Bob Hicok interview, with John Hoppenthaler
It's a pleasure to feature these poems and chat with you a bit, Bob; you're a poet I've admired for a long time. Even though we’re the same age, I kinda feel like you’ve been around forever, you know? I also think we share some aesthetic space as poets. That makes me happy.
Your poems display, on some level, what we might call narrative conventions, but what sets your poems aside from the work of other poets whose work I love and whose poems are as generous with humor as are your own—poets like, say, Stephen Dunn and David Kirby—is the associative, quirkily meditative quality that mark your poems as uniquely yours. Your mind at work intrigues me, and the unexpected places your poems often end up are often revelatory for me. How did you arrive at this way of writing a poem? I think for me, when I am successful at writing a poem from this neighborhood, it feels like I might owe it to the study of the narrative poets of the generation or two before ours—Kinnell, Hugo, Roethke, Dave Smith and others—with a jigger or two of Frank O’Hara, maybe a splash of Mark Halliday. How about you?
Thank you. I feel somehow I’ve been called an old and tap-dancing giraffe, which I like. I just write what comes to mind, such as “I feel somehow I’ve been called an old and tap-dancing giraffe.” If it interests me—the thing I put down—I keep going. If it doesn’t, I erase it. This morning, sitting at my desk, I felt stuck—not with writing, but with my life. I wrote a few lines that felt labored and boring, clunky, erased them and wrote, “I’m a long way down river/before I realize I’ve left my canoe on top of the car.” Why that showed up, where it came from—I have no idea. It wasn’t intentional, wasn’t based on my reading of other poets or part of a conscious aim I had for the poem. The generative parts of my brain—the parts that write things down on little slips of paper and show these slips to the rest of my brain—I mostly work for them, listen to them when I write. But my conscious mind—the language it reaches for, sifts through—has always trusted my instinctual mind. I write the way I think and talk. In other words, I am myself.
Some of the poems here seem the poems of a middle-aged guy thinking about stuff that other middle-aged guys find depressing. I’m thinking of the concern “Older” seems to have with memory and the reflection in “All in all, a lot has happened,” the half-line in it that reads, “I'm dying not to die . . . “ Maybe, especially, as I wait for my own mother in a nursing home to pass from here, I’m thinking of the heartbreaker, “A medical breakthrough.” Does this worry you as much as it does me? Is there a point where our audience is redefined as a consequence of our changing subject matter? How much of the poems you write are for you and how much for the reader? You’ve said elsewhere that you don’t much think about readers as you find it “presumptuous” and “creepy,” yet there they are. You have a lot of fans, whatever that means for a working-class sorta poet.
Sorry about your mother.
I absolutely don’t think about people reading my poems. I don’t know how I could, especially given my response to the first question. To think of a reader—and I mean while writing—would be to try to pass my mind through a hypothetical mind (or minds) while I’m trying to let my mind come into existence, trying to let it be itself. There’s too much vetting in that, too much stopping the flow of consciousness, and it’s a vetting that’s too conjectural to be of use. I also fear how much we push out, how much we don’t say when we let normative thinking in, as people, let alone poets. I write to meet my mind, give it a chance to wear the body of language, to see it in front of me. I publish to give my mind a chance to go out and live in the world.
Not sure the kind of worry you’re thinking of. But yes—to the audience question—audiences change. I don’t see kids being very interested in these poems, and poetry—at least in this country—is ruled by the young. In my current book, I have poems about erectile dysfunction. I’m not picturing too many twenty year olds saying to their friends, Dude, did you read Hicok’s latest bad-boner poem? Again—that’s nothing I can or should focus on. I’m 56. I can’t write 36 or 26. I hope there’s still and always a kind of zest or verve or shimmery fandango going on in what I do. But I have to—want to—write as close to this second, this right now, as I can.
Another thing I love about many of your poems is that they are irreverent and risky: not in a gratuitous sense but in a way that gets to the marrow and allows the poems to reverberate in a bigger canyon. I’ve told you that one of my favorite poems of yours is the mildly irreverent “By their Works." I think folks can Google that one on Verse Daily. In this group, goodness, you take a great risk by employing a wholly realistic first person online porn aficionado in “A definition of hollow.” Jeez, it really makes a reader feel the speaker knows whereof he speaks: “I spend hours looking for the right combination / of smile and hip, skirt and areola, for eyes / that seem happy, that help me forget / there's a director off-camera saying Faster.” Was research required for this poem?
None. We swim in porn. In my life, it’s been everywhere. And I’m as stuck on certain shapes, curves, softnesses as anyone. Men really are captured by images. Porn’s addictive because there’s never an arrival, because it’s not real, not love. No one ever finds an image and says, O my god, there she/he is, it’s over, I’ll never go looking again. There’s a psychological mechanism that drives a lot of what we do—we’re addicted to things which give us certain but intermittent and unpredictable rewards. Gambling. Drugs. It’s also known as “fun failure,” because our failures—all the times we pull the slot and don’t win—increase our excitement, our desire for the payoff. Porn falls in this category. There’s something we’re searching for beyond any and all the tits and ass. Some combination that clicks a very particular set of tumblers into place. I’ve recognized this in myself and have fought it as long as I can recall. Indulged it too, but mostly fought it because I think little good comes of it. The objectification of women is also the objectification of men. We all get reduced into something static and lifeless when appearance is confused for—substituted for—substance. Images aren’t what we really want, but certain images remind us of something we’ve had or want to have, a sense of connection or belonging.
And I have to say – as scolding as it sounds—there’s no risk in this. The risk is all in not saying, not being who you are, not being. I don’t know how this got started, us patting each other on the back, high-fiving, when what we’re talking about is doing our jobs. We’re supposed to say stuff to each other that matters. I really am being rude here to you, John, and I’m sorry. But this has long mystified me. Risk is going into a burning building.
This is a great answer, and I don't find it rude at all as I agree. The back patting part especially, as we are privileged to live in a culture where we can write practically anything we want and face no real repercussions. Perhaps that is one reason poetry of the United States doesn't have the same cultural value and gravitas as poetry might in other countries where writing a poem puts one's life at risk. As you say, this is our job and it's largely a somewhat cushy job.
The familiar question of “what’s at stake in a poem” is really “what’s at stake in your life?” Academic American poetry is very insular and still largely white and middle class. It’s often the poetry of settled matters. And while this is changing—the status quo I mean, the demographics of who we are, the nature of the problems that are being given voice in poetry—trouble, which is a generative wheel in art, is largely personal, not social, in most of the poetry I read in magazines and from students. And while I think this poetry can be incredibly vital, if you don’t have or aren’t developing an instinct for how your life speaks to and connects to the lives of others, if you can’t write a self-focused poem that opens into a social act, well, that’s when the “navel gazing” claims ring true.
In a 2007 interview with Matthew Siegel (who graduated from the same high school as me, by the way) in Gulf Coast, you talked about associative poems and revision, identifying a feeling that sometimes happens when something is off in a poem, a feeling you call “jangly”: “I'll feel an almost physical irritation while writing them, as I go back and re-read what I've put down. Like there's no core, no motive evolving among the elements of the poem, no generative momentum . . . When it's not there—when a poem has that jangly, disconnected feel—a line, a phrase, doesn't naturally lead to the next. The poem has to be pushed.” Was there a point in the process of any of the poems represented here where “jangle” was an issue? If so, how did you de-jangle the thing?
Well, the truth is I can’t remember now what you took, and I’m not about to go back and look. I remember being very happy with what you selected, remember liking the poems when I went through them after I got your yes. But the odds are great that if I look at them now, I’ll cringe, I’ll want to give up writing for lumberjacking or professional skeet-shooting, both of which I failed in high school.
That’s cool about you and M.S. going to the same high school. I wonder if you ever sat in the same desks.
In general, though, if a poem has that jangly feeling, it means I’ve lost the thread, the sense of what connects the lines, means there’s no through-put. Usually I can go back and look for the point where I lost that. And the that itself— the sense of what a poem’s about or headed—usually shows up a couple lines in, and is the result of noticing the shape that my mind is taking, the opportunity that’s presenting itself in the images or the nature of the language I’ve happened to put down. To get back on track, I try to remind myself of that feeling, that sense of critical mass. Of course, because we’re writing the same poem or few poems over and over—because we each have a nature—these images and thoughts are usually patterned to begin with.
G.K. Chesterton insisted, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” Here’s your big chance.
While I’ve not written about cheese, I’ve written with cheese. This whole interview was first written out with a chunk of Camembert. I like his hair. From picture to picture, it moves around his head like an itinerant crash of clouds. He paraphrases Heraclitus—You can never step under the same hairdo twice.
Thank you, Bob!
You’re welcome. And thank you, John. For taking the poems, asking the questions, showing interest. I hope your mom’s doing well.
All I asked for when I turned five
was to be a bear. Imagine my disappointment
opening the box and still being
a boy after and still being
a boy now, decades later,
when I don't recall what I got or most
of years one through fifty five,
except they're gone. Memory's weird. I had to shave
my balls once, that much I remember, but not why.
You'd think I'd never let that go,
what with the nicks and cuts, the bending over
and looking a first time upside down
at what I'd hardly looked at at all.
Even that thing you said a minute ago
about your father, I think, or going again
to Paris, where is it now,
Paris I mean, it's little more
than a bunch of shrugs and Rue Whatevers
in my mind. One out of three people
our age will have dust for brains
by the time this hootenanny's over, and you and I
are two out of three people our age, so you do
the wrath. Vengeance is mine
sayeth possessive people who want vengeance.
I want you. My habit
of running into whatever room
you're in to say hi, don't confuse it
with working out, it's me
taking an inventory, making sure
you're still there because I don't trust
quantum mechanics or regular mechanics,
for that matter, have a habit
of wiping their oily hands on a rag
and saying, that'll cost you. Erasure,
that'll cost you everything you've got.
A medical breakthrough
My mother can't breathe well
between the table and the counter.
I've planted an apple tree
half way for her to lean on. In fall
I'll rake the leaves. In fall
I'll eat the apples. Come winter,
fishermen will cut circles in lakes
and pretend the holes are summer
until it's true. One
out of a million people
levitate of natural causes.
She can't breathe well
between the couch and kitchen,
between her heart and lungs,
between god and the devil.
I've given her house an orchard
as full of shade as she is dying,
as full of apples as was her womb
that lent the world seven children,
one for every day of the week.
I am Thursday. Thursday
has black hair. Thursday
has two limps. Thursday
has a shovel. All these places to rest
before her journey resumes.
All these places for sparrows
to sing for themselves
but we cheat and listen.
A definition of hollow
Tiny gifs. Rows of images of women
bent over cocks, begging to be sprayed with come,
rubbing their clits, having their asses licked
and licking back. Row after row as I press
the down arrow, the screen filling from the bottom
with silent mini-movies until I take my finger away.
Each woman repeating the same caress or pout
without fail, in a loop that has no end if power
has no end. An orgy of fetish and solitude.
I get up. From ten feet it's a pointillist painting.
I see a squirming mouse in the mouth of a cat.
I can read Stephen Hawking or press the down arrow
to conceptualize infinity. The universe is expanding,
just like porn is expanding our addiction to orgasm.
I feel trapped. It's a needle-in-a-haystack thing.
I spend hours looking for the right combination
of smile and hip, skirt and areola, for eyes
that seem happy, that help me forget
there's a director off-camera saying Faster.
I've read that watching sex has the same effect
on the brain as having sex, so I am watching
having. I am erasing myself from gravity
and touch. I am smashing the laptop I bought
just for this. Porn makes me feel dumber
than calculus ever did. I'm sorry—the calculus.
As if there are other calculuses out there.
As if I'm nothing more than an erection and a hand.
A biography free of exhaustive research
I accidentally found George Plimpton charming
on PBS when I was depressed and planning
nothing more exciting for the evening
than eating my eyeballs—in part
it was realizing the Paris Review
was started by such a tall and gangly man
and in part I admired that he never spoke
or wrote about being a few feet from his friend
Bobby Kennedy when Kennedy was shot
and decided to like him for this reticence
the rest of my life—I don't know
what it is about patricians who establish
famous American literary magazines
and write books about playing football
with the Detroit Lions that I find
as soothing as hummingbirds coming and going
from the mouths of flowers, but there you have it—
his smile seemed a bicycle he was always riding
and his life appeared so shiny and admirable
that I wanted to steal it,
as one sometimes wants to climb a rope
out of one's my own life, except the part
when his children said that his secret
to being the star of parties and yachts
was that you never got to know him deeply
and he never got to know you deeply—
the son in particular wounded me
saying this kind of thing, so much
that I considered drilling through the TV
to rub his forehead where it knotted
and scrunched—going so far as to wonder
what kind of drill bit would be appropriate
and if anyone can really be helped
across distance, which is also time,
according to what Einstein told us
about the physical laws of empathy—
I don't know what makes me sadder:
that the Paris Review isn't what it was
or how rarely literary people
are any better at being human
than anyone else, and are often worse
at simple things like groceries and decency
Meet and greet
I hold the Adirondack Chair in Poetry
and Barbecue Grill Cleaning. My secret is
I throw out the grill each time
and buy a new one. I've a standing order
at Home Depot. Another tip: make students
read the Iliad until bored enough
that one of them commits suicide,
usually by hanging. Their desire
to avenge their classmate
will lead to clear writing
about why and how you should die.
When they burn out on hate, suddenly
they'll remember beauty and youth,
they'll want to become horses
running across the open west,
not metaphorical but actual horses,
yet since the west isn't open anymore
and they'll never be horses, despite
what plastic surgeons tell them,
even the ones with single-stroke engines
for brains will see that imagination
loves them more than their mothers.
For a week, you'll get the best writing
they have to give, now or in the future,
in this or any life, they'll love you
and you'll love them, not in the creepy
Title IX way, but make sure you're up
on your certification anyway,
you can do it on-line now, what a weird world
that we need to tell each other
not to do what obviously
should never be done. Sorry, I get distracted:
a bunny just hopped across the yard,
I adore them—the ears, the softness—
but also that they bring the hawks,
who make me look up, I feel better
when I look up, even if it's to watch
a taloned bunny fly away. It's sad, for sure,
and I cry, I cry a lot, I'm crying now
and inside my crying, there's someone crying
about the crying, that it can't stop,
ever, for us. So it's sad, indeed,
but it's also a bunny flying, a bunny
with sort-of wings, a bunny
who has at least one chance
to look down on the world and think,
wow. Or whatever the bunny-version
of wow is. Putting aside, you know, the panic.
It just so happens Eve started spotting at fifty two
on the day before health insurance prices were raised
twenty six point eight percent in Connecticut
for three hundred twenty six thousand,
two hundred and ninety one people
who I'm sure are all rich, healthy, well-balanced
in the sense of ballet or jai alai, which takes
more balance and fearlessness than hopscotch
by far. Connecticut, the third-least favorite state
to spell on every survey taken in the last twelve years.
Let's all hope together across the wires and spaces
of poetry that Eve is fine, for you retroactively,
for me, hyperactively until I know for a fact
that her days will go on piling in the misremembered
mishmash of joy and ache impossible to sort out
in complexity from particle physics. Meanwhile
"It's getting so you can't afford to get sick"
is a thing people are saying in addition to
"white wine goes well with fish." Except
for the fish. Some one or some fish is always
on the losing end of the meal, some grain or fruit.
I can't remember what the bonuses were this year
for insurance execs, I think it was a case
of Oreos and monogrammed post-it notes,
though I recall very clearly it cost me a grand
to go to the hospital when I had kidney stones
and that's with insurance. I like being alive
while Eve is alive and our cat is alive and grass
is amazingly resilient, more of a colony
than a series of individual blades I can pick
and press between my thumbs and blow on
as one would an oboe or clarinet to turn grass
into a reed, together
we are terrible at Brahms
but an unfettered device of praise
no less. This is what I want a company
to insure, more picking on grass
or leaving lawns alone, more parents
watching more bad high school Shakespeare, for who
at seventeen gets Lear, more holding hands
of lovers and children, more Yippee Skippy ice cream
and ball valves and the whispering of an ocean
from far off to come closer and be refused
its secrets. What does it profit a man
except profit if a tongue depressor
costs nineteen dollars and thirty seven cents?
And I don't want my tongue depressed anyway.
I want it happy, want it singing or poised to sing
or ready at a moments notice to find
one of those places on Eve that make her happy
and do its job. But I'm just a poet.
What does a poet know about the eventual failure
of market economies that depend more and more
on consumer spending to keep profits growing
in a system not unlike the expanding universe,
in that if prices get too high, the whole thing
will collapse to a point of infinite mass
and gravity, I mean a point of infinite greed
and stupidity, I mean capitalism
is a beautiful though indifferent system
that requires the leavening of common sense?
Which is to say we're screwed. Eve is spotting
and what if it's necessary soon or eventually
to bankrupt ourselves to keep her alive
to be poor? Certainly seven or five thousand
or some number of people are asking that question
right now, minus the Eve and the what if.
I wish I'd never started this poem.
One man's vision of forestry
Trees never look silly
and never hurt anyone
except in rare instances
when they attack. Even then,
all they can do is fall
on assholes and they fall
so slowly the assholes
usually run away. I like it
when I'm running and my shadow's
keeping up or even
getting a little ahead
of not being real. Something in me
wants to put my arms around
and mother it, but I know mother's
a word that puts a lot of pressure
on everyone so I try not to use it.
Like death. I try not to use
that word when I mean astrophysics,
but sometimes I slip up
and don't meet Stephen Hawking,
as I just didn't. My goal—
my only real goal—
is to show him my head
as proof that black holes exist.
Look at light entering, I'd say,
and now look at light
not leaving, if a non-event
is a thing you can see.
I think he'd like that question—
is a non-event a thing
you can see? I know I'd feel better
about my time on this planet
if just once I made
Stephen Hawking happy
and twice stood under a tree
I thought was saying hey to me
and not just bantering
with the wind. A friend
has the hey experience
almost every time he's in the woods,
but if I go with him, the trees
get shy and stand-offish.
It's like I break something
but I want to fix something,
preferably something big
like climate change.
Step one—leave trees alone.
Step two—leave the sky alone.
Do you too get the feeling
that step three is obviously