David Daniel interview with John Hoppenthaler
You served as Poetry Editor for Ploughshares, one of the most important literary journals of our time, from 1992 to 2007. What did that experience teach you about poetry writing, the business of poetry, the role of the literary journal in the contemporary poetry scene, etc.?
Don Lee and our guest editors were responsible for the remarkable growth of Ploughshares over those years; my contribution was minimal, really, although I like to think that Don and my friendship helped him in some way as he built something pretty magnificent in the belly of a shockingly sick institution. If someone bothers to write a literary history of our time, I hope he or she recognizes Don’s achievement as an editor; it’s easy to see Ploughshares as a mainstream goliath now and for younger writers to have a healthy, nasty attitude towards its success, but it was a tiny, if well-respected, magazine when Don took over, and I think that its success led to the success of many other magazines that might define themselves in opposition to the mainstream.
I was a young and angry poet when I started editing there; I was a middle-aged angry one when I stopped—but I learned a lot in those years. First: be polite in cover letters and realize that editors actually want to find poems they love and are generally writers themselves, probably just as frustrated by rejection as you are but not nearly as vindictive, power-drunk, and bitter as you think. If they don’t like your poems, it’s probably no more or less than personal taste—a Rolling Stones versus Beatles thing. And you can’t convince someone to love Neil Young’s voice or genius if they don’t hear it—this I’ve learned from my sons who, inexplicably, hate Neil. Second, I learned to try to never be boring, which 90% of what comes to any magazine is. I remain perplexed by this. In something called “creative writing”, it’s unusual for a writer to actually make something up. Imagination is rare; the ability to wash one’s experience with a kind of watercolor poeminess is utterly commonplace. I learned that for sure. Anyhow, I've always felt that service to the art was important—that one should also be on the other end at least for a while rather than just always begging for one's due—though I think I've overdone it a little.
As for the business of poetry, my time at Ploughshares corresponded to the explosion of MFA programs and the “professionalism” that slapped up on shore in its wake. When I first started, most of the poetry that came in was really terrible and amateurish—easily if kindly dispatched; over the next several years there was very little terrible poetry, but an abundance of decent, difficult to dismiss, stuff. That trend continued. The amount of interesting poetry has remained, to my limited taste, pretty much constant—that is, very rare. I always—at great personal expense—hated the business of poetry and the fact that people treated it as a business, a part of their job. I am, I think, the worst possible poetry editor of a contemporary magazine: I just don’t get the game, and I hate poetry that isn't ambitious—I mean, it has always been serious to me, serious in some grand and no doubt naive sense. And because there's so little at stake, really—I mean, no one really gives a fuck what you write—I don't understand why people don't take more risks; it just makes no sense to me that people aren't always trying to write something mind-blowing, something to shake in Keats's face. My friend Liam Rector just hated it when anyone spoke of their poems as their “work”—I can hear him hissing now. And though he was maybe a bit harsh in that regard—which is to say, he slapped me around more than a few times for saying the “work” thing— I completely sympathize with his position. Anyhow, I—and most of us, I imagine who've been in the middle of things— can easily name ten poets few people know who are as good or better than the ten most recognized poets in America; and while this is a crass generalization, the “business” of poetry can't handle the former, but it knows how to understand and promote the latter. It's probably been that way since 1803 or so, so it's not news and it's not something to complain about, but for people like me, it remains a frustrating fact. So, in a nutshell, as they say, I learned that the business is dreary and pathetic; the poets themselves—many of them—amazing, and when they happen to cross paths, when someone good is successful in the business sense: that's wonderful, and what it's all about as an editor. And I'm extremely proud that every now and then I have helped that happen.
Since your stint at Ploughshares, you’ve served as the director of undergraduate creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. This certainly brings you to a place that approaches poetry writing from a different location, the years before aspiring poets ought to concern themselves much with publishing and pobiz. What have your years at FDU been like for you?
Like breathing pure oxygen. First, my stint at Emerson College lasted fifteen years during which I taught 12-15 undergrad and grad classes a year as a part-timer while working for Ploughshares, which was just service I did for a token stipend. And while I'm deeply grateful for my fantastic students, colleagues, and friends there, Emerson is an almost unimaginable nightmare for anyone who works inside its gaping, greedy maw; its administration is so anti-student and anti-faculty that the best intentions of its best people are crushed—a little tragedy I watched unfold time and again as new people came in full of hope and ambition. Most of the ideas I brought to FDU were brought to Emerson, where they were ignored, along with the good ideas of the various chairs. So when I first came to FDU, and it welcomed and supported every single idea from the deans on down, I was simply amazed. I still can't get over it: despite not being a rich institution, the administration and the faculty actually care as much about the students and the school as about themselves. Anyhow, the ideas worked, and the program is an extraordinary success for the students and the university. And I'm more proud of that than anything else I've done as a poet or teacher.
One of the things you’ve done at FDU is to create WAMFEST (The Words and Music Festival) in 2008. This project, one that strives to bring together writers with musicians in collaborative engagement, ties together two of your passions, literature and music, in a way that’s fresh and ripe with possibility. So far, the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Paul Muldoon, Rosanne Cash, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, John Wesley Harding, David Rivard, rock critic Dave Marsh, and others to the FDU campus. Tell us about how you’ve brought this thing to life and what things are coming in the future.
I was driving home to Cambridge from New Jersey five years ago when the whole vision fell into place in a kind of epiphany; at that moment. I called Liam and my friend (and great songwriter and poet) Bob Bradley and bounced the idea off of them. When they were as crazy about it as I was, I knew I was on the right track. From that day forward, I began to build the thing, to seek connections, and to make wild promises and proclamations that most people only believed, finally, last spring when Bruce and Robert and Wes came together for one of the richest, most amazing events I've ever witnessed. If only Bruce's people would let us release it to the world! Anyhow, it's essentially been another full-time job—one that I don't get paid for. The basic problem it addresses is the lack of continuity—vast gulf, in fact—between the creative work that usually inspires kids in the arts (music, movies, comedy, whatever) and the sort of art they're exposed to in school at any age. So I was hoping to provide models, create conversations and collaborations, that would show, for instance, that fancy poets like Robert Pinsky have a lot in common with fancy songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, despite the general impression otherwise. For me, it comes down to a class issue, one that undervalues the art on both sides of the divide. It goes back a bit to the poetry business above: I feel like poetry—good poetry anyhow—can be essential to the average person out there beyond our little po-biz ghetto if only we can get it to them in a way that makes it less intimidating and less precious. I wish people would listen to and read poetry exactly as they take in music and film, confident in dismissing or loving it depending on their taste. We poets have, since World War I at least, taken that away from people, I think, and if poetry matters at all (and I think it matters a great deal) this is a tremendous loss, not just to the culture at large, but to those of us who write now without even the slightest hope of reaching anyone outside of our recommended facebook friends, which leads to the kinds of “poems for tenure” that I hinted at before. It's not that I want populist poets—not at all—but I want poetry to be part of the cultural conversation, not a kind of snickering joke on the fringes of it. This is my way of trying to help with that. And it's also my way of giving my students a sense of the broader world of creative writing.
Anyhow, we've managed to pull this off with almost no money because I have great friends in both worlds—I grew up in Nashville, afterall—, including especially novelist/songwriter Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding) who has been my partner in this since the second year. People who wouldn't return my calls return Wes's enthusiastically—and that's made a huge difference. And so far, no one has ever turned down an invitation to be a part of WAMFEST—people love the idea, and I think everyone who's been a part of it loved doing it, and the word is getting out.
Because we lost what little funding we had last year, I have no idea what, if anything, is going to happen this year—where's the Poetry Foundation billions? Where's the rich poet?—but we're talking to people. I am hosting a WAMFEST panel/performance at AWP in DC with Wes, Rosanne Cash, Josh Ritter, and Kristin Hersh—all of them have books out this year or next. That should be pretty cool. And I'm putting together an album of poet/songwriter collaborations; I asked Paul Muldoon and Wes to write some songs together last year and that was a fantastic success, so I've put together a number of poets and songwriters that I admire, asking them not to just set poems to music, but rather to actually write the song together. I can't really say much about it—and who knows if it'll actually all come together—but it's an exciting and hilarious project for me.
Your first collection, Seven-Star Bird, was published by Graywolf Press in 2004 and was awarded the Larry Levis Reading Prize for the best first or second book published in that year. The poems included in this month’s Congeries are part of Crash and Other Assorted Love Songs, your anticipated next collection. That’s a somewhat long seven year span between books. When will it appear? What can your readers expect from the new book? What can you say about its making?
Hopefully Graywolf will publish this one too, if they’ll forgive its being so late and so crazy. It doesn’t seem to me like such a long span—I mean, it’s gone by fast—and in the meantime I got divorced; remarried; broke my back, seven ribs and a bunch of organs in a fall; started a creative writing program, visited famous psychiatric institutions, and created Wamfest—which has taken up about half of my life for two years. I guess, although I think of myself as a poet and songwriter primarily, when push comes to shove, I have a hard time convincing myself that my writing or publishing poems matters as much as doing things to promote poetry—or just doing something in the world. I wrote much of this book several years ago—probably 80% of it—but because of fear and/or just being very busy, I just kind of choked, I guess. Sometimes I feel like the biggest loser in the world, poetrywise; other times, I think I'm a perfectionist hatching great poems. I suspect the truth is someplace in between, probably closer to the loser end. There have also been some technical difficulties; I wanted the poems in this book to blur lines between fact and fiction, between madness and sanity, between present and past and future; all of these create problems with verbs in particular—the whole tense thing. I wanted everything to happen at once and with all of the misinformation and misunderstanding that is a part of things; so, for instance, a lot of the “facts” in the poems are simply wrong or happen at the wrong time or whatever, but they're close to the truth, whatever that means. Finding a balance with the grammar and the facts and things so that people don't just think I'm an idiot has been challenging; I wanted a surface that reads quickly and reasonably coherently and satisfyingly, but I wanted what's underneath to be a kind of quicksand, which, by the way, I actually fell into once as a little boy in Louisiana. Anyhow, the poems here along with the ones in the current American Poetry Review represent the various parts of the book pretty well, I think. It's a much more wide-open throttle of a voice than in the last book.
Your poetry often uses irony as a technique. One benefit, of course, is that this allows you to follow Emily Dickinson’s advice and “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” It’s largely a tonal matter, but I find that Americans, in general, seem a bit tone deaf when it comes to irony and fail to understand how to “take” an ironic poem.
Well, there’s almost nothing very intentional or intentionally ironic in anything that I write—or think, for that matter. It’s just a kind of melody that unspools from the books I've read, the stuff I've heard and watched, and the life I've led. But there’s something in the complexity of that experience—and I mean the basic experience of living in time—that leaves me utterly baffled; just sorting out the present from the past—this moment from every other moment—cripples my syntax, leaves me groping for something I can't quite say, at least with normal grammar, normal logic. That sense led me, some years ago, to face every decision, even the tiniest one in writing or living, this way: “Which mistake do I want to make?” That may sound cynical, but it isn’t: it’s filled with a kind of hope, a kind of wink at the gods, but the gods are there, and so’s the hope. I guess that's an ironic point of view—what do you think? But anyhow, because I write a lot about race, however obliquely or ironically, a number of people have walked out of my readings after hearing the “n” word or whatever other offense I offer up. So there’s certainly some deafness out there. Or else maybe I'm just an ass—it's hard to tell.
In nature, what is beautiful is often poisonous,
And if it’s beautiful and easy to catch, it’s likely deadly:
This fact supported by naturalists worldwide.
Prophets are sometimes beautiful, and, since often blind,
Are easy to catch: their futures are always deadly.
With poetry, however, even beautiful poetry,
People tend not to get hurt….
But I, beheaded by poetry, must drink the poison of the moon—
It will spill out my throat, scatter in the weightlessness
We learned from 60s TV—everything floated then: men,
Wars, food, gods, even nature itself—remember?
This from an old myth about an eclipse, Hindu or Buddhist,
And it’s about desire or immortality—maybe both, who knows?
Lately, I’ve spent more time in nature, whatever that means,
Often wearing space-age textiles, whatever that means,
And sometimes all nature is stainless steel, whole forests
Impervious to storm: When the wind blows there, it sounds
Like when you whet your knife. Other times all nature
Is made of flesh: When the wind blows then, it sounds like
When you whet your knife against my throat….
Anyhow, years ago, deep in Louisiana’s nature, I dove
To catch a salt and pepper kingsnake as it slid into the earth,
And I pulled it up. Then it bit me over and over until I could
Calm it, pin its head to the ground: It said, as all prophets do:
You, my love, are easy to catch. Write something
And remember how scared you are right now and always—now let me go.
The snake leapt to its hole and poured in.
Where We Feel It The Most
The man was cockeyed, so when he asked
“Have you ever really known true love?”
all of us mumbled something at once, thinking the question
was personal for our ownselves, as we used to say,
and then we all felt awkward, like we’d maybe revealed
mumblings we might not ought’ve, as we used to say.
All of us, you see, are from the South, and from a time
that might also be called the South, a polite time not far from here,
one you can catch now and then on the radio still....
Anyhow, the cockeyed man was a bartender
and we were his drunks, so it should have been funny
and familiar since no one ever knows who the hell, exactly,
Scott means when he says, What are you having?
We’d been chatting about Lear, wondering if finding true love
his own self, as we used to say, at the end of the play
was enough to give meaning to his life, redeem, redeem, all that--
him with his dead daughter in his arms, and really old too. That’s
when Scott chimed in with his question to whothehellknows,
as we used to say, after saying that true love between
a father and daughter was one, weird, and two, an unsatisfactory
reading of a play that’s really about learning to lie better
in order to survive, more or less, in a godless universe.
Well, even a fucking blind squirrel finds a nut
now and then, as we used to say, we thought, and then
out came that question from delphi there,
and I just looked at you, love, after you mumbled
your whatever that looked like yes, put a napkin to your lips
and looked around at everyone else just looking around....
I mean, how are we supposed to answer a question
like that in mixed company, as we used to say,
meaning godknowswhat, meaning shutthefuckup, really.
And there we were, a shuffling herd at the chute
like for an instant there was a .22
between those big cow eyes of ours, waiting for that little snap
and collapse, the almost truth, all that nonsense, that meaningless shit,
and it took a while to settle back into the drinks and Lear,
how Cordelia suggests both heart and rope,
that surely someone must have been redeemed by now
after four goddamn hours and centuries of talk on top of that.
Anyhow, Scott had a way of giving it to you where you’d feel it the most,
even if you weren’t sure, as we used to say, it were you.
Rock and Roll
Wildly in love in 1982 Los Angeles, John Doe and Exene Cervenka
Gather at a microphone and howl: I’m lost, headed down the highway
In 1979, all over the world, the Bon Scott of AC/DC shouts his anthemic
Highway to Hell in reference, of course, to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Book II,
As Satan stands lost staring into the abyss of Chaos and Old Night
With whom he bargains, etc, etc. Henceforth, and before forth really,
All lost highways lead to hell and everyone rides them, at least for a while.
Willy Loman says, “To be thirty and lost in America, the greatest country
In the world, is a disgrace.” Of course, it’s grace itself that may be the problem
As Willy learns soon enough. If Dante were approaching mid-life today, lost in some
Dark wood, one wonders if he’d simply buy a car and, headed down the highway,
Blast classic rock. Many of the lost buy Porsche’s if they can, the fired-up
Descendent of Hitler’s vision of “the people’s car”, the Volkswagon Beetle,
Engineered by Ferdinand Porsche himself based on Hitler’s sketch,
The quintessential car of the Summer of Love, driven by Dean Stockwell--
or Dean Jones or John Dean, who cares?--
Close friend of Neil Young--in The Love Bug. Dean, a beautiful American
By all accounts, was a junky and very lost. In 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
Could rock with the best of them and was a terrible disgrace. A guitar
Is like a gun is like a cock is like a mic: Simple stuff, says Dr. Freud,
Whose mouth, in the end, look like Kurt’s after he, very lost, stuffed a mic
Down his throat, growled a few remarkably expressive growls, and pulled the trigger.
Photo Credit: Jordy Oakland and Daryl Sanders