, is kind of chancy and I can go for a long time without writing anything. Once I get a “hook,” I can write a poem pretty quickly. I am trying to make myself revise and re-write more.

Do you draw any parallels between your day job as an historian scholar and your poetry?

Well, I think they are self-reinforcing in the sense that both involve intellectual application through the creative use of language.  I should say that I also write a fair amount of literary criticism (actually, I’m a better critic than poet) and that work helps to bridge the two disciplines as well. I have certainly improved as an historian from writing poetry (and criticism)—a better writer, and I think more questioning and imaginative. Without being too hard on myself, though, I think that being a historian limits my poetry: I’m aware that my writing tends to be observational or distanced from its subject, like a historian objectifies a problem. (For instance, “Camouflage Self-Portrait” came out of my exhibit Hide/Seek and thinking about how Andy Warhol just seemed to disappear as his passing was so undramatic, and I came up with the conceit that he faked his death precisely because he was tired of all the drama.) Some of that distancing, I’m sure, derives from my upbringing and personal temperament, but regardless, I can’t merge my poetic voice with the subject in the way that Emerson suggested was necessary for the poet. I find it nearly impossible to write poems about emotions themselves, although I can show how emotions are acted out in behavior.

In the poem, “Angle of Deflection,” you write of the “ironic voice” that “works well for scholars,” what then is the poet’s voice?

As I suggested earlier, I think my poetic voice is overly ironic! That I retain the “scholar’s voice” in writing verse in a way that shapes my poetry in ways that can become restrictive in all sorts of ways. “Angle”  was as much about me as it was about my father who was also an historian. But what I’ve tried to do as I’ve moved along is to develop a self-awareness about the way that I write, so that I can take what I think is a weakness and turn it into a strength. I am always going to be an historian first and my temperament will always tend toward the detached and skeptical—ironic, in both senses of the word. But I think there are a lot of interesting things to find in voicing the gap between self and subject. At least I hope so.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.