H. L. Hix Interview with John Hoppenthaler
I’m a fan of Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation, a volume you edited (Etruscan Press, 2004). The idea of such a project, one in which thirty-three poets from different points along the aesthetic continuum were asked to contribute a new poem and then respond to the poems of others in the collection, is provoking. The work to which these poets responded was anonymous, and the various responses that follow each piece in the book are also anonymous. What it amounts to, for me, is a glimpse at how readers of poetry might respond to the work I’ve presented for scrutiny in Kestrel, or now in my Congeries. The first sentence in your preface to the collection, “The book in your hands contains a colloquy unlike any held before,” serves to encapsulate my own goal as an assembler of literary work. That is, I want every issue to be a conversation among poems, poets and readers. I’m interested in the book’s reception, in the responses you have received from readers and critics. If the book is an experiment in poetic engagement, what are the results? In the almost seven years since the book was published, has the quality of aesthetic discussions about poetry become any more robust?
First, thank you. I’m glad you’ve read the book, and glad you find value in it. Even though Wild and Whirling Words didn’t reach a wide enough audience to have any noticeable immediate impact on the poetic culture at large, I’ve gotten some nice feedback from individual readers who have found it provocative. Also, it has been used in some poetry classes, so I hope it will “register” with a few young people early in their poetic lives, and through them have a long-term impact greater than its short-term impact.
I myself have felt challenged on an ongoing basis by many of the poems and responses that compose it, so I do believe that the book is not merely of period interest, but that its questions are live now, no less than they were six years ago when the book was being assembled: questions about how we encounter poems and how we talk about them and how we talk with one another over them; questions about how we might reintegrate poetry into the culture as something worth interrogating, not only as something precious, to be deferred to and praised but kept protected in a glass case.
We don’t treat movies, for instance, as precious in that way. When you and I go to a movie, each of us feels entitled to respond to it, and authorized to engage with it in a critical way. Neither of us has to be a director or a film scholar to feel such entitlement and authorization. What would it take to return something of that sense of entitlement and authorization to readers of poetry? I’m curious partly because I take that entitlement and authorization in the viewer/reader as a respect for the work: we argue about our responses to the movie because we think the movie is something worth arguing about. I think poetry is worth arguing over, too.
I also hope that Wild and Whirling Words has taken its modest place in a much larger set of changes to poetic culture. The rapid and sweeping changes to how we disseminate and preserve poetry seem certain to alter how we conceptualize and investigate and discuss poetry. Blogging, for instance, seems to make the community of discussants potentially much more inclusive. Penn Sound is doing amazing things with archiving and accessibility and discussion. Through web accessibility and in its traditional print format, Poetry magazine has been creating various kinds of discussion. And of course those are only a couple of examples that come immediately to mind for me; one could enumerate example after example.
I share with you the goal you note in the question, of being “an assembler of literary work,” and Wild and Whirling Words shares with your Congeries the goal of being “a conversation among poems, poets, and readers.” I’ve tried to enact that ideal in all my work: God Bless includes interviews of experts; Incident Light is based primarily on interviews of its subject; almost all my poetry is in some way and to some degree “intertextual,” i.e. in conversation with other poems or other discourses.
It seems to me, reading through your body of work and interviews with you, that you are after no less than closing the various perceived divides many so easily assume separates different aesthetic cliques, to show that these distances are in fact not nearly so expansive after all. Wild and Whirling Words speaks to that, I think, as does this comment you make about narrative poetry and its contemporary detractors in an April 2010 interview in Poetry: “The concepts ‘chaotic,’ ‘associative, and ‘fragmentary’ are no more settled in their meaning, or in their relationship to lived experience, than is ‘narrative’ . . . . Even those of us who find our experience fragmentary and chaotic still seek to recognize our experience as narrative: to see events in our lives as valuable and meaningful, connected to one another in intelligible ways.” Are you a poetic activist? If so, does your training as a philosopher (you have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Texas) play into your engagement with contemporary poetic practice?
I do want to emphasize commonalities among poets over any divisions there may be between us. How any life engaged with poetry differs from a life devoid of poetry seems to me a more crucial difference than how a life engaged with one sort of poetry differs from a life engaged with another sort. We all suffer the effects of commodification and militarization and environmental degradation and fundamentalisms; I would like to contribute more to our unity against those problems than to our division against one another.
So, yes, I am a poetic activist, but I want to qualify that affirmation pretty heavily. Out of that conviction that we poets and poetry readers are more alike than we are different, I do seek to further solidarity among poets and to minimize in both number and scale the divisions between us. However (at first this may seem contradictory), I hope that I am more often, and in regard to more matters, not an activist. That is, I suspect that it is more often true that the world is a better place when any one of us elects not try to persuade others of a conviction than when one of us does try to persuade (by rhetoric or by force), so I try to keep my impulses toward activism in check. The forms of activism that I most admire—as undertaken by such persons as Gandhi and Martin Luther King—are defined in important senses by how they do not act: non-violence, etc. Though I don’t have the courage of Gandhi or King, I do want to be alert to their examples as activists.
To take a different tack on the question of poetic cliques: my learning from poetry (as compared to my merely receiving affirmation as a result of it) will be possible only through encounter with “other” poetry, poetry that does not confirm (all) my prejudices. Learning is a form of change, so if I only write the sort of poetry I’ve written before, and only read the sort of poetry I already know and like, I’m not changing much, or learning much. So I think we want to be in conversation about poetry with people from different aesthetic cliques.
You wrote to me, after I gratefully accepted the three terrific poems represented in this month’s issue, that “[t]here are only a few of “these” so far—the start, I hope, of a set of related poems—but I am excited about them.” I am, too, though they are ingrained with such sadness. What can you tell us about this project?
For various reasons, I feel obliged to relearn how to read and rethink how I write. (The “felt-ness” of that felt obligation probably is more intense because I am nearing a round-numbered birthday, so I’m especially conscious of the imperative that Rilke has hung over every poet’s head, “You must revise your life.” Plus, I have a selected coming out in the fall, preparation of which has forced me to ask in regard to my own poetry the ancient Greek greeting, “Where have you been and where are you going?”) That will entail changing some of my own assumptions and practices, resisting some cultural pressures, and seeking to overcome some limitations.
By my own assumptions and practices, I mean—for example—that I am trying to overcome some of the miserliness in reading that I absorbed in school. The familiar term the “principle of generosity” names an approach we take to reading certain works: if I’m reading Shakespeare and I don’t “get it,” I assume that the fault is mine. I need more background information or I should have read more carefully, but I assume there was meaning and value there to be had. But why Shakespeare? My formal education seems calculated to make the set of works and authors to whom I might be advised to extend the principle of generosity as small and narrowly defined as possible. But reducing the number of authors to whose work I apply the principle of generosity only reduces the number from whom I can learn. It seems to me likely that the more poets to whom I apply that principle, the more wisdom is available to me, so I am trying now to read beyond the works valorized by my professors (and others by whom I have been influenced). That means, for one thing, reading work by others besides British and American authors.
By resisting cultural pressures, I mean—again, only as one example—that, though “we” (contemporary American poets at least) take Aristotle’s word for it that one learns by imitation, we also work hard to regulate and limit poets’ imitation: one ought to imitate only in one’s youth, we admonish (for instance), and one ought to imitate only acknowledged masters. I want to keep learning, so I’m not ready yet to give up imitating (even though I’m no longer in my youth), and I want to keep finding new masters.
As for limitations, one of my own has to do with languages. I’ve had a lot of language study in the past (Greek, Latin, French, German), but the blunt truth is that the only language I can speak or read with any facility is English. I’m taking Spanish (without much success so far), but I want to find additional ways to mitigate the narrowness caused by my confinement in one language.
So this poetry project is part of a larger project of (attempted) self-transformation, of inquiry into poetry, revision of my premises about poetry. “These” poems are “imitations,” in each case of a poem originally written in a language other than English and by a modern or contemporary poet. I’ve put “imitations” in scare quotes because they are not translations (I’m working from others’ translations), but attempts to enter into much more open-ended conversation with the poem to which they respond. I have often quoted in print (and often quote to my longsuffering students) Harold Bloom’s observation that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem”: each of these poems pays attention to a prior poem, not by critique or by translation or by copying that poem, but by taking off from it, by seeking to become the “other poem” that the first poem means. The poems in this project are attempts to read others’ poems at least as much as they are attempts to write my own. I seek to reconfigure my ways of reading and writing, in ways that may at times blur the distinction between them.
The three particular poems you have so generously sponsored respond to poems from Ikinci Yeni: The Turkish Avant-Garde, an extraordinary book edited and translated by George Messo (and published by Shearsman Books, 2009).
Your thoughts on Franz Wright’s recent tirade in John Gallagher’s Nothing to Say & Saying It Blog? The back and forth has created bit of a stir. Wright writes, among other things, that
I see what the best of [poetry MFA graduates] have produced, and compared to the American poetry, arguably the best in the world, that was produced pre-MFA ubiquity—that is, before the late seventies—you don’t make good toilet paper. You can still choose, those of you who are young enough. You can turn away from the writing programs, the blogs, all the self-conscious ways to destroy the silent solitary spirit of lyric poetry. Maybe. I doubt it. But there may be one or two of you out there with the balls to do it .
I hope no one is spending too much energy responding to this: it doesn’t make enough sense to get upset about. Just to note a few of its many dubious aspects:
• It assumes a nostalgic view of poetic history that romanticizes a past time period as a golden age.
• It recommends turning away from blogs, but does so on a blog.
• Like Meletus in Plato’s Apology, affirming that Socrates alone out of all the citizens of Athens corrupts the youth, it pins all blame for the alleged decline in the quality of American poetry on the MFA.
• It is constructed as an ad hominem.
• It assumes without question that the spirit of lyric poetry is (essentially and always) silent and solitary, a view that Adrienne Rich or Mark Nowak or Amiri Baraka (or from Wright’s purported golden age Muriel Rukeyser or Allen Ginsberg), never mind hip hop artists or spoken word poets, might give reason to question.
• It assumes that community can have no role in the cultivation of a silent solitary spirit.
• It assumes that a change in practices of patronage and pedagogy corrupts what before the change was pure, as if the Homeric bards and Hebrew psalmists and Old English scops and Robert Lowell all lived in silence and learned poetry in solitude.
• It acts as if there might be sense to the claim that American poetry was once “the best in the world,” and some basis on which to make such a claim. Best by what measure? Best to whom? For whom?
• It suggests by its closing metaphor that the state it advocates is possible only to males.
And so on.
This passage certainly didn’t pique my interest in reading any more of the “tirade”! I’ll have to content myself with the hope that this is not a representative passage, but that Mr. Wright’s other remarks are more coherent and less venomous than these.
(After Cemal Süreya)
A man happened on an abandoned cap
Buried all but the bill in midwinter snow
And took it for one he'd worn in days long past
The cap was dulled and scuffed enough to match
His memory of those days in that city
Of knees his knees once touched under café tables
Eyes his eyes once met across rising steam
The sky sent him notes these days only through snow
Whose dry crystals borrowed morning sunlight
For their attempts to match the scattered stars
As he — the man — petitioned each clear dark sky
For the confidence of constellations
Impassive toward cold however constant
Indifferent to distances however vast
(After Edip Cansever)
Because they must share the table
The man and the woman clear it after each use
The woman does not leave behind
Her favorite pen nor the leather-bound journal
On which each time before she opens it
She rests one hand for a moment in pledge
Nor does the man leave shavings
From the wooden pencils he sharpens
Over used envelopes and corner-torn copies
With a penknife that bears his grandfather's initials
Neither knows that before they worked at this table
A woman ate from it alone each day
For half a century after her husband of two months
Left for someone else's war and never came back
For its part the table knows nothing
Receives indifferently her journal or his scrap sheets
As it had the hand-me-down dinnerware that stood
At first for hope and then in place of memory
(After Ece Ayhan)
Though its song evokes joy, the bird sings from need
Though cherry blossoms assert spring's beginning they insinuate its end
The waxwings are passing through, don't become attached
Those early sailors let their stories swell, but they had seen monsters
And the storms they survived only followed them home
Any song would assert hunger, sounded from such hollowness
So much preening would attract cupped hands even to a creature without wings
Each leaves you his youth, Wyoming, all these young men
Laying down their years, piling them like pelts
If you had any cities, some of these crows could be pigeons
A bird's song washes the wind its flight charts
The solidity song transcends, flight simply dismisses
Divide birds if you can into those that sing and those that cry
photo credit Nancy M. Stuart