Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! The interview focuses on Paul Hoover’s book, desolation : souvenir.
Rusty Morrison: What aspects of your history and/or what particular obsessions of yours do you see apparent in?
Paul Hoover: desolation : souvenir began as a “filling in” of the blank spaces in A Tomb for Anatole, Paul Auster’s translation of Mallarmé’s grief-stricken notes for a poem that he never completed on the death of his ten-year-old son. However, my writing soon turned to my own consideration of life, death, the breaking of family relations and loss of love as experienced by all of us:
when death plays
with a child
it goes out nimble
comes back cold
life that traitor
aboard a razor boat
Written in three terse stanzas, each of the poem’s 50 pages offers a phrase that becomes the title of its opposite number at the other end of the manuscript. I wanted to create a haunting echoic effect that would become especially rich as the phrases “cross” at the middle of the sequence. At times, the poem mourns the loss of the earth itself:
what will be enough
when the earth
contains no one
will the harvest still be full
no bees in the hive, no hive
sound returns to its bell
Inspired by my reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the companion poem, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” consists of a series of philosophical propositions in everyday language: “An object is the actual awaiting further action. / It can wait a long time. / Time is fresh in objects even when they decay. / You can’t give one example of time getting old.” Another series of thoughts begins:
An object is the actual awaiting further action.
It can wait a long time.
Time is fresh in objects even when they decay.
You can’t give one example of time getting old.
Another series of thoughts begins:
Have you ever gazed from a window to see if everything’s still there?
And seen your own face in the glass, superimposed on the view?
Consciousness rests among its objects.
Which makes the objects restless.
RM: How might you compare this book to your previous books?
PH: In recent years, my poetry has also become increasingly project-oriented. For instance, Poems in Spanish consists of poems written as if in Spanish; Sonnet 56 contains 56 formal variations of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56. In desolation : souvenir, the two long poems can be described as lyric proceduralism, especially the title poem.
RM: What interesting story might surprise readers about the inception or process of writing this book?
PH: “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” was written in 2007 at the Universal Hotel in Rosario, Argentina.
RM: Why would a reader want to choose to read this collection of poems now? Or. . .what issues arise for you with respect to this work?
PH: This book speaks to the essential and universal rather than to matters of politics and history. Poetry can ask what rain is saying or wonder how it would be:
to awaken as an owl
hear the mice traipsing
The title poem inquires of a former sweetheart:
what will last of us
stir of you in the bed
warmth I can only remember
who will say your name
who puts his words in you
Likewise, in a later section:
crimes of the heart
confetti all over the bed
mother and father
travel without a map
one twisted, one deviant being
when love is being made
Poetry can also make philosophical statements, such as:
There is no freedom for objects with names.
They’re stuck being themselves.
For example, you can’t rename a thing.
It would alter the world too much.
What instead would you call ‘scissors’?
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently? Do you see any direct or indirect similarities between their work and your own?
PH: Many contemporary poets write long serial poems and sequences. But those doing so with lyrical intensity are few. The poets I am drawn to include Michael Palmer’s Autobiography series in Promises of Glass (New Directions, 2000) and his Fragment and Classical Study series in Thread (New Directions, 2011); recent books of Ann Lauterbach including Hum (Penguin Poets, 2005) and Or to Begin Again (Penguin Poets, 2009); and the gnostic word play of Andrew Joron in Trance Archive (City Lights Books, 2010). The thrust of Lauterbach especially is outward, resulting in long, sweeping movements, where the muchness of the language can fall to vacancy. The pinch of Joron is toward the word, albeit the word in its multiple and homophonic relations (weight / wait).
All three poets are sizeable in their achievement as poets and also different, but all share the practice of abstract lyric, in which thought and song are joined. Because of the song-like element, the thought is given pleasure. In the modern period, it was developed most successfully in the work of Wallace Stevens. In the Palmer work above, we can also feel the influence of e.e. cummings.
RM: What, specifically, were some of the most interesting or most daunting challenges you faced as you worked through this text? Were there any unexpected surprises—with respect to form or content—that opened in the text for you in the writing process?
PH: In writing the poem “desolation : souvenir,” I was faced with the possibility that I was drawing power from someone else’s grief. This concern faded as I proceeded further into the writing. It is always a challenge, of course, to create ex nihilo. I was not working from memory of a narrative of my own life but rather with shreds of feeling. I found that my chosen form—unpunctuated, lower case couplets—was very helpful in approaching this burden of silence and white paper. Each short line must maintain the tension of a step taken. It can move forward or swerve; it can conclude or extend something already proposed, but it must be active and maintain the quietness of the tread.
I had already investigated quietness in the long serial poem “Edge and Fold” (2006):
lake bed quiet
covered with snow
windows shining orange
because of certain dusts
invisible to the eye
even the road is silent
not a single tire moving
along with its cold
Thus presence and size are achieved through absence and minimal phrasing.
In “desolation : souvenir,” the pressures are of world and fate, the living world shaken by its knowledge of death. The form of the couplet is retained but given more room for development in the triadic stanzas of each page. In “sound returns to its bell”:
the absolute if there is one
the darkest thoughts are trees
with a hint of light behind them
life has been and is
a miracle death discovers
in the farthest well-lit room
what had been silent
staggers back to its voice
only the sound of life
houses without doors
moral fish and moral laws
let me sink my teeth in that
now that all is gone
this thought is on its own
go, my carrion nouns
seek what you have found
In short, I view these poems as an argument or plea-bargaining with eternity. The “engine” of expression is the paradox of being itself, what is in struggle with what is not. For example:
that which passes
waiting for its meaning
how’s this for a thought
poetry tears the cloth
even as it repairs it
The book’s second long work, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” has a structure similar to Ron Silliman’s long poem, “The Chinese Notebook”: that of a numbered series of propositions. Because I worked my way through the entire Tractatus Philosophicus in producing the poem, I see my poem as closer to Wittgenstein than Silliman’s, which comments primarily on poetry.
RM: You chose the artwork that was used in the cover design for this translation. Can you talk about your reasons for this choice?
PH: I typed the word “desolation,” into the Google search engine and it took me to some images on Flickr, the image-sharing site. Many of the images were of wastelands and debris. But as I continued the search I came across the work of someone who went by the name of “an untrained eye.” His images had a bright melancholy and intensity of attention different from the others. The image I selected was taken in a subway station, gazing up through a concrete hollow onto the floor above, where a man happened to be resting on his elbows. But it was the warm ring of gold light surrounding his blue-gray figure that made the image special. In his Flickr notes, “an untrained eye” indicates that he waited for half an hour until something happened within that ring of light that brought his camera to attention. The same was true for the making of these poems. Sometimes you can sense that a certain place has promise for you—that clearing of trees, for instance in the movie Blowup. You keep photographing it even though nothing is there, because you sense something will emerge. For me the “draw” was every aspect of the book design of the aging Mallarmé volume, from the fading trees on its pale green cover to the darkening paper within.
Paul Hoover is the author of fifteen books of poetry including Desolation: Souvenir, En el idioma y en la tierra (bilingual edition translated by María Baranda), Sonnet 56, Edge and Fold and Poems in Spanish, which was nominated for the Bay Area Book Award. With Maxine Chernoff, he edited and translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, which won the PEN USA Translation Award in 2009. With Nguyen Do, he edited and translated the anthology, Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry. Beyond the Court Gate: Poems of Nguyen Trai, edited and translated with Nguyen Do, was published in 2010.