Jonathan Weinert sat down to talk with H. L. Hix during the AWP Conference in Seattle, Washington, on March 1, 2014. They discussed Hix’s latest book of poems, As Much As, If Not More Than, just released by Etruscan Press, as well as his online project IN QUIRE and his critical project Alter Nation, forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse, from which some of his recent poetic material derives.
Jonathan Weinert: These lines, from the poem “A Falling Thing on Fire from Its Fall,” seem to me to address in a rather explicit way the strategies that you use in your new book, As Much As, If Not More Than:
To transform my spills into progress, I try to rhyme
observational studies, developed over time,
with spontaneous, dispersed experiments
meant to surprise laws whose operations we can’t see.
That something is colossal does not make it permanent.
Give me entanglement, and you can keep grandeur.
The built loses to the improvisational.
Its being impossible does not make vain
an attempt to redefine the dominant powers.
As the introductory material states, the notion of this book derives in part from artist statements. As I was reading the book, especially its second section, “As Much As,” I began to feel that you were making something like artist statements in almost every poem, and I started looking at each poem as kind of a statement about its own strategy. I’m interested in what the poems say about your strategy, but I’m also interested in the idea of the artist statement as a strategy. Could you talk about that a little bit?
H. L. Hix: I’m interested in the artist statement as a medium, and have been for a long time. That my first job was at an art institute proved very fortunate for me. The religious community I grew up in—or James Wright—would have called it a blessing. All of my students and most of my colleagues were visual artists. That community offered me an example of how to work, of what it means to make art.
It’s standard practice at a gallery exhibition to present an artist statement to accompany the work, so of course I saw them quite often. I’m fascinated by this institutional practice—that the artist is required to use a medium other than the medium of her art to have a conversation with or about the work. This work about the work seems to come both before and after the work itself. One the one hand, the artist statement is an introduction for the viewer, who might well encounter the artist statement before the work itself. On the other hand, the artist likely produced the statement after producing the work. The artist statement therefore occupies a liminal position, and has a repetitive aspect. It’s a replication of the work, or mimetic in relation to the work.
JW: It’s almost another work that stands next to it somehow and has a relationship with it.
HLH: Yes, some kind of echo or resonance or after-image of the work.
JW: That reflects on what you’ve been doing with the Show & Tell pieces on your blog IN QUIRE, which provide material for the poems in the “As Much As” section. For Show & Tell, you invite artists to contribute a piece of visual art and an artist statement about it, and then you invite a writer to respond to the artwork and artist statement in some way. Each poem in “As Much As” quotes lines from both an artist statement and its accompanying writer’s response. In this way, you extend the idea of creating additional works that begin to cluster around an original work, making a new kind of sequence not imagined before.
HLH: I’m interested in continuities across works, and in how we might be communicating with one another in our works. I think we limit those possibilities if we assume they do, or must always, follow our standard protocols about communication. Our most common kinds of communication follow certain patterns, but it’s not self-evident that communicating with each other using art as the vehicle—whether with literary, visual, musical or whatever form of art—enacts those familiar patterns, or ought to. I’m interested in ways of extending dialogue, of making boundaries porous, so that we can identify with one another more closely—even, in some way, become one another in the communication.
JW: I love this idea of being porous, that there are inlets and outlets, and that it’s possible to create more interchange than there might be otherwise. Does that touch on some of the meanings of the word “spill” that you use so often in this book?
HLH: I love the word “spill” for its delicious sound. I could go on a walk and just say “spill” over and over again! And I love its ambiguity in terms of placement. You can spill out of, or you can spill into. That ambiguity seems analogous to the before-and-after ambiguity of the artist statement.
JW: “Spill” can sometimes have a negative connotation, as in “accident.” I wonder if that sense is connected to “ruin,” another word you use very often in the sequence—although “ruin” is not seen so much as a negative, it seems to me.
HLH: Thank you for noticing the repetitions of those two, and a few other words, in the sequence. You’re right to connect them. Or at least I wanted them to be connected in these poems.
Ruins have their own kind of beauty, even if it’s not the original beauty of the building that the architect and the builders wanted. We’re fascinated with ruins: we put them in museums, we go and visit them. Ruins are haunted; they’re inhabited by the spirits and the ancestors and the gods. There’s a presence to ruins that I find intriguing and that I would like for my poems to have.
JW: There’s a sense that ruins are locations where things may have been lost but where other things can begin, and we can’t necessarily know which is which. Maybe there’s something more interesting going on here than failure, something more than the fact that things have broken down. They may have broken down, but they may also have been repurposed for other means.
HLH: Absolutely. I’ve been reading Niklas Luhmann, the systems theorist. Luhmann describes systems as interpreting surprises. He’s interested in the boundary between the system and the environment, because it’s there at the boundary where things happens. I think of spills and ruins in that way. In the last poem in Leslie Ullman’s most recent book, the speaker loses the turquoise stone from her ring, so she backtracks, looking very closely at the sidewalk. She never finds the bezel, but of course she now actually sees the path that she has just wandered in a way that she didn’t see it before. As in Jared Carter’s poem “After the Rain,” where the speaker walks through newly plowed fields and sees out of the corner of his eyes arrowheads that he wouldn’t see otherwise. One trains one’s attention, but what one sees isn’t necessarily what one trained one’s attention on. What one sees is actually something peripheral. That touches on what we’ve been saying about spills and accidents and ruins. Their beauty and glory is not the originally intended beauty and glory.
JW: So you don’t need to lament the fact that that beauty and glory has fallen into ruin.
HLH: Right. Lamentation and praise start looking a lot alike.
JW: With this book and the related IN QUIRE project, and now with this conversation we’re having, I feel that you’ve been acting as the architect of a system that embraces, or somehow straddles, different intersections among things that we usually consider separate—an artwork, an artist statement about the artwork, the response to the artwork and artist statement by a writer, the poems that quote from the statement and the response to the poems (this conversation, and the transcript of this conversation that will get published so that people can read it and respond to it). There’s a kind of continuity and “ongoingness” about it that wouldn’t happen if genre or structural boundaries were respected and taken for granted, as they so often are.
HLH: To keep the idea of interpreting surprises lingering in this conversation: I want my poems to operate at the boundaries between demarcated zones. I’m interested in the demarcations and the fact that there are demarcated zones, but I’m not so interested in abiding by those demarcations, whether they take the form of received formal parameters, received genre distinctions, received disciplines or received distinctions between media. I’m interested in what happens if we don’t accept the ways that the boundaries have been drawn for us. What if we don’t accept that poetry and visual art are ultimately separate from one another? What if we place a foot in one and a foot in the other? What if we try to break down that boundary or make it porous?
JW: In a way, you’re creating something that we don’t have a name for yet, that kind of hovers in an interstitial space between things that we think we know. That’s an interesting place.
HLH: Yes, it seems to me that it makes some exciting surprises available to us.
JW: Could you talk a little about how IN QUIRE became a source for some of the work you’ve done in As Much As, If Not More Than? I imagine that you didn’t conceive of this book when you started IN QUIRE several years ago, but that the book somehow grew out of that project.
HLH: There was definitely an element of the unforeseen. You were in a unique position to track and observe how that happened, as the brilliant designer of my website!
I’ve never known how to fulfill my pragmatic obligation as an author to support my books. I feel awkward about self-promotion and I’ve never figured out how to be effective at it. I don’t mean by that to imply backhandedly that I’m above it. We’re under obligation to publishers who make investments in our work, and naturally we ourselves want the work to get out and find readers. Self-promotion is necessary, but unfortunately I’m bumbling and incompetent and uncomfortable with it. In any case, I felt obliged to have a website, although I’m not sure that it has had any effect. But if I was going to have a website, I wanted it to have some purpose in addition to self-promotion, so I thought that a blog could be a part of it. With any luck, the blog brings people to the website, but it also lets the website be interesting to me. With the blog, I could view the website as something with artistic possibilities.
The digital medium allows imagery to appear and to be combined with text, more easily than in printed media. If anything, on the web it’s easier to do the images than the text; to reproduce line breaks, for example, turns out to be problematic in HTML. Since I have the good fortune to know a lot of artists and a lot of writers, I thought it might be interesting to see what happens if we get these people talking to each other. So I just started asking people and putting them together. And then of course I got interested in what began to happen, so I wanted to follow through on it. The “As Much As” poems came out of that.
JW: How would you describe what happened? What surprised you?
HLH: The written responses to the visual work seemed to me atypical of ekphrastic work. They tended to go in either of two directions. Either they attended carefully to the artist statement and drew on it, or they willfully obscured the connection between the visual work and the written response, so that it’s not obvious how they track one another.
JW: You could say that the responses stand at various distances from the original pieces of work, and in some cases they’re really rather remote.
HLH: That’s a great way to think about it, as varying distances between the works.
JW: How did you get from the Show & Tell pieces on IN QUIRE to the poems in “As Much As” and their repeating form? As in much of your work, the poems follow a very strict pattern.
HLH: That happened by the mediation of a book called Hologram, by Canadian poet P. K. Page. Her book is a sequence of glosas. The glosa was originally a Renaissance Spanish form. Page quotes a four-line segment of a favorite poem, placing it as an epigraph. The first line of the quoted segment then becomes the last line of the first stanza, the second line becomes the last line of the second stanza, and so on. Page quotes from Rilke, Yeats and others, then integrates the quotations into her poems.
JW: Is that the classical form of the glosa?
HLH: I wouldn’t claim enough expertise to make that judgment, but Page’s version of the glosa was my prompt. My twist on the form was to quote, in each case, two snippets of some sort from an artist statement on IN QUIRE and two snippets from the writer’s response. Those snippets became the end lines of the four stanzas. My rule was that they had to appear in the poem in the same order in which they appeared in the material from which they were taken. In other words, I couldn’t take two parts of the artist statement and use the second one as the end line of the first stanza. Also, the snippets are word-for-word passages. Often when I appropriate texts for poems, I manipulate the words, but the end lines for these stanzas are direct quotations, unaltered.
JW: Did you feel like you were writing toward the last lines in those stanzas somehow?
HLH: Yes. I could feel the poem making its landing on the end line of each stanza, then veering off and coming back. The form seemed to allow a real freedom to loop off in between, because the quoted lines formed a kind of grounding. They functioned as a gravity that pulled me back. I could leap as high as I wanted to, knowing the gravity was going to pull me back and re-ground me again.
JW: One question that As Much As, If Not More Than poses, and that earlier books, such as God Bless, have also posed, is what happens when the words of someone’s poem are not all his own words. Sometimes you incorporate lines from other sources, as in “As Much As.” But in other poems, including “Self-Interview” in the first section of your new book, all of the words come from other sources.
HLH: That’s right, it does seem to vary by degree. In God Bless, the poems consist entirely of the words of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, selected and rearranged. Similarly, “Self-Interview” consists of many people’s words, chosen and rearranged. I’m interested in the sense in which a writer acts as an editor or curator—in the possibility that putting stuff together, rather than making stuff up, might be the definitive task.
JW: But the project is yours and the structure is yours. If I remember correctly, the poems in God Bless are all formal; they all follow a certain very strict set of rules.
HLH: Yes, they’re all sonnets or villanelles or other received forms. Part of the fun in that project was taking the words of someone who’s famously inarticulate—Bush—and trying to fulfill forms that Wyatt and Keats and Shakespeare used, trying to put these very inarticulate statements into these forms, and thinking about what gap that reveals. What happens to the words, and what happens to the form, when the radically inarticulate and the radically articulate get mushed together?
JW: What happens?
HLH: Great question! In the case of God Bless, I hope that it modulates the speed at which we receive the words. In political speech in general (and certainly with that particular politician in that particular time period, during the Iraq War) the urge is to speed words up, to get words past us. The very strong urge is toward cliché, toward having only one register, and that register highly formulaic, so that every locution affirms what already exists within the hearer. The hearer perceives the speaker’s words all as affirmations of what the hearer already believes. I certainly understand the political value of that kind of speech, but it contrasts with my sense of poetry’s value. We are invited by poetry to stop and listen to words, word by word, and we are challenged to reconsider. We are challenged to see more, to see everything differently and afresh. Instead of being consistently affirmed, our prior beliefs become subject to challenge. That’s one reason why one so often hears the protestation that poetry is difficult.
JW: Well, it is.
JW: That’s often said as a reason to avoid it, but its difficulty is part of what poetry does.
HLH: Right. The difficulty of poetry is not that it’s hard to understand what the words mean, although that’s the way protestations against poetry most often are formulated. The difficulty derives from our resistance to asking the questions that poetry poses, our resistance to being confronted with what poetry confronts us with.
JW: Or in the language of this book, to becoming more porous. The effect of political speech tends to make one narrower, more set. We’ve been talking about finding new ways of breaking that rigidity down. In this sense, “ruin” acquires something of a political overtone. Do you think poetry is dangerous politically? Would a politician perceive it as dangerous?
HLH: Yes, I think many politicians do consider poetry dangerous. But that’s qualified by poetry’s marginalization in our society. Its presence in the world, its effect on numbers of people, and its ability to alter the political landscape is truly minimal. Poetry makes nothing happen. [Laughter] So in terms of political effect as we usually think of it, there’s little to fear. George W. Bush didn’t lose any sleep over my God Bless.
JW: Well, that’s not really what you’re after by writing poetry, although your poetry has political dimensions. That’s obvious in God Bless, but it’s also true in this new book. It’s also evident in the title of your Alter Nation project, which conveys a sense of a possible revolution, or a convocation of a different kind—an altered or alternative nation, different from the one that we now live in.
HLH: One glory of the founding principles of the United States is their inclusion of room for dissidence, their recognition that a healthy society contains within itself both affirmation and critique. Self-critique is one necessary part of self-improvement. I can’t make myself a better person if I can’t first say to myself, “You are failing in this manner,” or “You are weak in this way.” If I can’t formulate and acknowledge a critique, there’s no possibility of changing for the better. In our better moments as a nation, I think we allow for that. In our worst moments, such as the McCarthy era and the era of the Patriot Act, I think we don’t. We shut down the possibility of critique. This is the place I see poetry most usefully operating. I see a correlation between the urge to slow down and reconsider and review, an urge poetry incites, and the viability of self-critique and dissidence on a political and national scale.
This will sound silly, but I think I can bring it back down from its initially pompous sound: poets ought to aspire to a saintly role. I mean by that only that the historical figures that we come most to admire are fairly consistently figures who in their time were dissidents. Socrates was killed by his society. Jesus was killed by his society. More recently, Gandhi and Martin Luther King were killed. Steve Biko was killed. There’s a recurring pattern in which the critique is very powerful, so powerful that the critic is rejected by society, and either exiled or murdered. The critic is recognized only later as having identified something problematic that could have been, and should have been, addressed and solved. That’s a role to aspire to. I don’t claim that role, but I do embrace that aspiration, that orienting ideal. It’s not an ideal that I anticipate achieving as fully as Socrates did, but still I would like to steer my poetry by it.
JW: Dissent as a means of becoming larger and better, if you can put it that bluntly.
HLH: You could call it a prophetic role.
JW: Could we talk a little about your personal history? Where were you born?
HLH: I was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but lived there only one or two years. When I was still a toddler, we moved to Portales, New Mexico, for a brief time, which I only remember from old family movies and family pictures.
JW: You don’t have your own organic memories of it?
HLH: It’s funny, they feel like my memories. For example, I remember that our next-door neighbor grew cucumbers. I loved cucumbers as a kid, and was thrilled that our neighbor grew them. Her son had a pet monkey which he kept in the back yard. I’ve checked these memories with my parents, and they’re true, but I think I only remember them from hearing family stories.
JW: Does landscape affect what you write? I know you’ve lived in Laramie, Wyoming, now for a number of years.
HLH: For about eight years. Yes it does, although I think that that particular landscape is only now coming into the work.
JW: I heard it in the poem you read from this morning, “Underdrawings.”
HLH: It takes some time for a landscape to register, time for me to ingest it in some way. But it’s definitely a presence in the poems, maybe because of the convenience of the very standard literary trope of the objective correlative. No doubt I put landscape to that very traditional use.
JW: I feel that your poems very often inhabit an inner landscape. I find it refreshing, frankly, that you give equal scope to the movements of the intellect and to descriptions of external scenes.
HLH: Thank you for that. It’s not for me to say whether it’s achieved in the work, but it’s decidedly an ambition of mine. I’m interested in thinking. We are thinking animals; that’s a real part of our experience, a formative part of our experience. Thinking is not an indifferent aspect of the quality of one’s life. I am anxious to learn to think well. I’m persuaded that we can think relatively more carefully or relatively more carelessly, and I would like to think more carefully. We can think with relatively more accuracy or relatively less, and I would like to think with relatively more accuracy. We can think relatively more deeply or relatively more shallowly, and I would like to think relatively more deeply.
This offers another example of how we divide genres and make separations. We divide up parts of ourselves and affiliate them with certain practices: we affiliate thinking with philosophy, the spiritual with religion, and feeling with poetry. But I think poetry does (or can) have to do with thinking also. I’d rather work toward integrating these parts of ourselves than toward reaffirming a separation between them.
JW: Do you find that poetry is particularly able to bring things together this way?
HLH: Because language functions as a medium for both thinking and feeling, poetry creates a possibility for reconciliation and integration between those different parts of ourselves.
JW: You allow quite a bit of abstract speech or language into your poems. As students of poetry, we’re often told to avoid abstraction at all costs. I always struggled mightily with that because I’ve always been as interested in abstractions as in things minutely perceived. To do one and not the other always felt like somehow cutting myself in half. Your poems give permission to those of us who love abstraction to find a way to make it an integral, central part of what we do, and not to feel embarrassed about it.
HLH: I hope that’s the case. There are poems and bodies of poetry in which the abstraction is the foregrounded element—obviously in Stevens, and in the later Eliot. I would like to achieve a balance or a dynamic tension between abstraction and concretion, rather than a predominance of one over the other. I’m interested in the clarity of observation that Bishop achieves in the poem “Sandpiper,” for example. You can see the sandpiper picking the grains, and there’s something about that minute particularity that‘s really elegant and beautiful. It’s a mode of thought—the William Carlos Williams “No ideas but in things” mode. I value that, but I also value the Wallace Stevens approach.
JW: The “No things but in ideas” approach.
JW: We haven’t yet spoken about the poems in “More Than,” the first section of your new book, and I will admit that’s because I find them a little hard to enter. May I ask you a very general question about what you’re doing there, and what the hieratic poetic markings you’re using are doing?
HLH: One characteristic of poetry as it now is usually transmitted on the page is a tension between the line and the sentence. The completion of a line and the completion of a sentence don’t always track one another. They can track one another, but they don’t always. Their not tracking one another can be a productive dynamic tension in poetry. In an oral poem, the meter is very important, because that’s how the line breaks are conveyed. Nowadays we typically print one line as a line, but the verse point was an ancient practice in which scribes would identify the line break by a dot in a different color ink, a dot above the point at which the line break occurs.
JW: Without actually dropping the line down to a lower space on the page.
HLH: That’s right. The approach makes perfect sense, because writing surfaces were harder to come by and more valuable and precious. I got interested in what happened if I used this approach, and I’ve been interested in what happens if you impose line breaks on something originally written as prose.
All the material in this section, except for “Self-Interview,” derives from the strictly prose critical project Alter Nation, forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse. Alter Nation is a large interview/essay project that attempts to rethink what “survey” might mean in relation to poetry. So the material in this section was originally prompted by other poets’ work, and was written in response to particular poets’ statements. I wanted to ask what happens if I pull these things out, if I disconnect them from their originating occasion and let them stand on their own. Can they become verse? Can they occupy the space of verse in any way?
JW: Do you have an answer now that you’ve done this exercise?
HLH: I have an ambiguous answer. I think they’re not prose anymore, but not verse yet.
JW: So maybe they’re on their way, evolving toward a condition of verse?
JW: If you simply put these into our contemporary conventions of line breaks and stanza breaks, would that alone move them the rest of the way to verse?
HLH: I’d have to try it. My guess is probably not. My guess is that they’re still too far toward the abstraction end of things. They may be poetic, if you define poetry (as I want to) in a broad rather than a narrow sense. But their self-assertion as critique is not much tempered.
JW: This may not have been your intention, but when I look at the poems in “More Than,” I’m reminded of transcriptions of ancient manuscripts with lacunae, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Did that occur to you while you were working on these poems?
HLH: I wish I could claim it as my design, but it was an unanticipated consequence. It did occur to me, but only after the fact, not because I anticipated and designed it in my wisdom and foresight. [Laughter] But I do like that aspect of this section of the book.
JW: How do you see the two halves of As Much As, If Not More Than relating to each other?
HLH: I hope by a dynamic tension. I hope that they talk to one another, and that the experience of reading them differs: that the first section feels one way for the reader and the second section feels another way. I hope that they’re asking different sorts of questions, but that those questions might relate to one another, might create a kind of drama between them. I hope it’s not transparent to the reader how they relate to one another. The relation might be determined by the reader rather than by me, or left undetermined. I myself have an intuition or a feeling that they relate to each other in some way, but not a name for what that relation is.
JW: The idea of relation is sort of spreading its wings over the two halves of this book, just as it is in the title of the book and the title of many of the poems. I found that such an absorbing part of this project. You find terms that aren’t exactly opposite, but that lean toward each other or away from each other. I’ve been struggling for a word to describe the relation, because “contraries” or “opposition” isn’t precisely it. I think “dynamic tension” is a good way to describe it.
HLH: As soon as you say the word “contraries” I think of that statement from the argument that opens William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without contraries is no progression.” In philosophical terms, you could call this “dialectic.”
JW: I think the closing lines of the poem “Between Any Two Flat Worlds” address this question directly:
After exchange, next question: on what would giving depend?
What does separate, what would join, our two, any two, flat worlds?
To whom can I will my dispersals, lacking heirs and assigns?
One barely there, little more than a hint of lines?
The poem seems to be questioning how it’s possible for two distinct consciousnesses to have a relation, and what the nature of that relation is. Is that part of what you’re after here?
HLH: Yes, that’s a brilliant way to put it. It’s a longstanding philosophical question that manifests, for instance, in the Socratic or Platonic idea of recollection, which argues that we must have lived previous lives because we can’t figure out how it is that we can recognize that both that and this [pointing] are chairs. They look nothing like one another, and we have no prior experience of either, yet we know they’re both chairs. How? Or I think of Descartes trying to put mind and body together. Where do mind and body join? Well, in the pineal gland! What?? [Laughter]
JW: He might be right.
HLH: Next week it will come out in The New England Journal of Medicine that lo and behold it is the pineal gland! [Laughter]
There’s the sense that there are two worlds, parse them how we may, that we’re always potentially in two worlds, or that there are always two of us. When we talk about having a conscience, there’s one of me judging the other one of me: “You shouldn’t have picked your nose in public,” or “You shouldn’t have stolen that car.” One of me does the thing, and one of me knows better. The reconciliation of the one and the many, of singularity and plurality, is an ongoing philosophical problem, but it’s not only conceptual. It’s an experiential problem, an existential problem that all of us face every single day of our lives. That’s absolutely a presence in the poems.
JW: That also holds between two people, obviously. How do we find new ways of being porous to each other, of spilling into each other?
HLH: Absolutely. Love is a perfect manifestation of the one and the many.
JW: The poem you read this morning was a love poem. Have you written love poems before?
HLH: Yes, I have. There are love poems in “Orders of Magnitude,” for example, in Rational Numbers. There’s a sequence of love sonnets, called “Material Implication,” in Legible Heavens. Love is an ongoing preoccupation both for myself as a poet and as a person. What is love? What is this experience like, and how speak of it to the beloved? How communicate love? It’s a profound spiritual problem. Insofar as I’m attempting to communicate, I’m adopting two-ness—I’m removing myself and becoming a separate entity, to declare to you our one-ness. There’s a paradox in any declaration of love, a kind of falseness. To declare my love, I have to lie, because I’m declaring one-ness, which can be done only through two-ness. A love poem is a declaration to the world of a profoundly private, intimate experience. We are intimate in what we share between us and us alone. To declare to the world one’s love for the beloved, as one does in a love poem, seems a kind of travesty. I’m interested in this problem. How do you fulfill your urge to declare your love to the beloved and to the world? That’s a natural enough urge, given the one-ness. Because I am in love with you I want to declare it to the world, but declaring it to the world is a travesty of the love.
JW: You recognize that dilemma in your sly little note to Kate [Northrop, poet and Hix’s partner] at the beginning of the book, which made me laugh out loud. But it’s a serious issue.
JW: I admire the way you experiment constantly in your work. When you experiment, the outcome by definition hangs in the balance. How do you think about experimentation? Do you think in terms of success and failure?
HLH: I think in terms of inquiry. I’m very smitten with Lyn Hejinian’s essay collection The Language of Inquiry and the defining concept behind it: that poetry is a language of inquiry. From that point of view, the question of success and failure becomes much more like the ways in which a question succeeds or fails. it’s not exactly like achievement. It’s not the way an Olympic athlete succeeds or fails, or the way a Hollywood actress succeeds or fails. It results in illumination or it doesn’t, in relatively more illumination or less. Or else it’s misleading—it’s ill-formed and tendentious in the way that commercial and political organizations use polls tendentiously. You’re working on your computer and an ad pops up: “Do you think Obamacare wastes America’s resources?” It’s a tendentiously framed question, akin to the political speech we were talking about earlier. It’s possible to ask corrupt and corrupting questions, or it’s possible to ask vitalizing and illuminative and challenging and critical questions. I’m persuaded that poetry is capable of asking those kinds of questions.
JW: By “corrupt,” you mean questions that foreclose the ability to think for yourself, or to imagine heretofore unimagined possibilities?
HLH: That’s right. That kind of question appropriates the agency of the person who is being asked the question.
JW: I’m interested in the fact that you write a lot. Are ideas crowding in on you all the time? Are you battling with them, contending with them? Do you have to get them down on paper? How does that work for you?
HLH: I have many, many more ideas than I can realize, many, many more projects I would like to do than I actually get done. There’s just not enough time to puzzle these things out and follow through on them. Unfinished projects metaphorically litter my studio—projects started but not finished, projects written down but never started, projects thought of that never made it into my stash of notes. And then the process of working out one idea generates a dozen more ideas.
JW: Are the projects that get realized a matter of chance, or is there something similar about the ones that you fulfill?
HLH: Maybe both. I think the similarity is the mechanism or the process of figuring out how to solve the problem. What’s the device or process or technique that’s going to show me the way, that’s going to show me how to do this? It might be a form: for example, the “As Much As” poems happened when I encountered P. K. Page’s book. The project had existed on IN QUIRE for some time, but I didn’t know what to do with it until I happened across the Page book, which was probably recommended to me by Jan Zwicky. When I read the book, it showed me a tool I could use to think through the project. Fortunately, that happened at a time when I had my first year-long sabbatical.
The great blessing of academia, the gift of academia, is chunks of time—summers and sabbaticals. It’s a remarkable thing. I don’t know of any other institution that has anything quite analogous to it. It’s a blessing for which we don’t often enough express our gratitude. So thank you, thank you, thank you academia for this blessing. Around the time I discovered the Page book, I had a residency at the Anderson Center [in Red Wing, Minnesota], which gave me a month with no other obligation than to work on these poems. It was marvelous. And so thank you to the Anderson Center and to similar residencies that offer artists and writers time.
JW: Did you write the whole book in that month, or did it take longer than that?
HLH: It took longer than that, but the sequence of glosas was started there, and a fair number got into complete drafts there.
JW: It seems to me you’re also very fortunate to have a press like Etruscan that’s willing to bring a book of yours out into the world virtually every year.
HLH: Yes. God bless Phil Brady, the founders, the staff, and the board of Etruscan Press for the vision of the press, and for having been so receptive to my work. That receptivity is not without effect on the work itself. I want to experiment, and I want to ask what poetry might be. That puts the work in a different place in regard to success and failure, exactly as you said earlier. Only by suspending the question of success and failure can one pose the question whether there are in life or in poetry values not subsumed by success/failure. If I assume that successful = good, then I can’t test whether there might be occasions on which, or contexts in which, a failure might be good. I think most publishers beg that very question, demanding success. Phil has given me the space to pose the question of success and failure in regard to my own work. (See his essay “My Dinner with Joe” in his book By Heart for one account of his thinking on this issue.) He has not foreclosed the work by begging that question, by inserting that question first before looking at the work. My work is possible because Phil has created the field in which it can take place. So God bless Phil Brady and Etruscan Press.