Camille Dungy with H.L. Hix

Camille Dungy. Photo courtesy of WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson
Camille Dungy. Photo courtesy of WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson.

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011). 

H. L. Hix: The “way we carry on” appears in the book at least twice (pages 6 and 19), and in both cases it sustains a double entendre: carry on as in act out and carry on as in continue.  Then there is a lot of other carrying: at 21, 23, 31, 37 and perhaps others I didn’t catch. Plus holding on (44) and going on (69).  Even if I didn’t have other grounds, I would know from your Black Nature anthology of your attunement to sustainability as an ecological issue. Am I way off base to read Smith Blue as drawing on, and drawing out, an analogy between ecological and emotional sustaining?

Camille Dungy: No. You are not off base.

Paisley Rekdal with H.L. Hix

Paisley Redkal
Paisley Redkal

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Paisley Redkal’s Animal Eye (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

H. L. Hix: Two things I notice about these poems seem related to one another. One is that they make important distinctions such as respecting a thing for itself and respecting it for our imagination of it (3) and the head versus the heart (17). Another is that betweenness seems regularly present (again, just a couple of examples out of several: between the real and the imagined [31], and “the brief air between us” [82]).  Are such contrasts and “betweennesses” important to the poems, and are they related to one another?

Paisley Rekdal: If I had to point to one theme that I think I return to, in one form or another, it’s our understanding of what comprises intimacy, whether it’s between people or between people and the natural world. I think our general imagination of intimacy is fairly limited: we tend to think of it as meaning the sexual or emotional connection between people in a defined relationship. The result of this is that we also tend to think of our attempts to become intimate with others in limited, physical ways, rather than in harder to define ways, such as artistic, philosophical or even legal representation. I think the particular problems of representation—of the self, of the “other”—really haunt most of my recent work. In particular, I’m interested in how the ways in which we get represented in the world often become the basis for how others around us become familiar or intimate with us. There’s always a gap between what we appear to be and what we are, a gap that—as a biracial woman—I think has been literalized for me in my life due to my shape-shifting appearance. Depending on who sees me, for instance, I am either Asian or white, something instantly “nameable” (thus made familiar) or further and further exoticized. I don’t think this is only or even primarily about race, however, but about the ways in which all humans have to choose to represent their identities and their ideas, in art and in language. This, to me, is the essential “betweenness” in which we all live: between a “real” self and a socially imagined self. This is why issues of art and artistic production are everywhere in the book. Also, obviously, images of animals, because I think that the ways in which we imagine and respond to animals really get at the heart of our problems of representation. I have three dogs, and I’m constantly amazed by how they have been bred to essentially fit into our human world, often with “human-like” attributes without ever being human. Reading the work of philosophers like Peter Singer, I’m struck again and again by how difficult it is for us to imagine how we might treat animals in a moral or “humane” way without having to make them human. Essentially, are we willing to give rights to creatures not based on our successful anthropomorphizing of them but based on the fact that they are their own beings? And how do we make that kind of argument without, at some level, anthropomorphizing them, making them more and more like us in our imagery? But if we see ourselves in animals (or try to see ourselves in animals), we also see animals in ourselves, which often gives rise to some of our worst and most racist language and imagery, something else I explore in one of the poems in this collection. But the “betweenness” we experience living and caring for animals is, I think, an intensely captured microcosm of the “betweenness” we experience living with each other, and I think it was one of the only analogies I could use to help me begin to explore the costs and consequences of our representations of ourselves.

 


Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography entitled Intimate and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope and Animal Eye. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House and on National Public Radio among others.

Jennifer Chang with H.L. Hix

Jennifer Chang
Jennifer Chang

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008).

H. L. Hix: In the first few lines of the first poem, the word “unctuous” appears; the final section of the book is “A Move to Unction.” What about unction makes it important to these poems?

Jennifer Chang: I wrote the title poem, “The History of Anonymity” roughly three years after writing “A Move to Unction.” At first, I hadn’t intended to put the poems in the same manuscript, but as I revised “The History of Anonymity” I realized that both lyric sequences are preoccupied with the process of emotional and existential recovery and both express an almost spiritual fervor. I settled on the word “unction” because of its religious and sacred connotations, but I wanted a secularized “unction,” which I hope in my poems connotes a state of heightened attention that enables healing and restorative contemplation.

I also realized that to put two long lyric sequences in one book would be challenging, so when I was revising “The History of Anonymity” I decided that the language had to work harder for the poems to connect to each other. I used “unctuous” because it anticipates the “unction” of the book’s conclusion, but unlike “unction,” the word “unctuous,” as a descriptor is more tactile and sensual. If we think of the shift from the words “unctuous” to “unction” as a sort of miniscule drama or narrative arc within the book, it could suggest a shift from the bodied to the disembodied, the material to the spiritual.

Yunte Huang with H.L. Hix

Yunte Huang
Yunte Huang

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy and other ideals and practices he values) and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Yunte Huang’s CRIBS (Tinfish Press, 2005).

H. L. Hix: Found texts (or texts presented as found texts—I didn’t try to check) appear throughout the book as early as “Nearly Half of Crib Deaths. . . ” (8). They seem to me to help introduce thematic concerns and to create a dynamic tension with the “made-up” poems’ interest in language itself (by attending to the referents of language). Are those roles at all related to your own purposes in including such found texts?

Yunte Huang: “Words as they are” is certainly one of the central concerns of CRIBS. As such, they are subject to cribbing in the sense of borrowing, stealing, plagiarizing, (mis)translating and so on. I didn’t provide citations for the “found texts” because the book sets out to undermine the idea of originality. It would be poetically self-defeating to provide citation. The found texts, as you have keenly observed, are treated as my “made-up” poems.

Abraham Smith with H.L. Hix

Abraham Smith
Abraham Smith

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy and other ideals and practices he values) and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon (Action Books, 2007).

H. L. Hix: A reader from a certain educational background [read: a background like mine, may Miss Wilson rest in peace] would not be able to read a short poem called “Eagles” (24) without thinking of Tennyson’s much-anthologized short poem called “The Eagle.”  May I ask you to take that juxtaposition (which I take as more contrast than comparison) as an occasion for saying something about what you are trying to resist in your poetry?

Abraham Smith: Ah yups the tennyson eagle poem / i read it in a lawnchair whilst cousins batted a badminton birdie, perhaps 14 years ago / lilac bleeding into the mosquito whinnying wind / have no ms wilson to nod skyward to / thats a bit of a half bit brineless pickle / ways in which poetry is not there for us in the lions share of pub education / in one class we memorized one frost poem / snowy harness bells / some years later we “read” the iliad / this “reading” worked thusly: we were handed a xerox with 25 questions / read, then answer the questions / the answers to the xerox were stapled to the wall / and so, we loitered / donning the faux mask of faux earnestness / count 25 faux glances down at sundry clanking aegises / then sashay over to the wall, write down the answers / then sit back down / then wait to be handed 25 more questions / then loiter, then etc. / anon / talk about a yawning lion wortha education / i hope the whim book, the poetics stamped in there / i hope the whim jig does not resist / i hope it’s that abandoned barn there with vines going in at the windows / i hope bats and broken baseballs and bad breath coyotes and mice and foxes all do the buffalo shuffle in there / i s’pose the ink pot is not poetry so much as the ink black flambeau river and my early yearning haunting feeling thereabouts / the book is pretty much one adolescent pinch with screaming eyes pretty much / i guess it’s a roethke trampoline / i guess it’s roethke and dylan thomas hoboing across a frozen lake / call it rousseau with a musky fish for a walkin stick / if the book resists something it’s the unsurprised fellas who laugh back in the back of their throat and think of the wild as something to kill or to tamp back down or to tame / fence that in there / i hope i am tattling on them / i hope each word feels endangered / hope i am letting the birds in through the windows without the glassy neck / let me hobo on the peaked back of an emily d bird / let me go to heaven all along / mr. bobolink link up / how haunted i am by eagles / by rivers / i love that a young boy can bring the river home in his ears / that that can be painful / i love that a thick young man with a barrel chest and eight ten guns back home can be casually talking about this or that win or gun or winsome wind brought down the shot that woulda dropped the buck / i love that just then back deep in the woods where a little clearing opens / an eagle will swoop down and lift a fawn right off the ground and it’s adios humdrum barrel chest dude / i hope the book stands as preachment to my sundry hauntings / i love how hushed i was in that lawnchair / i love my totems: birds, wolves, and bears / i have spent most of my life trying to eye them / maybe even more than poetry they are my reading life / they the three who tear my mouth off and take it away / i hope whim works as my lost ramble, asking this: you seen my mouth? of every other pine birch and maple . . .

Julie Carr with H.L. Hix

Julie Carr

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2010).

H. L. Hix: Re. § 31: Why must? Why here? (I don’t mean this only/primarily as an interrogation of the particular words in this sentence, but as one way of enriching my sense of the whole book’s structure.) The contrast between what “we” were (truthfully?) told and what the boy was (deceptively) told also seems significant and “structural.”

Julie Carr: While writing this project I found myself avoiding (out of fear) certain stories that felt too close to home. The story of the Capitol Hill Rapist was one such story. I knew I had to confront it/him because my intention was precisely to confront fears and to examine the violence that was nearest to me. “Here,” had to be placed 1/3 of the way into the book because it was there that such avoidance became obvious. But it also has to be “here” in the sense that my challenge in this book was not to pretend that violence is always elsewhere but to see into the ways in which it is always right “here.”

Throughout the process of writing and then constructing the book I tried to balance the lyrical with more objective and descriptive moments. I did not only want to “tell it like it is,” I also wanted to explore the inner-states of the person who I attempted to see and to describe. And I wanted to write from the particular music of the states of mind or emotion that arose. Some sections demanded a narrative or more flatly descriptive mode while others needed to remain lyrical and open, even fragmentary.

The boy in this poem is a real boy and what his parents said was also real. Obviously, any child would know that “she had an ow-y and she fell down,” was not an accurate way of describing what he saw. The utter failure of the parents to explain what he saw speaks to me about one of the central and anguishing aspects of this project. We do not want our children to know what they know. We do not want to tell them what we cannot help but tell them. And thus, protection fails; innocence is false. Something else must be taught to them, which is to say, something else must be taught to us. And that something else, I think, is that we must live within the paradox of our awareness of suffering coupled with our experiences of pleasure, hope, even joy. This is not an easy or even stable realization. The parents lie to the child in order for him to go on living. He knows they are lying, but he knows also that they are lying out of love and that love is powerfully contrasting and coexisting with the woman’s death.

Noah Eli Gordon with H.L. Hix

Noah Eli Gordon

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Noah Eli Gordon’s A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (New Issues, 2007).

H. L. Hix: The explicit subject of “An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent” (12) is music, of course, but I am inclined also to take “not by voice / but what precedes it” as one formulation of an aesthetic ideal that the poems in your book pursue. Is that too great a liberty to take with the poem?

Noah Eli Gordon: Explicit subject: music; implicit subject: poetry. I like that you say “one formulation” rather than the formulation, as I believe in the total liberation of the poem as well as the poem of total liberation, but not in the liberty of the poet’s relationship to the poem. Poems govern poets through control and restriction; even the poem trumpeting radical liberation is restrictively fascist. It might love you, its reader, but it doesn’t believe in any god other than itself. It doesn’t understand that there is such a thing as the poet, which means, effectively, there isn’t. I don’t really believe this, yet I’m irrelevant: the poem thinks authorial intention is a nonsense phrase. If I weren’t already completely disenfranchised here, I’d nod my head in disagreement. This is all another way of saying: take whatever liberties you like with the poem; it certainly wouldn’t grant me any.

That said, this ideal might be the question: does thinking occur before one is able to find the language with which one might house it? And if so, is this language then continually playing catch-up and merely a poor substitute or false approximation of thought? And is the poem what arises from the lag time between thought and its articulation? Or is the poem a constructivist attempt to simulate this space? These questions seem to hover over this particular book for me, which I think of as an homage not to the instrument or the amplifier but to the cord connecting the two.

Eileen Myles with H.L. Hix

photo of Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Eileen Myles’s Sorry, Tree (Wave Books, 2007).

H. L. Hix: The only intervention into otherwise “normal” typesetting is the circle around “why” in the very first poem. I took this as a clue that the poems would be asking questions, and as a suggestion that I do the same, though I have no real reason for interpreting it that way. I wonder how you yourself meant that intervention.

Eileen Myles: I felt there was no punctuation that adequately stopped in the splashy way a handwritten circle around a word does. I wanted a real sign, like STOP on a street. I wanted to push through the limitation of the page and be in another medium. I wanted to be standing on a stage. It felt like a performative punctuation. I’m always thinking about the depth of the page, its way of holding more than it generally is assumed to be doing. The circle was throwing its hands up somehow.

Philip Metres with H.L. Hix

Philip Metres

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Philip Metres’s Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2007).

H. L. Hix: Your book starts with the observation that “exclusion of dissenting voices . . . has continued throughout our history” (4), but implies near the end that the exclusion may be more complete now than ever, since “war’s televisual representation . . .  nullified the kinds of lyric responses upon which war resister poets traditionally relied” (197). If the exclusion is more intense than ever, what justifies the sorts of hope you express in your coda?

Philip Metres: There are at least two ways to address this question—via the personal (i.e. my own story vis-à-vis poetry and the peace movement) and intellectually. My own journey through Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 had many stages. It was borne out of an intellectual and poetic attempt to understand the failure and despair of peace activists (myself included) during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when I was a junior in college. I was stunned by what seemed to me a mass psychosis, in which everyone huddled around the television (myself included) as if it were an intense sporting match—but which was a war not unlike any other, though the corpses themselves were disappeared in the official media coverage. Journalists—particularly the television media—seemed more interested in making amends for its purported liberal bias during the Vietnam War, to heal the wounds of the Vietnam defeat; I can see it now as a classic example of what Richard Slotkin called “redemption through violence,” in his pivotal work of American history, Gunfighter Nation.

Barbara Jane Reyes with H.L. Hix

Barbara Jane Reyes

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco (TinFish Press, 2005).

H. L. Hix: The phrase “The opposite of Eden” (33) is applied in its immediate context to Vietnam, but I wonder if you would affirm my sense that it is much more broadly applicable in the book: that a strong current in the book is a depiction of the U.S. as the opposite of the Eden it presents itself as being?

Barbara Jane Reyes: I think of the opposite of Eden in biblical terms; if Eden is Genesis, creation, and paradise, a place of optimism about possibility, then its opposite would be Revelation, destruction, and apocalypse, a place of apprehension about possibility.

The Book of Revelation is interesting to me because of its coded, vivid, metaphorical language. It’s a language against empire, written under the conditions of division and collapse. As an American, this does sound like familiar, contemporary circumstances.

Apocalypse is interesting to me as well; it is not absolute end but the end of something. This is what revolution means: something ends and something else begins. I suppose those who dread apocalypse are those who benefit from the way things currently are.

Robyn Schiff with H.L. Hix

Robyn Schiff

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Robyn Schiff’s Revolver (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2008).

H. L. Hix: “H5N1” clearly responds to “Ode to a Nightingale.” It seems a complex poem, not to be reduced to one theme, but would I be right to include among its complexities a lament for the loss of conditions that would allow a Keatsian romantic relationship to (capital n) Nature?

Robyn Schiff: Thank you for this question, and for offering this reading to me. The poems in Revolver, and “H5NI” in particular, definitely explore the relationship between Nature and Artifice (indeed with a capital N and A!), but I hadn’t myself considered it a lament—though I think you’re onto something I wasn’t aware of at the time. I guess I don’t read “Ode to a Nightingale” so much as a nature poem as a poem about the creative process and the imagination, and I can’t help but to read it through Stevens’ “Autumn Refrain.” I was definitely feeling “a tragic falling off,” as Robert Hass might put it, and in using “Ode to a Nightingale” and leaning on its armature, I suppose I was mourning that fall—which yes, is a fall from grace, an exile from Eden. But there is something very sci-fi about “H5N1”— and its almost hysterical ‘70s-era disaster movie pitch is quite earnest. But I’ve been sitting on your question for several months now (I’m so sorry!); winter turned to spring, and spring to summer. And here I am at this very moment looking into my garden—a garden I didn’t have in my life when I wrote “H5N1”—with such lament I can barely contain it in a poem. How will I ever express what I feel in that garden? That’s part of the poem too, yes, but I didn’t know it at the time of writing . . .